Category Archives: labor

The Importance of Labor and Labor Day

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is Labor Day and sadly many people don’t really understand its significance. For decades organized labor has been demonized by the descendants of people who died to secure decent working conditions, wages, and benefits for regular hard working people. The attacks on labor and workers have become much more pronounced under the Trump Administration than any prior administration since that of Herbert Hoover.

But most of the people lucky enough not to have to work on Labor Day really don’t know why it it matters, and whips in spite of those who despise labor and care not a whit about working people, who simply to use business terminology are simply human capital or resources. I actually despise those terms because they dehumanize people by turning them into impersonal economic units of measure.

So today I am digging into the vault to explore why Labor Day and what it represents matters to us now. This article is one that I have taken the time to edit and update.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps our only President who was a real working man once said, “If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.” 

It seems that nothing about humanity ever changes, even so it is hard to believe that at one time American workers had no rights and I am not talking about African American slaves who as slaves didn’t even count as human beings. No I’m talking about the people Mel Brooks called in Blazing Saddles: “the white God fearing citizens of Rock Ridge” and for that matter every place and every race in America.

It was not until the mid-1800s in the United States and Europe that workers began to organize and protest for the right to decent wages and working conditions. But this came at a cost; the loss of jobs, homes, property, prison, deportation, deportation, and death.

There were many instances when this cost workers and labor organizers their lives. Employers, often backed by heavily armed private security contractors like the Pinkerton Agency, used deadly force to break up peaceful strikes. In the days of the Robber Barons, when business ran the government at almost every level, employers frequently called in local and state law enforcement, as well as the National Guard, and occasionally Federal troops to break strikes. They played various ethnic and racial groups off of each in order to divide the labor movement. There are hundreds of instances of such violence being used against workers, in some strikes the dead numbered in the hundreds.

Troops Putting Down the Pullman Strike 

Some of these attacks on workers occurred in major cities, others at isolated work sites and factories. Some are famous, the Haymarket Massacre of May 4th 1886 in Chicago, the Pullman Strike Massacre of 1894, the Homestead Strike and Massacre of 1892, the Latimer Massacre of 1897, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, and the Columbine Mine Massacre of 1927.

Others less so, but there was more. In the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 1300 striking miners and their families were deported from their homes in Bisbee Arizona by 2000 armed deputies, put in box cars and transported 200 miles to the New Mexico desert, where without food, water or money they were left. There was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where managers locked the doors in order to ensure that the fleeing women workers did not put anything unauthorized in their purses. One hundred forty-four workers, mostly young women died, many jumping from the burning building to their death.

Police and other Onlookers Looking up at the burning Triangle Shirt Factory with the bodies of Women Workers who jumped from it at Their Feet

Early labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor led the effort to bring about better conditions. For doing so they were labeled subversive and even called communists. Their meetings were often attacked and the leaders jailed and some lynched.

Eugene Debs

The sacrifices of those early workers, and organizers are why we have Labor Day. One of the early American labor leaders was a man named Eugene Debs. Debs eventually became a Socialist, but he said something remarkable which still is as timely as when he uttered the words:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

I wish that wasn’t true but it is. The Social Darwinists who follow Ayn Rand as if she were the Prophet and who populate Wall Street boardrooms and every major school of business ensure that it is. The disparity between wage laborers and CEOs is higher than it has ever been. But I digress…

On September 5th 1882 the first Labor Day was observed when members of several Unions in New York City organized the first Labor Day parade. The police came armed and ready to intervene if the workers got out of hand, but the parade was peaceful. It ended and the marchers moved over to Wendell’s Elm Park where they had a party. Twenty-five thousand Union men and their families celebrated, with hundreds of kegs of lager beer.

Within a few years many states began to institute Labor days of their own. In 1894, just days after the violent end of the Pullman strike in which Federal troops and Marshalls killed 30 workers and wounded 57 more, Congress and President Grover Cleveland rushed through legislation to establish a Federal Labor Day.

My Great Aunt Goldie Dundas was a labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union in West Virginia in the 1920s – 1950s. I wish I had gotten to really know her, but she died when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Sadly the workers represented by that Union have had almost all of their jobs in the textile industry outsourced to China, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Bangladesh where cheaply made garments are produced, and workers abused. The examples of mass deaths due to safety issues and fires in Bangladeshi factories are too numerous to list. But then who cares? The fact is you can drive through many parts of the South and see the poverty created by the exodus of these Union employers, the textile industry, which was part of the fabric of the South is gone. Empty factories and poverty stricken towns dot the countryside. I saw a lot of them living in Eastern North Carolina, towns that once thrived are ghost towns, riddled with crime, unemployment and no hope, unless Wal-Mart opens a store in town. Ironically it sells the clothing made overseas that used to be manufactured by the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the people who live there today.

Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism understood it in a very different manner than those who claim to be Capitalists today. He wrote in his magnum opus, The Wealth of All Nations:

“In regards to the price of commodities, the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

The fact is that today, labor is under threat. Unions have been demonized by politicians and pundits and their power and influence much reduced. Some of this was due to their own success in improving conditions from workers, and not just Union workers. When my dad retired from the Navy in 1974, he went to work at one of the few non-Union warehouses of the John Deere Company in Stockton, California. While they were not union, the workers received every benefit won by the majority of the workers in the company who were members of the United Auto Workers Union. Due to that my dad had high wages, excellent working conditions and benefits. The company had a program for the children of workers, which allowed them to work in the summer in the warehouse and receive incredibly high pay and benefits while in college. I did that for two years, and it helped pay for much of my college. I was not a union member but I benefited because Union men and leaders did the hard work to make that job happen.

