Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Federal Troops Occupy the California Capitol Grounds, 1894; painting by Mary Amanda Lewis

Yesterday's newspaper editorials and other commentary just got my blood boiling. The anti-labor slant to so much of what was being published in "honor" of Labor Day was a hideous nightmare, an inversion of the whole idea of Celebrating Labor. I look back and I wonder was I contributing to it with my observations regarding union leadership? Leadership which often sux? Perhaps.

The issue that got me into a lather as it were was the editorial in my own McClatchy flagship paper, wherein it was obvious that the paper's most anti-union columnist had been given free rein to dump his excrement on labor unions and order them to reform according to his narrow image of what "labor" (quote/unquote) is for: fattening the bottom lines of the plutocracy.

The illustration above accompanied the editorial; it depicts an encampment of federal troops sent to Sacramento to quell the Pullman Strike which had been interfering with the orderly running of the all-powerful railroads out of sympathy for their comrades in Chicago and elsewhere.

At first the National Guard had been called out, but they refused orders to quell the strike with fixed bayonets and bullets; after all, many in the Guard were railroad workers themselves, or were workers' friends and family. Their refusal to follow orders would result in a mass court martial, said to be the largest court martial proceeding in Guard history (and here I always thought it was the Port Chicago Mutiny that led the courts martial statistics.)

Federal troops were called in to "restore order." Part of their job was to shoot to kill. And they did. It's claimed they were fired on first, but the claim is disputed. Several soldiers were killed, it's true. But how they died is not entirely clear; friendly fire is as likely as striker fire.

At any rate the first train the troops assembled to run out of the Sacramento yards was sabotaged and derailed near Davis, leading to deaths and injuries among the troops serving as escorts as well as among railroad employees. I've read some reports of the aftermath over the years, and I'm going from memory here, so I may be conflating a number of different strikes and incidents, but my recollection is that when the troops heard of what had happened with the sabotage outside of Davis (home of UC Davis, where Pepper Spray Officer Pike was recently dismissed) they vowed to take revenge on the strikers. From what I recall, there was a march of strikers in Sacramento the next day. Troops assembled to block their way (snipers at the ready on convenient high places); when the strikers continued their march, the troops opened fire, killing a disputed number of strikers (as many as 13, as I recall, as few as two by some reports) and injuring dozens, including women and children. This may be where I'm conflating a different strike, but if memory serves, the strikers next assembled peacefully at the Capitol, where they were again fired on by troops, killing and injuring many more. This bloody business effectively ended the Pullman Strike in California.

Combined with the other bloodshed associated with the Pullman Strike in Chicago and elsewhere, the nation was horrified. The Ruling Class was terrified that the breadth and depth of the labor unrest expressed in the Pullman Strike was a harbinger of Revolution, and they sought remedies quick. Grover Cleveland (Democrat, let it be said) was happy to oblige. There were mass arrests and trials, purges of union organizers and sympathizers -- not to mention strikers -- went on throughout the railroad industry, and the likelihood of federal troop intervention in any future labor unrest was heightened.

Labor Day was a bone thrown to the discontented masses, unanimously passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President in 1894, the year of the Strike, to mollify the wounded feelings if not the brutalized (or dead) bodies of Labor.

The attempts to crush the Labor Movement only increased, of course, and there would be strike after bloody strike for years to come until, during the New Deal, the numerous strikes (some put down with almost unimaginable brutality) led to the passage of several labor union sought measures -- primarily curbing capitalist abuses and enabling labor union equity -- and brought to a close the era of official and industry violence against workers. Not that violence necessarily stopped, but at least it was no longer officially sanctioned.

The Labor Union Movement was declared a Success. Yay! The End of Child Labor was nigh. Soon, the 8 hour day would become the standard, along with the 40 hour week. Workplace safety regulations would be instituted. Vacations and sick leave would become the norm. If you believe what you read today, everything Labor demanded back at the turn of the 20th Century was granted and codified into law in the by and bye. Labor was triumphant.

