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Labor Day essay: The dream of better days
My mother’s parents – Rose and Isidore – escaped sociopolitical chaos and persecution in early twentieth century Poland by fleeing to America. In his final days on homeland soil, Isidore had to hide in a crawlspace under the floorboards of Rose’s house to avoid abduction by marauding bands of foreign soldiers going door-to-door, conscripting young Polish men into their armies.
Thankfully, Isidore made it safely out of that crawlspace and onto a ship bound for Ellis Island in New York Harbor, with Rose at his side. My grandparents rarely retold that story – my grandfather never, not to me. But when prodded and probed, my grandmother recounted in hushed and trembling tones how she and the rest of that teeming shipload of weary, emaciated émigrés rose as one at first sight of the Statue of Liberty; gasping, shouting and crying…pointing up in awe and reverence at the Torch of Freedom.
The long-held dream of Better Days finally seemed real, and within reach.
Yet within a few short years, even the most dauntless of immigrant aspirations crashed head-on into the harsh realities of the “Roaring Twenties”; a decadent decade rife with political corruption, as the wealthiest corporate and private interests in the United States of America were given such undue influence over its political and economic systems that by 1929, they had played a major part in causing The Great Depression.
With grit and determination, my grandparents and millions of others like them survived the ensuing dark decade of joblessness and poverty, and finally found the Better Days they’d dreamed of – thanks in large part to the growth of the American Labor Movement, and the leadership of a Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Rose and Isidore fought their way through The Depression raising two daughters in abject poverty, all the while “talking union” from atop crates on street corners, in crowded meeting halls, and at the dinner table in their tiny tenement apartment. For they were freshly and acutely aware of just how desperately families like theirs needed strong new socioeconomic representation, advocacy and protection.
Organized Labor didn’t let them or the nation down, playing a critically important role in helping FDR secure enactment of Social Security, plus a score of other Big Government programs that got the country back on its feet, while introducing a new measure of balance and stability to America’s social structure.
Labor’s power grew further after the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935. With employers no longer able to (openly & legally) bully and bust union organizing efforts, and with mandated collective bargaining of contracts, the Labor-Management playing field was more level than it had ever been in the nation’s brief history.
And so, the American Middle Class was born. Over the decades that followed, it grew and prospered. Union membership soared and union contracts allowed lower and middle-income folks to make steady progress, turning them into reliable consumer engines that powered sustained national economic growth and stability. A delicate balance seemed to have been struck.
It wasn’t just Labor policy, but also Tax policy that made this possible. By the late 1950s, America’s wealthiest individuals were taxed at far, far higher rates than they are today – with a top rate of 91%. Yet the richest Americans remained rich, very rich. But the government still had the revenues it needed to pay all its bills, including the one for keeping the nation’s elderly and disabled citizens from falling into destitution.
As a result, even though they remained at a lower-income level their entire lives, Rose and Isidore reached old age with some peace of mind – thanks to a combination of union-negotiated pension and Social Security payments. The combined strength and will of Labor and Government had allowed my grandparents, and a whole generation of immigrants who as young adults had suffered through The Great Depression, to retire with a degree of dignity that few of them back in the 1930s would have imagined possible.
None of this was lost on my two brothers and I. We were born between 1952 and 1957, and as we grew up in the 1960s, it wasn’t just our retired grandparents that served as living proof of the positive, transformative power of labor unions. We lived with our divorced mother in a 3-room, fifth-floor walkup apartment in the Bronx, Mom sleeping on a foldout couch in a cramped living room that doubled as playroom for three wild & crazy young boys (and one understandably agitated pussycat). But we did just fine, thanks to the living wage, health benefits and social support services that came with Mom’s clerical job, working for a labor leader at a union office in Manhattan.
We were a low-income family with little margin for error, but from free education and cultural programs, to holiday parties and toy drives that let kids like us have an extra present or two that our parents couldn’t afford, and so many other family-friendly initiatives; we always felt the strong and steady support of our extended family – The Union.
