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Curt Andersen: May Day: How Workers Got All Those Rights

Curt Andersen writes for the Green Bay News-Chronicle.

When Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959, and after a frustrating year of too many close losses, Lombardi is reported to have assembled the players and lectured them on the mistakes that led to the losses, saying, "Gentlemen, we are going back to basics." At that point, he held up a brown object and said, "THIS...is a football." The few laughs were immediately cut short.

Perhaps this is a good time to go back to basics on the history of the workingman. In Barbara Tuchman's 1978, "A Distant Mirror - The Calamitous 14th Century," Tuchman describes the conditions during and following the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the mid-to-late 1300s. The story is full of surprises about life then. With a post-plague population reduced by fifty percent by the end of the century, there were few workers left to do all the work needed. Suddenly, and likely for the first time in recorded history, workers could demand and get better pay for their labor.

As usual, in spite of all the nonsense you hear from Conservatives about supply and demand creating the market, governments stepped in and passed laws that forbade pay increases and stopped workers from traveling to another landowner for better pay. It was almost unenforceable. Crops had to be brought in and they couldn't wait. It was the ideal situation for better working conditions for laborers.

When we move up to more modern times, we had the Hay Market Riots in Chicago in 1886. Eight policemen were killed when a bomb went off during a march that became a riot. Eight men were finally brought to trial and Judge Joseph E. Gary imposed the death sentence on seven of them. The eighth was given fifteen years in prison, four were hanged, one committed suicide, and the sentences of two others were commuted from death to life in prison. On June 26, 1893, Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the three who remained in prison.

While there are many facets to this story, no one is really sure who fired the shots that began the riots. The crowd may have been provoked by police, or by anarchists, or both. On that May 1st, people were marching for an eight-hour workday, something we take for granted now. The workday used to be 14-16 hours long, six days a week, in grueling conditions. It wasn't always as it is now. Somebody died for your right to a workday that won't kill you by age 35.

Labor conditions pretty much stunk during the early 20th Century, with the pendulum swinging back and forth. Henry Ford increased the pay of his workers when he realized that if his own workers could not afford to buy his cars, then he would have a short market and never make money. In later years, he hired private detectives, the police, and goon squads, and got the support of the federal government to bring in army troops to beat the crackers out of workers who dared strike for better working conditions. This also happened at coal mines around the country. Presidents invariably sided with the corporate world. During the early 1900s my grandfather was a union organizer for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. This was a dangerous time for anyone to be a union organizer. The railroads also hired thugs and bullyboys to keep their workers "in their place." Someone stood up and got their head thumped so you could have a decent wage with decent hours and time off for sickness and vacation.

During World War II, restrictions against women and minorities were lifted because of the labor shortage during our military buildup. Such innovations as company-sponsored day care for kids, health care plans, and better working conditions attracted workers from out in the sticks. Henry J. Kaiser, who used such benefits to recruit workers, turned ship building into an assembly line system, turning out a new liberty ship/victory ship about every 24 hours by the end of the war. Henry J. Kaiser got rich by treating his workers with respect.

After WWII, our economy ran red hot for almost 30 years before it began its downward spiral under Richard Nixon. Veterans returning from WWII service were able to take advantage of Veterans Administration benefits to go to college. Most of those people would never have been able to afford college without that help. Those who graduated worked on such things as designing bridges and skyscrapers, and creating the wherewithal to get us into space, for example, and in general got themselves well off. Over the years, some of those folks forgot how they got to their lofty positions. It was not their intelligence or their hard work alone. It was subsidized education...socialism. Everyone's taxes made life better for them....

Read entire article at Green Bay News-Chronicle