However, in many places, Unions and labor are under attack, sometimes not just by corporations, but also by state governments. Job security and stability for most American workers is a thing of the past. Federal and State agencies charged with protecting those rights, including safety in the workplace are being cut in the mad rush to reduce government power. Corporations are offshoring and outsourcing jobs without regard to American workers or the country itself. Part of that is due to globalization and I understand that, but these companies frequently relocate jobs to places where they can exploit workers, deny them benefits, pay them less, and suffer no penalty for ignoring safety procedures or harming the environment. It seems to me that we are returning to the days of the Robber Barons. I wonder when violence against workers and those who support them will be condoned or simply ignored.

Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical Renum Novarum:

“The following duties . . . concern rich men and employers: Workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of human personality be respected in them, … gainful occupations are not a mark of shame to man, but rather of respect, as they provide him with an honorable means of supporting life. It is shameful and inhuman, however, to use men as things for gain and to put no more value on them than what they are worth in muscle and energy.”

He also wrote:

“Equity therefore commands that public authority show proper concern for the worker so that from what he contributes to the common good he may receive what will enable him, housed, clothed, and secure, to live his life without hardship. Whence, it follows that all those measures ought to be favored which seem in any way capable of benefiting the condition of workers. Such solicitude is so far from injuring anyone, that it is destined rather to benefit all, because it is of absolute interest to the State that those citizens should not be miserable in every respect from whom such necessary goods proceed.”

But sadly there are far too few church leaders of any denomination who will take the side of workers or the poor, and when they do they are either condemned by the disciples of Ayn Rand or politely thanked and ignored by politicians and corporate leaders.

So please, when you celebrate Labor Day, do not forget that it is important, and that we should not forget why we celebrate it. If we forget that, it will become a meaningless holiday and our children may have to make the same sacrifices of our ancestors.

Labor Day is a day to remember the men and women, some of them former soldiers, workers, labor organizers, and leaders; some of whom were killed by National Guard and Federal troops for their effort, who paved the way for workers today. We cannot forget that. So when you see a politician attacking Labor and seeking to diminish workers rights or benefits ask them what Abraham Lincoln or Adam Smith would think. If they can’t answer, turn your backs on them and start fighting for what is right.

WASHINGTON, : US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. (3rd from L) walks with supporters during the “March on Washington” 28 August, 1963 after which, King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the LIncoln Memorial. 28 August, 2003 marks the 40th anniversary of the famous speech, which is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray confessed to shooting King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who always stood for the rights of workers no-matter what their race, creed, or color, said:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” 

Likewise, one cannot forget that Dr. King was assassinated when he went to Memphis to support the Memphis Sanitation Worker strike.

This my friends is why Labor and the protection of working people from those who abase them, mistreat them, and exploit them is so important.

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, faith, History, labor, laws and legislation, News and current events, Political Commentary

Enforcing White Privilege: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and “the Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race Part Three

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Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act in Boston 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the third installment of a three part series  of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Robert Toombs of Georgia was an advocate for the expansion of slavery into the lands conquered during the war. Toombs warned his colleagues in Congress “in the presence of the living God, that if you by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people…thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the states of this Confederacy, I am for disunion.”  [1]

The tensions in the aftermath of the war with Mexico escalated over the issue of slavery in the newly conquered territories brought heated calls by some southerners for secession and disunion. To preserve the Union, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, supported by the new President Millard Fillmore were able to pass the compromise of 1850 solved a number of issues related to the admission of California to the Union and boundary disputes involving Texas and the new territories.  But among the bills that were contained in it was the Fugitive Slave Law, or The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act was the device of Henry Clay which was meant to sweeten the deal for southerners. The law would “give slaveholders broader powers to stop the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states, and offered a final resolution denying that Congress had any authority to regulate the interstate slave trade.” [2]

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A Warning to Blacks in Boston regarding the Fugitive Slave Law

For all practical purposes the Compromise of 1850 and its associated legislation nationalized the institution of slavery, even in Free States. It did this by forcing all citizens to assist law enforcement in apprehending fugitive slaves. It also voided state laws in Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which barred state officials from aiding in the capture, arrest or imprisonment of fugitive slaves. “Congress’s law had nationalized slavery. No black person was safe on American soil. The old division of free state/slave state had vanished….” [3] If there was any question as to whose “States Rights” the leaders of the South were advocating, it was certainly not those of the states whose laws were voided by the act.

That law required all Federal law enforcement officials, even in non-slave states to arrest fugitive slaves and anyone who assisted them, and threatened law enforcement officials with punishment if they failed to enforce the law. The law stipulated that should “any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars.” [4] In effect the law nullified state laws and forced individual citizens and local officials to help escaped slaves regardless of their own convictions, religious views, and state and local laws to the contrary.

Likewise the act compelled citizens in Free states to “aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required….” [5] Penalties were harsh and financial incentives for compliance attractive.

“Anyone caught providing food and shelter to an escaped slave, assuming northern whites could discern who was a runaway, would be subject to a fine of one thousand dollars and six months in prison. The law also suspended habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury for captured blacks. Judges received a hundred dollars for every slave returned to his or her owner, providing a monetary incentive for jurists to rule in favor of slave catchers.” [6]

The law gave no protection for even black freedmen, who simply because of their race were often seized and returned to slavery. The legislation created a new extra-judicial bureaucratic office to decide the fate of blacks. This was the office of Federal Commissioner and it was purposely designed to favorably adjudicate the claims of slaveholders and their agents, and to avoid the normal Federal Court system. There was good reason for the slave power faction to place this in the law, many Federal courts located in Free States often denied the claims of slave holders, and that could not be permitted if slavery was to not only remain, but to grow with the westward expansion of the nation.

