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Monday, September 04, 2006

Happy Labor Day...Say "hi" to Joe Hill...

Hey, it's Labor Day. You know what that means? The banks are closed. Stores are keeping odd hours. No mail. Oh, and it's also a perfect justification for thousands of people to say something like, "Well, the unions used to have a purpose, but now they have too much power and screw things up."

Everyone who's read The Jungle or who's heard tales of the bad ol' days when The Man ground up workers into pulp will back the principle of organized labor. They'll concede that organization helped improve safety, brought wages up out of indentured servant range, and held the worst excesses of capitalism in check.

But that was way back then, many argue. Today, the unions just demand way too much and they do more harm than good.

Enough people have chanted that line for a long enough time that the Labor Day parades are a thing of the past. The idea of having a day actually dedicated to organized labor seems anachronistic to many. Things are ostensibly good enough today that the concept is no longer relevant, some maintain. What was once a day to celebrate the little guy's triumph over powerful exploitative forces is now just another bank holiday.

The first Labor Day came in the same year that President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to break up the Pullman strike. He promised to use whatever force necessary to get the trains running on time and was willing to send soldiers in to fight citizens who weren't willing to settle for less than they believed they were worth. Strikers died as U.S. troops killed their own countrymen to protect business interests and to make sure the trains were on schedule. Under tremendous pressure, Cleveland had to sign the legislation that created Labor Day a few months later.

Today, I drove past the construction of a new retail center. They're putting in a chain pharmacy in our neighborhood and the building looks about half done. No one's working today, but the same guys who've been out there for the past three months trying to solicit support and holding up their "no contract" pickets are.

I don't know how legitimate their gripes are. I haven't bothered to find out what's going on with that project. However, the scene this morning was poignant. The union guys are out there with the pickets, joining a long tradition of those willing to sacrifice for the sake of what they perceive to be reasonable accomodations and the folks who are willing to work without a contract and outside of the union are taking the day off.

If it hadn't been for organization, they'd be working today and making a lot less. If it weren't for strikers and rabble-rousers, they wouldn't have enjoyed forty hour work weeks for the past few months. It's only because people have been willing to take stands that the rest of us get by so easily.

I don't feel like writers, by and large, need to unioninze, although others disagree. I believe there are times and places for organization and banding together in order to serve a greater good and in promotion of fairness and justice, though. And I won't lose track of the fact that organized labor played a substantial role in building a more humane society.

You might dislike the idea of unions. You might think they're outmoded. You might love them. You might be a member. Either way, I think it would be nice if everyone thought about today and what it means besides not being able to buy stamps at the post office.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me
Says I, "But Joe, your ten years dead." "I never died," says he. "I never died," says he.

"In Salt Lake, Joe, by God," says I, him standing by my bed,
"They framed you on a murder charge." Says Joe, "But I ain’t dead."

The copper bosses killed you, Joe. They shot you, Joe," says I.
"Takes more than guns to kill a man," says Joe, "I didn’t die."

And standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes,
Joe says, "What they forgot to kill went on to organize.

Joe Hill ain’t dead," he says to me, "Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where working men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side.

From San Diego up to Maine in ever mine and mill Where workers strike and organize," says he "You’ll find Joe Hill."

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me
Says I, "But Joe, you’re ten years dead." " I never died," says he.

("Joe Hill," music by Earl Robinson/words by Alfred Hayes)

Say "hi" to Joe Hill today and you might want to add a "thank you." That goes for those who don't like what unions have become and for those who still pay their dues every year. Whether you're pro-labor or feel that organization is a disaster, history's Joe Hills deserve a nod of recognition.

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