From 1960 to 2005, as we grew from boys to middle-aged men, my brothers and I watched as Mom steadily climbed the ladder from that first union clerical job (which included the memorable experience of taking dictation of an early draft of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech) to ultimately become the Executive Director of the National Benefit Fund of one of New York’s largest unions. She took great pride and satisfaction in working for years to improve the health and quality of life for countless hundreds of thousands of hard-working people and their families; a great many of whom, like her parents, were immigrants. And when the time came, her own union benefits allowed her to transition into what is now a relatively comfortable retirement.
Sadly, Mom’s story is the exception to the rule. While my brothers and I witnessed just how far a talented, worthy woman could climb the Labor ladder, we also witnessed how increasingly difficult upward mobility became for working men and women alike over the last fifty years. Slowly and steadily, new generations of corporate leaders and wealthy private interests, working through new generations of servants and allies in government, rebelled at the notion of Community Interest taking precedence over Self Interest, rejecting the theory that a rising tide should raise all boats. Profit Motive ran rampant.
Lobbying and political pressure started driving those very successful top-tier tax rates back down again in the 1960s. Multimillion-dollar corporate and Chamber of Commerce-sponsored disinformation campaigns were used to discredit and diminish the hard-earned good name, well-used power and positive impact of Labor. The Middle Class was forced to work harder and be more productive, while getting less and less in return. Corporate profits climbed steadily, the concentration of wealth at the very top intensified, and the gap between The Rich and Everyone Else kept widening.
This double-backing turnaround reached epic proportions during the “Greed is Good” Reagan era of the 1980s, before reaching its terrifying climax during the “Anything Goes” Bush-Cheney era of 2000-2008. Think Enron, Halliburton, AIG, Goldman Sachs, BP, Lehman Brothers and all the rest. Think TARP and the “Too Big To Fail” bank bailout. As was the case in the 1920s, a near-decade long run of profligate corporate and government collusion & corruption led to economic collapse. But thanks to some of the very protections fought for by Labor after the 1929 crash and the Great Depression, we got away with a Great Recession in 2008.
Then, as in 1933, a Republican president handed off a ruined financial system to a Democratic Party reformer. History will confirm what many already understand all too well; that Barack Obama was left with the shattered remains of an economy torn apart and pillaged by a conspiracy of corporate plunderers, with the complicit approval of the Bush-Cheney administration.
Yet unlike the sweeping reforms that FDR was able to push through in the 1930s, President Obama had no such powerful, dynamic American Labor Movement ready to act as partner in Recovery when he took office in 2009. The moneyed elites had seen to that, with decades of unlimited spending on anti-union PR and lobbying programs that successfully minimized Labor’s influence on national economic and political policy.
And so right or wrong (Wrong), instead of declaring a national emergency and restoring Organized Labor to the level of Equal Partner with Corporate America and Government in strategizing and implementing long-term restoration and reconstruction plans, the Obama administration relied primarily on insider participants in the economic collapse, men like Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner.
If Rose and Isidore were still alive, that turn of events probably wouldn’t have killed them, but it would’ve broken their hearts, if not their spirit. After all, their American story, my mother’s story, our family story, and the stories of so many millions of other American working families; all are woven deep into the fabric of everything essential, empowering and uplifting about Unionism, and the role that unions can and should play in American society – in the best of times, but most especially in the worst.
The question now is this: How much prolonged pain and suffering will it take on the part of working and out of work Americans in anti-union “Right To Work” states like Florida – and across the rest of our still recession-ravaged country – before they shake off years of anti-union brainwashing and demand that Organized Labor once again be a central and powerful partner in the workplace, and in state and national policy-making?
If American history has taught us anything, it is that only then will they and their families have realistic hopes of finding the meaningful and sustainable Better Days that they so long for, and so richly deserve.