Thursday, June 28, 2018

This is nothing new...

Pinkertons escort strike-breakers in Ohio
     For nearly the entire first century of the American labor movement, workers organizing to improve their lives have been met with clubs and guns, wielded by compliant police forces and hired Pinkerton guards. Later, attempts to unionize lead to lock-outs and mass firings. Union ranks were peppered with spies, informants and saboteurs. Picket lines were ignored or set upon. It has never been easy.
     To this long history of repression add the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday in Janus v. AFSCME, ruling that nonunion workers can't be required to pay fees to public sector unions. The case stems from Mark Janus, an employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, suing because he felt that his $45 a month union dues violated his right to free speech.  One would think that a case worker would have more pressing things to worry about, but there you are.
    This ruling, allowing free riders to enjoy the concessions won from management but not contribute to the organization that wins them, is considered a devastating blow to the labor movement.
    But unions have suffered devastating blows before.
    The Knights of Labor had grown to 40,000 members when it struck for an eight hour day in May, 1886, then lost 75 percent of its membership in the next year, as business owners retaliated and clamped down. 
    Unions still went on to win that eight hour day, the five day week. Sick pay. Child labor ended. Safety regulations put in place, business owners complaining all the while that permitting workers to enjoy healthful lives and decent salaries would be the ruin of them. Donald Trump didn't invent lying.
    No union success was ever achieved without suffering a setback, a counterstroke, retribution and intrigue and betrayal. Every step forward met with a push back.
    Not every setback was from the outside, either. Unions, like all organizations involving fallible humans beings, were hobbled by internal division, corruption, extremism and racism. No account of the obstacles they face would be complete without mentioning them. Sometimes unions played in the hands of their enemies, making it easier for them. Nor have these problems gone away.
    Chicago had a key role both in the origins of labor and in its suppression. Fort Sheridan, remember, was purchased by the Commercial Club in 1887 and donated to the Federal government for the specific purpose of putting a U.S. Army garrison there, to be available to squash union activity in the city. 
    And indeed the troops were put in place and used, once, to suppress the Pullman Strike of 1894. Soldiers got the trains running again.
    This court ruling, coupled with the shameful endorsement of Trump's Muslim ban the day before, is a vindication of the hardball tactics that denied Barack Obama the chance to name Merrick Garland, and instead allowed Donald Trump to install Neil Gorsuch. That, combined with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote, who contributed to past erosions of American liberty, make for a black week, when the true enormity of the Trump disaster began to manifest itself. A man of bottomless pettiness, who hours earlier was attacking a talk show host and a Virginia restaurant, could be the most significant president in 75 years.
    Before Trump could almost be funny, with his wild insults and accusations.
    Now, not so funny anymore. 
   Before, at times it felt like they were winning.
   Now, it feels a little like they've won. 
   Let that feeling settle, for a moment. Let it register. Then shake it off.
   Because these setbacks are also a fire bell in the night to those Democrats still fretting over public comity and how nice they should be. Whether they can attempt the tactics that have worked so well for so long for Republicans. This is smoke in the air. There is no room for indecision anymore. This is disaster that must be battled. The Right is coming to burn up your freedom your livelihood, everything. No one can pretend to be confused or uncertain any more.
    That is the bad news. The good news is the union faithful, the American patriots, have suffered worse defeats. Bruised, battered, humiliated, they never gave up. Neither can we. The battle isn't over. It has just begun in earnest.


  1. Thank you.
    If you still have a copy of my book (probably long ago discarded) there is a chapter - Hope and Grandad - that is a recounting of my afternoon with a retired steel worker. He says what You say here, in his own way, and that conversation framed my Union support to this day.
    U.S.W.A. Local 65 (U.S. Steel South Works).

  2. Well put, Neil, as usual. This Trump nightmare keeps getting worse with each passing day. Ugh.

  3. If you haven't registered to vote for the mid-terms then do so now. Until we go into the full banana republic mode, we fight our battles using ballots instead of bullets and join the protests that will be held this Saturday throughout the nation.

  4. Well said Neil. November becomes more important every day.

  5. Nothing new. At least until the 1935 Wagner Act gave some legislative protection to union activities, the courts sided with managers. A primary tool used for strike breaking was the labor injunction, usually grounded in the argument that a strike was an action in restraint of trade.

    The relatively new prominence of public employee unions has introduced a somewhat different dynamic.



    1. I was still in junior high when I watched an NBC documentary called "Life in the Thirties" and learned about the Wagner Act, and the labor struggles of that era. It was a kind of civil war: Resistance by management against the rising tide of organizing, defiance of court injunctions by labor, violence against strikebreakers by pickets, and against strikers by company guards and police (including ten strikers and sympathizers killed outside the gates of Republic Steel on the Southeast Side, seven of whom were shot in the back).

      I became fascinated with American labor history. Fortunately, I grew up in a suburb with one of the best libraries in the state. I quickly learned that the U.S. has had the most violent labor history of any industrialized nation in the world. All of the gains American workers have realized over the last 150 years have been bought and paid for at an extremely high price: the blood spilled by countless thousands, and hundreds of deaths.

      The railroad strikes of 1877 and 1894 resulted in scores killed, state and Federal troops deployed, and millions of dollars worth of railroad property destroyed. The Knights of Labor not only lost most of its membership after persons unknown killed Chicago cops with a bomb thrown during a rally at Haymarket Square in 1886, but were also labeled as anarchists. Most of the first half of the 20th century saw pitched battles during strikes in major industries--steel, coal, textiles, transportation, garment and automobile manufacturing, and food processing.

      Only with the assistance of the FDR administration, and the outbreak of World War II, did unions realize most of their objectives. Now, 75 years after FDR, we are enduring his polar opposite, the man who could be one of the most historic presidents in our history for all the wrong reasons. Maybe the last elected president, or the last president, period. In normal times, such statements would probably get me laughed out of town But, as the last three years have sadly proven, we are no longer living in normal times.

  6. And of course, McConnell is rushing to get a replacement for Kennedy installed ahead of the November elections, because a midterm election isn't the same as a presidential election. Or something.

    There is simply no shame or limit to the hypocrity of these people.

  7. The wealthy don't know it yet, but when blood starts flowing through the streets, it's going to come right to their doorsteps.

  8. The great grandson of a Columbian Expo contractor would supported the 8 hour workday is silently applauding your post as he types this. Unfortunately many union men are bigots and haters and surely voted for the deplorable troll who has come out from under his bridge and is poised to undo the good works of the Boomer generation. Many 60s activists have sold out for the money, they got theirs and so what if the schools are underfunded, their children are graduated. The country that proudly quoted Nathan Hale and Patrick Henry now stands mute while cowards like Trump and Mitch McConnell insult us with brazen lies. I am not sure how much more of this Make America Great Again we can take.

  9. I'm glad the Dem leaders are saying there will be no judicial hearings until the FBI investigation is settled.


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