When slave owners or their agents went before these new appointed commissioners, they needed little in the way of proof to take a black back into captivity. The only proof or evidence other than the sworn statement by of the owner with an “affidavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses” [7] that a black was or had been his property was required to return any black to slavery. The affidavit was the only evidence required, even if it was false.

runaway

Since blacks could not testify on their own behalf and were denied legal representation before these commissioners, the act created an onerous extrajudicial process that defied imagination. Likewise, the commissioners had a strong a financial incentive to send blacks back to slavery, unlike normal courts the commissioners received a direct financial reward for returning blacks to slave owners. “If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor ten. This provision, supposedly justified by the paper work needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners.” [8] It was a system rigged to ensure that African Americans had no chance, and it imposed on the citizens of Free states the legal obligation to participate in a system that many wanted nothing to do with.

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Frederick Douglass 

Frederick Douglass wrote about the new law in the most forceful terms:

“By an act of the American Congress…slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated;…and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States.” [9]

Douglass was correct as was demonstrated during an incident in Boston in 1854 where an escaped slave named Anthony Burns, who had purchased his freedom, was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. The arrest prompted a protest in which, “an urban mob – variously composed of free Negro laborers, radical Unitarian ministers, and others – gathered to free him. They stormed the Federal courthouse, which was surrounded by police and wrapped in protective chains….Amid the melee, one protestor shot and killed a police deputy.” [10] The heated opposition to Burns’ arrest provoked the passions of thousands of Bostonians who protested for his release that caused the Massachusetts governor to deploy two batteries of artillery outside the courthouse to deter any more attacks. When the Federal Fugitive Slave Law commissioner consigned Burns to his Southern owner, the prisoner was placed in shackles and was marched down State Street. Tensions were now running extremely high and a “brigade of Massachusetts militia and local police were required to run Burns through a gauntlet and deposit him on the ship that would remand him to Virginia.” [11]Bostonians began to see their city as it was in the early days of the American Revolution, as a place that resisted tyranny. Neither did they did not forget Burns but raised the money to purchase his freedom. William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “the “deed of infamy… demonstrated as nothing else that “only “the military power of the United States” could sustain slavery.” [12] Nevertheless, Boston’s “mercantile elite had vindicated law and order” [13] but in the process they helped move so abolitionists who had been advocates of pacifism and non-violence to physical resistance to the bounty hunting Southerners. “Across the North, prisons were broken into, posses were disrupted, and juries refused to convict.” [14]

Violence between slave hunters and their protectors did break out in September 1851 when “a Maryland slave owner named Edward Gorsuch crossed into Pennsylvania in pursuit of four runaways.” [15] Gorsuch and his armed posse found them in the Quaker town of Christiana, where they were being sheltered by a free black named William Parker and along with about two dozen other black men armed with a collection of farm implements and a few muskets who vowed to resist capture. Several unarmed Quakers intervened and recommended that Gorsuch and his posse leave for their own sake, but Gorsuch told them “I will have my property, or go to hell.” [16] A fight then broke out in which Gorsuch was killed and his son seriously wounded, and the fugitives escaped through the Underground Railroad to Canada.

The Christiana Riot as it is called now became a national story. In the North it was celebrated as an act of resistance while it was decried with threats of secession in the South. President Millard Fillmore sent in troops and arrested a number of Quakers as well as more than thirty black men. “The trial turned into a test between two cultures: Southern versus Northern, slave versus free.”  [17] The men were charged with treason but the trial became a farce as the government’s case came apart. After a deliberation of just fifteen minutes, “the jury acquitted the first defendant, one of the Quakers, the government dropped the remaining indictments and decided not to press other charges.” [18] Southerners were outraged, and one young man whose name is forever linked with infamy never forgot. A teenager named John Wilkes Booth was a childhood friend of Gorsuch’s son Tommy. “The death of Tommy Gorsuch’s father touched the young Booth personally. While he would move on with his life, he would not forget what happened in Christiana.” [19]

The authors of the compromise had not expected such resistance to the laws. On his deathbed Henry Clay, who had worked his entire career to pass compromises in order to preserve the Union, praised the act, of which he wrote “The new fugitive slave law, I believe, kept the South in the Union in ‘fifty and ‘fifty-one. Not only does it deny fugitives trial by jury and the right to testify; it also imposes a fine and imprisonment upon any citizen found guilty of preventing a fugitive’s arrest…” Likewise Clay depreciated the Northern opposition and condemned the attempt to free Anthony Burns, noting:

“Yes, since the passage of the compromise, the abolitionists and free coloreds of the North have howled in protest and viciously assailed me, and twice in Boston there has been a failure to execute the law, which shocks and astounds me…. But such people belong to the lunatic fringe. The vast majority of Americans, North and South, support our handiwork, the great compromise that pulled the nation back from the brink.” [20] 

While the compromise had “averted a showdown over who would control the new western territories,” [21] it only delayed disunion. In arguing against the compromise South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun realized that for Southerners it did not do enough to support the peculiar institution and that it would inspire Northern abolitionists to redouble their efforts to abolish slavery. Thus, Calhoun argued not just for the measures secured in the compromise legislation, but for the permanent protection of slavery:

“He understood that slavery stood at the heart of southern society, and that without a mechanism to protect it for all time, the Union’s days were numbered.” Almost prophetically he said “I fix its probable [breakup] within twelve years or three presidential terms…. The probability is it will explode in a presidential election.”  [22]

