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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

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

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