Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor's Story

“No good thing has been or can be enjoyed by us without having first cost labour. And inasmuch as most good things are produced by labour, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened, in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have without labour enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong and should not continue. To secure to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any good government.”

-----Abraham Lincoln

“Under the leadership of their trade unions and political organizations, the American workers through struggle secured higher wages, shorter working days, better conditions, numerous democratic reforms and an improved status in the community commensurate with their importance to society.”

----Philip S. Foner, “History of the Labor Movement in the United States,” Vol. 1

by Michael K. Smith

On this Labor Day, with workers trampled upon and forgotten as usual, it might do us some good to remember that virtually everything that makes life pleasurable originally came from organized labor. In the beginning, of course, there was no unemployment insurance, which is currently sparing us the massive upheaval characteristic of depressions and recessions in the past. In the colonial era, for example, workers were often unable to keep their children from starving and themselves out of jail.

This is not, as our corporate media encourages us to suppose, because poverty is akin to a natural disaster whose devastation can only be stoically endured. Under capitalism disaster is characteristic of the business cycle, and very profitable, with employers typically extracting profit from labor by keeping wages as low as possible.

And this is not because employers claim a right to exploit workers, quite the contrary. They claim the right to benefit workers - by routinely reducing them to desperation.

In the colonial era employers argued that depressed wages were necessary “to save the American Workingman from himself.” As a U.S. employer explained in 1769, if not required to continually labor, workers only cause problems: “It is certain that high wages more frequently make labouring people miserable; they too commonly employ their spare time and cash, in debauching their morals and ruining their health.” In short, poverty forces workers into indentured servitude and keeps them out of trouble.

A decent standard of living was never on offer from corporate America. It took several centuries of bitter struggle for American workers to win decent wages and ample leisure, a victory that is now being reversed due to the almost complete disappearance of organized labor. The bankers who stole trillions of dollars in public money are not shedding a tear.

Another labor victory was the expansion of democracy. Although the current state of the two candidate-producing organizations that masquerade as independent political parties (Democrat and Republican) might tempt one to suppose otherwise, labor's expansion of the franchise to all adult male workers was a major step forward that made full public participation in political life at least theoretically possible.

In the 18th century, property qualifications for voting had disenfranchised the poor. Workers were denied the vote, taxed to support an established church, robbed of the chance to buy land by speculators and landed gentry holding vast estates, imprisoned for debt, and forced to wear “common” clothes to distinguish them from the rich. Back then, workers did not consider it a waste of time to vote, as many people do today. In fact, riots often broke out on election days when small shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers marched to the polls armed with sticks and stones to demand the ballot.

We would do well to surrender our cynicism and remember why employers were so afraid of workers getting the vote. The reason had been made plain at least as early as 1646, when Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against Virginia's planter aristocracy. The report of the King’s investigators expressed shock at the workers’ talk of “sharing men’s estates among themselves.” When revolution came in the following century, James Madison and the Federalists made sure that constitutional oligarchy won out over the "leveling" tendencies of popular democracy. It was essential that “the mob, “the mixed rabble of Scotch, Irish, and foreign vagabonds,” “descendants of convicts,” “foul-mouthed and inflaming sons of discord and faction," as workers were then called by their "betters", be kept cowed and subordinated.

In those years, of course, children formed a major part of the working class. In 1820 half of textile factory workers were boys and girls nine and ten years old. The work day was from sunup to sundown, which meant 14-16 hours of labor in summer (with two hours or less off for meals), and 9 to 12 hours in winter. Since pay was by the day, employers assigned more work in the late spring, when days were longer.

Trade unions emerged from the workers’ recognition that it was just as important to prevent employers from forcing them into a position of dependence as it was to cooperate after they had been plunged into distress.

Workers also understood that no union worthy of the name could do without the closed shop. (The closed shop goes back to 1794 when Philadelphia shoemakers compelled employers to hire only union members.) Employers often busted contracts by bringing in non-union workers at less than agreed upon pay rates, a practice that quickly resulted in union members’ pay being reduced to the level of the non-union workers. Once forced to compete against non-union workers who were entitled to all of the benefits the union had won through solidarity, without having to continue practicing it, no union lasted.

Unions were defined as a conspiracy against the public and denied a social role from the beginning of the U.S, when a mercantile and financial aristocracy took over the fledgling republic. Thomas Jefferson returned from his mission to France in 1789, appalled to discover that wealthy merchants and speculators were dominating the country. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists regarded democracy as “government of the worst,” and were openly working to establish a monarchy. Former president of the Continental Congress John Jay summed up the attitude of the Federalists, stating his conviction that, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”

Workers had no institutions they could turn to for help. The supposedly non-partisan courts were their bitter enemies. Judges consistently supported employer efforts to force down wages and blacklist workers who resisted. Stephen Simpson, a labor leader, aptly summed up labor's plight in the Working Man’s Manual in 1831: “If mechanics combine to raise their wages, the laws punish them as conspirators against the good of society, and the dungeon awaits them as it does the robber. But the laws have made it a just and meritorious act, that capitalists shall combine to strip the man of labour of his earnings, and reduce him to a dry crust, and a gourd of water. Thus does power invert justice, and derange the order of nature.”

