Monday, September 03, 2012

The Art of Labor

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.“

Republican President Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress, December 3, 1861

Labor Day, 1942

by Charles Henry Alston,
 the first African American supervisor for the WPA Federal Art Project

Today, in honor of Labor Day in the United States, Denise Oliver Velez posted a moving tribute to work and workers on the Daily Kos. Inspired by the words, images and music that Velez put together, I have spent much of this Labor Day in deep consideration of the struggle and sacrifice of the brave laborers who worked together to build this country. 
Peter Clothier on his site, Vote Obama 2012, has also been considering the meaning of this holiday. Clothier writes:
"How much thought, I wonder, do most of us who celebrate Labor Day with a trip to the beach, a late summer barbecue in the park, a hike in the mountains--how much thought do we give to the actual reason for the holiday: to celebrate the contribution of the American worker?
Since Ronald Reagan faced down the air traffic controllers in 1981, it has been downhill all the way for unions in this country.  Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin feel free to use their powers to disempower the unions that champion the rights of teachers and other public workers, and the corporate powers-that-be wage a vigorous war against unions with everything in their arsenal, including their formidable army of lobbyists, their purchase of legislators through contributions to campaign funds and their "super pacs."  The result is a weakening of the unions that contributed significantly in the last century to the creation of the great American middle class, and diminishment of the middle class itself."
Peter Clothier goes on to send us a dire warning: 
"With the disempowerment of the unions, the American worker is deprived of the most basic tool to seek that upward mobility of which the country has long been justifiably proud.  Along with continually increasing cuts in state and federal education budgets, this assures the creation of a permanent, and to many inescapable underclass and the further enrichment of those who profit from their plight."

Gold Is Where You Find It

1934Tyrone ComfortBorn: Port Huron, Michigan 1909Died: Los Angeles, California 1939oil on canvas40 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum(Chosen By Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to hang in the White House)
two steel workers, lithograph


lithograph by Harry Sternberg, WPA

I Canti (The Cantos)

I Canti (The Cantos)

Gregg Chadwick
78"x60" oil on linen 2011

There is an incredibly rich trove of American visual art and music that celebrates the power and struggles of the worker. Bruce Springsteen's most recent album, Wrecking Ball, continues that tradition. Throughout the album , Springsteen tries to wake us from our national spiritual catalepsy. We, as a people, are asleep but not dead and need only to rise again to continue the struggles for labor rights, immigrant rights, and civil equality throughout our land.

 In the song, We Are Alive, Springsteen sings :

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand

Sixth Regiment Fighting its way through Baltimore

"Harper's Weekly, Journal of Civilization," Vol XXL, No. 1076, 
 Saturday, August 11, 1877
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 referenced by Springsteen in the above lines was arguably the key moment in the birth of the modern labor movement in the United States. The blood of the men and women cut down on city streets and country lanes across America catalyzed labor strikes and actions that woke up a citizenry  yearning for a better life and hope in a depressed economy ruled by corporate giants that had bought the presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes.

The actions of industrialists in this era and the corruption of Hayes and his cronies answer a deeply important political question. What happened to the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln? How did the GOP devolve into a party of privilege not progressiveness? The simple answer: the Republican party was bought off by Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad and in a perverse election deal sold off Abraham Lincoln's legacy of equality for all Americans by ending Reconstruction in the former Confederate States:
"Many Americans in 1877 believed their new president had reached the White House through fraud. Certainly Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, was not the man for whom a majority of voters had cast their ballots the previous year. Democrat Samuel Tilden overcame the Ohio governor in the popular vote but 20 disputed electoral votes from Florida and other states threw the election into theHouse of Representatives.

Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad reached a deal with Hayes: in exchange for a federal bailout of his troubled investment in the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the millionaire industrialist would deliver Congressional votes to Hayes. As a further inducement, the Republicans promised to end Reconstruction, a blatant betrayal of African Americans. Southern Congressmen deserted Tilden, handing the election to Hayes."*1
Hayes came into office a few years after the bank panic of 1873 which had disintegrated into a nationwide economic depression. "Weekly the layoffs, wage cuts, strikes, evictions, breadlines and hunger increased," wrote Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais in Labor’s Untold Story

Upon taking office during this depression, as Hayes had promised to his financial and political supporters,  he withdrew federal soldiers from the South and moved the forces to act as shock troops for the newly empowered corporate barons who were slashing wages across the board. Angry railroad workers took control of switches and blocked the movement of trains. As Harper’s Weekly reported the following month, "Governor Matthews evoked the aid of the national government. President Hayes responded promptly." Federal troops armed with Springfield rifles and Gatling guns arrived." Even in the face of the overwhelming fire power arrayed against them, the railroad workers made their stand. 

When I listen to Springsteen's We Are Alive, Mississippi John Hurt's Spike Driver Blues, or REM's Driver 8,  I am reminded of the laborers who built the tracks and engines, the engineers who drove the trains like my Grandpa Desch *2, and to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who in 1925 became the first labor organization led by blacks to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor. 

We as a nation are only as strong as the weakest member. It is my fervent hope that many will pause to reflect today on the contributions of the labor movement to our growingly inclusive society. Now is not the time to destroy unions and their protections for all. Instead now is the time to celebrate and affirm our shared history of civil and labor rights for all. Elizabeth Broun wrote when considering the exhibit Art and the New Deal organized in 2009 by The Smithsonian Institution: 

"What seems clear is that America gains in the long term when it invests in its own heritage and people."

Happy Labor Day!

1. The UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) site provides invaluable information on the history and struggles of labor in the United States and I highly recommend spending time on their website to gather a clear history of the movement.

2. My grandfather on my mother's side spent his working life as a train engineer on the Jersey Central Line. That itself sounds like a Springsteen lyric and explains part of my great love for songs of the rail.

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