Thursday, September 8, 2011

Which side are you on?

Last Monday we celebrated Labor Day. Judging from the number of American flags flying in front of houses in my neighborhood, many people consider this a patriotic occasion. They're right, but I also have to wonder if they really know what Labor Day is all about.

That day I shared a link on my Facebook page that shows the face of American Labor. Florence Reece, whose family had been harassed by management agents during the 1931 coal miner's strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, wrote the song "Whose Side Are You On?" Over 40 years later, the still feisty Reece sang the song for miners and their families as they struck against Duke Power for safer, decent working conditions. The sight of young people, who knew the song by heart, singing along with her is an image of what Labor Day really means. It is about the centuries-long struggle of American workers to achieve human decency at work and at home in the face of employers driven by profits and determined to earn them at the lowest possible cost.

This struggle, which has led to things like pensions, paid holidays, sick leaves, workplace safety laws, child labor laws, and 40-hour work weeks—things we all take for granted today—is one of the great stories in American history. For this reason, people like Florence Reece, who wrote this song, and Pete Seeger, who popularized it, should be remembered as American heroes. They contributed as much to the fabric of modern America as many presidents and generals, if not more. For most of us, what we think of as the American Way of Life is founded on their achievements.

Why did the miners of Harlan County have to struggle as they did? It wasn't just because the mining companies were greedy; it was also because the government used its power to suppress their voices and support the interests of the wealthy mine owners. This is a role that many people who call themselves conservatives are quite happy to see the government play. They are deluding themselves, though, if they think that supporting the rights of powerful corporations over the rights of the people who work for them is a formula for "small government." Their support simply puts the power of government to work increasing the concentration of wealth and promoting greater inequality. This is a process that has been going on in the US since Ronald Reagan fired the members of the air traffic controller's union thirty years ago this summer, and it has now gained frightening momentum.

I don't mean the title of this post as a call to arms. I have no great desire to divide the public into "us and them," "sheep and goats," or whatever other combative image the title of Reece's song might suggest. The lack of civility in the public sphere has become so great that it is now probably the biggest single obstacle to progress. I'm all for promoting mutual understanding, not driving in more wedges.

For that very reason, though, I want to take the occasion of Labor Day week to clarify where the dividing line in our society really lies. It is not between proponents of small government and proponents of big government. We have big government, and we're going to keep having it, because, as I've said before on this blog, we're a big society that cannot simply run on its own.

The real issue is whether big government is going to be used in the interest of the wealthy and powerful and to the neglect of the poor and needy, or whether it is going to use at least some of its power to help the poor and needy protect their rights and keep the influence of wealth and money in check. It now costs so much to be elected to any public office that both parties are in the hands of what FDR called "organized money." That's why organized labor, and everything it represents, is just as important today as it ever was. If there isn't somebody around to remind the government to take care of those who work for a living, we just might find ourselves right back where we were in 1931. Sooner than you think.


  1. "If there isn't somebody around to remind the government to take care of those who work for a living, we just might find ourselves right back where we were in 1931. Sooner than you think."

    Or in Charles Dickens' London, circa 1840.

  2. That was when Malthus was in vogue, and work houses were being constructed so the poor would no longer be a burden on society.