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September 1, 2013


Labor Day has been with us since an act of Congress in 1894. Agitation for recognition of labor began in 1882, and over the objections of the usual suspects (the railroad robber baron monopolists and sweatshop owners, Rockefellers of Standard Oil et al. of that day), became a federal national holiday, no thanks to the wild-west capitalists of the times. We are in a similar situation today with the advent of a second “Gilded Age,” but the identity of the corporate bullies has changed. Our new bullies are found on Wall Street, which decided to back off mere financing of ventures and get in on the act itself. The euphemism for such altered business objectives goes by the name of “investment banking.”

Why sit around the town square and make loans for cars and houses like bankers of old? With the repeal of Glass-Steagall (Clinton’s greatest mistake), let’s just buy shares in the corporations and their subsidiaries that build cars and houses, finance and control those ventures via our own bankers on their boards of directors and leave financing of cars and houses to the Joe and Mary Smiths of middle America to our country bankers or perhaps to some of our recently merged branches? We don’t have much time to do such penny-ante business, though; there are too many other opportunities for us to make real money – like selling credit derivatives from Hong Kong to London and all points on the globe and buying junk bonds from Greece (where the return is great and Merkel and the EU will bail us out if the Greeks threaten to default).

Jim Hightower published an essay on the Labor Day topic in Nation of Change as of September 1, 2013, and I have profited from his insights and my own actual history of being the son of a coal miner who was a proud member of the United Mine Workers of America, who spent 31 years “in the mines” before dying in an unrelated accident. I was born and brought up in a strongly union community who rightly saw that in unity there was strength. (The corollary to the preceding is that in disunity there is weakness, something I hope we will remember when confronting the new bullies, as we must if democracy is to survive.)

Our laboring community saw deaths by cave-ins, gas explosions and the like in this very dangerous and filthy job of coal mining, so they clearly needed union representation in their negotiations with the mine owners not just on wages, but working conditions. There were many around town with limbs off, an eye out, or plagued by black lung disease and other bronchial conditions, and there were many who were not around because they were dead. Their widows became even more staunchly pro-union.

We used to have a saying around town in the 30s about the three greatest men in the world, who were: (1) John L. Lewis, president of the United Mineworkers, (2) FDR, our president, and (3) Jesus Christ – and in that order. This lame attempt at levity covered a very anxious workforce and their families. You cannot know whether your husband and father of your children will or will not return from an either “deep” or “strip” mine operation today or next week.

Given these poor pay and extremely dangerous working conditions, those miners went down the hole in what was called a “cage,” and dutifully extracted the coal for their mine owners to sell. When I hear from corporate bigwigs these days that corporations are the “job creators” and their constant downgrade of labor as a commodity, I bristle. I would like to know how many of those mine owners and their shareholders would go down into that black hole full of coal dust and (sometimes) methane to dig and haul coal out themselves for grading and sorting. Few, I would guess. Their profits depended upon these underpaid miners who took the everyday risk of death and dismemberment, who should have been treated as heroes, not some commodity. A certain arrogance seems to accompany pools of capital.

It was a Republican, and one who well knew the meaning of labor, Abraham Lincoln, who said, “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.” His evaluation could not be more true or apt, and fairly states Marx’s theory of the “surplus value” labor brings to the productive process. Marx had the wrong fix in mind, but he was right on what it was that needed to be fixed. Lincoln correctly stated that capital is merely the fruit of labor, which made capital accumulation available in the first place. So how is it that capital has come out on top? Money capital is worthless unless it can employ labor to carry on profit-making enterprises.  The tail is wagging the dog.

So what is the new bullies’ response? That they owe nothing to workers, consumers, taxpayers and other Americans who made them rich, and without which they would be penniless; that labor contracts should head for the bankrupt scrap piles via a Chapter 11 corporate filing if unions get too feisty, that labor should quit whining about the damage done to their (and our) social contract, walk away from unions and acquiesce in Wal-Marted wages and outsourcing on the run. As for decent health care and provision for the education of our children, forget it. Those programs cost money and that means less is available to Wall Street’s bottom lines. It is Wall Street contributions to the Republican party which has made for right to work laws, far higher marginal tax rates for the low and middle class than for the superrich, and unregulated corporate governance so that our self-regulating bailout recipients (the big Wall Street banks) can go about their global business unfettered by an over-regulating government.

There was a time in the human chain of experience when there was no such thing as capital, but there has never been a time in recorded history when labor was unnecessary. The need fluctuated with changes in the structures of the economy – farm to manufacturing to digital to robotization and/or outsourcing of routine tasks of production to cheaper labor forums. American labor has been threatened and traumatized for years by capital, and it is long since time to reverse that process.

The process should not be but is political, unfortunately. We need senators and congress people who will reward outsourcing corporations for staying at home and providing decent wages and benefits to American workers; we need a redo of our entire trade scheme with the rest of the world which may involve American mercantilism to even the playing field with our trade partners who routinely subsidize their export sectors, dump, and reduce their currency values in ways that add to the wage differential between Chinese and American labor our competitors already enjoy. If our trading partners wish to continue their anti-competitive antics by breaking the rules and playing out such mercantilist policies as dumping, subsidizing export sectors and manipulating their currency values, then we should return the favor. Tariffs, licensing or other protectionist measures? Why not? They’re being daily used against us. Without a level playing field, American labor will remain underpaid and underserved. All who labor and all the rest of us who are caught up in this monopolistic set of practices headed by global and American trade negotiators deserve the benefit of competitive pricing and a level playing field – today.  GERALD  E

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