Labor Pains

Once a year, I and a few dozen other reporters and columnists write a Labor Day story. And, like most Americans we don’t remember our history.

We don’t remember that the Knights of Labor created the first Labor Day in 1882 and that Congress made it a national holiday in 1894.

Almost none of us will write about the personalities of the labor movement. About Mother Jones (1830-1930), the militant “angel of the coal fields” for more than six decades. About “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928) who organized the Industrial Workers of the World, a universal coalition to fight for the rights of all labor. About cigar-chomping Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), the first president of the American Federation of Labor, a job he held for 38 years.

We won’t be seeing any stories about Sidney Hillman (1887-1946) who led strikes in 1916 to reduce the workweek to 48 hours, from the standard 54–60 hours, and then helped create the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) before becoming a major political force for workers during the labor-friendly Roosevelt administration. Missing will be remembrances of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), known as the “father of grassroots political campaigns” who worked alongside Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) who used Alinsky’s tactics to organize the United Farm Workers.

Hardly any of us remember Heywood Broun (1888-1939), one of the nation’s best-paid columnists who risked his own financial stability to create The Newspaper Guild in 1935 to help those reporters making one-hundredth of his salary. Most reporters never heard about him or the history of the Guild. After all, we may believe that unions are acceptable for factory line workers, but we’re “professionals,” and mistakenly believe we don’t need unions; we’ll just continue to get assigned unpaid overtime and split shifts, while working for low wages, minimal benefits, and without a minimally-acceptable recourse for our grievances. Besides, if workers mattered, our newspapers would have a Labor page in addition to the daily Business pages.

Also missing from the news media will be stories about Eugene Debs (1855-1926), Joe Hill (1879-1915), and thousands of others who went to prison defending the rights of the workers not only to organize, but to demand better working conditions. We won’t become involved in the struggle, risk our jobs and futures. That’s someone else’s responsibility. We’ll just follow inane rules and complain privately.

We will make the effort to find a couple of current labor leaders, both of whom will say organized labor is having a tough time but is still strong and vital, the only recourse against poor working conditions and unfair labor practices. We’ll report that fewer than 13 percent of all workers are now in unions, down from a peak of 35 percent in 1954, but won’t dig into myriad ways of intimidation by Management.

We may interview the workers. An elderly man’s remembrance of his life in the coalmines or breakers, and what Black Lung did not only to his own health but to his family and friends. We might chat with an elderly woman who worked 12-hour days six days a week for $3–$4 a day in the heat and humidity of a garment factory. We may talk with a few current workers who will tell us they don’t have it great, but it could be worse and overall, on the record of course, they work hard and are pleased with their jobs. And we probably won’t be too shocked to learn that most readers seem to think that Labor Day seems not to be a remembrance of the struggles for respect, dignity, and acceptable wages and working conditions, but of self-serving political speeches, hot dogs, burgers, and a pool party.

Some of us may write about the statistics of labor that show a retreat from the robust economy of the Clinton era. It doesn’t take much research to learn that the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, is 5.5 percent higher than a year ago, the sharpest increase since the last year of the George H.W. Bush administration. Factoring in inflation and recession, even with minimal raises, the rank-and-file workers are making about 3.1 percent less than a year ago, according to the Department of Labor. We’ll quote the most recent data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that “Employment continued to fall in construction, manufacturing, and several service-providing industries, while health care and mining continued to add jobs.”

We’ll point out that unemployment in a depressed economy is now 8.8 million, an increase of 1.6 million over the past year. We’ll note that “non-farm payroll employment continued to decline” and that payroll employment is down by 463,000 since the beginning of this year.

Business euphemistically claims it is “downsizing” or “rightsizing.” The “bottom line” is improved; corporate investors are being “optimally compensated.” About 550,000 Americans were part of mass layoffs last year. Recent Department of Labor studies report that American workers are “the most productive” ever. That’s because not only are they are doing so much more to compensate for their fellow workers having been laid off, but because they live with the fear if they don’t work even harder they, too, may be laid off, or lose promotions, in an economy that is going as far south as our manufacturing plants.

We’ll report the cold statistics that among the unemployed are about 461,000 “discouraged” Americans, about 90,000 more than a year ago, who “wanted and were available for work and had looked for a job” but are not counted as unemployed because “they had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey,” according to the BLS. These Americans are not only discouraged by the labor economy, they have undoubtedly been absorbed by a long-term depression.

Meanwhile, corporate executives are taking multi-million dollar bonuses for improving the “cash flow.” Even if executive management makes a few mistakes along the way, and the “return on investment” isn’t what the Board of Directors expects, almost all CEOs and their immediate underlings have the “golden parachute” that allows a soft drop from employment, yielding termination packages that amount to millions of dollars and considerable benefits that no working class person will ever receive.

Of course, there are some industries that have gained in the past year’s plunging economy. Retail sales, which the Department of Labor reports as having the lowest average wages, is gaining workers. But, that’s because it’s just “good business sense” to hire 100 low-paid part-timers and save the cost of benefits than to hire 50 full-time clerks. About 5.7 million Americans work part-time, up from 1.4 million the previous year. This category, according to the BLS, “includes persons who indicated that they would like to work full time but were working part time because their hours had been cut back or they were unable to find jobs.”

To the 50-year-old who worked hard for one company half of his life, showed up for work on time, left on time, and tolerated the company’s banal preaching about everyone is “part of our happy family,” and then is laid off as an “economy measure,” the numbers don’t matter. To the worker who put in 20 years in one job, and then is fired for reasons that would be questionable under any circumstance, the numbers don’t matter. To the $20,000-a-year worker who is told that her raise can only be 2 percent this year because “we’re having a bad year,” but sees upper management not only get raises and more stock options, but also hire other managers, all of them making five times or more than her salary, the other numbers don’t matter.

This year, I’m writing a Labor Day column. With all the layoffs and unemployment, with the blatant anti-labor biases of the current administration and the decisions by the pro-corporate National Labor Relations Board that will linger long into the next administration, next year there may not be much American labor to write about.

* Among Dr. Brasch’s 17 books is With Just Cause, a look at the historical and social issues in American labor. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (2nd ed.), available at and other bookstores.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. HR said on September 2nd, 2008 at 6:36pm #

    It is 8:33 P.M. here in the Mountain Time Zone. This article has been up since 7:02 A.M., and there are no comments. Wonder if that absence speaks more to the sensitivities of the predominant demographic that frequents this site, or to the depressed state of the country in general, or to apathy.

  2. HR said on September 2nd, 2008 at 6:41pm #

    Whoops, that should be 7:33 P.M.

  3. Samuel said on September 2nd, 2008 at 9:00pm #

    A nation unaware of its history is like a person with no memory, dead. Part of our history: