“Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize…”
The first of May, commemorating bloody labor unrest in Chicago, is celebrated all over the world as the universal holiday of labor… except in the USA of course.
The same USA where “red”, the eternally universal color of the world’s left, is now, unlike the days of Joseph McCarthy, the color of the Tea Party driven, ultra-conservative, Republican party… Often America’s love of deceptive language and euphemism is beyond parody.
It’s no wonder then that many Americans are more than a little confused by now about what the left is actually about and have it confused with many worthy, but traversal, social issues.
In case anybody is interested, the left is really about worker’s rights and worker’s needs: everything else follows from that.
Most men and women in this world spend most of their lives working, if they can find work, and have little or nothing but their labor to exchange for the necessities of life, therefore: unemployment or bad working conditions + poor pay = a bad life for most people in the world. The left was born to change that equation.
Since the industrial revolution began, working men and women have joined together to force the owners of industry to give them better pay and working conditions, better schools for their children, affordable housing, medical care and pensions. Almost all betterment of working conditions, pay, pensions and all the rest come from that joining together and pressuring, often at the cost of blood. Little or none of it was ever given up gladly by those with the power to grant it.
This joining together and applying pressure is called “the Left”. This struggle for better conditions is really what separates the “Left” from the “Right”. Other things, however worthy, are mostly extraneous to this division.
For example: if you quizzed many wealthy followers of Ayn Rand or libertarians such as Rand Paul, I’m sure that you would find most of them either supportive or indifferent to gender and racial equality, to gay marriage and legalizing marijuana, but totally opposed to raising the minimum wage, regulating industries and the financial sector or raising the taxes of the one-percenters: and very much in favor of “right to work” laws.
One of the best encapsulations of this confusion as to what the left is and what it is not was in a marvelous, near-poetic rant; one that touches all the main points in a few lines, posted by the blogger, Kurt Sperry the other day in Firedoglake under the title, “Dear Left, Enjoy Your Pot and Gay Marriage Because That’s All You’re Getting“.
The establishment right has pretty much come around to the position that you may get gay married or smoke some pot without government interference, but at the same time we’ll steal your retirement, move your job to China, see that the bank can illegally foreclose you out of your home, give all your tax money away to criminal fraudsters who by the way are also our largest campaign contributors, oh and you’ll be put under microscopic total government surveillance and imprisoned or even killed without trial if that’s what we really want in the new police state we’ve created because dark Muslims booga booga. Kurt Sperry – Firedoglake
Today labor unions are weak and much of the new economy appears difficult to organize and millions of jobs have gone overseas, to previously non-industrialized, non-union, rural areas. This movement actually had begun quite some time before the jobs finally left America.
Way back in the 1960s, the company my father worked for, a Philadelphia carpet manufacturer, moved most of their production from mills in Pennsylvania, buildings that had been in constant occupation for over a hundred years, all the way down to north Georgia, to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
These “runaway factories” were looking for tax breaks and unskilled, rural workers, men and women without unions willing to work for much less than the union men and women of Pennsylvania. This was before the worldwide deregulation of globalization, which you might call the “Capitalist International” made moves farther afield possible or even imaginable.
That move to Georgia was a sample of the beginning of a process that has led from American north to the American south, later to Mexico and then to Asia.
The process is just beginning to give the first signs that it might finally be running out of planet.
An event occurred a little over a hundred years ago that was a key for the American left and America’s workers achieving many of the improvements in pay and working conditions that the right is doing its best to take away from them to this very day:
The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This incident has had great significance to this day because it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of industrialism. The tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation and of the international labor movement. The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed. Cornell University
One hundred and forty six worker died, most of them young Italian and eastern European Jewish immigrant women, many of whom jumped to their deaths to avoid being burned alive.
Let’s put that tragedy into perspective by comparing to a similar tragedy unfolding as this post is being written: the Rana Plaza disaster of Bangladesh.