Of course it was Calhoun and not the authors of the compromise who was proved correct. The leap into the abyss of disunion and civil war had only been temporarily avoided. However, none of the supporters of the Compromise anticipated what would occur in just six years when a “train of unexpected consequences would throw an entirely new light on the popular sovereignty doctrine, and both it and the Compromise of 1850 would be wrecked with the stroke of a single judicial pen.” [23]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.62-63

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.68

[3] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.71

[4] ______________Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 retrieved from the Avalon Project, Yale School of Law http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp 11 December 2014

[5] Ibid. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.71

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom  p.80

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.80

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.72

[10] Goodheart, Adam 1861: The Civil War Awakening Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York 2011 p.42

[11] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.241

[12] Mayer, Henry All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1998 p.442

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.73

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.84

[17] Steers, Edward Jr. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington 2001 p.33

[18] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.85

[19] Ibid. Steers  Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincolnp.33

[20] Oates, Stephen B. Editor The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.94

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

[22] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.64

[23] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.71

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“Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass” American Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the second post from some of my yet to be published book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era which deals with the uncomfortable subject of American slavery that I will post this week. Though it is uncomfortable to some it must be understood if we are to appreciate the struggle of African-Americans for equality, and why the struggle is not over, even today. Another section of this will come out tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

OTCauction

Abolition versus Slave Power

The conflicting ideologies of the Abolitionists who believed that African Americans were created by God and had the same rights as whites, as well as the arguments of Southern political leaders that blacks were inferior and slavery was a positive good, were buttressed by profoundly religious arguments which were related directly to a divergence in values. These diverging values crept into every aspect of life and as such it was this “conflict of values, rather than a conflict of interests or a conflict of cultures, lay at the root of the sectional schism.” [1]   The support of the church in Europe and the Americas was key to the religious and moral belief in the rightness of slavery.

Slavery was the key issue that permeated all aspects of the Civil War to include the cultural, the economic and the ideological. David M. Potter summed up this understanding of the connection between the ideological, cultural and economic aspects of the conflict and just how the issue of slavery connected all three realms in the American Civil War:

“These three explanations – cultural, economic and ideological – have long been the standard formulas for explaining the sectional conflict. Each has been defended as though it were necessarily incompatible with the other two. But culture, economic interest, and values may all reflect the same fundamental forces at work in a society, in which case each will appear as an aspect of the other. Diversity of culture may produce both diversity of interests and diversity of values. Further, the differences between a slaveholding and a nonslaveholding society would be reflected in all three aspects. Slavery represented an inescapable ethical question which precipitated a sharp conflict of values.” [2]

Sadly this is something that those who study the war from a purely military perspective tend to miss, or even willingly gloss over in order make the war more palatable to their own prejudice tend to “blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting, romanticize our own home-grown terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and distort the consequences of the Civil War that still intrude on our national life.” [3] For many people it is far easier not to deal with the harsh reality that slavery and racism was at the heart of the issue and escape to the bloodless romanticism which even ignores the human cost of the war, approximately 750,000 military dead alone. If we extrapolate the percentage of the population that that 750,000 represents and compared it to today’s census that number would be the equivalent of 7.5 million Americans dead. This is a fact that many Civil War buffs tend to ignore.

The political ends of the Civil War grew out of the growing cultural, economic, ideological and religious differences between the North and South that had been widening since the 1830s. However, slavery was the one issue which helped produce this conflict in values and it was “basic to the cultural divergence of the North and South, because it was inextricably fused into the key elements of southern life – the staple crop of the plantation system, the social and political ascendency of the planter class, the authoritarian system of social control.” [4] Without slavery and the Southern commitment to an economy based on slave labor, the southern economy would have most likely undergone a similar transformation as what happened in the North; thus the economic divergence between North and South would “been less clear cut, and would have not met in such head-on collision.” [5] But slavery was much more than an economic policy for Southerners; it was a key component of their religious, racial and philosophic worldview.

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The issue of slavery even divided the ante-bellum United States on what the words freedom and liberty meant. The dispute can be seen in the writings of many before the war, with each side emphasizing their particular understanding of these concepts. In the South, freedom was reserved for those who occupied the positions of economic power; slavery was key to that from not only an economic point of view but as a social philosophy. The concept of human equality, which was so much a part of the Declaration of Independence was downplayed George Fitzhugh, a planter and slave owner in eastern Virginia commented that that concept “is practically impossible, and directly conflicts with all government, all separate property, and all social existence.” [6] Fitzhugh was very critical of the founder’s philosophy of natural liberty and human equality which he found repugnant and error ridden. He wrote:

“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.”   ” [7]

The political philosophy such as Fitzhugh’s, which was quite common in the South, and was buttressed by a profound religious belief that it was the South’s God ordained mission to maintain and expand slavery. One Methodist preacher in his justification of slavery wrote, “God as he is infinitely wise, just and holy never could authorize the practice of moral evil. But God has authorized the practice of slavery, not only by bare permission of his providence, but by the express permission of his word.” [8]Buttressed by such scriptural arguments Southerners increasingly felt that they were the only people following God. The Northern abolitionists as well as those who advocated for the concept of human equality and free labor were heretics to be damned. As such the “South’s ideological isolation within an increasingly antislavery world was not a stigma or a source of guilt but a badge of righteousness and a foundation for national identity and pride.” [9]

Speaking of the necessity for slavery, as well as limitations on the equality of human beings no matter what their race or sex; Fitzhugh penned words that explained that human relationships were not to be seen in terms of individual liberty, “but in relations of strict domination and subordination. Successful societies were those whose members acknowledged their places within that hierarchy.” [10]

Fitzhugh was quite caustic when he discussed the real implications of his philosophy:

“We conclude that about nineteen out of twenty individuals have “a natural and inalienable right” to be taken care of and protected, to have guardians, trustees, husbands or masters; in other words they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves. The one in twenty are clearly born or educated in some way fitted for command and liberty.” [11]

Fitzhugh’s chilling conclusion was summarized in the words “Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass.” [12]

But many Southerners, including many poor whites, especially the Yeoman farmers who were the backbone of the Southern populace did not see or understand the limitations that were placed on their own liberty by the slavery system and instead saw slavery as the guarantee of their economic freedom. John C. Calhoun said to the Senate in 1848 that “With us, the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all of the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” [13] Calhoun’s racial distinction is important if we are to understand why poor whites would fight and die for a social and economic idea that did not benefit them or their families.

