by Ralph Brauer | 9/01/2008 10:43:00 AM
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he
-Alfred Hayes

There are many versions of this song, one by Joan Baez used in the movie of Hill's life is especially moving, but there is only one definitive recording and that is the one sung by Paul Robeson, whose other-worldly deep bass voice seems to come from a higher place.

I thought about Robson and Joe Hill and a lot of others when I did my periodic check of the Bureau of Labor Statistics not too long ago. In this climate of bs and raucous indignation that reminds me of a flock of ravens fighting over road kill, some of us sometimes seek the solidity of numbers to provide perspective.

In late January the BLS issued one of its periodic reports on union membership. For those who bothered to read it or even managed to catch the small box-like articles that a few newspapers printed about the report, it made for sobering reading. In America these days, press releases tend to fall from the air like dead leaves, most of them so dry and desiccated that their words sound like feet scuffling across a late October forest floor littered with Summers past. The release from the Bureau on January 25, 2008 seemed yet another nondescript addition to this pile, right down to its generic format and matter-of-fact headline, probably written by a staff member buried deep amidst dozens of coffin-like cubicles who had grabbed a piece of stationary and filled in some boiler plate prose from the network hard drive.

"UNION MEMBERS IN 2007," it read. It then went on to note,
In 2007, the number of workers belonging to a union rose by 311,000 to 15.7 million, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Union members accounted for 12.1 percent of employed wage and salary workers, essentially unchanged from 12.0 percent in 2006. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.

The language may sound dry, but like a forest littered with dead leaves they have the power to become a conflagration if someone touches a match to them. They point to a serious American crisis, one that for many may kill the American Dream and this nation's ideal of a level laying field.

The release "highlights" state:

• Workers in the public sector had a union membership rate nearly five times that of private sector employees.
• Education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rate among all occupations, at 37.2 percent, followed closely by protective service occupations at 35.2 percent.
• Among demographic groups, the union membership rate was highest for black men and lowest for Hispanic women.
• Wage and salary workers ages 45 to 54 (15.7 percent) and ages 55 to 64 (16.1 percent) were more likely to be union members than were workers ages 16 to 24 (4.8 percent).

What the press release refers to as "highlights," record one of the most dramatic shifts in American culture, economics and politics since the beginnings of the union movement during the industrialization of the 19th century. Nowhere in these numbers can you find the old stereotypical union member--a blue collar worker in a steel mill, mine or automotive plant. Instead the new union worker is a teacher, a government bureaucrat, a police officer. The BLS also pointed out:
Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 41.8 percent. This group includes many workers in several heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and fire fighters.

The conventional arguments for this immense shift state that industrial workers are no longer interested in unions or that the economy has changed to a service, technology-driven environment far different from the one that spawned the old craft unions that were the heart of Samuel Gompers original AFL. Yet the unions themselves point out that independent surveys and data show most workers would join a union if they could. One reason may be that BLS stats in that January press release show union workers:
In 2007, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $863 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $663.

The major force preventing brother and sister workers from joining a union lies with the GOP Counterrevolution, which has identified busting the unions as a major priority. After all bust the unions and you've carved the heart out of the Democratic Party just like one of those gory scenes in Mel Gibson's new movie. How have they done this?

Mainly they have made it harder to form a union. A September 2000 report by a respected international organization makes this nation sound like a third world plantation. In Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards,which was based on an 18-month survey, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that in the United States, "workers' freedom of association is violated routinely, protections for workers forming unions are inadequate and enforcement of existing laws are much too weak." The report's online introduction lays out the grim realities of American workers:
A culture of near-impunity has taken shape in much of U.S. labor law and practice. All that awaits an employer determined to get rid of a worker who tries to form a union is a years-later reinstatement order the worker is likely to decline and a modest back-pay award. For many employers, it is a small price to pay to destroy a workers' organizing effort by firing its leaders.

The result of this assault is that union membership in the private sector is the lowest since 1900. Karl Rove, who has stated he wants to take this country back to the days of William McKinley, no doubt is smiling at these statistics. But anyone who knows their history has to find the idea of returning organized labor to the McKinley era frightening. Most of us vaguely remember those times as an era of labor strife. We may remember the Homestead Strike and a few other events, but I'll bet my mortgage no one reading this has heard of the far more deadly, more vicious Latimer Massacre.

Most of the account that follows comes from a web site maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.The sanitized history many of us received in school, never mentioned such events, for they would destroy the myth of the robber barons as people whose worst sin was manipulating money. But people died so that you and I might enjoy the right to organize and some of those people died in the Lattimer massacre.