The collapse of the building, the Rana Plaza, is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. It is known to have claimed at least 377 lives, and hundreds more workers are thought to be missing still, buried in the rubble. The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers, who were making clothing for European and American consumers. New York Times
Emergency workers hauling large concrete slabs from a collapsed 8-story building said Tuesday they expect to find many dead bodies when they reach the ground floor, indicating the death toll will be far more than the official 386. One estimate said it could be as high as 1,400. The illegally constructed Rana Plaza collapsed on the morning of April 24, bringing down the five garment factories inside. AP – April 30th
One hundred and forty six to possibly ten times that number. You can see the hundred year trajectory of the international garment industry, from importing impoverished cheap labor to work in New York to exporting production to where poor people are a seemingly inexhaustible resource.
The Triangle Fire awakened the conscience of most Americans that possessed such a thing and showed them that something was terribly wrong and that the clothes on their backs were drenched in blood and ashes. The immigrant girls of New York were no less foreign to the average American of that time than the workers of Bangladesh are today. It wasn’t about “us” and “them”. Being human beings was all that was needed to be “us”.
Perhaps with today’s communications, the video, the photographs, the access to their English language newspapers, mean that the Bengali workers are even closer to us than the Southern Italian and Eastern European Triangle girls were for the Americans of 1911… We did this to them: the inexpensive clothes on our backs are still drenched in blood and ashes.
(T)he retailers of our RMG products in the USA and Europe cannot shirk their part of responsibility in the deaths due primarily to lack of appropriate working conditions and lax safety arrangements. For example, a year and a half before the Tazreen factory fire, the Wal-Mart shareholders had rejected by 50-1 vote a proposal that required the suppliers to report annually on the safety measures of their factories on the grounds that it would ultimately lead to consumers paying higher cost for the product. And some of the buyers have held their retailers squarely responsible for the deaths in Savar. Editorial – Daily Star – Dhaka, Bangladesh
I said before that the “runaway factory” process is just beginning to give the first signs that it might finally be running out of planet. The workers wise up, their learning curve gets steeper and steeper, even where it is forbidden they organize Let us see how this is playing out.
China incomes are on the rise, but the pay scale at some professional jobs in China may surprise the average American. Based on 2011 salaries, some Chinese workers are earning as much as their American counterparts. As U.S. wages go down, China wages are going up.(…) Blue collar wages in major cities are all on the rise. Salaries for skilled management positions are approaching or equal to that of developed country wages for similar positions. This will be exacerbated in the near term by the shrinking size of the working-age population. Population growth rates are expected to turn negative before the end of this decade. Forbes
The May Cheong Group, the plant’s owner, plans to cut its headcount from 12,000 a few years ago to 8,500 by the end of the year. At the same time, it is seeking to retain older workers by offering accommodation for married staff and a crèche for their children. In one room, a machine that looks as though it houses a rotating silver Christmas tree undertakes tasks that would once have required 60 workers. Instead, just two people monitor the machine as it spray-paints the chassis of hundreds of little cars. The future of manufacturing in China may well lie in factories such as this. Financial Times
Double-digit wage increases in China and a shortage of labour for factory work have prompted several companies to move to cheaper countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia(…) As work moves from China to places such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, where wages rise as a result, consumers in the west will have to get used to higher prices for garments and shoes. Financial Times
This increase in wages and living standards will mean that the Chinese instead of merely being sweated workers will become consumers and the volume of what they could consume is mind boggling. If workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia, aided by American and European consumer and labor organizations fight for their rights, something has got to give and their living standards rise. Perhaps the famous “next historical phase” is staring us right in the face.
What happens as the “runaway factories” run out of planet? As we can see from the May Cheong plant, the answer is robotization… but robots don’t consume anything but electricity and not having pockets don’t spend anything on clothes or recreation.
Summing up: The Left is about worker’s right and needs. Nothing was ever gained without struggle. The front line of today’s labor struggle is in the factories of China, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh and in the shopping malls of America and Europe.
What should be done?
Committed individuals and organizations in America and Europe should make every use possible of the new technologies to aid the workers of today’s runaway factories to organize and fight for their rights and also to agitate to raise the consciousness of consumers. If that is successful and workers in Asia begin to earn decent wages they too will consume. In the countries that the factories ran away from the jobs will begin to return to where the customers with money to spend are and with good jobs those customers will spend more.
A beneficent circle or an inflationary hell?
Stay tuned, the revolution will be tweeted.