By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
Sept. 1, 2003
Labor Day thought: which side are you on?
"Which Side Are You On" is a good old Labor Day hymn, which still asks us the key question on where we stand today in America.
Which side are we on when it comes to "the rules, which govern the conditions under which persons may work under the control of other persons, their employers?" (In other words, labor law as established by government).
What's going on with low wage workers all over the world is pretty horrible right now. How horrible? There are places in the world where workers have no rights at all and here in the United States, the hard earned rights of workers are fast disappearing, along with organized labor.
It wasn't very long ago, back in the days before the New Deal, labor organizers like "Mother Jones" who had been born in County Cork, Ireland as Mary Harris, fought for the underdog and was thrown into jail many times for her efforts.
She documented the lives of thousands of children, some as young as 6 years old, working in the textile industry, losing their little fingers and getting maimed and killed. The same thing goes on today under the name of globalization: Out of sight, out of mind.
How much do Nike employees get paid overseas? How safe are their working conditions? Who cares?
It wasn't long ago when it was American workers, who had a six-day workweek and 10 hour days. We didn't have a 5-day workweek until 1938. If it were up to the "you-know-who's," we would still have child labor and six-day workweeks.
The "you-know-who's" did all they could more recently to stop OSHA, equal employment opportunity, and the minimum wage.
We can thank the labor movement and their political allies for the chance to use an outdoor bathroom (potty portables as mandated by OSHA), workmen's compensation, minimum wage, and health insurance.
None of these gains were gifts from generous businessmen. All had to be earned the hard way through strikes and long struggle.
People not long ago were beaten up, jailed, and even killed for trying to get justice for working people.
Why has progress now stopped? Why the sudden arbitrary layoffs?
Why no benefits for part-time workers?
Why aren't more people insured for health care?
Because the American work force is no longer organized. Only 10 percent of American workers now belong to a labor union.
There's a good book out now by Barbara Ehrenreich who decided to do some good old-fashioned journalism and see for herself what it was like to be a woman on minimum wage these days.
She took jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, and a nursing home assistant. In Minnesota she worked at a Wal-Mart "under the repressive surveillance of men and women whose job it is to monitor her behavior for signs of sloth, theft, drug abuse, or worse."
All for the present wages of the unskilled, on which she found she couldn't survive, even working two jobs. (The book is called "Nickeled and Dimed.")
Writer Flannery O'Connor said "For the hard of hearing you have to shout" and that's what Ehrenreich does in this book.
Her shout is for the countless American nannies, who can't afford to take their own kids to the doctor. Her stories are for the underpaid janitors or busboys, who get accused of stealing ketchup packets.
The whole book is a shocking account of the work conditions endured these days by millions of Americans.
Try this: Walk into a Wal-Mart, or an Office Depot, or a Home Depot, or a Target store, or construction sites down here where I live in south Texas, and ask one of the workers what would happen if they tried to "organize."
They would tell you they would be out on their ear in a heartbeat, even though all of the Popes, right up to the present one, taught that the right to organize for collective bargaining is a basic human right.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, he said, "I see a nation one-third ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-fed" and, along with the Labor Movement, he set out to do something about it.
For that, he was jeered as "a traitor to his class." You see, the advocates for Labor and for the poor didn't start "class warfare" (which is what the Religious Right are calling it nowadays).
It started with attacks on Roosevelt who, being "high born" and wealthy should not have cared about "the great unwashed."
Now with the globalization of the last 15 years, all bets are off. The complexities of the intermeshed economies of global corporations may boggle our minds into inaction.
Yet, with so much at stake and with injustices growing like weeds all over the world, this is no time to take a rest.
When it comes to the rights of immigrants, the unskilled, the "marginalized" around the world and in our own country, we have to stay alert as to who gets rich and who gets poor. We can't forget our history.
At Hubert Humphrey's funeral, Pastor Calvin Didier of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul started out with the poem, "I thought I saw Joe Hill today, I dreamed I saw Joe Hill."
Joe Hill? Joe Hill was an immigrant from Sweden (full name Hillstrom) He had been a successful labor organizer who was beaten, jailed and eventually killed for going against big business. Hubert Humphrey, Waverly's first son, really did "see" Joe Hill and all he stood for.
Where are the Humphreys of today?
The question, globalization or not, will remain the same:
What do we stand for and who do we stand beside?
"Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?
We went out to join the picket line, for together we cannot fail.
We got stopped by police at the county line.
They said, 'Go home, boys, or you're going to jail.'
Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on!"
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