Archive for September 4th, 2022

Which Side Are You On?

Ralph Fasanella- Bread and Roses

Ralph Fasanella- Bread and Roses

I recall Gandhi said ultimately all things devolve into the political, but I’d argue that all things devolve into pro-people and anti-people. And I can pose the question: which side are you on?

― Stetson Kennedy

Another Labor Day weekend. I think that this year it is as symbolic as it ever been of the current struggle taking place in this nation. It is very much, as the late activist/ anti-fascist Stetson Kennedy put above, a struggle between forces that are either pro-people or anti-people.

I would actually phrase it as the users versus the used. Or those who control versus those who are controlled. That is the story of Labor Day.

Of course, it was in black and white terms in the early days of the struggle. But the users wised up learning that simple brute force wouldn’t be enough to control the used. They bought political clout to shape the laws to serve them and they bought all manner of spreading information to shape the messaging to serve them, using these new tools to divide the used and destroy the bonds of union that had been formed in the earlier days.

As a result, many of the used came to side with the users using them. The years of being shaped to not recognize their own exploitation and to find blame in created strawmen for their problems has pretty much brought us to where we are at this moment in time. 

And it’s a dire time, a point of departure that will decide our fate as a nation. It is a matter of being pro- or anti-people. One side protects the users, the other the used.

The question is: Which side are you on?

I am rerunning a Labor Day post from 2009 below and then a song that asks that same question, Which Side Are You? It was written in 1931 by Florence Reece who lived in Harlan County, Kentucky which was the site of some of the most brutal and deadly labor strikes back in the early 20th century. I am including her singing a short version of the song from her later years, in the 1970’s, and a more refined version from Natalie Merchant that is very moving.

[From 2009]

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 Teamsters Union at the A&P factory where I was employed for several years. I was the union steward in my department ( Cooking and Casting in the Candy 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 days, some major problems to contend with. 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. 

All in all, 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 its 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…

[One note of optimism from 2022: According to recent polling, Pro-Union sentiment has risen to its highest level in decades, with 71% of those polled viewing unions in a positive light.]

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