Opinions,discussions and common ground on the Democracy of the United States and Macon County "Democracy is the cause of Humanity."--John L. O'Sullivan

Friday, April 29, 2005

Which Side Are You On?

An ongoing discussion on Matt Jackson's excellent blog about the current state and utility of unions in Decatur and the nation brings up some interesting points. A number of fair-minded, well-intentioned posters appear to feel that, to some degree, organized labor is responsible for its own current predicament. One even says there needs to be more of an effort to reach a "middle ground" between management and labor, the implication--perhaps wrongly interpreted--being that labor has the most distance to travel. None of this is particularly surprising in this day and age, especially in the light of a persistent anti-union bias in the media that has run unchecked for several decades.

However, I would encourage my friends who might share the sentiments described above to consider a few things. First, you cannot understand the present without a basic awareness of the past. Until recently, it was possible to say without fear of contradiction that no country has a bloodier history of labor-management relations than the United States of America. Sadly, it seems that some Central American nations are trying to catch up by murdering one union activist at a time. The history of American workers' struggles is drenched in blood--mostly that of the workers and their families. Disgracefully, labor history is rarely, if ever, taught in our public schools so names like Ludlow, Homestead, Virden, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Haymarket and too many others mean nothing to most Americans. Or the place in Michigan where employer gun thugs set afire a school building containing the wives and children of striking workers. And, as I told my Millikin students, everything you saw the Baldwin-Felts "detectives" do in the movie, "Matewan," actually happened though perhaps not in the exact sequence portrayed by John Sayles.

Okay, so that's ancient history. Corporations no longer employ gun thugs, though 20 years ago ADM had a rather bad experience with the goons it employed through Wackenhut Security. Today, corporations have found more effective, less messy ways to deal with people who want to stand up for their rights. The new hired thugs wear pin-striped suits and carry briefcases and have clean fingernails and degrees from the best universities and are "professionals." Of course, they are lawyers and they can as effectively stifle workers' rights with briefs and delays as did, for a time, the fists and blackjacks of Henry Ford's enforcers.

But, you say, today's employers are more enlightened and would never do anything to keep workers who really wanted a union from having the opportunity to vote one up or down. Well, for starters, the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees such elections, is basically stacked against workers and has been since the early 1980s with the brief exception of some years during the Clinton Presidency. It is the NLRB which investigates unfair labor practices and recommends penalties. Of course, this can take a long time, a very long time and often the union is as dead as the compassion department in Lee Enterprises by the time the case is adjudicated. And as for individual workers, how many of them--or you, for that matter--can afford to be without a job, paying bills on the promise of a NLRB decision that may or may not materialize?

Want an example? Well, you don't even have to leave Decatur to find one of the best. A few years ago, the women who care for developmentally disabled adults at Macon Resources, Inc.--a supposedly enlightened, benevolent social service agency supported to a large degree by state funding through our Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White--expressed interest in forming an AFSMCE local. In response, Macon Resources took a hard line, one that would have warmed the heart of West Virginia's old Tom Felts of Felts-Baldwin, and fired the leading organizers. For the most part, these were women who were making minimum or barely above wages. They had no safety net of savings or accumulated wealth to fall back on. Their education levels were not high and they had no job skills that would allow them to move into higher paying jobs. Macon Resources knew exactly what it was doing and knew--correctly--that the move would intimidate, no, terrorize, the remaining workers. And even if they eventually lost one or more of the cases before the NLRB, it would be a small price to pay for keeping the dreaded union out. This whole sad story was actually covered pretty accurately in the Decatur Herald & Review. Today, there is no union at Macon Resources.

Other so-called enlightened employers, notably the University of Illinois, have gone to great lengths to keep its employees from forming unions.

As to those folks at CAT and other places fortunate enough to have good unions and good wages and good benefits, why should they be blamed for the current state of the global marketplace? Is it the fault of those workers that we sign and ratify trade agreements with nations that pay workers by the cents per hour and sanction, if not initiate, violence against those who stand up for their rights? Are unionized workers the ones making decisions that devastate communities by taking all sorts of tax breaks and then pulling out? For more, see Galesburg. Are unionized workers the ones who rend the fabric of community life by putting employees on 12-hour rotating shifts that leave no time for community activities and, as studies have shown, lead to health problems and reduction in life span?

The list could go on and on. The point is corporations and governments are far, far to the right. Anyone who thinks these entities have the needs, hopes and dreams of working people on their agendas is living in a fool's paradise. Are there union leaders who are out of touch, maybe even corrupt? Probably. Should we condemn ourselves and our children to a work environment more suitable to the late 19th Century in order to "cleanse" labor of these problems? You answer.

The simple facts are these: workers, especially those in the tough jobs that society needs but doesn't want to do, need unions more than ever; workers in better-paying jobs, yes, even jobs demanding high levels of education or skill, need unions more than ever because callousness and greed are the same today as they were in 1910 even if the purveyors try to pass themselves off as good, progressive-minded people; and workers in foreign lands who are being exploited and even killed need unions now more than ever if they are to rise out of the misery and poverty that has afflicted their lands too long.

As the Harlan County coal miner's wife wrote 70 years ago after company gun thugs pulled her husband from their home and beat him to a pulp in the sight of his family:


Bob Sampson

Workers Memorial Day

Once again, the folks who organize the annual Workers Memorial Day ceremony did an outstanding job. The brief gathering was eloquent and moving. Mayor Paul Osborne, in my opinion, took the laurels for an emotional rememberance of his father's sacrifice over principle. "Don't forget where you came from" was the theme of that message. Paul Kendall, who organized the first of the Decatur observances back in the day (as my young teammates on the Ground Squirrels say) when it was held in Central Park, was on hand to provide a living link with the past. Afterwards, I was chatting with Mike Shampine and we recalled the utter disdain with which labor reps were greeted when they approached the City Council about putting the Memorial in Central Park. The project languished for many years until the County Board under Rob Owen made available the present space on the west side of the courthouse. That night before the City Council when a number of council members previously thought to be friendly to labor refused to even entertain the idea of putting a memorial to working people in Central Park was an eye-opening experience for many, including me. But things have a way of working out. We agreed last night that the courthouse location is actually better.

Teaching labor history this semester at Millikin University, I am reminded--usually twice each week--of the difficulty in making the young generation aware of the sacrifices of those who came before. Most, fortunately, have no experiences with unsafe workplaces or poverty or child labor or gun thugs and company goons. I try to break through their obliviousness with pictures and eyewitness accounts. I read at length from a reporter's account of watching people leap to their deaths from the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire that Saturday in 1910 New York City. "Thud-dead. Thud-dead." That's how he described the sound he heard more than 60 times that day. Did it do any good, I mean with today's students? I suppose if just one of the 21 in the class retains some awareness of that event and how similar situations exist all over the world--including in the United States--today, I will have succeeded.

As many speakers touched on yesterday, echoing Mother Jones, we must mourn the dead but fight like hell for the living. Special thanks, too, to Mike Wakeland for remembering two of our own fallen heroes--Father Martin Mangan and Senator Penny Severns--in his closing prayer.

Thanks for listening.