Monday, September 1, 2014

The State of Labor: Is it Time to Reinvigorate Labor Day with the Spirit of May Day?

May Day March, New York 1909

Today, the eight hour work-day, five day work-week, statutory paid holidays, health care, work-place safety protections, anti-discrimination rules, paid vacation, unemployment insurance, and social security benefits are standard features of the workplace. These are the result of nearly a century of political efforts by labor, starting with demonstrations for shortened work-days in the 1880's and culminating with the successes of the New Deal in the 30's, and the Great Society programs in the 60's. 

The Haymarket Massacre to the Pullman Massacre

It started out rough. In the 1880's workers in the industrialized North routinely labored six days and 60 hours a week.  Child labor was common. Working conditions were unsafe and unhealthy. Women were discriminated against. 

As a first project, labor organizations agitated for a shorter work day. At a meeting in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions set a target of May 1, 1886 as the date by which the eight hour work day should become standard. As that date arrived, perhaps half a million workers went on strike throughout the United States in support of this movement.  In Chicago, the epicenter of activism, there were 30,000 to 40,000 strikers.  On May 3 police fired at the crowd manning the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company picket lines and two strikers were killed.  The next day there followed a rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago.  Flyers called for revenge in German and English. It did not go well. At the end of three long speeches by organizers the police advanced and ordered the crowd to disperse.  Someone threw a homemade bomb killing one officer and mortally wounding six others.  In the ensuing melee, four protesters were killed, and approximately 130 officers and protesters are wounded. Seven labor leaders were arrested, tried, and received the death penalty (four were carried out). Workers did not get their eight hour workday for another half century, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938. 

In 1893, as a result of overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads, the U.S. entered a deep depression that resulted in unemployment and bank failures: 500 banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed, unemployment reached 35% in the state of New York and higher elsewhere (the Panic of 1893). Soup kitchens provided the only safety net. Workers marched on Washington calling for a jobs program. In the meantime, on the south side of Chicago, George Pullman had built a company town dedicated to the manufacture of luxurious railway sleeper cars, along with trolleys and buses.  As orders for new cars plummeted, workers were laid off, wages were lowered, rents stayed high.  Although the workers had not formed a union, they called for a strike.  They enlisted the help of Eugene Debs, head of the American Railway Union, an organization of unskilled railroad workers, and the ARU called for a boycott of all Pullman cars. 125,000 workers on 29 railroads walked off their jobs.  A Federal Court issued an injunction which was ignored.  As a result, President Grover Cleveland directed the army to take action.  Thousands of U.S. Marshals and 12,000 troops acted to enforce movement of the trains.  Thirty people were killed, 57 were injured, and property damage exceeded $80 million. The AUR was disbanded, Eugene Debs served six months in prison, later to run for President five times on the Socialist ticket. The cause of labor was set back for years.

[Extra trivia tidbit: after George Pullman died in 1897, Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's son, became president of the company; the Pullman Company was acquired by Bombardier in 1984]

May Day vs. Labor Day

Four years before the Haymarket massacre, New York organizers in New York City called for a large labor demonstration for Tuesday, September 5, 1882, to coincide with a meeting in that city of the Knights of Labor, an early non-socialist labor movement.  More than 10,000 showed up.  By 1884, the third annual New York City Labor Day holiday was moved to the first Monday in September.  In 1887, Oregon was the first state to enact a state holiday honoring labor on the first Monday of September. Other states followed suit.  

After the Haymarket massacre, however, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed to the Second International, held in Paris on July 14-19, 1889 (the year of the World Expo that opened the Eiffel Tower) that May 1 be adopted as an International Worker's Day in commemoration of the Haymarket massacre. The motion was adopted leading to May 1 being recognized as an international workers' holiday in many countries around the world.  Thereupon American labor organizers began to agitate for May Day to be recognized as an American Labor Day. 

May Day is a spring festival with ancient roots. It was associated with the Roman Goddess to Flowers, Floralia, with the Germanic Walpurgis Night (an 8th Century Saint), and the Celtic Festival of Beltane.  In the German tradition it is associated with a night gathering of witches reveling in the woods; in the Celtic tradition it marked the beginning of summer when cattle were driven out to their summer pastures.  In my circles, they dance around the Maypole with bells on their ankles, and waive white handkerchiefs in rhythm with fiddles and bagpipes. But in political terms, it became associated with socialism and the communist international workers movements, and in the United States ... well, that won't do. 

