Labor Day: It’s No Picnic

Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Poor folks ain’t got a chance
Unless they organize.

– Which Side Are You On?, Florence Reece

If you’re a Chicago native as I am, “class warfare” is a homegrown idea. For decades in the late 19th and well into our last century, Chicago was for militant labor what Paris was for artists, a cool place to be. Unions were the city’s backbone. “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat… Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders,” in Carl Sandburg’s famous description.Other cities have icons like Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and Boston’s Paul Revere statue, but Chicago has monuments to labor martyrs like the hanged Haymarket Riot frameup victims, the Irish socialist James Connolly, and the A Philip Randolph (African American) Pullman Porter museum. (The police-sponsored statue honoring the slain cops at Haymarket Square had its head blown off so often by local anarchists that it’s currently hidden inside police headquarters.) Labor Day parades and picnics, once Chicago’s most boisterous holiday, probably outnumbered the massive ethnic processions in a city created by its foreign-born, non-English speaking immigrants, the Poles, Germans and Balts, to name only a few.

Blood and muscle, riots and strikes against cruel employers – class struggle – are as natural to Chicago as the wind coming off Lake Michigan. For example, the posh, condo-filled lakefront boulevard of Sheridan Drive originally was designed so that federal strikebreaking troops could move swiftly into the city to shoot down Harvester tractor workers. Class conflict was open and nakedly brutal. That was then. Before the eight-hour day, New Deal labor laws, post-second world war social mobility, the end of child labor and the birth of the White House habit of banqueting union chiefs – “piecards”, to the rank and file. So today, class warfare is a stale, unhip, fusty way to describe our American world. Right?Certainly, Labor Day parades and picnics are almost a thing of the past, and union membership from a postwar high of almost 40 per cent is now whittled to 12 per cent. And even within this shrunken movement, jurisdictional fights, labor’s civil wars, further reduce its strength. Union buttons, once ubiquitous, I hardly see any more.But Labor Day may be a useful time to drag out of the attic a few old-time radical (even Marxist!) notions that, until fairly recently in our history, were common currency. Such as, Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed”, as well as his ostensibly outdated “increasing immiseration of the proletariat” due to economic recession because workers cannot afford to buy the products of their labour. Sound familiar?

If you’re the son of union organizers, as I am – and actually born on a Labor Day – then it’s perfectly clear that, especially since the 2007 meltdown, but dating back to President Reagan’s 1981 breaking of the air traffic controllers’ strike, the capitalist class has, with government connivance, declared war on the working and middle classes. This is not news to the (declining number of) blue collar workers on the production line, or to huge numbers of allegedly better-educated middle classes being systematically wiped out of existence. These people feel the truth of class warfare in their guts but don’t yet like the idea, which sounds so, well, foreign – but is as American as cherry pie since the first Philadelphia shoemakers struck in 1804 and were indicted (in a prosecution paid for by the bosses) as “irresponsible and dangerous”. This Labor Day, when kids are getting ready for school and private end-of-summer backyard barbecues have replaced communal solidarity, long-term unemployment is at an 80-year high, not seen since the worst of the Great Depression.

At least 30 million Americans are jobless, or have been forced into part-time work or have given up looking for work altogether. At the same time, there’s an almost-Marxist downward pressure on employed workers’ wages due to freezes and wage cuts even at companies with healthy profits. Standard & Poor’s 500 index has surged 34per cent compared to last year, and companies are sitting on $1.8tn in cash. CEOs have figured out that, with improved productivity and fewer workers, they can post big profits while firing people, which spreads fear and panic among the rest of us too scared to squawk.

But resistance – the instinct to fight back – never dies. The big confrontations are mostly in countries where our businesses have moved, like China and Latin America. Here in America, class warfare takes on new forms. The whole fight over illegal immigration is really about class conflict in the same way that Sacco and Vanzetti and 1930s sitdown strikers were demonized. Class conflict is inescapable, especially since. nowadays. it’s pushed forward by employers and financiers – and Obama’s the-rich-come-first financial advisers. A fact: after the second world war, there were thousands of strikes, large and small, lawful and wildcat, that just happened to coincide with rising wages and earnings. In 2008, there were 15 big strikes. This decline in militancy has coincided with a decline in the earning power of the American worker and middle class. Cause and effect? At least it’s (barbecued) food for thought on this crazy-shopping Labor Day.

Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com

More articles by:

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front