On Labor Day, can’t we all be a little more Polish?

September 5th, 2010

On May Day, I often wear a red tie.  So, I think, did my paternal grandfather, a minor luminary in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  I don’t know what he did for Labor Day.  Labor Day is back-to-school, burgers, football, end-of-summer.  Congress adopted it as a national holiday in 1894 in order to propitiate the labor movement about a week after U.S. marshals and military massacred workers and busted the Pullman strike.  It is a sop, and has the meaning of a sop.  May Day is a holiday (not legally recognized as such in this country, of course) adopted by the international labor movement eight years before the Pullman strike.  Congress could have made May Day the national  holiday, but that would have had too much meaning.  It would have meant celebrating the contributions to human welfare of socialists and unions.  We can’t have that.  So we got the annual holocaust of hamburger instead.

In the mid 1980s I worked as an investigator in the Civil Rights Division of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, helping to enforce laws that protect employees from discrimination of various sorts: race, age, sex, national origin, religion, etc.  One of my duties was intake.  People would call in with complaints, and I would interview them to determine whether it was the kind of thing we could investigate.  Most often, it was not.  Depressingly often, it was some form of unfairness or oppression that had nothing to do with a person’s race, religion, ethnicity, sex, age, or other “protected category”, and everything to do with the fact that the person was a worker.  “Employee” was not a protected category.  I would ask, do you have a union contract?  Maybe that might protect you.  No, they didn’t have a union.  Don’t hold with unions.  Don’t want no union.  Sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you.

I’ve never understood Vermonters’ aversion to unions.  Although we don’t have the lowest unionization rates in the country, that pride being reserved for those bastions of enlightened social policy the states of the former Confederacy, only about 14% of our labor force today belongs to unions.  Perhaps it’s some survival of that yeomanly Yankee pride which causes a worker to insist, even while getting stomped all over by the rich and powerful, that at least he’s “independent”, at least they can’t take that away.  Sometimes the same poor slob who had been unjustly done out of hours, or pay, or a promotion, or fired for no reason, or in some other way treated like dirt, would tell me he or she didn’t like unions because the union comes in and tells everybody what to do!  Or, the union takes your money and what do you get for it?  Or, unions can be corrupt!  And I wanted to say, even if those things were true, would that be worse than what you’ve just experienced?

Well, brothers and sisters, time to wake up and smell the coffee.  A union is a human institution, and like any such thing it is profoundly imperfect.  There’s no avoiding that.  But management is allied against you.  Not just the management in your company – that management is allied with management in all the other companies.  They know what solidarity means.  It’s why the National Association of Manufacturers, for example, refrained from pushing hard in favor of a single payer health insurance system, even though it was in their interest to do so; because their solidarity with the insurance industry took priority.  And while management does not quite own all of Washington, Montpelier, and every other political institution outright, it can afford to pay way more for services rendered than you can.

The one thing that workers have going for them in this otherwise hopelessly uneven competition is numbers.  Unions are the only means that workers have of evening the odds.  Without a union, you, individually, are nothing more than a fungible unit of productivity value, to be used and discarded as management sees fit.  In union, you are strong, as the song goes.  Here’s some meaning for Labor Day – even after massacring workers and breaking the Pullman strike, that is, even after having won, the government was frightened enough of the labor movement to try to buy it off with a holiday.  Without unions, you would be working more than forty hours a week, more than eight hours a day, and you could forget about overtime pay.  Your children would be working under those conditions, too.  Forget paid vacation time.  Forget unemployment compensation.  Forget workers’ compensation.  Forget the minimum wage.  Forget health care coverage on the job.  What, do you think management would have allowed the political system to give you any of these things, if it weren’t for unions?  Perhaps you would like being in the position of hoping that Mr. Scrooge will give you a turkey for Christmas, and the day off to eat it.

And while we’re on the subject, it wasn’t the capitalist U.S. that defeated communism.  It was a union.  Solidarnosc!

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 5th, 2010 at 3:37 pm and is filed under Politics, society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “On Labor Day, can’t we all be a little more Polish?”

  1. Karen Kettlety Says:

    Okaaaaay! Let’s unionize farmers and ranchers! Maybe a holiday named for us folks who put food on your tables.

    A sheep rancher in NE Oregon

  2. Seth Steinzor Says:

    Hey, Karen, are you Stephen K’s friend? He forwards your reports to me. I love reading them. You know, collective action on the part of small ranchers and farmers is not so bizarre an idea. Dairy farmers around here form coops to help with obtaining decent milk prices and processing charges.

  3. Karen Kettlety Says:

    Guilty …
    Well, we do have an organization, Oregon Rural Action, who are taking on some of the small farmer and rancher issues locally but really they are David to government/agribusiness Goliath and the slingshot’s not really loaded.

    I was being kind of snarky about 8 hour days/ 40 hour weeks, overtime pay, paid vacation, child labor, minimum wage, health insurance, etc. etc. etc. — their ain’t no union that could make that happen. I know of only two ranching families here in the valley who don’t work off the ranch and they have generations of family who owned and worked the land, purchased the equipment and lots of family support, and they still work their butts off seven days a week, in all seasons, all year round. Funny thing is, they … we … love the life style and you don’t here them complain about it.

    The other ranching families I know — they all have to take on work outside the ranch. Eight hour days? Right … they work 8 hours before lunch!

    Anyway…. Nice web site. Pleased to meet you as Steve has spoken of you often and with admiration.

  4. Seth Steinzor Says:

    Yes, that’s what we hear from farmers here, too. I wish we all could have that kind of job satisfaction!

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