Who needs unions when everything they wanted done was accomplished? This is the standard rhetoric of capitalist anti-labor propagandists. The Labor Movement is dead because it doesn't have anything to do anymore. You see. It's simple.

I argue, of course, that there's much more to do, but labor union leadership is either so cowed by the unbridled power of management and capitalists or is so closely tied to them through financial arrangements and outright bribes, and there have been so many pre-concessions made by them, that the utility of unions under the circumstances is highly suspect.

The editorial that set me off yesterday starts with the mention of the Pullman Strike and its suppression by federal troops, but it puts what happened here this way:

Sacramento saw more strike-related violence than any community outside Chicago. Troops camped on the state Capitol grounds and the city was under martial law for two weeks.

No mention of strikers shot down in the streets -- here or anywhere else for that matter -- and no mention of why there was a Pullman Strike to begin with. Just the usual vague references to "strike-related violence" and martial law. Yes, well. (The strike was over George Pullman's decision to cut his workforce by 80%, reduce the wages of the remaining workers by 25%, yet force workers who lived in his community of Pullman, Illinois, to pay exorbitant rents and fees -- which he refused to reduce along with wages -- while declaring huge profits and paying out extravagant dividends to investors. Not unlike the labor situation today.)

The editorial continues:

Today, we take for granted such things as an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, workplace safety standards, unemployment insurance, health and retirement benefits and more.

Isn't that something? All of those things we "take for  granted" are under fierce and intense assault by capitalists who believe deep in their hearts that workers have it too soft and must be forced to endure worsening conditions in order to ensure an adequate return on investment. Given the number of instances in which employers require overtime of employees but will not pay for it, the "8 hour day" is something of a cruel joke. The minimum wage is evaded constantly, and its purchasing power is something like half of what it was in the 1960's and 1970's. In other words, when it is adhered to, it keeps dropping. Workplace safety standards are constantly violated, to the point where workers are being injured and dying on the job in ever increasing numbers, while employers constantly whine that the safety regulations are way too severe. Unemployment insurance covers only about half of the unemployed at any given time, and restrictions on access to it are growing even as unemployment continues to be shockingly high. Health and retirement benefits have been disappearing for years, a generation in fact. There are more Americans without health benefits that ever, and retirement benefits have turned into a cruel joke for millions.

The editorial makes a cogent point by quoting Timothy Noah:

Timothy Noah, in "The Great Divergence," has noted the effect of this decline: "Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical." The middle class has shrunk significantly, from 61 percent of the adult population in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.

The middle class is shrinking, and policies adopted by capitalists and the governments they own will ensure that the middle class will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future. The shrinkage in labor union participation parallels that shrinkage, but the one is not necessarily the cause of the other. I point to the lack of "service" by unions and especially their leadership as the cause for the shrinkage in their membership, whereas the precipitous decline in the middle class is due to factors well in advance of union declines. In other words, to policies that unions agreed to or accommodated rather than fighting.

Unions today, particularly public-sector unions, need to go back to first principles. They need to say, and not just to their own members, what they stand for and what their role is in improving conditions for all workers.

In the current climate, they cannot be content to service their existing membership – getting them more money and benefits and policing collective bargaining agreements. They need to do some soul-searching.

Obviously, the editorial board doesn't understand what unions do and have been doing for years. They don't get their members more money and benefits these days, they concede wage and benefit cuts instead. They negotiate how much workers will be required to "sacrifice" and how fast they will be required to do it,  they hardly ever advance claims to higher wages and benefits.  Again, these concessions lead to lower and lower union participation.

Start by reining in excesses. End the hysteria about raising the retirement age to reflect actual working years and life expectancy – or asking workers to contribute to their retirement. That is not anti-worker.

