Labor Day: Protests for jobs and economic justice — now and back then
Labor Day 2011 — The Resurgence: Americans are enraged at government’s failure to address the growing jobs crisis. During the August break and today, thousands have been confronting members of Congress and governors who have done nothing to create jobs. Most of the anger is being directed against GOP law makers for their relentless and uncompromising efforts: to save tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate loopholes while voting to cut corporate taxes programs, bust unions, layoff public employees and slash federal and state programs vital to the middle class, poor and seniors. In all there were more than 400 protests around the nation. You can see video news clips from many of them on a fabulous website put up by the Teamsters Union.
Protesters have been conducting demonstrations or office “stay puts” all of the of the Wisconsin offices of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan — who refuses to hold a town hall meeting or to meet with protesters. Ryan was the author of the House bill that proposed to cut trillions in critical programs including public health and safety, education, support for infrastructure, environmental protection, and many others. As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein noted, “Ryan’s savings all come from cuts, and at least two-thirds of them come from programs serving the poor. The wealthy, meanwhile, would see their taxes lowered.” And he wants to privatize Medicare!
Many reps and senators got a mouthful at town hall meetings — this time not from the Tea Party. Nor has the President been spared. He is being besieged by economists who believe it’s foolhardy to cut back when large investments are needed to create desperately needed jobs. In Wisconsin progressives used the state’s recall process to oust two Republican state Senators who passed legislation that all but outlawed the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. We Are Ohio” collected 1.3 million signatures on a petition to place the repeal of S.B.5 on the ballot this November. This law pushed through by GOP Governor John Kasich eliminates the collective bargaining rights of hundreds of thousands of public employees. Only 231,000 signatures were needed to put the referendum on the ballot. All of this is encouraging. We need a lot more of it between now and the elections in 2012.
The New American Depression: This Labor Day finds America in crisis. There are now more than 25 million people unemployed, underemployed or who have given up searching. The number of jobs added each month is lagging far behind the rate needed to match the growth of those entering the job market. Many lose their homes and slip gradually or suddenly into poverty. All of this while the cost of basics, food, energy, medical care and college tuitions rise. Previous Ekos-Squared posts (1) and (2) have explored the systemic reasons for the “Late American Depression.” The situation has been made infinitely worse by the GOP’s willingness to hold the nation hostage purportedly to curb the nation’s deficit and by President Obama’s failure to mobilize the nation around a cohesive and effective jobs program. We can only hope that the so-called “Super Committee” created as part of the debt ceiling “compromise” will see the critical importance of creating jobs as the only real way to solve the deficit problem. Cutting public expenditures and failing to invest in infrastructure, technology and education will make matters worse, not better. Workers and consumers keep the economy humming and pay taxes.
Retrospective: Labor Day was an important holiday in my family during my youth. My father Archie Cole, was a union organizer from his twenties until he died of cancer at the age of 77 (1994). He devoted his entire career to efforts to improve the wages and job conditions of workers. I remember the fun I had with my brothers and neighborhood kids collating union newspapers around the dining room table. With his indefatigable sense of humor and his passion for the union movement, his Arch made every such event a joyful and educational experience. Although he served as President of the New Jersey Industrial Council and was appointed by successive governors to Chair the state’s Economic Security Council, he never stopped walking the picket lines with striking workers. He got arrested more than once.
There are many funny stories involving my father’s picketing experience. As a cancer patient in the early 1990’s had lost all of the hair (on his already balding) head. As a result he perpetually wore a baseball cap. He was on the picket line handing out leaflets on the sidewalk in front of the company building. A policeman came over to him and said, you will have to move you’re on private property. My father without a moment’s thought shot back “I’m don’t have to go anywhere” and taking off his cap “I have cancer.” The cop walked away… speechless. Vintage Archie.
Unions helped to create the middle class: Arch often spoke of the importance of unions to all families – union or not. The victories of union workers have raised the wages and working conditions of all workers. Over his last two decades he voiced his discouragement – the number of union members, especially in manufacturing, were continually dropping owing to automation, job export, and increasingly aggressive corporate campaigns to break unions. Yet he continued to work with no letup in his enthusiasm for his union, IUE, AFL-CIO until 2 days before he died. On one of my last visits to him I saw his ever-present yellow legal pad sitting next to him on the hospital bed. I asked him about the content, five or six names and phone numbers. He looks at me grinning, “These are the names of disgruntled staff; I’m sending them over to the hospital workers union.” He would have been in the middle of thing today.
I believe that the decline of the labor movement is one of the key reasons why the great majority of Americans have seen their economic security dwindle. Labor has fought for nearly every program that has created and benefited the middle class. Politicians (including the President) seem to view Wall Street as being more important than organized labor.
Civil Rights: My father also worked tirelessly for racial equality and was a long-standing member of the NAACP and a member of a Black tennis team — usually the only white guy in sight. His union IUE, AFL-CIO, brought hundreds of buses to the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. I was on one of those buses, and had the great privilege of hearing Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream“ speech in person. (Use this link to see a great video of the speech with many pictures of this historic day.)
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It is fitting that the new memorial for Dr. King is located so near to Reflecting Pond where Dr. King delivered his 1963 speech. It is also fitting that the commemoration was held just before Labor Day. For King’s leadership not only embraced civil rights for Blacks, but for economic justice and jobs. In early 1968 Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C., demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States.
Memphis, 1968: In late March of the same year, King went to Memphis to support 1300 striking sanitation workers, members of AFSCME Local 1733. The strikers were protesting abysmal working conditions and low wages. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis to lend his support to the striking workers. On evening of April 3rd, King gave what is known as the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech. He was assassinated the following day. You can hear an interview with witnesses to the speech and parts of the speech an NPR broadcast. Taylor Rogers, one of the men on strike, went to the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, with his wife, Bessie, to hear King speak. What they heard is now known as the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech — his last. The next day King only 39 years old was assassinated.
The memorial is a wonderful thing. But neither a holiday in his honor nor a statue that can do just to Martin Luther King’s legacy. Few leaders have had so great and beneficial impact on our nation’s history and few have had his courage and determination. And it was not just King, but those who embraced the movement, who were willing to be arrested, accosted, hosed, and clubbed to bring justice to the African-Americans, poor-Americans, and to all of America. This movement made America a far better nation. And so will the newly rising movement for jobs and economic justice.