Is Labor Day for Workers or Politicians?

highlight-img2Berlin   Every four years Labor Day marks the official beginning of the “real” campaign for President in the United States. Of course these campaigns are endless and began years and years before for most candidates, like a Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Surprise Candidate, Donald Trump, has been hard at it for at least a year now. Both candidates had their big-bodied planes in Ohio on the same tarmac on Labor Day. Reporters could run back and forth between the planes. Candidates could nod in each others’ direction and note how important Ohio is as a battleground state. Democrats could show up at some of the few remaining Labor Day parades, marches, picnics, or whatever we might call them and genuflect to what’s left of the remaining power of labor unions, much of which is in fact on the goal line stand defense of politics and elections.

It is worth wondering if Labor Day really exists anymore to celebrate workers and their unions or just an easy access bridge for politicians to have their photo ops with workers, and then move on to more fundraisers and other touchstones of micro-targeting. It goes without saying for most people Labor Day is more the mark of the end of summer and perhaps the beginning of school sessions, and a last chance at a 3-day holiday in the long stretch until Thanksgiving. What’s labor got to do with it?

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer forwarded me this piece she had gotten commemorating Labor Day, and it’s worth sharing:

In 1894, it [Labor Day] became a national holiday in Canada. The Canadian government was seeking to accommodate the Labour Movement after the rise of the Knights of Labor and the strengthening of unions in the 1880s. Shortly after, the American government followed suit, wanting in particular to offer a counterpoint to May Day, which commemorated the state violence against the 1886 Haymarket demonstrators. The contrast remains between the North American Labour Day holiday and May Day, which is Labour’s day elsewhere. While May Day stands for the international struggle against capitalism, Labour Day signifies the accommodation of workers within the capitalist system. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where Labour Day rather than May Day celebrates the achievements of workers.

Accommodations are much, much different than achievements, especially with the disappearance of any social contract between labor and management involving an equal sharing of the benefits of work and wealth. When Labor Day becomes little more than a showcase and access point for politicians, that’s an even further dilution of the critical content of the day.

We have to hang on to it of course. At least we have one day that we can still try to claim as our own, since almost every other day of the year seems to celebrate business and the rich for all of us, and perhaps especially for politicians.

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Great Union Organizing Songs for Labor Day

 

Billy Bragg singing with 'Cotia Pit folk group at Durham Miners Gala, a 120-year-old festival in which mining communities from all over County Durham (the largest coalfield in Britain; there have been 218 pits in Durham County over the years) march with banners and bands to the centre of the town 2004.

Billy Bragg singing with ‘Cotia Pit folk group at Durham Miners Gala, a 120-year-old festival in which mining communities from all over County Durham (the largest coalfield in Britain; there have been 218 pits in Durham County over the years) march with banners and bands to the centre of the town 2004.

New Orleans     There used to be a bumper sticker saying “Unions:  The People Who Brought You Vacation.”  Unions definitely brought us all Labor Day.  There were years of giant parades, now largely in the United States something for San Francisco, Chicago, and maybe New York City, while the rest of the world celebrates May Day for workers’ solidarity.   In New Orleans when I was Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO we brought back the Labor Day picnic which has now endured more than 15 consecutive years.  Not the same, but at least it’s something.

            But for too many it’s just a welcome day off, a turn of the calendar marking the rush of school buses hitting the streets and leaves getting ready to fall.   For us it’s a chance to remember the importance of unions, and even more, union organizing, so let’s hear it in the words of the great Woody Guthrie, the classic Ballad of Joe Hill, and then Billy Bragg from Britain, a modern union troubadour.

Union Burying Ground

by Woody Guthrie

I see they’re lowering a right new coffin
I see they’re letting down a right new coffin
Way over in that union burying ground

And the new dirt’s falling on a right new coffin
The new dirt’s falling on a right new coffin
Way over in that union burying ground

Oh, tell me who’s that they’re letting down, down
Tell me who’s that they’re letting down, down
Way over in that union burying ground

Another union organizer
Another union organizer
Way over in that union burying ground

A union brother and a union sister
A union brother and a union sister
Way over in that union burying ground

A union father and a union mother
And a union father and a union mother
Way over in that union burying ground

Well, I’m going to sleep in a union coffin
I’m going to sleep in a union coffin
Way over in that union burying ground

Every new grave brings a thousand new ones
Every new grave brings a thousand members
Way over in that union burying ground

Every new grave brings a thousand brothers
Every new grave brings a thousand sisters
To the union in that union burying ground

The Ballad of Joe Hill

by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Joe you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.

