Vote like your job and your union depend on it, because they do.
By BERRY CRAIG
AFT Local 9005
Railroad boss George F. Baer was furious that anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania dared strike for better pay, shorter hours, safer working conditions and recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers of America.
"The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful Management of which so much depends," he declared.
The year was 1902. Today, free enterprisers like Baer and their allies in politics, the press and the pulpit are still crooning the same trust-the-boss, you-don't-need-the-union tune. By "free enterprise" the bosses have always meant union-free.
So what was it like to work when there were almost no unions in America's factories, mines and mills?
In 1890, on average, you’ll spend 100 hours a week on the job in a factory, according to CNBC.
Married with children? Your pay is so low that you wife and kids – as young as 10 – will have to go to work to help make ends meet. (Women were paid less than men for doing the same job. Children were paid less than grownups.)
Industrialists praised child labor as a godsend. They claimed work taught children responsibility and kept them off the streets and out of trouble.
“The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor,” said Asa Candler, a founder of the Coca-Cola company. “As early as he may get at labor the more beautiful, the more useful does his life get to be.” (Some Republican governors and GOP-majority state legislatures are gung ho for bringing backchild labor.)
So with mom, dad and the kids all working, surely families made ends meet, right? Nope.
In 1890, 12 million families lived in the U.S. The average annual family income for 11 million families was $380, according to the PBS. The poverty line was $500.
Okay, think about 100 hours a week. That averages more than 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
But, oh my, all that overtime pay: all over 40, time-and-a-half! Double time for Saturday, Triple time for Sundays and holidays!
There was no overtime pay. It was all straight time.
What about paid vacations, holidays and weekends off? Nope.
Every day you went to work at the factory—or in a mine or on the railroad--you literally risked life and limb. Most owners and managers considered workers expendable. The bosses resisted safety devices because they made machines more expensive.
Bosses worshipped the bottom line. Their object was to make as much money as they could for themselves, their managers and their stockholders. (That's all still true.)
Preventable accidents killed or maimed thousands annually. Other workers died slow deaths from exposure to toxic chemicals and other poisonous substances, such as mercury, benzine and asbestos. (Coal miners got black lung from coal dust; textile workers got brown lung from airborne cloth fibers.)
What about employer-provided health insurance? Nope. Workers compensation? Nope.
Factory work wasn’t steady. Typically, you’ll get laid off maybe three or four times a year. Unemployment insurance? Nope. When the work stopped, so did the paycheck.
Congratulations! You managed to survive to 65. Time for a company pension and Uncle Sam is ready to provide you with Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Nope, nope, nope and nope. You moved in with your grown kids and grandkids or other relatives if you had a family—and hoped or prayed for the best. If you had no family, you hoped or prayed even harder, and often ended up scorned as an "old bum," living hand-to-mouth on the street or in a dingy, rat-infested city-run poorhouse or a poor farm in rural areas.
No Americans were more impoverished than the elderly who were no longer able to work.
In an ideal world, everybody would love one another and live by the Golden Rule, some form of which can be found in just about every religion. But we live in a real world where greed has always been the gospel of many employers.
Some industrialists in Baer's time bragged about how often they went to church. They commonly worshipped at palatial churches. They helped fund these temple-like houses of worship and pay the hefty salaries of preachers who told their benefactors what they wanted to hear: wealth was a sure sign of God's blessing.
Said the Rev. Russell Conwell: “To sympathize with a [poor] man whom God has punished for his sins…is to do wrong, no doubt about it…let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings…”
I learned in Presbyterian Sunday school that Jesus said the meek—not the monied—would inherit the earth.
Christian "Captains of Industry" hated Charles Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution. But they loved Social Darwinism, a philosophy which claimed that business works like nature.
It was "survival of the fittest" in the market, too, Social Darwinists said. There was nothing anybody could do—or should do—about it, they added. Hence, Social Darwinists argued that unions and worker safety and health laws should be opposed because they interfered with the "natural operation" of the "free market."
With Social Darwinism, millionaires didn’t have to worry about workers losing a leg, an arm, an eye or their lives on the job. Social Darwinists said workers were inferior beings; otherwise they would be rich.
Social Darwinist millionaires had friends in high places. Besides union-despising preachers and newspaper publishers, they had their puppet politicians, whom they bankrolled. Mayors could be counted on to send in cops to break strikes—ditto for sheriffs, who were ever-ready to dispatch deputies. Governors put their state militias at the disposal of industrialists eager to smash strikes. When all else failed, presidents were glad to supply U.S. Army soldiers. (Conservative Republican President Rutherford Hayes sent federal troops to crush the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland ordered out U.S. soldiers to break the Pullman Strike in 1894.)
Politicians? They’d ensure worker safety and health laws were kept off the books or were so toothless as to be virtually worthless. Judges? Always good for issuing injunctions to declare strikes “restraints of trade” and mete out heavy fines for unions who disobeyed these cease-and-desist orders. They also eagerly ordered to jail union leaders who refused to lift strikes. Press lords could always be counted on to smear unions as "un-American," even communistic." Preachers in rich churches added that unions were "un-Christian."
"And I’ve said many times: Wall Street didn’t build America," declared President Biden (AFL-CIO-endorsed both times he ran) at the recent NABTU conference. "The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class! (Applause.) They did. That’s the God’s truth.
It is indeed the truth, Divine or otherwise. There was no middle class until the rise of unions.
History, the subject I taught for two dozen years, could hardly be plainer: Wall Street built a moneyed class -- the "one percent" today -- whose enormous fortunes were made by brutalizing and impoverishing working people--men, women and children.
Now what's the significance of all this, as I used to ask my students in class?
Biden repeatedly says he wants to be "the most pro-union President in American history." The Democratic-majority Senate aims to help him. The Republican run House of Representatives is resolutely anti-union.
Gov. Andy Beshear, whom the state AFL-CIO endorsed again, is in labor's corner. But he faces anti-union Republican supermajorities in both houses of the legislature.
For the umpteenth time: Unions don't endorse candidates based on party labels. They endorse candidates who demonstrably stand with organized labor. I'm 73, I remember pro-union Republicans like Sens. Jake Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey and Mack Mathias of Maryland. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky could be labor-friendly, too.)
Anyway, organized labor is up against the same relentless anti-union forces today that workers faced in George F. Baer's day. Aided and abetted by rich media talking heads who call us un-American and by well-heeled leaders of the religious rightwho condemn us as un-Christian, union-despising politicians are still trying to destroy our movement in Washington and in state capitals like Frankfort.
Labor's "heritage of struggle" -- the name an old UAW history booklet--continues daily. You know who our friends and foes are. So vote like your job and your union depend on it because they do.