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Monday, September 05, 2011

Come, labor on

I come from a solid blue collar family with deep ties in the labor union movement.

Some of my earliest memories are tied to the work my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins did in organizing unions in the factories and mills in the New England Mill Town which was my birth place.

It was the one activity that wasn't segregated according to sexes. Male and female bodies huddled around the kitchen table. Voices along the high and low registers contributed to strategic planning. Some of it was spoken in English, some in Portuguese.

For the most part, the men worked in the factories - at Firestone Tire and Rubber which made everything from tires for cars and trucks, to sports equipment like basket and soccer balls, to the rubber parts for Keds, Converse, and PF Flyer Sneakers - which would then be sent to another factory where the canvass tops would be sewn on in pieces by men tending huge, industrial strength sewing machines.

The women, on the other hand, worked in the mills and sweat shops of the "Garment Industry, doing "piece work" - for the most part, figured on a nickle, dime and quarter per piece (as opposed to an hourly wage) for either sewing and/or ironing a piece like a collar, a cuff, a sleeve, a bodice or a skirt, sewing that one piece onto the garment, or "finishing" the product which was then sent to the shipping department where the whole "assembly line" mentality would be left to men to package the item and load it onto the truck for delivery to stores.

My memory is that the people in my neighborhood took great pride in their work. That's because they took great pride in work. In productivity. In being an employee of a particular company. In being part of something bigger than themselves - something that "kept the country running."

The phrase I keep hearing in my head is "We keep this country humming."

Humming. As in running smoothly. Harmoniously. Happy.

My memory is that my parents - like many members of my family and neighborhood - hummed a tune while they worked around the house or yard. Or, while they waited for the bus to take them to work.

These are people who had a "work ethic" without it having to have it defined for them. It was one thing to be an "SOB" but the worst insult was to be a "lazy SOB".

A person's worth was not calculated on his or her income or social standing but on the fact that they were a "hard worker" or a "good employee". That meant that when you had a chance to work extra hours, you did so not necessarily counting the extra income from "time and a half" or "double time" (these would come about from union negotiation) but knowing that the boss would "slip you something extra" because, well, because the work had to be done.

I don't know when things began to shift, actually. I don't know when corporate greed kicked in and the humming turned to grumbling. Whenever that was, it was about the same time my relatives and neighbors began gathering around my grandmother's table and started organizing the labor union movement in our town.

I don't know when the observance of Labor Day shifted from being a celebration of labor and trade unions to marking the end of the leisurely days of Summer. Whenever it was, it was about the same time the Labor Unions began to lose their authority and prominence in the life of this country.

That's because absolute power corrupts absolutely and labor unions are certainly not exempt from that truism.

There were BBQs and fireworks this weekend in this solidly blue-collar corner of Sussex County, known as "Lower, Slower Delaware".

The celebrations were marked by an "end of summer" theme, but there was a very clear observation of the worth of labor and the value of work, overshadowed by the fragile economy and soaring unemployment rates in this country.

There was the traditional Jazz Burial of Summer at Bethany Beach this evening. No fire works, though. It was a good year for retailers, but not exactly a banner year. "Mean Irene" soured the end of anything that might have yielded a profit.

I just returned from a quick trip to the little island at the end of Massey's Landing where the folks who live at Long Neck always gather. There were lots of boats and a BBQ but no fireworks. Again, no one was really in the mood - nor wanted to invest in the money to invest in fireworks.

We all seem to be waiting for the Presidential Address to a Joint Session of Congress where Mr. Obama is expected to unveil his plan to increase employment in this country.

I understand that the President quoted Harry Truman's Labor Day speech today when he spoke to the crowds in Cadillac Square, Detroit - 63 years after President Truman delivered his Labor Day Address at that same location.

Here is a little bit of what then President Truman said in 1948:
If you let the Republican administration reactionaries get complete control of this Government, the position of labor will be so greatly weakened that I would fear, not only for the wages and living standards of the American workingman, but even for our Democratic institutions of free labor and free enterprise.

Remember that the reactionary of today is a shrewd man. He is in many ways much shrewder than the reactionaries of the twenties. He is a man with a calculating machine where his heart ought to he. He has learned a great deal about how to get his way by observing demagogues and reactionaries in other countries. And now he has many able allies in the press and in the radio.

If you place the Government of this country under the control of those who hate labor, who can you blame if measures are thereafter adopted to destroy the powers, prestige, and earning power of labor?

I tell you that labor must fight now harder than ever before to make sure that its rights are kept intact. In practical terms, this means a powerful political effort which must culminate in an all-out vote on election day. Anything short of an all-out vote would be a betrayal by labor of its own interests.

It is not only the rights of the unions which are at stake, but the standard of living of your families. If prices are permitted to rise unchecked, it is your wives and your children who will suffer. As real wages decline in the face of rising prices, it is the housewife who must try desperately to feed and clothe her family while her buying power is steadily whittled away.

My sympathy is with those best of business managers--the wives and mothers of this Nation. Think how they have made the pay envelope stretch with each rise in prices.

Now, Mother has to outfit the children for school at outrageous prices. How she does it, I don't know. I tried to help her out in this terrible price situation, but I got absolutely no help from that "do-nothing" 80th Republican Congress.

Make no mistake, you are face to face with a struggle to preserve the very foundations of your rights and your standards of living.
It was ever thus.

I don't know about you, but I long for the day when people hum when they go to work. Because work, in an of itself, is a value. A worth. Which does not define a person but edifies the human enterprise.

This is a value, a "standard of living" which is worth celebrating.

Make no mistake, we are face to face with a struggle to preserve the very foundations of our rights and our standards of living.

God help us, one and all.

Even so, come, labor on.


Matthew said...

My grandmother came from a background in this country not so different than that of your family, except it was Scandinavian and midwestern. She was very blunt and outspoken. I remember one of the things she used to say: "Two kinds of people I hate to work with -- lazy people and stupid people." You cannot get much more basic than that. In her day, it was often the bosses that she deemed both lazy and stupid. She also had an agricultural background and could tell subtle clues looking at a farm whether the farmer kept it up properly or not. She was also a clean freak and I inherited that from her. She got in a lot of trouble because before eating in a restaurant she would often ask to see the kitchen. She felt you could tell a lot by how clean the kitchen was. Sadly much of the spirit of that generation is lost.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - So much of that generation is lost and we are the poorer for it.

Anonymous said...

This is a delightful blog! I wish your attitude could be adapted by the politicians of our day...and that they would follow the rules and code of conduct you set for this blog.

What attracted my interest was one blog with Weeds information...Martin Luther (1533) said that girls grow faster than boys because weeds grow faster than good crops... that prompted me to research the ideas that have moved forward from pre-biblical days until now about females! Your blogs are thrilling because of your spiritual attitude. Thanks so much!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, anonymous. Next time, leave your name.

BTW, the rules and code of conduct come from Sojourner's Community.

harvey said...

Hey, a sermon that calls God's friends by their Hebrew name and quotes yrs truly cannot be all bad. Sorry I wasn't there! In 1975, when EDS appointed Sue Hiatt and Carter Heyward to the faculty and we were being kicked around by bishops and others, this purple shirted person I didn't recognize showed up and I figured "Here we go again." It was Walter Righter, and he said, "Good for you guys!" It lifted my load.