Monday, September 04, 2006
May First might be the real Labor Day, but I never turn down a chance to march
By CLANCY SIGAL
Labor Day was created in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland, desperate to win re-election, rushed through a bill to appease the nation’s angry workers just days after he had sent federal troops to Chicago to break a railway strike. A September celebration of labor had in fact been started by the Knights of Labor a decade earlier. Today, for most Americans, it is a long weekend, and the last, lazy day of summer, of barbeques and beaches.
From its inception, the holiday was unabashedly about men - extolling muscles and the workingman. Labor’s mythic personalities were men like Jimmy Hoffa, bushy-browed mine workers’ leader John L. Lewis and the radical organizer Big Bill Haywood. Its martyrs and saints were also men, like Joe Hill and the Haymarket Square anarchists and Gene Debs.
I’m a child of the labor movement, except that I experienced its triumphs and defeats through the eyes of women –- especially my mother, Jennie.
When I was five years old, during the Great Depression, I accompanied her to Chattanooga,Tennessee, where she had been sent by the Textile Workers Union.She was an organizer. Her assignment was to sign up the mill hands who tended the looms and spindles—and were paid as little as four dollars for a 60-hour work week.
Women workers especially were mistreated in the mills. Often denied bathroom breaks or stools to rest on while they stood at their weaving frames, they were victims of a punishing piece-rate and ‘stretch out’ system. The factory owners were like feudal barons, with their own private armies and the National Guard to break strikes. Violence against strikers, or anyone who spoke up, was routine. Pro-union ‘agitators’ were marked for blacklisting or worse. Union organizers like my mom could disappear (get killed) or end up tarred and feathered.
Word soon got out that Mom was having clandestine meetings at our kitchen table, after dark, with both black and white women workers. Breaking the color line was in itself a capital crime at that time and place. Deputies came and arrested Jennie, and so we both ended up behind bars in the Hamilton County jail. We were lucky to get off so lightly. After a day and a half, the sheriff took us to the train station and graciously ran us out of town.
Jennie was an average woman – without being average at all. She had left school at twelve and led her first strike at thirteen after witnessing the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. She was the equal, if not better, of any man at the bargaining table and on the picket line - where she insisted on wearing her ‘best’: Belgian lace gloves, cloche hat and ‘Cuban’ heels. She was afraid of nothing and could not be intimidated, But, like so many women of her time, she was shy of “putting herself forward”, in self promotion, even more than she feared jail or a cop’s truncheon. Her amazing generation of women could fight for others but were strangely reticent about speaking up for themselves.
How many women were there like my mother? Nobody will ever know. A few are celebrated – Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, Frances Perkins the first female Labor Secretary, and in the movies, Norma Rae. But, for someone like me, born on a Labor Day, the real history of this holiday is buried at the Workmen’s Circle cemetery in Los Angeles, not far from where I live. There Jennie is surrounded by the modest graves of her rank and file union sisters and brothers – the anonymous foot soldiers who made the factories safer, banned child labor, fought for our pensions and health benefits and yes, gave us this weekend.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist living in Los Angeles. He has recently published a memoir of his mother, ‘A Woman of Uncertain Character’
Photos from Labor Day in Detroit, Michigan 2006
Striking Airline workers and Detroit teachers on the move!
P.S. Don't fuck with flight attendants
Generally speaking, when you give workers tips on how to
dumpster-dive as an alternative to better wages they don't
take it too well. But maybe while sifting through the garbage
looking for clothing or furniture (actually suggested by Northwest
managment) they might stumble across their pension.
Rumor has it Northwest placed it there.
Union backers fight gloom at sunny Detroit Labor Day parade
DETROIT (AP) -- Sunny skies, a gentle breeze and the cheerful banter of thousands of marchers in Michigan's largest Labor Day parade could not mask the gloomy outlook for many unionized workers facing layoffs, pay cuts and concession demands.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney led the 1.5-mile walk, flanked by United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger and Michigan Democratic U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.
Last Wednesday, the 9 million-member labor federation launched a $40 million voter drive aimed at boosting union household participation in the Nov. 7 elections and helping elect pro-union lawmakers -- overwhelmingly Democrats.
Workers' welfare has steadily eroded under the Bush administration, said Sweeney. He said the election could bring a more labor-friendly Congress that could help change federal labor relations policies that are hostile to unionization.
"We can win this election in so many key states and races," Sweeney told cheering supporters at the march's end. "You have your work cut out for you."
Republicans disputed the contention that Bush has been bad for working people, or that Democrats are necessarily good for them.
"There have been more than 5 million jobs created under the Bush administration," Michigan GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said Monday. Meanwhile, she said, Michigan's unemployment rate has been among the nation's highest under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
The state's seasonally adjusted jobless rate jumped to 7 percent in July, up 0.7 points from June, while the nation's rate rose 0.2 points to a five-month high of 4.8 percent.
The governor herself pointed to Washington as the place where change must occur to improve conditions for working people.
"We have a No Child Left Behind law in this country," Granholm told the post-march rally after leading the annual Mackinac Bridge walk 250 miles north earlier Monday. "We ought to have a No Worker Left Behind law."
Organized labor faces daunting challenges in 2006. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are cutting tens of thousands of jobs and seeking to roll back health benefits, while Northwest Airlines Corp. and Delta Air Lines Inc. are using bankruptcy protection to wring deep pay and benefit concessions from their employees.
Union membership stabilized last year at 12.5 percent of the work force after decades of decline, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Union membership was about a third of the work force a half-century ago, and was 20 percent in 1983.
A sign of the tough times for unions came from marching Northwest Airlines flight attendants, who have authorized a strategy of scattershot walkouts aimed at pressuring the Eagan, Minn.-based airline to offer less drastic cuts.
"We hope we don't have to use it," said Daniel Grey, 32, of Ann Arbor, a Northwest flight attendant based at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Corporate cutbacks are undermining people's hopes of achieving the American dream of good pay and benefits, Grey said.
"For most American workers right now, I think it's the American nightmare," he said.
Hundreds of Detroit Federation of Teachers also marched, one week after going on strike and the day before classes were to begin. They are seeking their first raise in four years while resisting cuts in health benefits.
Twenty-year Detroit schools veteran Dorothy Burk, a teacher at the Paul Robeson Early Learning Center, said her union's situation mirrors a hostile environment for organized labor in general.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Burk, 50. "It's scary."