But it was Abraham Lincoln, who cut to the heart of the matter when he noted the difference between his understanding of liberty and that of Calhoun and others in the South who defended slavery and the privileges of the Southern oligarchs:

“We all declare for liberty” but “in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.” [14]

The growing economic disparity between the Slave and Free states became more about the expansion of slavery in federal territories as disunion and war approached; for a number of often competing reasons. These differences, amplified by the issue of slavery led to the substitution of stereotypes of each other and had the “effect of changing men’s attitudes toward the disagreements which are always certain to arise in politics: ordinary, resolvable disputes were converted into questions of principle, involving rigid, unnegotiable dogma.” [15] The Charleston Mercury noted in 1858 “on the subject of slavery…the North and the South…are not only two peoples, but they are rival, hostile peoples.”[16]

This was driven both by the South’s insistence on both maintaining slavery where it was already legal and expanding it into new territories which was set against the vocal abolitionist movement. But Southern exponents of expanding slavery were fighting an even more powerful enemy than the abolitionists, who despite their vocal protests were not yet in a position to influence policy. They were now fighting Northern industrialists who were not as idealistic as the abolitionists who were much more concerned with “economic policy designed to secure Northern domination of Western lands than the initial step in a broad plan to end slavery.” [17]

This competition between the regions not only affected politics, it affected religion and culture. In the South it produced a growing culture of victimhood, which was manifest in the words of Robert Toombs who authored Georgia’s declaration of causes for secession:

“For twenty years past, the Abolitionists and their allies in the Northern states, have been engaged in constant efforts to subvert our institutions, and to excite insurrection and servile war among us…” whose “avowed purpose is to subject our society, subject us, not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives and our children, and the dissolution of our homes, our altars, and our firesides.” [18]

As the social, economic, cultural and religious differences between the two regions grew wider and the people of the South became ever more closed off from the North. “More than other Americans, Southerners developed a sectional identity outside the national mainstream. The Southern life style tended to contradict the national norm in ways that life styles of other sections did not.” [19]

The complex relationship of Southern society where “Southern bodies social, economic, intellectual, and political were decidedly commingled” [20] came to embrace the need for slavery and its importance to Southern society. This occurred despite the fact that the system did not benefit poor whites in the South and actually harmed them economically. The Southern: “system of subordination reached out still further to require a certain kind of society, one in which certain questions were not publically discussed. It must give blacks no hope of cultivating dissention among the whites. It must commit non slaveholders to the unquestioning support of racial subordination…. In short, the South became increasingly a closed society, distrustful of isms from outside and unsympathetic to dissenters. Such were the pervasive consequences of giving top priority to the maintenance of a system of racial subordination.” [21]

A number of slave revolts, and planned slave revolts which were caught before they could erupt serve to heighten the fear and paranoia of Southerners living in the “Black belts” where slaves outnumbered whites by great margins. “In thickly enslaved areas, fancied dangers united white classes and sexes. Whites in black belts shared horror images about freed blacks as rioters, rapists, arsonists, and cannibals. The whites characteristically thought that using slavery to control alleged barbarians meant saving civilization.” [22]

Even before the abolitionist movement took any recognizable form in the North,“with an intensity that escalated through the Civil War, planters declared war on all open criticism of the peculiar institution.” [23]As Northern abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper The Liberator grew in its distribution and began to appear in the South various elected officials throughout the South “suppressed antislavery books, newspapers, lectures, and sermons and strove generally to deny critics of bondage access to any public forum.” [24] Despite this resistance, abolitionists continued to use the U.S. Mail service to send their literature south provoking even more drastic action from Southern legislators.

garrison by jocelyn 1833

William Lloyd Garrison 

But Garrison and the more radical abolitionists did not have a great following even in the North, most Northerners who even leaned toward abolition were supporters of a very gradual emancipation and not supportive of the immediate emancipation demanded by Garrison and his allies. In fact in the North, Garrison and his followers were not popular, they were “a small and often despised group.” [25] This was born out by facts that Garrison understood all too well, which made him even more uncompromising in his message. “In 1840, support for Garrison extremism peaked at around 2 percent of the northern voting population. The other 98 percent of northern citizens considered immediate abolition to be too extreme to be American, too problack to be tolerable, too keen on seizing property to be capitalistic, and too antisouthern to be safe for the Union.” [26]Garrison despised his northern opponents and wrote that he found among them “contempt more bitter, opposition more active, detraction more relentless, prejudice more stubborn, and apathy more frozen, than among slave owners themselves.” [27] Opponents broke up his meetings and on one occasion paraded Garrison “through the streets of Boston with a rope around his neck.” [28]

