Thursday, September 06, 2012

Jerry Brown, Barack Obama and Labor Day

California Gov. Jerry Brown's Labor Day proclamation from this year, 09/03/2012, offers yet another contrast between his basic Democratic, pro-labor vision and Obama's neoliberal one:

When government and business recognize the intrinsic right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, it is possible to maintain an orderly system of industrial relations, avoiding the chaos and bloodshed that often marked labor disputes in the past. The industrial growth that our nation enjoyed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came at a great human cost. While men, women and children suffered under brutal working conditions, their attempts to improve their situation were often met with violence by employers and the government. In response, many workers became radical or violent themselves, leading to a seemingly unbreakable cycle of destruction and terror.

There were countless instances of labor actions leading to tragedy during this period. One of the earliest and most infamous of these was the Haymarket Affair of 1886, a bombing and shooting incident during May Day rallies in Chicago that took the lives of seven police officers, four civilians and four anarchists that were hanged for plotting the attack—a sentence whose justness is still debated. In 1894, a nationwide wildcat strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company led to a disproportionate response from the federal government. Twelve thousand United States Army troops were deployed to break the strike, killing 13 workers and wounding dozens more.

Though unions and craft organizations had begun to hold Labor Day picnics as early as the 1870s, it was not until the aftermath of this tragedy that the observance became an official holiday for all Americans. In that year President Grover Cleveland established the national Labor Day as part of his efforts to heal the nation’s wounds. However, lacking an orderly system to address labor disputes, the country continued to suffer similar events for several decades after this symbolic act of reconciliation. During a textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, police clubbed women and children attempting to flee the embattled town. In San Francisco, on July 5, 1934, two men participating in a longshoremen’s strike were killed by police gunfire in an incident that came to be known as “Bloody Thursday.”

The following year, on July 5, 1935, President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act—also known as the Wagner Act—the foundational law of our modern system of industrial relations. By legitimizing workers’ organizations as political entities and creating a legal framework for the resolution of workplace disputes, the Wagner Act effectively ended the decades of bloodshed and despair that attended our nation’s birth as an industrial giant. Today, disagreements between management and labor are typically worked out at the bargaining table with paper and pens, not in the streets with guns and bombs. For this we can all be thankful.

This year, as we enjoy traditions ranging from beach outings and barbecues to an annual change in the rules of high fashion, we should remember how much progress has allowed us to celebrate this Labor Day. I urge all Californians to take this opportunity to appreciate not only the vast contribution of labor to our economy, but also the privilege of living under a fair and well-regulated system of industrial relations. [my emphasis]
Obama commemorated the day in a campaign speech at Scott High School in Toledo OJ 09/12/2012. His message was more, unions achieved some nice goody-two-shoes stuff, now vote for me:

Now, we're on our way to our convention in Charlotte this week. (Applause.) But I wanted to stop here in Toledo to spend this day with you -- (applause) -- a day that belongs to the working men and women of America -- teachers and factory workers, construction workers and students and families and small business owners. And I know we’ve got some proud autoworkers in the house helping to bring Toledo back. (Applause.)

After all, it’s working folks like you who fought for jobs and opportunity for generations of American workers. It’s working people like you who helped to lay the cornerstones of middle-class security, things that people now sometimes take for granted, but weren't always there -- the 40-hour workweek, weekends, paid leave, pensions, the minimum wage, health care, Social Security, Medicare. Those things happened because working people organized and mobilized.

It is unions like yours that helped to forge the basic bargain of this country -- the bargain that built the greatest middle class and the most prosperous country and the most prosperous economy that the world has ever known. (Applause.)

And you know what that bargain is, because it's a simple one. It’s a bargain that says if you work hard, if you're responsible, then your work should be rewarded. (Applause.) That if you put in enough effort, you should be able to find a job that pays the bills. You should afford a home to call your own. That you'll have health care you can count on if you get sick. That you can put away enough to retire, maybe take a vacation once in a while -- nothing fancy, but you can enjoy your friends and your family. And, most importantly, that you can provide your children with an education to make sure that they do even better than you did. (Applause.)

It’s an American promise that says no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what your last name is, no matter who you love, you can make it here if you try. (Applause.) And that’s what we’re fighting for, Toledo. That’s what’s at stake in this election. And that’s why I’m running for a second term as President of the United States of America. (Applause.) [my emphasis]
I must admit I'm tired of moralistic formulations from Obama like, "It’s a bargain that says if you work hard, if you're responsible, then your work should be rewarded. (Applause.) That if you put in enough effort, you should be able to find a job that pays the bills."

The President is in a position to actually do something about jobs. And to support union rights. We need to hear what he's doing in those areas, not platitudes barely distinguishable from spoiled frat boys shouting at beggars, "Get a job!" Ann O'Leary wrote two years ago in The Power to Act The American Prospect 09/01/2010 about various ways that the President can use his authority over federal contract to increase wages and promote unionizing. In fact, that issue of The American Prospect carried a number of articles on ways the President can act on behalf of workers even with an obstructionist Republicans Congress. But this Democratic President has shown little interest in pursuing them.

It's not part of the neoliberal prescription to strengthen unions or the labor movement for the long term. To be clear, one of the most substantial and clear accomplishments of the Obama Administration was the saving of General Motors, which the Republicans would have cheerfully allowed to do under and disappear. This was very important to organized labor because of the number of jobs involved, because the United Auto Workers (UAW) is still one of the most powerful unions but would have been severely weakened by the Republican alternative, and because it preserved an important part of the US manufacturing base. It was a defensive rather than offensive move on behalf of labor, but the Obama Administration does deserve credit for this very important achievement.

I'm also getting pretty tired of the neoliberal pablum about "provide your children with an education to make sure that they do even better than you did." Education is critically important, but education is no magic bullet guaranteeing individual or collective prosperity. As Lawrence Mishel puts it, "To hear leaders of the financial sector talk, the underlying problem with the economy has not been a runaway financial sector but an unqualified workforce." (The Overselling of Education The American Prospect 02/07/2011) We also need trade agreements that don't fit the neoliberal model that Obama has followed on international trade that seeks more and more agreements designed to let American and international capital take maximum advantage of poor wages and working conditions abroad and in the US. The idea that education is ultimately the solution to all economic problems is, in Mishel's words, "very comfortable reasoning for the very comfortable class."

It's no substitution for substantive action to create jobs and reduce inequality - and yes, that means limiting the ability of the One Percent to dominate democratic elections with money and distort the results through lobbying and various forms of legal and illegal bribery.

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