Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day Tip of the Hat, Wage of the Finger

Do you remember this man?  If not, you
might need a refresher on the history of
labor unions & their influence world wide

With all-due-respect hats’ off to all of us in our many and varied labors, rich and poor alike, this day is reserved to remember and acknowledge the contributions organized labor (that’s right: unions) has made to the betterment of our lives.

And the contribution is not insignificant.

Before you chastize me or suspect my leftist leanings, you should perhaps know that I was not raised to appreciate labor unions much.  And growing up in West Virginia, that was no small feat on my parents’ part, I can assure you.

But here’s the thing: I take the challenges and concerns as a given – that unions can and have often become the very thing they opposed – wealthy and autocratic; that violence often accompanied their efforts (but never forget the violence of starvation and captive labor that began the ‘wars’); and that paying union-negotiated wages and benefits is costly (of course, I think it should be – why on earth would I think that I am somehow ‘entitled’ to purchase cheap goods as a virtual constitutional right without questioning on whose back I stand while I wave my Wal-Mart bargain-basement priced newest gadget?).

So, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, here is my Tip of the Hat, Wage of the Finger list for this Labor Day:

Tip of My Hat

1. Weekends, paid holidays, paid vacations, pensions, and group health insurance, are but a few of the things that up until now, workers both union and non-union in the United States could largely take for granted.  It didn’t happen without a struggle.  And it didn’t happen without organized labor.

2. Labor unions, yes, labor unions, had far more to do with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc than did anything Ronald Regan ever said or did.  Remember the Gdansk Shipyard strike in Poland in 1980, led by Lech Walesa, co-founder of the Solidarity labor union and Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1981?  Oh, and Mr. Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.  And he was elected President of Poland in 1990.

3. Women in the work place.  We’ve always been there.  That’s right – always.  We just weren’t noticed much down on all fours scrubbing as the fellows walked by.  Or hidden away from view in the sweat shop sewing rooms.  Securing a place for women in the work place included the securing of a safe work place.  In the late 1990's, I visited just across the border in Mexico.  It was a NAFTA tour of sorts, wherein lawyers were shown the effects of so-called free trade on those on the receiving end.  On one of the factories was a sign asking for workers, which specified that the company sought only girls between the ages of 14 and 20.  When I asked our guide the reason, he said there were two: (1) the work required needed small fingers; and more importantly, (2) girls would not organize and would simply do as they were told.  Absent protections from some source, free trade is just another word for exploitation.

4. End of child labor.  As early as 1836, trade unions in the United States proposed laws to establish a minimum age for factory work.  Wikipedia

5. Workplace safety.  Consider one particular example: the fact that buildings in which you do your business today have fire exits and building codes that enforce safety from fire is directly due to the efforts of the ILGWU (the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, in which more than 100 workers died (largely due to locked fire exits.  That’s right: the exit doors were locked.)

Wage of the Finger

I learned an axiom in seminary: The oppressed becomes the oppressor, referring to our tendency when moving out of oppression to reenact the very abuses once levied against us.  Perhaps this is understandable the same way child abuse is replayed across generations: we do that which we have been taught to do.

In biblical terms, the ‘wage’ of sin (meaning its consequence) is death.  Perhaps the ‘wage’ of oppression is more oppression.  Thus do the imprisoned levy the same abuse upon their former guards once freed and revolutionaries reenact the very abuses that led to revolution in the first place.

It is tempting to say ‘thus it has ever been, thus it will ever be.’  Perhaps.

Organized labor in the United States has succumbed all too often to the very sins they decry.  In my own native West Virginia, the conflicts between management and labor in the mines were, quite rightly, termed the mine wars, for that is what they were.  Meeting violence with violence in the heat of ‘battle’ is one thing.  But the violence didn’t stop there.  It seldom does.

Just as troubling has been the historical tendency for union leadership to more closely resemble the corporate ‘fat cats’ than their own rank and file.  Too many, seduced by wealth and power, have forgotten whose interests they represent.

All of this, however, does not, in my view, argue for the elimination of organized labor.

Years ago, I asked my uncle, who spent his working life in Central and South America working for North American corporate interests there, what the solution was to the exploitation, poverty, and general unrest there.  Much to my surprise, his response was as clear as it was terse: “Labor unions.  Genuine international non-aligned (meaning not controlled by the governments) labor unions.”

He was in a much better position to know than I.

No comments:

Post a Comment