Lattimer was a company town built in 1869 in the midst of the Pennsylvania coal fields. Mine owner Ariovistus Pardee, one of the wealthiest people in the United States at the time, rented the houses to the workers, sold them whatever they needed through the infamous "company store" and literally controlled the lives of those who toiled long hours underground as if they had been slaves or prisoners in a gulag labor camp.

On top of this, the Pennsylvania legislature passed an "alien tax," which required all immigrant workers to pay three cents a day--a large amount back then. The Slavs who worked the Lattimer mine were also angry that the Welsh workers who had been there before them were paid more for the same work. (Any of this sound familiar today?)

Like miners across the Pennsylvania coal fields, the Lattimer miners heard about the new United Mine Workers Union through a local union organizer. Urged on by the union, mine workers in the area went on strike in 1897, a strike that quickly swelled to more than 5,000 workers. According to a web history of the Lattimer massacre, "Coal operators thought that they had a war on their hands."

On cue enter the villain in the guise of one James Martin, Sheriff of Luzerne County, who interrupted his Florida vacation at the request of the mine owners who ordered him to end the strike. He proceeded to put together 150 "enforcers" made up of company goons and whoever else was willing to take on the "hunkies."

On September 10, 300 miners from the area gathered in nearby Harwood to march to Lattimer to demand their rights. At the head of the column one marcher carried an American flag. When the marchers, who had swelled to 400, arrived on the outskirts of Lattimer, Martin and his goons lined the v-shaped entrance to the town. Anticipating violence, mothers pulled their children out of school. Like a bell setting off a heavyweight fight, the whistle at the mine went off as the marchers approached.

Martin tried to wrestle the flag from the worker carrying it and when that didn't work, he drew his pistol and fired at point-blank range. The gun misfired, but those of the goons did not. The flag bearer was the first to fall along with those near him, crying out to God in their native language. The shooting lasted anywhere from a minute and a half to three minutes, according to witnesses, as the goons fired away, shooting strikers in the back as they tried to escape the carnage.

According to one eyewitness the wounded on the ground cried out for water and aid, which prompted one goon to shout, ""We'll give you hell, not water, hunkies!" When the massacre was over nineteen marchers were dead and thirty-six wounded. The goons walked among the bodies, kicking them to see who was still alive.

The next day the governor ordered the state militia into the area to restore order. Sheriff Martin and several deputies were tried for murder and acquitted after a 27-day trial. The massacre so angered the workers that they became one of the strongest locals in the UMWA. In 1972, Pennsylvania erected a monument to the massacre which read:
It was not a battle because they were not aggressive,
nor were they defensive because they had no weapons
of any kind and were simply shot down like so many
worthless objects, each of the licensed life-takers
trying to outdo the others in butchery.

Five years after the Lattimer Massacre, Joe Hill emigrated to America, becoming an organizer and song writer for the International Workers of the World (IWW). He was executed by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915 in a trial that is still the subject of rumor and speculation

Joe Hill
Joe Hill

I debated over whether to include this picture, but finally decided I needed to for two reasons. First, it dramatically illustrates, as no other image can, what union organizers gave for the movement. Second, the expression on Hill's face is so peaceful that you have to believe he went to his death like the martyr he was, with full belief in the cause he for which he died.

The point of this story rests on that little-noted statistic, that union membership is now what it was in 1900. We have had no Lattimer Massacres, but what we have had is perhaps as deplorable: workers in America, as Human Rights Watch pointed out, now face a tilted playing field unless the Democratic Party or some other group reaffirms the values of Liberal America. The "licensed life-takers' of the Republican Party threaten to pick off workers one-by-one, figuratively shot in the back, just like those who died at Lattimer.

When you are disabled and in pain there are nights the combination of drugs, sleep medicines and pain itself results in some bizarre dreams. One night as I was drafting this post, I found myself in what I took to be a basement full of file drawers. The labels on the front of them said something about the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thinking they were full of more reports and press releases like those above I pulled open a drawer. What I saw were bare feet with a tag on one toe, like in a morgue. In a frenzy I pulled open drawer after drawer. Each held another body. Outside I could hear the sound of gunshots.



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 9/01/2008 12:07 PM:

Moving and beautiful as always. Is this a repost from last year? I remember the Robeson recording from then and was hoping you'd post it again.


Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 9/05/2008 4:31 PM:

Sorry to take so long to reply, but after some searching online i found the new Firefox3 does not like popus and javascript. So am now using the new beta called appropriately minesweeper.

Anyway, yes I did post this a long time ago, but thought it worth repeating, especially with new BLS stats--which are as depressing as they were when I first wrote this two years ago.