Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and compadres, I hope you had a happy Labor Day. The Democratic Party/progressive heritage in my family extends to me from my grandparents, blue collar labor on one side, and educators on the other. As such, Labor Day and the history of the labor movement has grown to become deeply significant to me.
This year, as we honored workers, I began to wonder at how controversial the idea of paying a living wage has become. After all, even that great criminal Richard Nixon advocated a a guaranteed minimum income.
But modern Republicans get downright apoplectic when you talk about the idea of all working Americans earning a living wage. They go into a rave, rambling about “skills” and what incomes are “meant” for whom, “initiative,” and “laziness.”
What boggles the mind is that many reactionaries aren’t happy just going after the non-working poor, whom they delight in demonizing in every way imaginable. Many behave as though they want to throw the working poor under their party bus just as well.
Modern conservatives are not satisfied with wanting to get rid of unemployment insurance, Social Security disability, and welfare. They seem to want to eliminate from the table of discussion any socio-economic recourse for America’s working poor, including food stamps, health benefits, public pensions, any increase in the minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, union dues, and really, unions altogether.
This is classism and elitism at it’s most repugnant. The callousness of their punching down never seems to enter their minds, and never leaves my own.
They seem to affect surprise when you inform them that most of the “moochers” receiving food stamps, for instance, do work. In fact, they often work two or three jobs and still have to decide between buying groceries and paying the electricity bill, and are in danger of bankruptcy if the slightest crisis occurs in their lives, such as a broken car or a child’s broken arm. And although they affect surprise, they don’t change their minds. They dig in.
So, as we honored Labor Day on Monday, I took to the social medias to share a bit of the history of the labor movement in America. It was meant to be a stark reminder of the blood spilt, the lives lost, and the terrible suffering of so many striving to obtain these basic rights for workers that modern conservatives would just as soon recklessly relegate to the dustbin of history.
One of the more well-received quotes I used came from folk singer and labor activist Utah Phillips:
“Kids don’t have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don’t have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that. That’s why I sing these songs. That’s why I tell these stories, dammit. No root, no fruit!”
I also shared the story of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when the United Mine Workers of America went on strike in Colorado, and on April 20, 1914, workers and their families were attacked by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards.
Two dozen people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed. All told, the strike and John D. Rockefeller’s retaliation led to the loss of between 69 and 199 lives. Public outcry after the massacre is credited as a primary contributor to anti-child labor laws and the 8-hour workday.
And I shared the story of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who, in 1903, organized children, who were working in mills and mines at the time, to participate in the “Children’s Crusade,” a march from Kensington, Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding “We want to go to School and not the mines!”
I quoted César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mark Twain, John L. Lewis, and Abraham Lincoln. (Let us pause to note what big, swinging, brass ones it takes for modern Republicans to call themselves the party of Lincoln).
I related how Labor Day came to be a national holiday, when, in the summer of 1894, Eugene V. Debs organized the American Railway Union’s strike against the Pullman Company. U.S. President Grover Cleveland obtained an injunction against the striking workers and ordered the U.S. Army in to enforce it, killing 13 people in the process. In an effort to assuage bad feelings after these events, Cleveland declared Labor Day a federal holiday.
These facts made nary an impact on the conservatives happily munching burgers and hotdogs at picnics on their day off.
Responding to my insistence for living wages for all American workers, I was greeted with the same old bunkum:
“The minimum wage is meant for high school kids and college kids, not adults.”
“Minimum skills earn minimum wages. If you want higher wages you have to develop better skills.”
“This is class warfare. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. Taking money from the makers and giving it to the takers.”
Obviously, these quotes aren’t direct, just my approximation of the arguments against me, with which we are all familiar, ad nauseam.
On the first point, nearly 50 percent of those making minimum wage are over 24, despite whoever it’s “meant” for, and 15 million Americans make between $7.25 and $10, which does not make for a living wage either, except at the high end, but barely.
One solution would be to make it so part-time young workers make less and full-time household earners make a minimum of $10. But we all know the big companies would reject social responsibility in favor of the bottom line and just reduce hours to part-time to avoid paying workers more.
As for the second point, regarding skills, we have moved from a living-wage manufacturing economy to an unlivable-wage service economy. Service work may not be highly skilled work, but it is still certainly damn hard work and our country’s GDP is larger than ever, our country is richer than ever, our companies are making more profits than ever, workers are more productive than ever, but our income inequality is also now almost greater than ever, constituting a second Gilded Age.
I maintain, when we put money into the hands of people who will be compelled to spend it, we gain consumers, businesses get to do more business with more people, they can pay their employees more, the middle class grows, the mean standard of living goes up, and the country thrives.
And finally, as far as makers versus takers, I’ll hasten to note that taxpayers subsidize Walmart, America’s largest retail chain, to the tune of $6.8 billion per year in social safety net benefits because the richest family in the world—the Waltons—refuses to let their employees unionize and refuses to pay them a living wage. The heat from that fact has prompted Walmart this year to begin raising its wages.
Makers and takers? Child, please. Corporate welfare is a pillar of the American system. MLK said it best, “This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”
What to do?
Asking companies to please play nice and think of the good of the community just won’t work. We need to restore power to the people. We need to rescue the Republic from Citizens United legalized bribery, and elect representatives that will put the laws in place to hold Big Banks, Big Corporate, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tech, and Big Media to account for their social responsibility, for the privilege of operating in our society—our commonwealth—and for the duty of paying their fair share back as investment into our collective community.
We need to encourage social mobility, especially for the working poor. History shows us that the only way to get that is for workers to demand it. We need to continue the great tradition of community action, organization, unionization, and agitation on behalf of the American worker. We must recognize that the battle never ends; it was raging long before we were born and will continue long after we’ve left.
So I’ll go much further than raising the minimum wage and sound the call for guaranteed minimum incomes for all full-time working Americans, starting at $20,000 per year with regular raises indexed to inflation.
Finally, we need to promote that one great force that has proven through the history of civilization as the most effective tool against poverty in every culture on bright, blue Earth: The Empowerment of Women.
This all goes to our very nature as to what we want as a society. Another quote I shared on Labor Day seemed to strike a chord with many, and I think it’s because of the basic humanity in it. The quote comes from American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, and I think it speaks to the best of our ambitions, not just as advocates for labor, but as human beings, as a community. I’ll let Gompers have the last word.
“What does labor want?” Gompers considered. “We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.