The struggle for workers’ rights is a very significant part of the American experiment. Today, Labor Day, I want to reflect on the efforts for fair working conditions, equal pay for equal work, safe workplaces, profit-sharing, class divisions, and progressivism that is known, proudly, and somewhat wistfully, as the labor struggle.
One of the most passionate defenders of the middle- and lower-class is alive and well today, and we are all honored to have such a man making so clear and unambiguous what our political, financial, and corporate problems are. He also proposes solutions, most of which are wise and appropriate. It is my personal opinion that when he is derided by his detractors, it is not because his diagnosis is wrong or his prescription is useless, but because there are powerful interests arrayed against the kind of progressivism he recommends. Here are a few words Senator, author, and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders put out today about the labor struggle:
“Labor Day was established in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, as a concession to the labor movement days after he used federal troops to crush a strike by railroad workers which resulted in 30 deaths and some $80 million in property damages. Workers then, and workers now, were fighting for decent wages and working conditions and the end of human exploitation.
Today, at a time of massive income and wealth inequality and an outrageous level of corporate greed, we must never forget the struggles and ideals of those who came before us. We must continue the fight for a government and an economy that works for all, and not just the wealthy and powerful.
“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality and an outrageous level of corporate greed, we must never forget the struggles and ideals of those who came before us. We must continue the fight for a government and an economy that works for all, and not just the wealthy and powerful.”
Labor Day is a time to remember that for hundreds of years the trade union movement in our country has led the fight for equal rights and economic and social justice. And it is a day to pledge our continuing support to protect workers’ rights which have been under fire for decades.
The reality is that over the past 40 years, the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country have rigged the economy against the American middle class, the working class and the most vulnerable people. The result is that the very rich are getting richer while most working families are struggling.”
Often, the labor struggle is criticized by the owners of corporations as just lazy people seeking greedy outcomes for themselves. However, two facts easily put the lie to that (though I do concede that labor unions have a tendency to become top-heavy, and led by selfish men). The first is the fact that when capital was making men rich back in the 1800s and 1900s, working conditions were undoubtedly poor. Some could be considered harsh or inhumane. Consider the facts that muckraking journalism exposed about the outrages (i.e., Upton Sinclair). Think of workplace safety, the number of hours one would be required to work in a week, or the ability to make a living wage. It is one of my beliefs that a hard worker should make a living wage (well, except in some obvious entry-level jobs, such as a fast food worker). But there is no good reason why someone working for Verizon, a grocery store, or a manufacturing plant shouldn’t make a decent wage. Teachers being paid poorly is a travesty.
The second fact I would marshal to justify my point that union members or strikers are not lazy ingrates: the violence and legal maneuvering required to prevail. Consider the Ludlow Massacre or any number of other foul associations between corporate interests and power. Why would all manner of chicanery and violence and legal wrangling be necessary to combat unions? Doesn’t it seem that “something is rotten in Denmark” when the president of the United States calls an end to a strike and replaces workers with scabs? Doesn’t it feel like fascism or crony capitalism to you?
Consider the correlation between union membership and shared prosperity. Think about the nature of shared prosperity. Ideally, the labor struggle in the U.S. is about fair pay for work. If you were a 5-year-old who started a lemonade stand in your front yard, put in two long days on Saturday and Sunday, and made $42 in proceeds, and your parents gave you a bill for lemons, water, sugar, poster board, markers, and rent that totaled $37, you would rightfully feel disenfranchised. You would feel that the capital they possess is worth something, but that much?? They would talk of risk and of infrastructure and such, but you would recall how hot it was, how many people drove past you, and how you are just trying to make enough money for a puppy. It would all seem very unfair to you. Economically unjust. Well, consider the relationship between workers banding together for equitable treatment and the ability to share the proceeds from industry (below):
I will share a few quotations on the labor struggle you might want to think about. These come from an array of good Americans throughout the young country’s existence. They lobby for wisdom, righteousness, fairness, progress, safety, unionization, solidarity and strength. These are the platform on which the progressive principle is based. It is a glorious one that has paid its dues as it struggled with the forces of oligarchy, plutocracy, lobbying, crony capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and the moneyed class. I welcome you to look up your own quotes about the American labor struggle by accessing The Wisdom Archive.
“Let’s not talk anymore of capitalism and socialism; let’s just talk of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings. Give people what they need: food, water, clean air, pleasant homes to live in, trees, some grass! Some hours of work; more hours of leisure. Don’t ask: Who deserves it? Every human being deserves it.”
“A lot of companies say they are fair to their workers, but in fact turn a blind eye to bad working conditions, child labor, and starvation wages. Don’t believe the PR. Check how companies are really behaving.”
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and never could have existed if labor had not first existed.”
“Business has to adopt a tradition it has never had throughout the entire history of capitalism: to share responsibility for the whole. Every decision that is made, every action that is taken, must be viewed in the light of that kind of responsibility.”
“In all these ways, the affluent exert inordinate power over the lives of the less affluent, and especially over the lives of the poor, determining what public services will be available, if any, what minimum wage, what laws governing the treatment of labor.”
“If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States. There are probably several hundred thousand if we narrow the definition to include only those who in their search for money and power are ruthless and deceitful. … They are patriotic in time of war because it is to their interest to be so, but in time of peace they follow power and the dollar wherever they may lead.”
“Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism and who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide.”
“Changing the structure and rules of the global economy will require a mass movement based on messages of compassion, justice, and equality, as well as collaborative and democratic processes, … If we stay positive, inclusive, and democratic, we have a truly historic opportunity to build a global movement for social justice.”
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
“Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified, whether there are reasons for it.”
“The close relationship between politics and economics is neither neutral nor coincidental. Large governments evolve through history in order to protect large accumulations of property and wealth.”
“Those Americans who drew the short straw and live in poverty are systematically shut out of the blessing of American society, Horatio Alger success stories notwithstanding. Talk is cheap in Washington, and talk about “values” is cheaper still. If we really valued work, then the janitors and garbage collectors and sweatshop workers and the rest of the hardworking poor would be able to put food on the table. If we really valued children, we’d make sure that the poorest of our children weren’t taught in hallways and broom closets or in shifts and we’d guarantee that they all had textbooks and qualified, well-paid teachers.”
“If we assume that the purpose of the economy is to serve and improve the welfare of the entire body of citizens, the U.S. model has clearly been a major failure. It has served a minority, and the majority have not only failed to share in the income gains yielded by the model, they have suffered from reduced benefits, greater job instability and stress, and a diminution of expectations and sense of hope for the future.”
“The political system is not for the people. The people are secondary to the economy. It’s about what generates money, not about what benefits the people.”
“The golf [courses] lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.”
keywords: labor struggle, class, social class, capitalism, fairness, economic justice