If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.
Ralph Fasanella- Bread and Roses
I caught the end of a Bill Moyers interview yesterday with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in which he described how our current level of income inequality was surpassing the levels of the prior two times when they reached a level of crisis here in this country– the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and the Roaring 20’s. In each case, we were at the brink of total collapse but were able to come through and bring wages back into levels of greater equilibrium which always leads to greater prosperity across the board. He wasn’t too positive about our ability to avoid the consequences of our current inequality, given the ability of the wealthiest to buy political clout with impunity.
It’s a scary situation and, on this Labor Day weekend, it made me think of what the labor movement has done for this country in battling for greater wage equality. I went back in the archive to a Labor Day post from back in 2009 that I thought fit the bill. Here it is:
On this day, Labor Day, I am showing a a painting from the great American folk primitive painter Ralph Fasanella, depicting the famed Bread and Roses strike that took place at the textile plants in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. I thought it fitting that something be shown that is closer to the spirit of this holiday which has faded from the public’s knowledge in recent years.
I was a union member in my first on-the-books job at a Loblaw’s grocery store when I was sixteen years old and a few years later I was a member of the Teamster’s Union at the A&P factory where I was employed for several years. I was the union steward in my department for the last few years, a position that I took because for some reason nobody else wanted the hassle of it. By taking it I was protected from being laid off so long as my department was operating so I thought it might be worth a try. Most days had some sort of small trouble and on a few some major problems. There was always an argument to be had, either with company supervisors who tried to circumvent or twist the rules to their advantage or with co-workers who felt the union didn’t go far enough or went too far. It was a very educational experience.
The most telling thing was the general apathy from many of the workers, the same apathy that has allowed the solidarity of the union to erode and crumble over the years, paralleling the image of labor unions, which has crumbled, perceived now as corrupt and self-serving. Probably a well deserved image. But the failings of these unions are the failings of men, the same failings that the company owners possessed that the early unions organized against. Greed and a lack of empathy for their workers. It doesn’t take much research to discover that the work conditions of the last 130 or 140 years were deplorable. Long hours. Low pay. Incredibly unsafe conditions. Dismissal for any reason. No rights whatsoever.
Today, many view industry as this amiable, father-like figure but don’t realize how much blood was spilled by early union organizers and members to obtain the things we now take for granted as our rights. Industry did not willingly give up anything to the worker without being forced. I can imagine what our world would look like without the efforts of our unions. This very holiday would not exist to have it’s roots forgotten. The idea of vacations would only exist for the company owners. The pay scale would be similar to those places on the Earth where many of our jobs have migrated, places that allow the avarice of the companies to override the rights and safety of the workers. Places where sweatshops still operate, as they once did here. Places where unschooled children toil in dirty, dank conditions, as they once did here. Places where the health and safety of the workers is secondary to the profit they provide, as it once was here.
You may despise the unions now for their corruption but make no mistake about it- without them our country would look much different. And not in a good way…