In Salt Lake, Joe, Great God, said I,
Him standing by my bed;
They framed you on a murder charge,
Said Joe but I ain’t dead;
Said Joe but I ain’t dead.

The copper bosses framed you Joe
They shot you Joe said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a man,
Said Joe I did not die.
Said Joe I did not die.

Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me,
Joe Hill ain’t never died;
Where working men are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side,
Joe Hill is at their side.

And standing there as big as life
A-smiling with his eyes.
Said Joe, what they forgot to kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize!

From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill – 
Where working men defend their rights
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

(repeat first verse)

There is Power in a Union

 by Billy Bragg

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a union

Now the lessons of the past were all learned with workers blood
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for
From the cities and the farmlands to trenches full of mud
War has always been the bosses way, sir

The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters from many far off lands
There is power in a union

Now I long for the morning that they realize
Brutality and unjust laws can not defeat us
But who’ll defend the workers, who cannot organize
When the bosses send their lackies out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a union

The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters, together we will stand
There is power in a union

 

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

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Remembering Labor on Labor Day

IMG_1710New Orleans       I’m not sure whether I’ve ever driven through Warren, Monticello, and Dermott, Arkansas, but being in Little Rock for KABF and various business, gave me a chance to go visit a Labor Day picnic with Local 100’s great members in Warren.  The food was great and the solidarity stunning, but driving on to New Orleans later in the afternoon got me thinking in this time of the 1% about how important it is that we keep hearing voices celebrating the virtues and struggles of working.  Here are four.

Working Class Hero by John Lennon

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

There’s room at the top they are telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me
If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me

                                 Factory by Bruce Springsteen

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It’s the working, the working, just the working life

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life
The working, the working, just the working life

End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
And you just better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
Cause it’s the working, the working, just the working life

                          Workingman’s Blues #2 by Bob Dylan

There’s an evenin’ haze settlin’ over town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak

Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see

While I’m listening to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping it’s way into my gut

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues

Well, I’m sailin’ on back, ready for the long haul
Tossed by the winds and the seas
I’ll drag ’em all down to hell and I’ll stand ’em at the wall
I’ll sell ’em to their enemies

I’m tryin’ to feed my soul with thought
Gonna sleep off the rest of the day
Sometimes no one wants what we got
Sometimes you can’t give it away

Now the place is ringed with countless foes
Some of them may be deaf and dumb
No man, no woman knows
The hour that sorrow will come

In the dark I hear the night birds call
I can feel a lover’s breath
I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall
Sleep is like a temporary death

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues

Well, they burned my barn and they stole my horse
I can’t save a dime
I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced
Into a life of continual crime

I can see for myself that the sun is sinking
How I wish you were here to see
Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking
That you have forgotten me?

Now they worry and they hurry and they fuss and they fret
They waste your nights and days
Them I will forget
But you I’ll remember always

Old memories of you to me have clung
You’ve wounded me with your words
Gonna have to straighten out your tongue
It’s all true, everything you’ve heard

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues

In you, my friend, I find no blame
Wanna look in my eyes, please do
No one can ever claim
That I took up arms against you

All across the peaceful sacred fields
They will lay you low
They’ll break your horns and slash you with steel
I say it so it must be so

Now I’m down on my luck and I’m black and blue
Gonna give you another chance
I’m all alone and I’m expecting you
To lead me off in a cheerful dance

I got a brand new suit and a brand new wife
I can live on rice and beans
Some people never worked a day in their life
Don’t know what work even means

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues

And finally one for President Obama

              Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man) by Randy Newman

We’ve taken all you’ve given
But it’s gettin’ hard to make a livin’
Mr. President have pity on the working man

We ain’t asking for you to love us
You may place yourself high above us
Mr. President have pity on the working man

I know it may sound funny
But people ev’ry where are runnin’ out of money
We just can’t make it by ourself

It is cold and the wind is blowing
We need something to keep us going
Mr. President have pity on the working man

Maybe you’re cheatin’
Maybe you’re lyin’
Maybe you have lost your mind
Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself

Too late to run. Too late to cry now
The time has come for us to say good-bye now
Mr. President have pity on the working man
Mr. President have pity on the working man

IMG_1707

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Labor Missing From Our Day

"We Built it" slogan at the RNC

New Orleans  Maybe I’m still in post-hurricane mode, so have lost my perspective, but for the life of me the Romney/Republican “We Built It” line seems the coup de grace of labor and our unions’ demise.  Now “capital” in the face of Romney and the outrageousness of something like Bain, can not only claim they “built it” referring to our country, but even worse, they seem to be able to get away with this direct  insult and full on hard face slap.  If there was ever anything that so clearly stood for the current weakness of unions this has to be it.

