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Sunday, September 03, 2017


Labor Day in a Gilded Age of shrinking paychecks

by Tom Sullivan

Public domain image from the Lattimer Massacre.

Workers are the Rodney Dangerfields of this economic terror the financial empire has constructed. An afterthought. Collateral damage. A necessary evil to the sainted "job creators." As in the last Gilded Age, as Twain put it, "Some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, & over these ideals they dispute & cannot unite--but they all worship money." Those without it should have worked harder, planned better, and saved more. Sadly there is no new Twain to properly satirize this new Gilded Age. Save, perhaps, for the president who personifies it.

It is Labor Day weekend. Not that America celebrates labor, mind you. And not everyone gets to celebrate. But both those who do and do not have organized labor to thank for their holiday pay.

Laura Clawson highlights at Daily Kos an AFL-CIO survey and reminds readers:

And by the way, if you’ve ever wondered how relevant unions are today, if you were tempted by the Republican argument that they won all the important battles in past decades and aren’t needed today, check this out:
Union members polled are much more likely to receive Labor Day off and overtime pay compared with their nonunion counterparts. While 78% of all working people polled have Labor Day off, 85% of union members do. Furthermore, 66% of union members receive overtime for working on Labor Day, compared with 38% of nonunion members. Seventy-nine percent (79%) of union members enjoy access to paid vacation, compared with 68% of nonunion members. Finally, 75% of union members have access to paid sick leave, compared with only 64% of nonunion members.
Memory is an evanescent thing. How we who enjoy holiday weekends arrived here is the stuff of misty legend which, if forgotten, leaves us at risk of confirming Santayana's lesson about repeating history.

Slate's Matthew Dessem recalls the Lattimer Massacre from the early days of union organizing:
On Sept. 10, 1897, Luzerne County Sheriff James F. Martin and an armed posse of as many as 150 men opened fire on a group of striking Slavic and German mine workers in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, killing 19 and injuring between 17 and 49 more. The strikers were unarmed, and many were shot in the back as they fled. Even in 1897, police had already figured out how to use racism to get away with murder: In a statement to the Washington Post explaining what happened, Sheriff Martin used the word “foreigners” five times—“infuriated foreigners” twice!—and portrayed the unarmed men as bestial and impervious to reason.
And, aw shucks, Martin hated giving that order, but the foreigners just forced his hand, "[T]he strikers were violating the laws of the Commonwealth, and flatly refused to obey the proclamation that I read to them. They instead insisted on doing violence and disobeying the laws."

That a majority were shot in the back as they fled came up in the trial in which the sheriff and his officers were acquitted.

Today things are different. A white nurse, for example -- Alex Wubbels, in particular -- might simply be arrested, manhandled, handcuffed, then released for not complying with a police order (an illegal one, in this case.) But it is not clear in this moment whether America is moving away from or back towards the days of Lattimer. Nevertheless, nurses unions stand with Wubbels. As well as the American Civil Liberties Union, a union of a different kind.

That workers are an afterthought in this economy is a point Betsy Rader makes in the Washington Post. Rader is an employment lawyer running for Congress as a Democrat in Ohio's 14th District. She takes to task fellow Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance for his "Hillbilly Elegy" published last year. She too grew up poor, in a family of five living on $6,000 a year. But she takes away a different lesson than Vance who sees the working poor as reaping the rewards of their own bad choices and profligacy. "We spend our way into the poorhouse.... Thrift is inimical to our being," he writes.

Rader responds angrily:
Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? Vance’s statements don’t describe the family in which I grew up, and they don’t describe the families I meet who are struggling to make it in America today. I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores.

Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being.

With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.
Most poor people work, she writes. Most people on Medicaid work. They work in jobs "that don't pay them enough to live on." Rader acknowledges the help she got in rising out of poverty. From the public school guidance counselor, from government loans, etc. More of that is needed but not forthcoming. The president's promises are just that.

This Labor Day weekend, Washington's pooh-bahs are fixated on giving tax cuts to wealthy patrons, the kind that 100 years ago enlisted law enforcement to crack down on workers who demanded better wages and working conditions. Their biggest concern is not helping struggling American workers, but that the sitting president won't last long enough in office to deliver their wish list.

Rader's only mistake her is in her framing. Jobs don't pay too little. Employers pay too little.

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