Labor Day, 2013: Realities and Hopes

I like to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” album from time to time, at moments when my spirits need lifting up.   In “Jack of All Trades,” the protagonist does outdoor work, carpentry, auto repair and farming (“I’ll harvest your crops”).  Given the recent one day strikes in some 60 cities by fast food workers,  I wonder if  Springsteen will soon add “I’ll serve your next meal” to a new version of the song.  Or better yet, write an original song honoring the role these low-paid employees are playing in bringing a spark to a movement sorely in need of one.

The one day strikes, which have been repeated several times over the past year, stand out this Labor Day as a cause for optimism amid the overall despair that characterizes the condition of working people.  The statistics are grim: a decline in union membership from 24% of the labor force in 1973 to just over 11% in 2012, and less than 7 % in the private sector.   Public employees now make up the largest unionized workforce, but they remain under attack at the Federal (postal workers); state (Indiana and Michigan both joined Wisconsin in enacting anti-union legislation); and local level (where teachers face layoffs and concessionary bargaining).  The Federal minimum wage stands at a paltry $7.25 an hour, which helps to put some 30 million employees in the category of “working poor.”

Most jobs that disappeared with the financial crisis carried middle range wages ($14 to $21 an hour), while the new jobs tend to be part-time and low paid (from minimum wage to under $14 an hour).  There hasn’t been significant pro-worker legislation at the Federal level since OSHA was passed during the Nixon administration in 1970.  While candidate Barack Obama spoke critically of aspects of NAFTA, as President he signed off on three new free trade agreements and is pushing a fourth, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.   He promised to fight for the right of collective bargaining,  famously stating he would “put on a comfortable pair of shoes…[and] walk on that picket line with you as president” if it were threatened. But when it was under attack in Wisconsin, he never made it to the state, let alone the picket line.

For working people, we haven’t seen conditions like these since the Great Depression.  At that time the major union federation, the American Federation of Labor, organized only highly skilled or craft workers, leaving the vast bulk of industrial employees, many Eastern European immigrants and African-Americans, unprotected.  But within half a dozen years, those workers in auto, rubber, steel, chemicals and electrical products rose up and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), improving their wages, security and working conditions.  By the end of World War II, over one-third of American workers had union jobs and many lived middle class lives.  It wasn’t easy.  They had to sit-in at their factories, face private and public armies and a hostile press.

Today, the vast bulk of those manufacturing jobs that served as the base for the CIO have left the country, and the new jobs are in the service sector, home health care, retail and fast food.   There, pay is low, working conditions poor, and employee control minimal.  But that was the case for millions of industrial workers in the 1920s and early ‘30s, until they revolted and organized.   Now we’re  getting a glimpse of how today’s low paying workers, many new immigrants and people of color, are rebelling.  No one knew what that first sit-in in the 1930s would bring, nor do we know what these one day strikes will result in.  We do know that a new strategy is needed, and it’s good to see that those McDonald’s workers and Walmart “associates” are getting support from faith-based organizations, Jobs with Justice, community organizers and unions, including the Service Employees International Union.

In “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen takes us through the current malaise yet sees “a new world coming, I can see the light.”   Perhaps it will be here by Labor Day 2014 or, if we’re lucky, by May Day.

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