A Forgotten Riot & Goodwill, Colltalers
It’s Labor Day in the U.S., so people may take it easy, as hard as that may be nowadays. It’s also the unofficial end of the Northern summer, a time to barbecue, and a few others things. What it is not is what 80 others countries celebrate on May 1, rather than today.
That’s a curious historical diversion. What’s considered the inspiration for today’s date happened in Chicago, 130 years, and four months, ago: the Haymarket Riot, when police ended a union rally for the eight-hour shift by killing and maiming scores of people.
It may sound harsh a description but the May 4, 1886, gathering in support of striking workers had been peaceful until the cops showed up. The riot inspired organized labor around the world to set up a date that’d memorialize the dead and the workers’ cause for fair laws.
In an all too familiar turn, four protesters were convicted and hanged for conspiracy a year later. Soon after, though, laws were passed imposing limits on the length of a day, and week, work, along several other rights most people enjoy even now, thank you very much.
Thus, even though Labor Day in September is as far as resonating the history of the movement as the month is from May, it still offers an opportunity to meditate on the decline of worker unions in the U.S., and how that impacts, or not, the upcoming presidential election.
While a separate date betrays the early attempt to drill holes in the unity of the emerging labor movement, it now sheds an uncomfortable glare on the so-called ‘American exceptionalism.’ The arrogance of the concept is so ingrained on the American psyche, that few see it at the root of our isolationism, and another reason why, labor-wise, we may be experiencing a backslide to a dark, pre-labor laws era.
Over 50 million workers are now freelancers, or as the ‘new economy’ calls it it, independent contractors. To employers, this growing pool of available hands, found outside the constraints of
the eight-hour shift or any traditional, labor-achieved laws, is the new gold.
Many hail the new status quo, arguing that anyone now may choose when they ‘want’ to work, or take time off; there’s always someone else to call to fill in. Workers, on the other hand, can hardly afford to out-of-pocket their vacations; they’d be most likely applying somewhere else.
We’d even call Orwellian this seemingly attempt at spinning what’s a well-worn trend of capital exploitation of labor. But in America, there’s already a better term to label it: Reagan-esque. For few presidents could claim ownership over unions demise as the Gipper.
Labor statistics can hardly show the impact of organized worker associations on American prosperity and political stability. Neither they reveal something as incidental as the effect a president may have on their numbers. That said, there’s a curious dip in union membership around the time of Reagan’s emergency into national life: from 21 million American workers, in 1979, to 17.7 million, in 1983.
More relevant is considered his intervention on the then powerful Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization, which was striking for better wages. Threatening to fire thirteen thousand seasoned professionals was a huge gamble. Many things could go the other way, including a major air tragedy. But he was lucky as always, the strike was declared illegal, and he came out of it with a big win.
As with anything about him, his feat was aggrandized, and many saw then the beginning of the end of the organized labor in the U.S. Perhaps. He did help pass legislation declaring some categories off limits to the right to strike. That by extension, scared the union ID cards out of millions of professionals, whose lifetime jobs – what’s now an anachronism – could summarily end up in the waste basket.
Union decline has tracked overall changes in the global economy, with radical shifts in manufacturing and the way goods are traded across borders. Technology has also greatly impacted the workplace, and giving current trends, that’ll only increase. Robots, anyone?
Globalization, political unrest, a state of permanent war in vast regions of the world, have also contributed to a widening gap between haves and have-nots. Income inequality has been the scourge to which no solution seems to be worth the attention of political leaders.
Speaking of which, we may hear speeches about labor today, by the two U.S. presidential candidates, as well as a few parades and some local rallies here and there. The overall feeling towards working relations in America, however, is one of apathy and contempt.
Long ago, and with no little credit to the Republican party, labor issues have been relegated to close-door discussions among employers, or as they prefer, ‘job creators.’ Even without being privy to their agenda, 99% of the population know exactly what they’re about.
Which brings us to another date that’s considerably more relevant to American workers: the five-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, on the 17th. Or rather than the date, the idea that fueled it, and the almost surprising effectiveness of its flexibility.
Almost from the start, its drive was not strictly about accountability of financial institutions for the almost collapse of world economy, without being penalized for it, but the rise of a new way to voice popular dissatisfaction outside traditional channels of political change.
It was a risky proposition, one that veered dangerously close to irrelevance. But one that, instead, proved itself resilient and capable to adapt as the movement evolved. Even without recognizable leaders, OWS has been present in a vast array of political and social contexts.
Since that September, independent outfits of the umbrella-acronym have been associated with storm recovery efforts, the $15 minimum wage fight, resistance against foreclosures, and the crucial, and extremely relevant, battle to eliminate medical debt, among others.
In the case of the latter, it tackles a multibillion-dollar industry that thrives on the inability of most Americans to afford health care, which traps them into gargantuan debt wells. RIP Medical Debt’s Jerry Ashton and Craig Antico use their former experience as collectors to turn what was believed to be an intractable problem into a solution: just like the industry, they purchase debt by pennies on the dollar.
But whereas industry hacks, despite having already collected their dues on the cut-down price, go back to hunt down debtors, RIP does away with the debt. They’ve already single-handedly erased millions in debt, with no cost to naturally grateful, and cash-strapped, debtors.
It’s the sort of pragmatism and goodwill put to service of a worthy social cause that politicians consistently seem unmoved by. All the more reason to demand their attention. It also proves that to help other people may not take grand gestures, or a holiday that has lost its bearings. So it’s OK to take time off to B-B-Q, or go vegan if we may, and relax with our loved ones. It gets September going on the right note. WC