Daily forced to toil past exhaustion, workers naturally yearned to give the gift of education to their children. In the wake of the American Revolution popular associations called Democratic Societies sprang up to promote popular learning. By means of Correspondence Committees the Societies put popular education on the national agenda. The founding of the public school system was a direct result of the work of these societies, in which American workers played a prominent role. As the Democratic Society in Philadelphia said: “The establishment of public schools upon proper principles will insure the future of independence and republicanism.”

In the 1790s, the mechanics and laborers of the Democratic Societies demanded public education. But workers’ children continued to grow up ignorant. Few schools for workers’ children existed, and few children could attend them. Workers did not consider this outcome accidental, and demanded education not as “a grace and bounty or charity,” but as “a matter of right and duty.” According to one labor group, education was needed “to enable us to raise us from that state of ignorance and poverty, and consequently of vice and wretchedness and woe, to which we have been degraded by the subtle and deceitful machinations of the crafty and wicked.”

The struggle for popular education consumed many decades. In 1858 the Workingmen’s Union of Trenton, New Jersey demanded that all revenues derived from chartered corporations, “as they are the price of special privilege and belong to the people,” should be appropriated to the support of the common schools in the state, and “as education is a primary want of a free people, these schools should be extended until knowledge shall be as free as the air we breathe.” There's still a long way to go to fulfill this goal, but let the record show that this is labor's dream, not capital's.

As for the conditions that workers endured in the early years of the republic, an “Appeal of the Working People of Manayunk to the Public,” written four years after the depression of 1829, captures them rather well:

“We are obliged by our employers to labor at this season of the year, from 5 o’clock in the morning until sunset, being fourteen hours and a half, with an intermission of half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner, leaving thirteen hours of hard labor, at an unhealthy employment, where we never feel a refreshing breeze to cool us, overheated and suffocated as we are, and where we never behold the sun but through a window, and an atmosphere thick with the dust and small particles of cotton, which we are constantly inhaling to the destruction of our health, our appetite, and strength. . . . . the little rest we receive during the night [is] not . . . sufficient to recruit our exhausted physical energies, we return to our labor in the morning, as weary as when we left it . . .our wages are barely sufficient to supply us with the necessaries of life. We cannot provide against sickness or difficulties of any kind . . . for our present wants consume the little we receive, and when we are confined to bed of sickness any length of time, we are plunged into the deepest distress, which often terminates in total ruin, poverty, and pauperism.”

Mill “hands” were often forced to buy goods at exorbitant prices in the company store, with workers remaining sunk in debt after each paycheck. Workers were paid every three or six months in most factories, and payment was made in tokens redeemable only at the company store.

A major triumph of labor was the movement to limit the length of the working day, which was considered treason when it was first proposed. The movement to limit work hours to ten per day spread like wildfire in the decade 1825-1835. The movement included leather dressers, printers, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, city workers, hod-carriers, coal heavers, painters, bakers and dry good clerks.

Workers in the 10-hour movement proclaimed leisure as a right. Said a group of journeymen of house carpenters in Nashville in 1847: “We are flesh and blood, we need hours of recreation. It is estimated by political economists that five hours labor per day by each individual would be sufficient for the support of the human race. Surely then we do our share when we labor ten. We have social feelings which must be gratified. We have minds and they must be improved. We are lovers of our country and must have time and opportunity to study its interests. Shall we live and die knowing nothing but the rudiments of our trade? Would the community of which we are members suffer loss because we are enlightened?”

Thanks to organized labor the working day has been drastically reduced for the great majority from the 14-15 hours a day it used to be. In 1883, most New England textile workers had an average working day of a bit over 10 hours. Bakers worked from 80 to 120 hours a week. Organized cigar makers, 55 to 60 hours a week; unorganized cigar makers, 66 to 90 hours a week (a 16-hour day was not unusual). Transportation workers in most urban areas worked between 90 and 100 hours a week.

In the face of all the aforementioned achievements, employers denounced the “moral gangrene of trade union principles,” and characterized organized labor as fundamentally “un-American.” Thankfully, workers continued pushing their "unpatriotic" agenda: a free labor press, libraries, reading rooms, discussion forums.

In spite of much propaganda to the contrary, workers did not attempt to deny anyone the right to accumulate property through hard work and frugality. What they opposed was the granting of special privileges to a few that enabled them to monopolize property and capital, to the detriment of the great majority.

This is an obviously relevant lesson for today.


-----Philip S. Foner, “History of the Labor Movement in the United States,” Vol. 1

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