Oh, right. That "hysteria." Given "actual working years" these days, and the flatlining of actual worker life expectancy (especially compared to the life expectancy of CEOs and capitalists) the retirement age should be lowered, not raised, and it should have been done long ago. The whole idea of raising the retirement age is ludicrous, and the rentiers, the capitalists, and  their hired guns in government know this. They figure, though, that the Big Lie propaganda tactic will turn the trick and that people can be convinced of the falsehoods surrounding retirement and life expectancy, and so far they are right. The media as a whole has been a willing -- eager in fact -- participant in selling the lie to the People, and so far, the truth has barely been seen anywhere.

As for workers contributing to their retirement funds, apparently the Big Lie is working here, too. Nearly all retirement plans -- where they still exist -- require direct worker contributions from wages paid; the notion that they do not is an absurd lie that is constantly being bruited about by propagandists against worker pensions. Those few public workers who do not make direct contributions from wages paid make indirect contributions from wages not paid, ie: from taking lower salaries during their working lives on the assumption that their employers will pay the equivalent of higher wages into a retirement fund on the workers' behalf. But surprise, surprise, they don't want to do that; no, they just want to pay lower wages and not contribute to worker retirement funds, despite whatever contractual obligations they may have. So every time some media propagandist says something about "asking workers to contribute" to their retirement funds, what they are really talking about is forcing workers to take an even greater pay and benefit cut than they already do. And that is most definitely "anti-worker."


And just stop proposals like the one introduced this legislative session that said if a firefighter, police officer or prison guard died of heart disease or cancer at age 90 – 40 years after he had retired – a widow or other surviving relative could claim a "work-related" death benefit worth a quarter of a million dollars at minimum. Such plays alienate the public from unions.

I'm not familiar with this legislation, in fact this the first I've heard of it, but think about it: why shouldn't survivors receive a substantial "work-related death benefit" as part of a benefit package? Why shouldn't all workers receive something like this? Instead of trying to restrict benefits such as this, why not expand them to all workers? The argument that wages should be reduced and benefits cut or restricted is backwards; it should be the other way around.

And then:

Address the generational gap. With membership concentrated in the 40-and-older group, what do unions have to say to the workforce of the future – the 20- to 25-year-olds who are experiencing high unemployment rates in the current economy?

It's not just a generation gap. With generally so few workers unionized, it's a much broader gap than that of the generations, and I continue to argue that it is because union leadership has been too often co-opted and does not operate on behalf of members. That has the interesting effect of reducing membership, surprise, surprise, and these constant concessions, often producing a two-tier wage and benefit structure merely serves to reduce union participation further.

Embrace trade. Instead of denouncing foreign workers for "stealing" American jobs, stand by the principle that either we raise standards together or face a race to the bottom. U.S.-led trade and economic growth will help improve labor and environmental conditions in the global economy.

This paragraph is so warped it shocks the conscience. "...either we raise standards together or face a race to the bottom." The race to the bottom is underway, as it has been for a long time. There is no "raising standards together," that was a lie promulgated by the capitalists to justify the trade agreements that have led to endless "adjustments" -- ie: reductions in American workers standards -- for years and endless years. "Improving" standards in the global economy axiomatically requires reducing standards for American workers. It doesn't necessarily result in any improvement to the lives of foreign workers, either. This is what we have been seeing for years and our rulers insist on continuing no matter what.


We are past the riots and violence of late-19th and early-20th century, but also far from the post-World War II era of shared prosperity. American society and the labor movement are at a crossroads in defining a new path for a strong middle class.

This from a paper that has been on a relentless anti-labor propaganda campaign for years and years, day in and day out, a constant litany of biased reports and anti-union screeds, transparent in their determination to destroy the "middle class" once and for all, just as it destroyed its own unions in the 1970's.

And this shameful editorial was presented as a recipe for unions to "rebound" from their current doldrums.

It's actually a recipe for union extinction.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/03/4781267/editorial-to-rebound-labor-needs.html#storylink=cpy

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Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/03/4781267/editorial-to-rebound-labor-needs.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/03/4781267/editorial-to-rebound-labor-needs.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/03/4781267/editorial-to-rebound-labor-needs.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/03/4781267/editorial-to-rebound-labor-needs.html#storylink=cpy

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