Labor in a Crucible

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constructed a much broader vision of
organized labor than the “business
unionism” of its craft union rivals that
became the American Federation of
Labor (AFL). The Knights welcomed
unskilled workers, of any race or gender,
into community-wide coalitions addressing various social
concerns across the US at a time when AFL unions were
essentially guilds of all white men focused solely on making
money for their members. But the Knights died a violent
death during an early “red scare” following the struggle
for an eight hour day.
An increasingly concentrated business class, with support
from its friends in government at many levels, brutally
attacked the Knights’ networks, killing many, jailing
more, and bequeathing the field of organized labor to the
more conservative unions. Kim Voss points out in The
Making of American Exceptionalism (Cornell 1993) that
organized labor was able to retain a more open structure—
and the left politics that come with it—only in countries
like England and France where the employers were less
well organized and not strong enough to use the state as a
truncheon, or not as effectively.
As a result US workers, for generations largely bereft of
organizational support for a more solidaristic worldview,
largely do not know that almost every country in the
world celebrates Labor Day on May 1, marking a fatal
event in the struggle for the Eight Hour Day in Chicago—
or that Pres. Grover Cleveland began our September Labor
Day specifically to distract from May Day.
More seriously, millions of US workers do not know
about ongoing labor struggles in their own backyards,
much less abroad. Many fruits and vegetables (tomatoes,
potatoes, melons, citrus) sold in US supermarket and fastfood
chains are harvested under the worst sweatshop conditions—
sweltering heat, no water or toilets, and rockbottom
pay—sometimes including threats and verbal
abuse and beatings. Modern overseers sometimes hold
pickers in the fields at gunpoint, lock them in rat-infested
camps overnight without running water, even run over
them if they try to flee. Citizens as well as immigrants
endure these conditions in Florida and the Deep South,
and points north—as close to you as Rantoul, where workers
housed in cramped and dirty apartments, sometimes
without running water or electricity, labor in the heat
every summer for agri-giants like Monsanto and others.
Today every inhabited continent is plagued with such
Dickensian conditions, which include an estimated 27 million
slaves held in physical bondage, among them domestic
slaves in the US and Sudan, diamond miners in West
Africa, “carpet slaves” in India, sex slaves in Thailand, and
cane cutters in Pakistan and the Dominican Republic. In
Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, there
are only about 100,000 year-round full-time jobs for 9 million
people, mostly in maquiladoras supplying US corporations
like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Disney and others in “Free
Trade Zones” (FTZ) established under pressure from the US
government and the International Monetary Fund.
The Haitian people’s ongoing struggle to raise their
country’s minimum wage—opposed by USAID under
Clinton and Bush—has been largely against the allied
forces of Haitian businesses interlocked with US businesses
and the Haitian military trained and supplied by the US.
Between them these groups have essentially held the entire
Haitian population in a kind of national debt slavery for
200 years, on behalf of US and other foreign businesses.
Closer to home in Chicago unionized workers in the
Congress Hotel went on strike in 2003 because management
decided to freeze wages and slash benefits when
other hotels were agreeing to pay raises. Broke? Far from
it, six years into the strike—making it the longest hotel
strike in US history—the wealthy owners have been
dumping wads of cash into big renovations at the hotel
while paying its housekeepers a little over half what other
Chicago hotel housekeepers earn. The chair of the ownership
company Albert Nasser lives in Geneva, Switzerland,
and New York City, and controls several offshore clothing
manufacturing businesses. One of these, Gelmart Industries,
was recently involved in a sweatshop scandal involving
abusive working conditions.
Also nearby in Effingham, employees at Heartland
Human services have been out of work, first on strike then
locked out by management, for two years during which
management continues to receive funding from the supposedly
cash-strapped State of Illinois for services largely
not being provided.
The same State of Illinois in the recent past “borrowed”
from its workers’ pensions and now can’t pay the money back
(and state employees won’t get Social Security either, because
they pay into the pension plan instead). Now the state’s flagship
land grant university, UIUC, announces unilaterally that
employees must take a pay cut this year. (It’s called a “furlough”
but many employees will still have to do the same
amount of work, so it is really just a pay cut—and for the others,
good luck finding a second job to fill in the random days
you may be out of work.) That’s while the upper echelons at
the university have been busy earning their six-figure salaries
pandering to the rich and powerful—tailoring admissions
standards and creating cushy jobs.
Managers and politicians have little compunction about
promoting such attacks on workers in large part because of
the much-talked-about decline in organized labor and its
political implications. More than the declining numbers
since the 1970s, labor’s recent nadir has its roots back in
the violent death of the Knights of Labor and their broader
“social unionism,” Voss argues. Pres. Ronald Reagan may
have infamously fired the PATCO air traffic controllers, signaling
open season for three decades of renewed attacks on
unions, but their strike had been illegal for years owing to
the influence of anti-labor politicians, many of them, like
Reagan, endorsed by conservative unions—like PATCO.
The myopic, rightward drift of US labor, albeit uneven,
certainly has played a role in aggressive US foreign policy,
much of it aimed at ensuring cheap labor for US business.
The AFL-CIO has colluded directly with the US government
in busting leftist unions in other countries, and less directly
US unions often support rightwing politicians—like Reagan—
who then go on to undermine working conditions on
an international scale. Presidents Cleveland, Reagan and Bill
Clinton, marshal of the notorious North American Free
Trade Agreement and several Haitian FTZ’s were just a few
examples that labor has lived to regret—barely.
Yet there has always been resistance. A vision of more
universal solidarity resurfaces again and again, and each
time new ground is gained and defeat is less total, as with
the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early
20th century and later the Congress of Industrial Organizations
(CIO), both largely but not entirely broken by “red
scare” public-private partnerships. Unskilled labor of both
sexes and many ethnic groups is now a permanent, unquestioned
fixture within the labor movement, although by no
means equally. The United Farm Workers, once brutally
assaulted by Teamsters, is now a player in the AFL-CIO.
New alliances formed in the “Battle of Seattle” and other
resistance against Clinton’s NAFTA in 1999 and the Zapatista
uprising in Mexico. The trend continues in the
recent heartening embrace by once-myopic labor unions
for groups like Jobs With Justice community-labor coalitions,
United Students Against Sweatshops, the Coalition
of Immokalee Workers—who organize farmworkers in the
US “sweatshops of the fields”—and US Labor Against the
War. Even union protests over the export of jobs in the last
ten years have changed in tone from jingoistic “Buy American”
rallies to common cause with sweatshop workers.
But there are many divisions, too, for better or worse,
and the true test of solidarity is likely to be in the crucible
of recent economic disasters, when workers and their
organizations will have to choose: wagons in a circle or
greater solidarity.

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