Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Workingman Blues

Saturday marked a national day of solidarity with the protesting public workers in Wisconsin, with rallies held in nearly every state capital. Over 500 Maine teachers, public workers, union representatives and activists joined a MoveOn sponsored rally in Augusta.

MoveOn estimates over 50,000 people participated in protests on Saturday throughout the country. According to a statement released by the organization, “The progressive community has not seen coordinated rallies this size on an issue since the height of the anti-war movement during the Iraq war.”

The Augusta rally received front-page coverage in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram the following day. The article (“Convergence in the Capital: Rallying Cries,” Feb. 27, 2011) was particularly notable for its acknowledgement of the Koch Brothers’ role in financing Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s extremist campaign—an aspect of the story ignored by most of the major media outlets. A Press Herald staff editorial earlier last week siding with Gov. Walker (“Our View: Public Workers Protests show System Breakdown,” Feb. 24, 2011) made no mention of the Koch Brothers. (Then again, Sunday’s story was not written by a PPH staffer. The byline indicates it was taken from its sister paper, the Kennebec Journal.)

“We’re in this predicament because of unscrupulous CEOs and corporations that want to fill their pockets,” rally attendant, Emery Deabay said in the story. “They caused this mess and should be in jail. We’re here to make sure the governor [Maine Gov. Paul LePage] doesn’t try to punish workers when he balances the budget and take away their rights and benefits.”

The following day Madison public workers participated in the largest demonstration in the capitol building to date. The state has not seen a march of such scale since the Vietnam War protests.

Indeed, the massive opposition to Gov. Walker’s union-busting bill has been truly inspiring.

For decades now working-class Americans have been under attack by politicians on both sides of the aisle. President Reagan is credited with delivering the first blow when he infamously fired over 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. Many historians believe this single act set the tone for the harsher, zero-tolerance attitude businesses continue to hold toward unions and the labor movement today.

A decade later, Bill Clinton furthered the assault on the working-class with his enactment of NAFTA, which shipped hundreds of jobs overseas and essentially eviscerated the nation’s manufacturing sector. He followed this move up by dropping nearly 2.1 million Americans off of welfare benefits in 1996. Finally, Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act removed the consumer-protection barriers separating Wall Street and investment banks, and ultimately paved the way for the current economic recession.

More recently, Americans have watched with bitter scorn as the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama oversaw massive tax-cuts for the very wealthy, while poor and middle-class workers struggle to find jobs in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Yet, even before the modern day rollback of worker protections, early 20th century labor activists had to fight tooth-and-nail to establish the most basic of worker rights. Things like minimum-wage, a 40-hour, five-day work week, paid overtime, holidays off and child labor laws were all hard won gains by early progressive activists like Eugene Debs and the International Workers of the World. (Indeed, many of these worker protections were initiated by socialists, a highly ironic fact in light of conservatives’ current outcry over President Obama’s “socialist agenda.” It is only because of the early U.S. Socialist movement that we enjoy any worker rights at all.)

One of those socialist reformers was Upton Sinclair, who famously chronicled the plight of the working-class in his muckraking expose, The Jungle.

The 1906 novel revealed the deplorable, unsanitary working conditions laborers confronted in a Chicago slaughterhouse, as well as protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus’ dissolution with the American Dream.

Jurgis is a poor, unskilled immigrant from Lithuania, who travels with his family to America in search of a better life. What he finds instead, is a tedious, physically exhausting job that demands long hours and little pay. Furthermore, Jurgis’ limited command of the English language and unfamiliarity with the dubious underside of American capitalism makes him and his family members easily susceptible to sinister con artists who swindle them at every opportunity.

“They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside,” Sinclair writes of the family. “…They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone—it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost.”

Though published over 100 years ago, Sinclair’s book is all the more relevant today in light of the Wisconsin protests. One hundred years later, it seems workers are still fighting for the most basic of rights. Let’s hope Saturday’s rallies were just the beginning.

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