After his draconian measures against the American Railroad Union and the Pullman Company workers, 12,000 troops, killing 30, and all ... President Cleveland had to think about the next election.  A statute was promptly rushed through Congress to establish a national holiday to honor labor on the first Monday in September. He lost the election anyway. 


In 1958 Congress officially eradicated any remaining vestige of radicalism from May Day by making May 1 ‘Loyalty Day.’ Each year presidents dutifully proclaim May 1 to be a day to “reaffirm our allegiance to the United States of America” by “displaying the flag of the United States or pledging allegiance to the Republic for which it stands.” It's not a day for Labor to be making uppity demands.

Losing Ground

Celebrating Labor Day in September instead of May 1 makes a difference.  In an NPR interview, sociologist Jonathan Cutler characterized it thus: "May Day has always been linked to the demand for less work and more pay; Labor Day (in September) celebrates the 'dignity' of work." 

So as we celebrate the 'dignity' of work, and the "accomplishments of labor" this Labor Day, Republican politicians can be heard to ask themselves: "What accomplishments?" For the past 30 years, starting with Reagan's union busting of the Air Traffic Controller's Organization, to Romney's 47-percent-moochers comment at a fundraiser held during the 2012 campaign, Republican politicians have looked to "job-creators" for solutions--you know, the private owners of the means of production--together with bankers and investors.  Low taxation, low regulation, and no pesky organized labor .... that's the ticket! 

"Happy Labor Day!" enjoy your barbecue and vote for me, say legislators as they tip their hat to labor. But why should labor vote for them? What's on offer? For 30 years labor has been losing ground.  The share of organized labor in the market place has dropped from 33% in 1945 to 11.3% in 2013.  Solid middle class jobs that used to sustain generations in manufacturing have been sent overseas and replaced with low wage, no-benefit service jobs.  Wages have stagnated.  Many jobs do not pay enough for workers to afford health care.  [See my post on the Low Wage Job-Creator Moocher Class] The minimum wage has been losing ground to inflation.  The wages of the working class have stagnated while all the spoils of increased productivity have gone to the very top.  


Get yourself educated for one of them high-tech jobs, say politicians.  But funding for education has been cut back at all levels. Students who are not lucky enough to be born to parents among the wealthiest five percent come out of school with obscene amounts of debt. For profit universities entice many to take out government backed loans for degrees that don't lead to higher paying jobs.  

Although Congress passed tax cuts and the American Recovery and Renvestment Act in 2009 (an insufficient $690 billion of investment),  today we don't tend to look to the government for help to solve unemployment.  But why not? As any parent of young people knows there is a need.  Unemployment among young people in the United States stands at 20.1 million.  We have a program in place that could help, if only it were funded. On September 9, 2014 Obama will celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Americorps program which, over it's 20 year span, has employed a measly 775,000.  The program currently has a goal of filling 200,000 positions a year, but Congress won't provide funding for this, and Republicans want to do away with it altogether.  Compare the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps, which over a nine year period (1933-1942) put to work 3 million young men.  

We're Top of the Heap, but We're not Sharing the Loot with Labor

When we look at GDP/population ratio, we in the United States are sitting at the top of the heap with a per capita income of $50,000.  But consider: 

1. The economy has underperformed its potential output since 2008 by16% below the 2005-2007 trend line. 

2. The labor force participation rate ("LFPR") [percent of non-institutionalized persons >16 y.o.a. who are part of the labor force--i.e. employed or looking for work] in the U.S. has decreased precipitously from 66% in 2009 to 62.9% in July 2014.  The economic recovery, which remains anemic, has not made a dent in edging the LFPR back up. Part of this is attributable to demographic trends, such as the baby boom generation bubble getting older and reaching retirement age. A part of this is a reduction in young people in the labor market because they can't get jobs. And a portion of this deflated LFPR is the economy not providing enough jobs to keep up with population growth.    

3. The poverty rate for children under 18 is 21.8 percent, which is higher than at any time since Lyndon Johnson declared his war on poverty in January 1964. 

Tipping our Hat to the Working Man and Woman

So what will politicians do to advance the cause of labor on this Labor Day?  Well, here is Dr. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) speaking "from the Heartland of America." He tips his "hat to the working man and woman."



