Today is the 110th birthday of the Industrial Workers of the World (a.k.a., the Wobblies). Labor History in 2:00 offers a brief overview of the union and its famous founders. The Wobblies were persecuted by the federal government and their own policies of not signing contracts hindered their ability to grow. That said, the organization still exists and has carried out several successful organizing campaigns in recent years. As American workers struggle to have better pay and working conditions, it is important to know the history of groups like the IWW and other heroes of the American labor movement. Nothing will be won without solidarity and struggle.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores work and life.]
Remembering What Was Gained – and Lost
Once upon a time, working people in America lived at the mercy of their employers. They labored twelve hours or more, often in unsafe conditions, with no minimum wage. The people who worked then were different too. Children and women toiled for low wages, often in the most brutal environments. Old people clung to their jobs as long as their bodies allowed because they had no Social Security or pension funds. The generations who built this country in the 19th century also included slaves and immigrants who were treated as slaves.
The middle class that so many Americans look to as proof of what makes this country special really bloomed in the 1950s and 1960s. It came to be in large part because working people organized and demanded their rights from both employers and the government. What made the middle class? A 40 hour work week that let people have time for life outside of their jobs. Minimum wage laws and union contracts that raised salaries for working people and let them buy a home or send their kids to college. Pension funds and Social Security that let people retire without living in poverty. Workplace safety rules that kept people from being killed and maimed on the job. Public schools and state universities that let many Americans get the education was once available only to the privileged.
What has happened over the last 30 years [A.R., After Reagan]? Has the middle class disappeared? No, but membership in that club is becoming more expensive. Most families rely on having two bread winners, often with multiple jobs. Few people work 40 hours. Those that are paid well work 50 hours or more. Those with low-paying jobs scramble for hours, going from part-time job to part-time job. In the 1970s, factories started to close and that trend has accelerated through the first decade of the 21st century. Unions have become less influential as their membership has declined with industrial America. Now public sector workers are a target because they are said to make too much. Maybe the real problem is that non-union working people have given up too much or had too much taken from them.
Large business interests and their agents (a.k.a. politicians from both parties and the corporate-owned media) have collaborated to move wealth and power to those who have the most. We are told by conservatives that the wealthy “make” jobs or “give” jobs. If that’s true, why have so many jobs been offshored, so many factories closed? Greed, naked greed.
What’s wrong with a me-first philosophy? Isn’t that part of our freedom as Americans? No, it’s not. The first 15 words of the Constitution (so loved by the Tea Party) clearly say that we’re in this together: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” The Libertarian myth that has come to dominate conservative thinking goes against the most basic American values. This country was founded by leaders who understood the need for “common defence” and “general Welfare” – things we share.
America after Reagan still can claim economic wealth and displays of consumer freedom: SUVs, flat screen TVs, and iPads. But what freedoms have we lost that our grandparents enjoyed? Stable employment. A good wage. Time off to enjoy life. Protection from a boss or company that went too far. Unions have not been perfect, but they helped working people (most of whom were not union members) live a better life. They also recognized that working people shared a responsibility to help and protect each other – solidarity. Too often in today’s work world, each individual is alone, looking over his or her shoulder, afraid.
This last week’s protests in Madison probably won’t stop Governor Walker from further limiting worker rights. Other states will follow his example. What the rallies in Wisconsin show is that working people can fight back. We have to remember the history of labor, how men and women sacrificed and died to improve how workers are treated in this country. Then comes the hard part – fighting for our rights and freedoms. The teachers and union members in Wisconsin have shown the way. Will others follow their example?
Editorial Note: On Saturdays, I will write posts under the title, “Bread and Roses – Our Heritage” that will focus on labor history. Monday through Friday, posts will continue to examine careers and related issues.
Sunday Extra Helpings:
A great website with links to labor history sites
The AFL-CIO’s Labor History Page
A Labor History Timeline from the University of Hawaii
This day in labor history
Child Labor – from the History Channel