Friday, April 18, 2008

May Day, Labor, & the First Red Scare

Introduction: Crisis and Collective Amnesia

At the opening of the 20th century, muckraking writer Upton Sinclair weighed in on the millennial debate of his day with a play that predicted worldwide devastation. The premise was that a radioactive element caused a deadly explosion on New Year's Eve 2000, killing everyone who wasn’t in an airplane.

Called The Millennium, Sinclair’s futuristic political fantasy followed the attempts of a handful of survivors to create a new society. Oddly enough, the long-lost script, written in 1908 (though never performed publicly) and later turned into a novel, was essentially a light-hearted comedy, one in which utopia prevails and most of the characters live happily ever after.

Looking at the actual state of the world a century later, it’s hard to be as upbeat as Sinclair: A disastrous “war on terror,” ecological meltdown, genocide, not to mention rampant human rights abuses, climate change, drought, desertification, and overpopulation. As ethnic and religious upheavals shake the world, the planet itself shudders under the threat of an environmental Armageddon.

Despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric of most political leaders, the US leads the industrialized world in the gap between the rich and poor, and gulf is growing. In fact, income is more unevenly distributed than at any time since the start of World War II. According to the IRS, the top 1 percent currently receive significantly more income than the bottom 50 percent. Globally, the World Institute for Development Economics Research reports that the richest 1 percent own 40 percent of the world’s total assets; the richest 10 percent account for 85 percent. The bottom half own only one percent of global wealth.

Meanwhile, automation and corporate globalization threaten massive displacement while major corporations develop new schemes to restrict the rights of workers. In the 1950s, unions won almost three-quarters of all representation drives. By 2000, they were winning less than half. In 1978, over 25 percent of all employees were in unions. Two decades later, the figure was 15 percent, and lower in many states. Suburban growth and "deindustrialization" have eroded the movement's traditional base. Along with the expansion of non-union industries, intensified international competition, and increased capital mobility, such changes seriously undermine the traditional image of organized labor as the central vehicle to press for improved living standards, increase leisure time, and counter exploitation.

In reality, labor’s fall from grace is a case of collective amnesia, brought on by the cultural emphasis of consumerism and individual achievement over participation and cooperation. Unions are widely portrayed today as just another special interest group, one routinely defamed in popular media as corrupt, selfish, or both. TV shows like The Sopranos reflect the general view: Perhaps a noble experiment once upon a time, organized labor has become a captive of "the mob" and is often betrayed by its own leaders. Yet the true, largely ignored history of the labor movement tells a very different story: a long and dedicated effort, despite often ruthless opposition, to shorten working hours, obtain a living wage, abolish child labor, eliminate unemployment, and win reforms like Social Security, equal rights, and medical care for all.

The first labor societies in the US, which were persecuted as illegal conspiracies, fought for minimum daily wages and a ten-hour day. How dare they, screeched the powers-that-were. Still, labor's early proposals, things like free public schools and elimination of imprisonment for debt, became law before the Civil War. As the industrial revolution took hold, however, management fought back. Spies and provocateurs were hired, detective agencies were used to break up strikes, workers were forced to sign oaths swearing they wouldn't join a union, and blacklists were created to keep potential organizers out of workplaces. In 1848, when Irish immigrant workers in Vermont went on strike for two months' back pay, the militia was called out to help management crush the protest. Railroad magnate Jay Gould expressed the cynicism of that time: "I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half."

Toward the end of the 19th century, the conflict between business and labor came to a head over the campaign for an eight-hour day. As one of the movement's martyrs, Albert Parsons, told a congressional committee investigating the "labor question" in 1879, "We want to reduce the worst disability of poverty by reducing the hours of labor; by the distributing of work that is to be done more equally among the workingmen, and consequently reducing competition for the opportunity to work."

NEXT: 1886 -- Labor Showdown in Chicago

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