Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement, dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers and the contributions they have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country, says a paraphrased Labor Department web post.
So how are we doing in 2015? Union membership strength has dropped to 11.1 percent, a level not seen since the 1940s and with most of the losses happening since 1988. Our wealth disparity has achieved historic separation as the middle class and the American dream evaporates. Collective well being, as recent polls note, is coming up short as 66 percent or more of Americans think our country is on the wrong track. Not Good.
It sounds familiar, though? Economic and social cycles have peaks and valleys. Everyone gets to go along for the ride. While the situations may not repeat, Mark Twain suggested, they often rhyme. No question we’re sliding on another down cycle, with a cadence of eras past and posing many questions about our nation’s progression from the great recession and the impact on unions and the subsequent dispossession of the middle class.
Many of the social and economic achievements boosting the American workforce of the past were the product of hard fought gains won by union efforts. The strength and prosperity that has seen better days grew tremendously from of a stable, well paid and secure workforce. None of that happened by accident or the kindness or generosity of capitalism. It took pain and hardship, street fights and political fights, riots and a revolution of sorts to raise the bar for so many to enjoy. People died, were beaten, and thrown in jail. Families were shattered by losing loved ones or by hardships from consequences of strikes, riots, or unjust action by corrupt politics. It was hard. It was ugly. It took forever. But it improved the national prosperity and well being and pushed middle class momentum on the up-cycle.
Workplace and economic oppression, along with social distress, are not new. Discontent has often fueled big changes and organized labor has often led the charge. The social and economic achievements celebrated on Labor Day came from struggles and aggression against the inherent evils of the forces that want more than their fair share, and capitalism breeds that.
We are in a cycle that grew from discontent that spawned a revolution in the early 1900s. It was sparked by obnoxious wealth that totally screwed the workforce for their own gains. The bad behaviors of many employers, abusing workers — adults and children — cheating on paychecks, forcing deadly work-until-you die conditions, and stemming discontent with violent force, made for a good reason to fight back. And that generation did.
The outcome of the fight forced changes in labor laws and pushed economic advances that created and expanded the middle class and changed America’s social fabric. It was revolutionary in that world. And all the time the revolution leaders could see, feel, harness, guide, and direct a lot of the heat and energy generated by the pain of discontent, the desire of many to fight for better lives for future generations. It was only that struggle, the way they knew how back then, that bred progress. Leaders like Frederick Douglas knew how that worked, and it did.
The pains of the depression and awful workplace environments fueled the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a student of Keynesian economics who pushed rapid job creation and programs to lift the country out of depression mode. Workers got rights, unions grew, workplaces became better, social distresses were eased, taxes on wealth rose to 90+ percent as wealth shared the cost of rebuilding the nation ravaged by their greed. Unions pushed harder for raising wages, shortening the work week, health care, building more infrastructure, supporting unionization, and securing retirement options.
Prosperity and well being were enhanced for everyone as the up-cycle grew. FDR’s program was working, for all but the richest few. The naysayers loaded their guns and fired away — verbally. They trashed his programs and called him a socialist and blocked everything they could. The capitalists relentlessly vented their objections to sharing wealth and growing the nation’s prosperity for everyone in any way they could. But unions, voters, middle class families, and most everyone knew labels didn’t matter. Outcomes did. FDR got a three-peat.
From the 1940’s to the 1970’s the economy, union membership, and shared prosperity soared and then leveled.
Reagan’s trickle-down voodoo economics and the fall of the Air Traffic Controllers union in 1981 fired the shot that started the race to the bottom. The strength of labor laws sagged. Big money spent more to take back shared prosperity any way they could, especially with big investments in politics. Labor never recovered. Momentum was crushed. That revolution ceased to spin. Union membership sank from its 30+ percent high and the economy slowly ebbed for all but the wealthiest.
Funny thing. The rhymes of history seem to have predictable stanzas based on a cycle repeating every four generations, at least according to William Strauss and Neil Howe and their book, Fourth Turning. It’s a 20-year-old prophesy that seems tuned in to this and many other historical cycles and predictable similar sounding outcomes.
Today’s generation is in dire need of a new foundation for tomorrow’s prosperity and well being — we need to build it and own it. Current concessions on jobs, wages, benefits, and quality of life won’t support a dream. It’s creating a nightmare of discontent, social and economic unrest, and uncertainty.
The ravages of unjust and disproportionate wealth is taking its toll — just like last time — and breeding new momentum for a revolution that may sound like the last one, only different. Power still will not concede without a struggle and better lives for the 99 percent won’t come by accident or from the kindness or generosity of the 1 percent who own the most. Surprisingly, if you can believe Strauss and Howe, it’s an inevitable process — genetically wired in history, so to speak.
Momentum for change is palpable, revealing itself in polls, platforms, and discourse. People are reacting to the pinch, there is social and economic tension festering, politics have gone crazy. This has moved growing numbers to get re-organized and re-mobilized. There is vibrant kinetic energy just waiting to be harnessed and channeled in the right direction. Change will happen and a new revolution seems to be knocking on America’s door.
Unions, as they have always been, are a great catalyst for action, fomenting the momentum needed for a sea change. People don’t want status quo, or a neap tide-like movement, and surely no one longs for a continuation of a receding tide. More middle-of-the-road approaches just won’t do. But it’s what seems to continue to be the only menu proffered by most politicians.
While we may be on the cusp of a new revolution sounding like the previous one, the action to get there may lose a piece of its rhyme. Pitchforks, torches, fisticuffs, guns, knives, bats, tire irons, and all other street fighting tools may have seen their day. We have smart phones and tablets that help create a new, different, and very strong voice. Violence and ugly weapon toting human interaction may be replaced with the power of like minds socially networked and activated to impact good outcomes. The smartphone may well be on its way to becoming mightier than the sword in the next revolution.
It’s surprising — with the need for change making itself heard everywhere and with a long, successful history of leading struggles for progress over many generational turns — that unions, to this point, have not yet embraced the power of a revolution builder like Bernie Sanders. He gets it. He hears the call. He has a plan of action. His revolutionary vision and campaign message rhymes with past successful middle class supporting approaches and traditional union values.
But, his methods and approach sound different as he’s hard at work building energized, peaceful human meet-ups and e-uprisings. The guns, knives, and bats are out. Masses of high-octane volunteers armed with smartphones and touchscreens are in.
Maybe labor has had a temporary hearing loss. Maybe the revolution skills are a bit rusty, it’s been a about four generations since the last cycle started. Maybe this generation needs to get more tablets booted up at the labor temples. A lot has changed and more change is coming. But Nov. 8, 2016, could easily be the start of a new verse that rhymes with Nov. 8, 1932, when FDR was elected and the revolution that brought us the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country took off and made Labor Day a perfect occasion for this generation and future ones to cheer the accomplishments of America’s workers.
Leo Canty is a retired vice president of AFT Connecticut. He is volunteering with the Bernie Sanders CT campaign.
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