But Southerners, particularly those in the black belts were too outraged by Garrison and his follower’s incendiary words and “almost pornographic diatribes,” which they felt had assaulted their “self-respect and sense of honor.” [29] In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature in the South which was being sent through the mail, Senator John C. Calhoun proposed that Congress pass a law to prosecute “any postmaster who would “knowingly receive or put into the mail any pamphlet, newspaper, handbill, or any printed, written, or pictorial representation touching the subject of slavery.” [30] Calhoun was not alone as other members of Congress as well as state legislatures worked to restrict the import of what they considered subversive and dangerous literature. The condescending attitude of the radical abolitionists provoked an “emotional wildfire” [31] in the South, which united slave owners and poor whites in the heavily black slave majority regions and served to increase their fear and loathing of Yankees who they believed wanted to destroy them and their way of life. Had they really understood just how united much of the North was with them they may not have pushed as hard to force Northern allies to accept laws that eventually offended the sensibilities of even non-abolitionists Northerners.

attention-southern-men

But Southern fears of real and imagined slave revolts, and hatred of radicals like Garrison brought about a host of new problems as Southerners attempted to crush the rights of free speech in the north and to blot out any mention of slavery in the House of Representatives. Beginning in 1836 the House of Representatives, led by Southern members of Congress passed a “gag rule” for its members. The “Gag Rule” “banned all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers related in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery.” [32] Former President John Quincy Adams continually challenged the gag-rule beginning in 1842, as did a number of others. The pressure was such that finally in 1844 the House voted to rescind it.

anti-slavery-meetings

However, Southern politicians were unhappy with the recension of the Gag Rule and “began to spout demands that the federal government and the Northern states issue assurances that the abolitionists would never be allowed to tamper with what John Calhoun had described as the South’s “peculiar domestic institution.” [33] As tensions grew between the regions; the issue of slavery more than any other issue, “transformed political action from a process of accommodation to a mode of combat.” [34]

Around the same time as the gag rule was played out in Congress the Supreme Court had ruled that the Federal government alone “had jurisdiction where escaped slaves were concerned” which resulted in several states enacting “personal liberty laws” to “forbid their own elected officials from those pursuing fugitives.” Southern politicians at the federal and state levels reacted strongly to these moves, which they believed to be an assault on their institutions and their rights to their human property. Virginia legislators said these laws were a “disgusting and revolting exhibition of faithless and unconstitutional legislation.” [35]

The issue of slavery shaped political debate and “structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged.” [36] As the divide grew leaders and people in both the North and the South began to react to the most distorted images of each other imaginable- “the North to an image of a southern world of lascivious and sadistic slave drivers; the South to the image of a northern world of cunning Yankee traders and radical abolitionists plotting slave insurrections.” [37]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America before the Civil War 1848-1861 completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher Harper Collins Publishers, New York 1976 p.41

[2] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.41

[3] Burns, Ken A Conflict’s Acoustic Shadows in The New York Times Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Black Dog and Leventhal Publishing, New York 2013 p.102

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[5] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[6] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.140

[7] Fitzhugh, George. New Haven Lecture 1855, in The Approaching Fury: Voices From the Storm, 1820-1861 Stephen B. Oates, Editor, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.135

[8] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War pp.63-64

[9] Ibid. Faust, Drew The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South p.61

[10] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.140

[11] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.140

[12] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.141

[13] McPherson, James M. Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1996 p.50

[14] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.122

[15] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

[16] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.16

[17] Egnal, Marc Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 2009 p.6

[18] Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville and London 2001 p.12

[19] Thomas, Emory The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 Harper Perennial, New York and London 1979 p.5

[20] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.5

[21] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.457-458

[22] Freehling, William W. The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2001 p.20

[23] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.166

[24] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.166

[25] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation p.27

[26] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p. 34

[27] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858pp.70-71

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.27

[29] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p.22

[30] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.50-51

[31] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p.22

[32] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.169-170

[33] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.51-52

[34] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

[35] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.169-170

[36] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

[37] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

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Thoughts on Labor Day

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was Labor Day and sadly many people don’t really understand its significance. For decades organized labor has been demonized by the descendants of people who died to secure decent working conditions, wages, and benefits for regular hard working people. But most of the people lucky enough not to have to work on Labor Day really don’t know why it it matters, and whips in spite of those who despise labor and care not a whit about working people, who simply to use business terminology are simply human capital or resources.

So today I am digging into the vault to explore why Labor Day and what it represents matters to us now. This article is one that I have taken the time to edit and update.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps our only President who was a real working man once said, “If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.” Likewise, Adam Smith wrote:

“In regards to the price of commodities, the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

It seems that nothing about humanity ever changes, even so it is hard to believe that at one time American workers had no rights and I am not talking about African American slaves who as slaves didn’t even count as human beings. No I’m talking about the people Mel Brooks called in Blazing Saddles: “the white God fearing citizens of Rock Ridge” and for that matter every place and every race in America.

It was not until the mid-1800s in the United States and Europe that workers began to organize and protest for the right to decent wages and working conditions. But this came at a cost; the loss of jobs, homes, property, prison, deportation, deportation, and death.

There were many instances when this cost workers and labor organizers their lives. Employers, often backed by heavily armed private security contractors like the Pinkerton Agency, used deadly force to break up peaceful strikes. In the days of the Robber Barons, when business ran the government at almost every level, employers frequently called in local and state law enforcement, as well as the National Guard, and occasionally Federal troops to break strikes. They played various ethnic and racial groups off of each in order to divide the labor movement. There are hundreds of instances of such violence being used against workers, in some strikes the dead numbered in the hundreds.

