This is the first in a series of posts on the history of the labor movement in this country, which bears directly on the current Occupy movement for economic justice.
“The calendar is lying when it reads the present time.” – Phil Ochs
Working people of 100 years ago put in unimaginable work days – 18, even 20 hours — under conditions that could – and did –kill. And yet they managed to find the time to think, to recognize that the only people who could probably understand their lives were the recently freed slaves. The tipping point came when poor black working folks, recognizing that working yourself to death for so little pay that you die still owing your corporate massa for food and shelter wasn’t that far from being literally owned, joined forces with labor, and the masses of working poor found the energy somehow to fight the powers that were—and to a large extent, still are.
And the right wing, which then and now glorifies hard work in the abstract, persecuted, demonized, shot and killed them when they sought to use the democratic process to rectify that injustice. It’s a grim picture that’s been utterly erased from the glorious pseudo-history that we Americans have been spoon-fed in our schools, but all you really have to do is look around, and you’ll see it, because it never really left. Like a vampire, that past was only briefly hiding in the shadows waiting for its chance to again feed on the blood of a society made vulnerable by political cravenness.
The names that you encounter these days mostly as benevolent sponsoring foundations on NPR originally belonged to brutal, rapacious men who treated humans like machines “to be used and tossed in the street after they are done with them.” J.P. Morgan got his start by royally screwing the taxpayers *and* endangering the Civil War soldiers with a defective-rifle swindle made possible by inept, corrupt oversight; instead of being tried for treason and properly punished, he made an obscene fortune courtesy of us all, and left it to his heirs. Andrew Carnegie. John D. Rockefeller. Andrew Mellon. All of them milked the U.S. government and ruthlessly overworked its citizens, getting filthy rich.
When the people whose labor created that wealth decided to band together and form unions to balance the scales, they were harassed and jailed on almost any pretext by a “police” force controlled by the monopolists. Groups of miners or railroad workers who tried to exercise their First Amendment rights and take their protest directly to their alleged Representatives were “arrested for stepping on the grass” and jailed. Sound vaguely familiar, Occupy?
While the toys our corporate masters sell us to distract us today are slicker and smarter, under the skin of society not much has changed. Or rather, it changed briefly for the better, but there’s been a steady rollback of that progress, and the present looks a lot like the 19th century. Look around, and you’ll see many of the companies the monopolists founded, some still bearing their surnames and some disguised, still raking it in, still raping the rank and file. Mellon Bank. Morgan Stanley. Chevron-Texaco. CBS Corporation. Siemens, Rockwell, U.S. Steel, Heinz, General Motors, and ExxonMobil; all sprang from the loins of these scourges of American workers. The money that allowed them to survive and thrive came from the interest paid on the obscene fortunes they extorted from your parents and grandparents.
The constant march of monopoly-friendly acts issuing from the right wing and the opportunistic “opposition” party eagerly cashing in whatever principles it has left has brought these and new monsters out of hiding and they’re ravenous for more, more, more. They’re getting it. More of your tax money in their private bank accounts, more cuts to the things your taxes should pay for, things you need to protect you from them. The sneaky repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act by Republicans and Bill Clinton. The Telecommunications Act of 1996. NAFTA. Citizens United. All crafted to make it possible for these corporations to roll over the powerless in their rush back to the end of the 19th century.
With all the powers aligned against us, and the longevity they’ve demonstrated, Occupy’s effort may seem like a fool’s errand. But isn’t it always that way? Ask the people who rose up against murderously corrupt leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and all over South America.
Sometimes ‘solidarity forever’ means exactly what it says. Those starving farmers and miners, persecuted by lazy, irresponsible media so they could be killed by their own governments, finally created a movement of working people that made life briefly bearable for the people who built the country: the same unions the right is gleefully decimating today. It’s time to finish what those populists started.
For more, read http://www.ranknfile-ue.org/untold.html