The American Worker - From Joe Hill to Joe Walmart
Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Presented by Steve Blank
(Attachments at end)

Last month my son Lew and I spent a week at a cooperative camp in Michigan called Circle Pines, maybe some of you have heard of it. It's a great place with all the fun stuff other camps have to offer but with one difference - everyone has to pitch in on the chores - no one is afforded the luxury of watching others do the work. Each morning we gathered in the community orchard to harvest the ingredients for our meals -- and after eating we divided the clean-up duties. I happily earned the nickname DW because I come from peasant stock and I'm a born dishwasher. Others swept floors, cleared tables and scoured the kitchen. When Lew first realized that his job was to wipe uneaten food from other people's dirty plates into the compost pail, I really thought we might have to pack up our gear and head back to Wisconsin. But by the second day it dawned on him that the potatoes we ate for dinner tasted better because he had a hand in the harvest, and that the blackberries in the tort were so deliciously sweet that it was worth all the scratches his arms received while picking them from the thorny bushes in the grove.

We celebrate Labor because our work bears spiritual fruit.

We celebrate the progress some workers have made in gaining benefits like safer working conditions, higher wages, comprehensive health care, forty-hour work weeks, overtime pay, job security and pensions.

And we celebrate Labor Day because realizing these advancements was no small achievement.

Since the invention of the boss, there has always existed a struggle between those giving orders and those doing the work. I suspect that the real Flintstones and Rubbles, in their new cave kitchen, tussled fiercely with clubs and rocks to determine who would serve and who would eat. Eventually everybody did whatever work Fred wanted them to do simply because he swung the biggest club in Bedrock.

In the United States, our early economic model wasn't much different. Our forefathers, though enlightened enough to create a document stating that all men are created equal, in fact relied upon slavery -- the most brutal form of labor exploitation -- to meet their economic goals. Enlightened people knew this was wrong, of course, so a great war was fought, and slavery ended - sort of.

In his new book Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon, the Wall Street Journal's Atlanta bureau chief, asserts that slavery effectively continued until after World War II in some southern states. African-American men were routinely tried and convicted on petty charges and sentenced to work off the fines others paid on their behalf. It was indentured servitude.

Officially, legal slavery ended in 1865, just as the industrial revolution was hitting its stride. Instead of using African slaves, the new industrialists took full advantage of a flood of European immigrants. Desperate for a better life, they worked under extremely unsafe working conditions for unfair wages.

We celebrate Labor Day by honoring immigrants past and present. Today's immigrants are reliving the tragic circumstances that most Americans have overcome.

Haymarket Affair
Most Americans take the 8-hour work day for granted, until they learn about the Haymarket affair of 1886.

On Saturday, May 1 of that year, union organizers staged rallies across the United States to prepare for a general strike in support of the eight-hour work day. It wouldn't come easy. A peaceful workers rally turned into a tragic riot when "somebody" threw a bomb into the crowd at Chicago's Haymarket Square. Pinkerton guards opened fire as stunned citizens raced in every direction. When the smoke cleared, an unknown number of people lay dead, including seven police officers.

You've read how private security forces like Blackwater have murdered Iraqi citizens with impunity?

Well this is nothing new… the Pinkertons were a private security force operating hand in hand with the Chicago Police Department back then. In fact, many historians are convinced that it was Pinkerton agents who provoked the incident by throwing the bomb in the first place.

The Haymarket trial was one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in United States history. Eight anarchists were convicted of murder. Four of the eight were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.

Nine years after the trial, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld concluded that all eight defendants were completely innocent and signed pardons for the remaining three. This was a very brave statement for the governor to make, and the captains of industry made him pay. The pardons ended his political career.

No celebration of Labor Day would be complete without recognizing the contributions of well-to-do politicians, like Altgeld and Roosevelt, who risked their office by taking the side of working people in the face of powerful corporate lobbies.

Roosevelt fought for passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, a federal law protecting the rights of workers to organize labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes.

Joe Hill
The Wagner act was not a law in 1902. That's when Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, emigrated to the U.S. and changed his name to Joe Hill. He became a migrant laborer, and joined the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the Wobblies. Now the Wobblies formed in 1905 and believed in one big global union for all workers - I guess they were ahead of their time on globalization.

Well Joe Hill was a good fit for the Wobblies because he had a real talent for organizing. Aside from delivering a good speech, he wrote poetry and songs. It was Joe who coined the phrase "pie in the sky." He also wrote the songs "There is Power in a Union" and "Casey Jones: Union Scab."

Twelve of the songs Joe wrote were published in the Wobblies' famous "Little Red Song Book," which is still in print today -- in its 37th edition. Joe's goal with these creative efforts was to reach out to as many working people as possible, so he would borrow popular innocent tunes and supplant the lyrics with powerful and catchy union messages. Often, his songs would sweep across the country faster than the original version of the tune had, and it wasn't long before Joe became something of a living legend to workers everywhere. Unfortunately, his rising profile made him a target of Industry.

In 1914, while working at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, Joe Hill was framed on a murder charge. I read a book about the trial written by the historian Philip Foner, and without going into too much detail about it, let me just say that, again, it was an egregious miscarriage of justice. Based on very circumstantial evidence, Joe Hill was executed the following year.

