An excerpt from Air America Radio’s Thom Hartmann’s new book, “Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class — And What We Can Do About It
Labor goes back a long way in U.S. history. In 1874 unemployed workers were demonstrating in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. Riot police moved in and began beating men, women, and children with billy clubs, leaving hundreds of casualties in their wake. The police commissioner said: “It was the most glorious sight I ever saw.”
Three years later, on June 18, 1877, ten coal-mining activists were hanged. That same year a general strike in Chicago — called the Battle of the Viaduct — halted the movement of U.S. railroads across the states. Federal troops were called up, and they killed thirty workers and wounded more than a hundred.
In September 1882 thirty thousand workers marched in the first-ever Labor Day in New York history. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was established, and it passed a resolution stating that eight hours should constitute a legal day’s work. Hundreds of thousands of American workers began following that rule.
In May 1, 1886, the Knights of Labor took to the streets to call for an eight-hour day. Eighty thousand workers shut down the city of Chicago. On May 4 three thousand workers gathered in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown that killed seven policemen. Eight of the people present were rounded up, tried for murder, and sentenced to death. The Haymarket riot became the symbol of labor injustice in America.
This is but a fragment of the history of the labor movement in the United States.
Matters improved when labor got organized — but not much. In fact, by the 1920s things looked a lot like they do today: the robber barons were in charge, and the situation for working people was bleak. The rich were incredibly rich, and the few middle-class workers were deeply in debt. The labor movement appeared virtually dead.
It took the Republican Great Depression to wake people up. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt to speak the truth. If a politician said the same things today that Roosevelt did in the 1930s — openly accusing big business of being anti-American and antiworker — he’d be accused of socialism and communism. Very few national figures have the courage to speak out today the way FDR did back then.
Roosevelt provided courageous leadership. In his first term, he had sent to Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act, which set standards for wages and working hours and established the right of laborers to organize. This set the stage for labor groups to bargain for wages and conditions. Thanks in large part to FDR’s work on behalf of labor, in the twenty-five years after World War II the real incomes of the middle class doubled.
Why We Need a Labor Movement Today
Today America is regressing. Middle-class income has stopped growing. The net worth of those who earn less than $150,000 per year (which includes everybody from the working poor to the highest end of the most well-off of the middle class) is down by 0.6 percent.
The problem isn’t the economy. Corporations are making more money than ever. The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling.
What’s happening is simple: the rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle class is disappearing.
We can easily trace this decline to Reagan’s first public declaration of war on the middle class when he went after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. He broke the back of the air-traffic controllers’ union and began the practice of using the Department of Labor — traditionally the ally of workers — against organized labor and working people.
Reagan liked to say he was against “big government.” What he really meant was that he was against Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was against Social Security, the minimum wage, free college education (he ended that in California as its governor), and programs like the WPA. He believed in the discredited concept of “trickle-down” economics — the theory that if you create a corporatocracy, the rich will nobly spend some of their money to help the rest of us.
The American people don’t need handouts. Our workers just want to be paid a living wage for a fair day’s work. We can’t count on the corporatocracy to give us what we earn, so we need a strong labor movement to give us the power to negotiate our wages and benefits.
Ultimately, it’s all about power.
Workplaces are not democracies — in the United States they’re run more like kingdoms. Employers have the power to hire and fire, to raise or lower wages, to change working conditions and job responsibilities, and to change hours and times and places. Workers have only the power to work or to not work (known as a strike).
The strike — a tool that can effectively be used only by organized labor — is the only means by which workers can address the extreme imbalance of power in the workplace. And because organized labor is a democracy — leadership is elected and strike decisions and contracts are voted on — unions bring more democracy to America. We spend about half our waking lives at work — at least we can have some democracy in the workplace; and a democracy means a strong middle class.