May Day. One aspect of this historical day of observation is the one relating to the accomplishment of workers. You know, having a job. Work. Making a living. Having a place to live, put clothes on one’s back and food on one’s table. At the height of the industrial revolution during the 19th century, having a job was one thing. Being able to make one’s life easier by means of their paychecks providing for basic needs and security was quite another thing. In many cases, one’s job was certainly a matter of labor, but the pay was crummy, and the working conditions often less than ideal, as in at times fatal. Their employers weren’t concerned about their working conditions or an honest return on their labor–which aided in the success of the employing company. The owners–eventually labeled “robber barons” might hear their workers complaints through the managerial pipeline, but didn’t feel any obligation whatever to address their concerns with compassion. If the job being performed injured someone or at times caused a fatality, it was simply harsh reality. There would always be someone to replace those who fell victim to that reality. However, the workers eventually began to organize and demand change. Their struggle to gain worker’s rights, often a bloody clash with company-backed head bashing goons, took many years, but did force management to guarantee rights to both better pay and safer working conditions, and eventually such “perks” as the 8-hour work day, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, and eventually other upgrades such as sick days and even paid vacation time.
I’m condensing a lot here, but this annual May Day observation typically goes by unnoticed and not the least bit celebrated. Many people who gripe about organized labor as some form of counter-productive influence on the marketplace probably have no idea that without the labor movement that took on those robber barons, their own jobs and whatever benefits they are granted as terms of employment would likely not exist without the historical fight for their ever being granted at all. I just feel, in my gut, that some people have to be forced not fuck over his/her fellow human. There’s my cynicism again. Dang! But when I hear someone bashing unions, I chalk it up to the person being either an ignoramus or a shill for management.
Not that there hasn’t been documented corruption within unions. Of course they aren’t completely without fault, but I truly believe the corrupt “case studies” depicting abuse of union power is the exception and not the rule. As a teacher, I have worked as such without union representation/membership and with it. No doubt, my work life has been improved since being able to join a union. Better pay, other guaranteed benefits came with the advent of faculty fighting to have a union, even for adjunct instructors such as I am, one of the field hands of higher education.
Maybe I am too cynical, but I feel pretty sure that, in many, many, many cases, if an employer didn’t have a Collective Bargaining Agreement with its workers, benefits would be harder to come by, if at all. This fight for a decent wage, worker safety, decent benefits and job security is never ending, certainly. Look at Amazon, the richest company in the known universe. I keep reading about accusations of how it mistreats its workers. I’m not digging into the weeds on what that reality is, but my instincts tell me that Gordon Gecko (remember him from the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good”) is alive and well, having become the guy who runs Amazon. You know, the guy who tries to extort money from cities before agreeing to set up 2nd or 3rd command stations in their area. This CEO is one scumbag, greedy motherfucker, okay? But there are many like him. It’s in the DNA of some people to be scumbags, and when they attain more and more power the scum-o-meter keeps notching up. I personally try not to do any business with Amazon, but in the age of mergers and acquisitions, this company has tentacles reaching into our pockets on the sly, as in Whole Foods stores. Not that I could afford to shop much at that chain, but when I heard Amazon had bought it, I never go there anymore. I’m sure I have made zero difference in the company’s bottom-line, but it’s part of voting with the wallet, dig? For all I know, Amazon owns the company that makes the coffee filters I use, or the duct tape I recently bought to temporarily re-secure my side view car mirror to the door of which it is part.
Amazon does get blow-back. New York City told it to take a hike and go extort another town that is idiotically willing to bargain with its slimy CEO. And it gets that blow-back because there are plenty of case studies on workers standing up for the greater good. Norma Rae! Win some, lose some. But once upon a time not that long ago, workers were always on the losing end of things, working 60-70-80 hour weeks. Even child labor was common–here in the U.S.–during those robber baron days.
However, the more things have changed, the more they seem to have slowly been changing back, to the bad ol’ days. Job stress? Every job has stress. Imagine if the labor movement had been beaten back and no gains ever made? Stress? You’d be ordering creature comforts on the cheap. Therapy candles. Bath salts. Lava Lamps. And Amazon Sub-Prime would deliver it to your ramshackle doorstep, for a nominal charge. Adjusted for robber baron era rates, the company would make calculations on your pittance of a wage so you’d still have a few nickels available for the goods (in spite of them being marked up 300%). Then you could kick back and relax for a few hours before going back to the assembly line. At some point, maybe a century later than what did happen, the labor movement would still come around. After all, we are not sheep are we? Are we?
Hmmm. I’m going to have to think on that for a bit. As I look at the news of the day, day after day, I do wonder how we got to this bizarre point, when so few people control so much of our lives and the cost of that lopsided equation keeps going up. Maybe it’s time for another Howard Beale moment, as in we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore! That’s what May Day celebrates. Not Howard Beale, from the movie Network. The righteous rebellion! Great movie. If you haven’t seen it, It’s probably available on Amazon. Or your local library. For free.