During our offertory this morning we'll listen to Paul Robeson sing the story of Joe Hill in a beautiful song written by Alfred Hayes in 1930.

Paul Robeson
Any celebration of Labor Day should also include a tribute to Paul Robeson. This amazing renaissance man made historic contributions to theater, opera, literature, athletics, and social justice. And, like so many great Americans who choose to fight for social justice, Robeson was a constant target of right wing factions of our government, and he was forced to appear before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about ties to the communist party.

Does anyone remember the movie "The Manchurian Candidate?" It was based on the CIA's MK-Ultra program and involved the surreptitious administration of hallucinatory drugs to unexpected victims. Well, Paul Robeson was a victim of the MK-Ultra program, and he was left in a delusional state which resulted in a terrifying suicide attempt in 1961. Fortunately he survived, and went on to live until 1976.

Back in 1950 the State Department determined that Robeson, an international star, should be denied a passport and they issued a "stop notice" at all ports so he couldn't leave the country. He was told that it was "detrimental to the interests of the United States Government" for him to travel abroad because his "frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries" because it was a "family affair."

In May of 1952, in a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and Canada.

Now while we were preoccupied with the McCarthy hearings, the Canadians were really pumped about Paul Robeson doing this concert. He stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border - and on the Canadian side, a whopping 40,000 people gathered to hear him sing about Joe Hill.

Taft-Hartley Act
Celebrating Labor Day means taking the time to consider the fate of today's workers also. Remember the Wagner Act, which guaranteed the right of workers to organize and strike? Well it only lasted 12 years. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, and it was so hostile to workers that labor leaders called it the "slave-labor bill".

It prohibited many types of strikes, outlawed monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns, and required union officers to sign non-communist affidavits with the government. States were allowed to pass "Right-to-Work laws" that outlawed union shops.

I remember when I was a kid and took a short-term gig at a Marshall Fields warehouse I had to sign a paper that, among other things, confirmed that I understood Illinois was a "Right to Work" state. I recognized the Orwellian quality to the phrase even then, although I had no idea what it meant.

One of the worst provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act states that the executive branch can obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if a strike "imperils the national health or safety."

Ronald Reagan
Of course, Ronald Reagan famously fired the Air Traffic Controller's when they went on strike during his presidency. And here's where things get very confusing because, to many Americans, this made Reagan a hero.

As Thomas Frank points out in his book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" the Reagan Era introduced us to an upside-down matrix in which American Workers began to sabotage their futures by voting for political platforms that favored the rich. Over the past few decades, great gains for the working class have been squandered, all with the blessing of the electorate.

Now, because of Free Trade agreements and corporate globalization, unions are weaker than ever because international businesses can tell American workers "Look, if you don't accept a wage freeze, we'll just move your job to Mexico or China."

Elaine Chao
I wonder what percentage of coal miners know who Elaine Chao is? She's the current secretary of Labor, but she won't cooperate with Congress on the investigations of a recent mine tragedy. Her intentional lack of oversight has resulted in a subpoena for key documents in the case.

During this strange time when our nation's an Attorney General abandons the Constitution, I suppose it should come as no surprise that our Labor Secretary holds the American worker in disdain.

Under Elaine Chao, our Labor Department has defied congressional oversight, covered up failures by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and failed to support efforts to help workers being exposed to toxic chemicals.

One great way to celebrate Labor Day is to campaign against a presidential candidate that might retain the likes of Elaine Chao!

Let me wrap things up by discussing WalMart, the world's largest private employer. The ownership and CEOs are all multi-billionaires, yet they vehemently oppose offering quality benefits to their employees. Angela and I have a friend who was with the company for a number of years, and was just about to qualify for a new pay level with added benefits, and she was fired.

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse tells the story of Mike Mitchell, who worked as a security guard for a WalMart in Texas and he was a great security guard. He caught 180 shoplifters over a two-year period. One day, he runs out into the parking lot to chase after someone who's using stolen checks. The woman's accomplice floors the accelerator, hits Mike, messing up his back and breaking his kneecap. Mike asks for a few weeks off, because he needs surgery on his knee. He applies for workers' comp, and boom, he's fired. And this shows how companies like WalMart sometimes retaliate against people who file for workers' comp.

And WalMart is fiercely anti-union. Their store managers have union busting drilled into their heads, and if any employee is caught even discussing the possibility of organizing, WalMart's corporate helicopter full of lawyers can be anywhere in the continental US within 3 hours to dispense of the employees without leaving any pesky legal loopholes for recourse.

In fact, WalMart is being accused of violating federal election laws by urging its employees to vote against Senator Barack Obama in November - they're that afraid of organized labor.

You know, another great way to celebrate Labor Day is to ask anyone you know who shops at WalMart to consider shopping at CostCo instead! Their employees are paid well, they enjoy better hours, and worker satisfaction with the company is very high. That's reason to celebrate.

When working people realize that shopping at WalMart is facilitating the race to the bottom, Labor will be on the march once more.

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