Dr. Bucshon looks like a nice guy; solid Midwesterner.  He was born in 1962 and raised in the small mining community of Kincaid, Illinois.  He went to college at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne and to medical school in Chicago.  He entered private practice in Wichita, Kansas ('95-'98) and moved on to a medical clinic in Evansville, Indiana.  He was first elected to Congress in 2010 and serves the notoriously fickle Indiana 8th Congressional district.  I'm not sure he knows what he's doing for labor.

Bucshon supports the usual conservative policies (restrict abortions, facilitate gun ownership, lower taxes, repeal Obamacare). His Labor Day message, appropriately, is about jobs.

He frames the issue in a way that we all would agree:
America’s workers make our country go, so our goal should be to make our economy work for them.  But ... our workers are still hurting.  We’re seeing some jobs come back, but too many of our fellow Americans are stuck in part-time work or have stopped looking altogether.  And between wages staying flat – and costs on everything from food to health care going up – families are being squeezed at every turn.
We should get people back into steady, good paying jobs, he says.  Yes, agreed. He focuses on the coal industry.  O.K., good.  But what's the message? Obama is waging war on the coal industry, and Republican's have the "American Solution," that's his message.
Unfortunately, the current administration is waging a war on this reliable, affordable source of energy and the countless jobs it supports.  This is one example of many where the policies coming from Washington, D.C. just don’t make sense. ... While this Administration’s policies continue to harm our nation’s economy and families struggling to make ends meet, Republicans are offering solutions America’s workers can count on. Our solutions will address the sluggish job market and grow our economy over the long run. ... All told, we have more than 40 good jobs bills awaiting action in the Democratic-run United States Senate.  .... We call them ‘American Solutions’ because they put the American people first.  Which is exactly what we’re asking of President Obama and Senate Democrats as we celebrate our nation’s workforce: put aside politics, and do what Americans do every day, and that’s get to work. 
So what are those 40 "good jobs bills?"  How will they create jobs?  And what are the trade-offs, if any?  The Congressman does not say.  Looking at the list of these "job bills" touted by Republicans, they appear to be focused on deregulating industry.  How does this stack up for labor?  Dr. Bucshon does not say.

It's not obvious on its face, of course, that deregulation per se will increase jobs.  We know regulations create jobs: jobs for legislative aids, jobs for lawyers, jobs for inspectors, jobs for people within companies to deal with regulations, jobs for printers and people maintaining electronic databases, jobs for technical experts.  We also know regulations can have beneficial effects, especially in fields like mining which can take a very heavy toll on the environment.  They can have beneficial effects on the health and well-being of workers.  Many regulations reflect some of those gains that labor has made over the last century.

And, yes, regulations create red tape, make industry less efficient, and create costs that may eat into profits.  But whether any given regulation will cause a coal mine, since Dr. Bucshon was speaking of mines, to produce less, or shut down, or reduce jobs overall, is obviously a question that hinges on the circumstances of a particular case.  If a coal mine were to shut down, presumably this would be because an alternate, cheaper source of energy is available. Jobs would migrate to that alternate producer, one would think.

Fewer regulations and less oversight, may have pros or cons, but there is nothing that makes deregulation  inherently "American" or job producing. I do not know why Dr. Bucshon would think so.

No, condescending to labor labor with a hat tip while fighting to keep the minimum wage low, working to deregulate the private owners of the means of production, fighting against government investment in infrastructure, fighting against programs like Americorps, cutting education, and fighting against universal health care is not inherently "American"... and it is definitely not pro-labor.  I don't know why Dr. Bucshon would think so.

Can we Reinvigorate Labor Day with the Spirit of May Day?

Today the political challenges are more complex than in the days of the Haymarket and Pullman strike massacres. Many fundamental victories have been won by labor. Child labor is largely a thing of the past. Work places are much safer than they once were. Safety nets, even if they are being threatened with erosion, remain firmly in place. Gains have been made to reduce workplace discrimination. 

The challenges are more subtle: how will the richest economy in the world produce good paying jobs for all, and to the extent it cannot, how do we redistribute wealth equitably and efficiently? One thing is clear: the richest five percent in this country who control 59% of the wealth will not voluntarily give this up to labor without political action, and much less to those "moochers" who can't find good paying jobs, except perhaps as largesse at the margins, in exchange for honor and servility.  

Labor Day will not truly celebrate labor until politicians stop "honoring" labor with hat-tips and start shaking in their boots at the political muscle that labor could flex, if only it became organized, mobilized, and reinvigorated with the Spirit of May Day. 

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