Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Jay Gould

The other American way?

Perhaps, if you’re a congressional Republican, what’s old is new again: The entire history of labor organizing is defined by this clash of values.

GOP union-busting

GOP labor relations: “Well, Ah talks loud, and Ah carry
a bigger stick. And Ah use it, too!”
[ Image Source ]

On one side are those who believe that people are essentially equal and that their rights — both by law and in fact — should be accordingly comparable; it is they who believe that workers have an absolute right to negotiate from a position of approximate parity with their employers.

On the other are those who feel that the employers’ initiative and innovation make them part of a superior and essential class without which there would be no jobs, and that workers ought to recognize their inferiority, defer to their “betters,” and accept without cavil their employers’ generosity in offering them work at all; it is they who believe that labor should take only what employers are willing to give, and that demands for more should be met with whatever violence is necessary to restore the natural order.

Unequal handshake.

Some agreements are made between equals. Most aren’t.
[ Image Source ]

European and American laissez-faire capitalism, as practiced throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, took this second perspective as divine ordinance. Workers accepted their lot without complaint because whoever lifted his head could rely on having it broken. This meant that they (including children) lived in filthy tenements and worked unconscionably long hours under often hazardous conditions; their lives were precisely as Thomas Hobbes described: “nasty, brutish and short.”

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 25 March 1911

Manhattan, New York, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory used to lock employees in to stop unauthorized breaks and pilferage. When this infamous fire broke out, 146
young women and girls died in it, and
71 more were injured.
[ Image Source ]

Since this condition could not be altered as long as each separate worker had to bargain as a relatively powerless individual — under a meretricious legal presumption that the parties to any contract or negotiation enter such proceedings as free agents of equal standing — against the crushing coercive power of someone who could decide whether or not he was to have the means of subsistence, it was not long before workers sought to join forces that they might begin to seek a better future. They did this mostly not for themselves, for they realistically understood that such victories would not come so soon, but for posterity.

Pinkerton logo and badge

Pinkerton started as a detective agency, but it wasn’t long before it provided other “services.” Then “Pinkerton” came to mean “armed strikebreaker,” and the unsleeping eye and the
steel badge became emblems of terror.
[ Image Source ]

But to the industrial aristocracy, such “combinations” were blasphemy against an order that had long brought them opulence, political puissance and the world’s deference; it was understood that for the mercantile elite to exercise united power in negotiating with both laborers and government was right and proper, that the nation’s industry might prosper the more, but for laborers to unite was the road to anarchy and ruin — or at least to a diminution of their profit margin, which amounted to the same thing. Therefore the employers happily created a new class of jobs: scabs, strikebreakers, goons: By whatever name, these other laborers (usually ones still poorer and more miserable than the workers whom they were called in to replace or suppress) could always be found, for desperation has never been in short supply.

Police attack steel workers, 1937

Memorial Day, 1937: Police called in and equipped by a steel company owner attack strikers. Ten workers died and
nearly a hundred were wounded.
[ Image Source ]

And so began the history-sanctioned tradition of union-busting; save that in those times the term was meant rather more literally, and the billy-club and the bayonet joined the court system and the popular press as weapons against labor.

Then came the Great Depression, and the essential instability of an economic system that fostered and exacerbated social inequality on an unprecedented scale was bared for all to see. As unregulated capitalism teetered on the edge of a self-dug abyss, and workers too long abused began to discover the attractions of communism, the elite found the most unwelcome of saviors: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose “socialist” prescriptions rescued capitalism even as they reformed it.

Among the provisions of the New Deal most execrable to the baronage was the empowerment of labor. During this epoch, workers began to form strong trade unions. Progress on all fronts — from broader prosperity and the creation of a large middle class to civil rights to relief for the losers in the economic game — began in the 1930s and continued with earnest resolve through the mid-1970s; and it was all predicated on the newfound political potency of the working classes.

Fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, garment factory

Outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 2012: Tazreen Fashions, a garment factory that makes products for Walmart, Tommy
Hilfiger and the Gap, caught fire and burned for 17
hours. Many workers were locked or trapped
inside, and at least 111 died.
[ Image Source ]

Unfortunately, there is no “happily ever after” in this tale. The mercantile elite, never idle, organized a counterrevolution. Starting with school boards and town councils, it manufactured a “conservative backlash” movement across the U.S., then used its enormous advantages in funding and organization to begin a national takeover designed to reverse all of the working class’ gains and forever crush all resistance and all dissent. What we see today, from corporate personhood to the Tea Party to the vilification of unions, is a part of that slow-motion coup d’etat.

One hope remains: The counterrevolution depends for its power upon popular ignorance and consequent malleability. But people are beginning to use the resources of modern capitalism to do the one thing that the elite hoped they wouldn’t: to learn. And the elite is secretly terrified, for a populace that knows can no longer be twisted against itself by deceit.

Peace, liberty, unity, justice, equality
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