ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—There was only a scattering of children and a few of them tried to join the chorus of overwhelmingly aging white heads struggling to remember the lyrics of a handful of labor standards, including the poignant and still relevant “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” sung at a Labor Day potluck I attended on Sunday.
Turning to a friend, I said “I will never understand why so much of the American public remains so hostile or at best indifferent to the idea of working people organizing on the basis of their collects self-interests. I didn’t understand it 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and I sure as hell don’t comprehend it today in the nation’s poorest economy since the Depression.”
Few Americans question the right of small business to organize in local chambers of commerce, larger industries have trade associations, and many transnational corporations employ small armies of lobbyists to augment their flood of contribution to electoral campaigns, yet many Americans harbor a special wrath for people working for wages who organize to advance their interests.
Even the Labor Day we observe on the first Monday of September was an attempt to separate the labor movement from its more radical roots. The federal holiday declared in 1894 was the creation of government officials and moderate trade unions, which sought to cut the legs out from International Workers’ Day, which was celebrated on May 1 and grew out of the movement that included communists, socialists and anarchists for an eight-hour work day. What is now widely known as May Day is a holiday in an estimated 80 countries.
Listening to the likes of “Union Maid” and “Joe Hill,” I asked myself whether I was nostalgically retreating from this age of ugly inequality into a mythologized past. My answer came quickly. Unions have always faced heavy opposition in this country and even at their peak in 1945 represented only about 36 percent of U.S. workers. Today organized labor represents a little more than 12 percent of the workforce. Yet those American who would dismiss the role of organized labor don’t understand history, democracy or how equality grows. Improvements in the common good don’t drop out of the sky; they are very seldom the ideas of the people or parties in power. Instead, they rise from the bottom up, from the margins, from the people who have less and insist upon more of what of the privileged enjoy. That truth has not changed.