To add injury to insult after the exhilaration earlier this year around the progressive articulation of inequity and the banner of the 99% that was taken up worldwide, we now have the 1% not only brushing aside the inequity, but claiming that we owe all of our jobs and much of what is good in America not to our collective enterprise, blood, sweat, and tears, but to them.  Outrageous!

It’s the “big lie” on parade today.

Labor Day 1882 NYC

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Labor Daze and Labor Waves

happy-labor-dayNew Orleans On the eve of another ritual of picnicking and the last gasps of the summer that we celebrate as Labor Day, there will be the ritual mentioning of the value of labor and hard work, commentary on the recession, and even some mention about the value of unions in certain geographies where we are the ones flipping the burgers or pancakes in memoriam.  Feels like labor daze though to me.

In generations past the kind of gnawing, persistent unemployment and jobs stagnation we are now experience would have seen angry union leaders knocking at the White House door demanding an audience with Nixon, Regan, Bush, or Carter.  Fists would be banging on tables.  I’m not saying that labor leaders are happy with this situation, but I’m not hearing it.  Facebook postings, tweets, and press releases really are not the same.

Recently, some unions tried to turn the tables on some Congressional town hall meetings reversing the Tea-tactics of recent summers.  Certainly it was about time, but as assuredly this was no movement igniting prairie fire.  Worse, strategically, it all seemed partisan.  The Tea Party is in some ways post-partisan.  They are solid, salt-of-the-earth haters who can be as dangerous to some of the Republicans as they almost always are to the Democrats.  If labor wants action in Congress, we need to understand and learn that our friends need to feel the heat as much as our foes.  We don’t need to simply be the Seal 6 team in the Republican redoubts.  We need to let all of them now we have had enough and are ready to rip the House down.

And, why not?  Are we getting so much from the Obama Administration that we need to lower our voice to a whisper?  Not that I can see.

There’s a heartbeat at the NLRB, but most of this is slight and symbolic so far.  A notice that the law says workers can organize is nice as a reminder to all of us perhaps that we are forgetting to organize, but the notice won’t organize a single new worker.  A different way of looking at nursing home units is swell, but it won’t change the economics or opportunities for organizing in that health care sector.     A couple of items that give existing, certified bargaining units a little more breathing room is also smart, but won’t stem the tide.   We are where we are, and it’s not good or getting better.  The biggest election on the horizon is still the dénouement on the West Coast between the new SEIU and the old SEIU leadership of United Healthcare West.  The NLRB gave the old team another shot claiming that Kaiser illegally aided the new team, but the damage is done and the relief is weak, and as is true in all elections, time and resources always favor the incumbent.  Nothing will change the outcome here.  SEIU will so clearly win that that they are trying to get a quick election just to deliver the final coup de gras to their old leadership and its new independent union.

Green jobs would be nice, but it is not clear how we get to scale.  Recent news of critical bankruptcies for solar companies is discouraging.  Alternative fuels are not producing jobs or much traction in the market.  Administration incentives are insufficient.  As good as it might be, there’s no silver bullet there.

We are at a funny intersection where there is more action around banks and foreclosures than there is around jobs, unemployment, and income.

We need a new wave of action and organizing, but this recession and the weakness of the hand we are playing seems to hang like a dark cloud over even the most ambitious of efforts.  What used to be the new labor leadership is now the old labor leadership and the labor daze at Labor Day is down right depressing.

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No Prep Labor Days

New Orleans I don’t have the energy on a Labor Day for the anger, but there’s no escaping the ironies!

The New York Times writes an editorial on “Labor Day, Now and Then,” and while noting that Labor Day dates earlier than other holidays mindlessly say the following:

  • “…nature doesn’t seem quite as rude as it once did.”  What planet is this dude living on in the world of Katrina hurricanes, BP blowouts, Haiti earthquakes, and Pakistan flooding?
  • “We need a holiday that needs no preparation, which is a true holiday indeed.”  God knows it shows in this editorial!

So much then for dismissing the hundreds of Labor Day picnics and parades around the country that still celebrate the need for working families to have a break, I guess.  So much for not even mentioning that union density (membership in unions compared to total workers), has now fallen to 7% in this Great Recession.  So much for even looking across the page at Paul Krugman’s warning about the similarities between 1938 and 2010 in the Great Depression and his call for real political leadership and will, and a lot more stimulus.

The one thing gotten half-right is how much we all need a holiday from this unrelenting assault on working families!

Happy Labor / Labour Day for all those who have earned it, and here’s some small comfort and a shout out to the millions who wish this were a holiday from working rather than another day on the calendar in the desperate search for a job.

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