Some of these attacks on workers occurred in major cities, others at isolated work sites and factories. Some are famous, the Haymarket Massacre of May 4th 1886 in Chicago, the Pullman Strike Massacre of 1894, the Homestead Strike and Massacre of 1892, the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, and the Columbine Mine Massacre of 1927.

Others less so, but there was more. In the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 1300 striking miners and their families were deported from their homes in Bisbee Arizona by 2000 armed deputies, put in box cars and transported 200 miles to the New Mexico desert, where without food, water or money they were left. There was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where managers locked the doors in order to ensure that the fleeing women workers did not put anything unauthorized in their purses. One hundred forty-four workers, mostly young women died, many jumping from the burning building to their death.

Early labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor led the effort to bring about better conditions. For doing so they were labeled subversive and even called communists. Their meetings were often attacked and the leaders jailed and some lynched.

The sacrifices of those early workers, and organizers are why we have Labor Day. One of the early American labor leaders was a man named Eugene Debs. Debs eventually became a Socialist, but he said something remarkable which still is as timely as when he uttered the words:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

I wish that wasn’t true but it is. The Social Darwinists who follow Ayn Rand as if she were the Prophet and who populate Wall Street boardrooms and every major school of business ensure that it is. The disparity between wage laborers and CEOs is higher than it has ever been. But I digress…

On September 5th 1882 the first Labor Day was observed when members of several Unions in New York City organized the first Labor Day parade. The police came armed and ready to intervene if the workers got out of hand, but the parade was peaceful. It ended and the marchers moved over to Wendell’s Elm Park where they had a party. Twenty-five thousand Union men and their families celebrated, with hundreds of kegs of lager beer.

Within a few years many states began to institute Labor days of their own. In 1894, just days after the violent end of the Pullman strike in which Federal troops and Marshalls killed 30 workers and wounded 57 more, Congress and President Grover Cleveland rushed through legislation to establish a Federal Labor Day.

My Great Aunt Goldie Dundas was a labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union in West Virginia in the 1920s – 1950s. I wish I had gotten to really know her, but she died when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Sadly the workers represented by that Union have had almost all of their jobs in the textile industry outsourced to China, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Bangladesh where cheaply made garments are produced, and workers abused. The examples of mass deaths due to safety issues and fires in Bangladeshi factories are too numerous to list. But then who cares? The fact is you can drive through many parts of the South and see the poverty created by the exodus of these Union employers, the textile industry, which was part of the fabric of the South is gone. Empty factories and poverty stricken towns dot the countryside. I saw a lot of them living in Eastern North Carolina, towns that once thrived are ghost towns, riddled with crime, unemployment and no hope, unless Wal-Mart opens a store in town. Ironically it sells the clothing made overseas that used to be manufactured by the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the people who live there today.

Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism understood it in a very different manner than those who claim to be Capitalists today. He wrote in his magnum opus, The Wealth of All Nations:

“In regards to the price of commodities, the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

The fact is that today, labor is under threat. Unions have been demonized by politicians and pundits and their power and influence much reduced. Some of this was due to their own success in improving conditions from workers, and not just Union workers. When my dad retired from the Navy in 1974, he went to work at one of the few non-Union warehouses of the John Deere Company in Stockton, California. While they were not union, the workers received every benefit won by the majority of the workers in the company who were members of the United Auto Workers Union. Due to that my dad had high wages, excellent working conditions and benefits. The company had a program for the children of workers, which allowed them to work in the summer in the warehouse and receive incredibly high pay and benefits while in college. I did that for two years, and it helped pay for much of my college. I was not a union member but I benefited because Union men and leaders did the hard work to make that job happen.

However, in many places, Unions and labor are under attack, sometimes not just by corporations, but also by state governments. Job security and stability for most American workers is a thing of the past. Federal and State agencies charged with protecting those rights, including safety in the workplace are being cut in the mad rush to reduce government power. Corporations are offshoring and outsourcing jobs without regard to American workers or the country itself. Part of that is due to globalization and I understand that, but these companies frequently relocate jobs to places where they can exploit workers, deny them benefits, pay them less, and suffer no penalty for ignoring safety procedures or harming the environment. It seems to me that we are returning to the days of the Robber Barons. I wonder when violence against workers and those who support them will be condoned or simply ignored.

Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical Renum Novarum:

“The following duties . . . concern rich men and employers: Workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of human personality be respected in them, … gainful occupations are not a mark of shame to man, but rather of respect, as they provide him with an honorable means of supporting life. It is shameful and inhuman, however, to use men as things for gain and to put no more value on them than what they are worth in muscle and energy.”

He also wrote:

“Equity therefore commands that public authority show proper concern for the worker so that from what he contributes to the common good he may receive what will enable him, housed, clothed, and secure, to live his life without hardship. Whence, it follows that all those measures ought to be favored which seem in any way capable of benefiting the condition of workers. Such solicitude is so far from injuring anyone, that it is destined rather to benefit all, because it is of absolute interest to the State that those citizens should not be miserable in every respect from whom such necessary goods proceed.”

But sadly there are far too few church leaders of any denomination who will take the side of workers or the poor, and when they do they are either condemned by the disciples of Ayn Rand or politely thanked and ignored by politicians and corporate leaders.

So please, when you celebrate Labor Day, do not forget that it is important, and that we should not forget why we celebrate it. If we forget that, it will become a meaningless holiday and our children may have to make the same sacrifices of our ancestors.

Labor Day is a day to remember the men and women, some of them former soldiers, workers, labor organizers, and leaders; some of whom were killed by National Guard and Federal troops for their effort, who paved the way for workers today. We cannot forget that. So when you see a politician attacking Labor and seeking to diminish workers rights or benefits ask them what Abraham Lincoln or Adam Smith would think. If they can’t answer, turn your backs on them and start fighting for what is right.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who always stood for the rights of workers no-matter what their race, creed, or color, said: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

This my friends is why Labor and the protection of working people from those who abase them, mistreat them, and exploit them is so important.

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Why Labor Day Matters

First_United_States_Labor_Day_Parade,_September_5,_1882_in_New_York_City

The First Labor Day

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps our only President who was a real working man once said, “If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.” 

It is hard to believe that at one time workers had no rights. It was not until the mid-1800s in the United States and Europe that workers began to organize and protest for the right to decent wages and working conditions. There were many instances when this cost them their lives. Employers, often backed by heavily armed private security contractors like the Pinkerton Agency, used deadly force to break up peaceful strikes. In the days of the Robber Barons, when business ran the government at almost every level, employers frequently called in local and state law enforcement, as well as the National Guard, and occasionally Federal troops to break strikes. They played various ethnic and racial groups off of each in order to divide the labor movement. There are hundreds of instances of such violence being used against workers, in some strikes the dead numbered in the hundreds.

1912_Lawrence_Textile_Strike_1

Lawrence Massachusetts Textile Strike; the National Guard with Bayonets Fixed against unarmed strikers

Some of these attacks on workers occurred in major cities, others at isolated work sites and factories. Some are famous, the Haymarket Massacre of May 4th 1886 in Chicago, the Pullman Strike Massacre of 1894, the Homestead Strike and Massacre of 1892, the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, and the Columbine Mine Massacre of 1927.

1024px-Ruins_of_Ludlow_restored

Aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre (above) and the Bisbee Deportation (below)

BisbeeDeportation

Others less so, but there was more. In the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 1300 striking miners and their families were deported from their homes in Bisbee Arizona by 2000 armed deputies, put in box cars and transported 200 miles to the New Mexico desert, where without food, water or money they were left. There was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where managers locked the doors in order to ensure that the fleeing women workers did not put anything unauthorized in their purses. One hundred forty-four workers, mostly young women died.

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Early labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor led the effort to bring about better conditions. For doing so they were labeled subversive and even called communists. Their meetings were often attacked and the leaders jailed and some lynched.

The sacrifices of those early workers, and organizers are why we have Labor Day. One of the early American labor leaders was a man named Eugene Debs. He said something remarkable which still is as timely as when he uttered the words:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

On September 5th 1882 the first Labor Day was observed when members of several Unions in New York City organized the first Labor Day parade. The police came armed and ready to intervene if the workers got out of hand, but the parade was peaceful. It ended and the marchers moved over to Wendell’s Elm Park where they had a party. Twenty-five thousand Union men and their families celebrated, with hundreds of kegs of lager beer.

Within a few years many states began to institute Labor days of their own. In 1894, just days after the violent end of the Pullman strike in which Federal troops and Marshalls killed 30 workers and wounded 57 more, Congress and President Grover Cleveland rushed through legislation to establish a Federal Labor Day.

International_Ladies_Garment_Workers_Union_logo

My Great Aunt Goldie Dundas was a labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union in West Virginia in the 1920s – 1950s. I wish I had gotten to really know her, but she died when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Sadly the workers represented by that Union have had almost all of their jobs in the textile industry outsourced to China, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Bangladesh where cheaply made garments are produced, and workers abused. The examples of mass deaths due to safety issues and fires in Bangladeshi factories are too numerous to list. But then who cares? The fact is you can drive through many parts of the South and see the poverty created by the exodus of these Union employers, the textile industry, which was part of the fabric of the South is gone. Empty factories and poverty stricken towns dot the countryside. I saw a lot of them living in Eastern North Carolina, towns that once thrived are ghost towns, riddled with crime, unemployment and no hope, unless Wal-Mart opens a store in town. Ironically it sells the clothing made overseas that used to be manufactured by the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the people who live there today. 

Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism understood it in a very different manner than those who claim to be Capitalists today. He wrote in his magnum opus, The Wealth of All Nations:

“In regards to the price of commodities, the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

The fact is that today, labor is under threat. Unions have been demonized by politicians and pundits and their power and influence much reduced. Some of this was due to their own success in improving conditions from workers, and not just Union workers. When my dad retired from the Navy in 1974, he went to work at one of the few non-Union warehouses of the John Deere Company in Stockton, California. While they were not union, the workers received every benefit won by the majority of the workers in the company who were members of the United Auto Workers Union. Due to that my dad had high wages, excellent working conditions and benefits. The company had a program for the children of workers, which allowed them to work in the summer in the warehouse and receive incredibly high pay and benefits while in college. I did that for two years, and it helped pay for much of my college. I was not a union member but I benefited.

However, in many places, Unions and labor are under attack, sometimes not just by corporations, but also by state governments. Job security and stability for most American workers is a thing of the past. Federal and State agencies charged with protecting those rights, including safety in the workplace are being cut in the mad rush to reduce government power. It seems to me that we are returning to the days of the Robber Barons. I wonder when violence against workers and those who support them will be condoned or simply ignored.

So please, when you celebrate Labor Day, do not forget that it is important, and that we should not forget why we celebrate it. If we forget that, it will become a meaningless holiday and our children may have to make the same sacrifices of our ancestors.

Oh, by the way…. If you see a meme on Facebook telling you to “thank the troops” for Labor Day, it is a bullshit meme. We troops have our days. Labor day is not ours. Labor Day is a day to remember those civilians, some of them former troops, but civilian labor leaders, organizers and unions; some of whom were killed by National Guard and Federal troops for their efforts; which paved the way for workers today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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