There’s a lot of things that most of us take for granted: the eight-hour working day, child labour laws, overtime and workplace safety. But if you were to leave North America you would find that outside of western Europe and one or two other countries we are the exception not the rule.
”Where do you think these came from… generous and benevolent bosses?…
Utah Phillips: Fellow Workers
In Canada, United States, and Europe, the last couple of decades of the 19th century marked the real shift in economic life from agrarian to mass industry. The process had started before that, but it wasn’t until after the American Civil War that it really began to flourish. This was the time which saw the formation of most of the countries of Europe as we know them today, and the first real period of extended peace for most of the industrial world.
The invention of the steam engine had made the Atlantic crossing easier and international markets more accessible. When it was combined with the proliferation of rail across the United States and Canada, the domestic markets were now only days apart. For the United States the timing couldn’t have been better.
The Civil War had devastated the country in a lot of ways, but it had also hastened its industrialisation. Both sides had utilized the new technologies available during the war for the production of arms, the movement of troops, and for battles on the water. Rail lines had been laid for troops which now could be used for shipping, and the steel-hulled battleships had proved effective enough that steam and steel would soon be replacing wind and wood in the shipping industry.
But the work was dangerous and dirty. There were no rules governing how an employer treated the workers under his control. In a lot of cases conditions and jobs were little less then indentured slavery.
Small children were employed to go into the mines that were too tight for full-grown men. If you got sick you lost your job. If you were injured working you were doomed. There wasn’t even any guarantee that you’d get paid. Sometimes if you were unlucky enough you could end up owing your employer money.
If they supplied you with a shack to live in and gruel twice a day it would be docked from your wages. If you were being paid on a quota system and for some reason, anything from equipment failure to bad weather, you fell short of your mark, you wouldn’t get your full pay and couldn’t cover the cost of your board. It could take a person months to work out from under that debt. If you didn’t pay you could get arrested.
It was against this background that the first unions were formed. These weren’t like the unions we know today where the heads look and talk just like the head of corporations. They hadn’t gone to school and studied management techniques; they were coal miners and lumber “beasts” (so called because in those days they didn’t have cabins they just slept on the floors of the forests like the beasts of the woods), factory workers and stevedores.
They were people who were tired of risking death every time they went to work, who wanted to be paid fair value for their labour, who wanted a future for their children, and wanted to do more than just work all day long. They wanted quality of life; they wanted bread and roses.
Of course the heroes of American industry, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the rest of the “Robber Barons” as they came to be known were not all that keen on sharing the pie with others. They used every means at their disposal in an effort to keep the workers under their thumbs. If you thought that modern-day corporations have the ear of the governments, well it’s nothing to what it was like back then.
In Colorado the state legislature had passed a law guaranteeing an eight-hour work day for the coal miners. But it turned out to be one thing to pass the law and another to enforce it. When the mines owned by Rockefeller refused to comply, the state government did nothing.
When the unions went on strike to try to make the companies obey the law, the militia was sent out to bust up the strike, not by the government but by Rockafeller, who owned the state militia. The unions were fighting against a deck that was heavily stacked against them.
Pinkerton’s security was created as a private police force by Rockefeller for the sole purpose of violence against the unions. They would beat up organizers, burn down the homes of striking miners, and shoot striking workers. If the unions fought back at all, or a Pinkerton’s man was hurt in retaliation, they would be arrested. But the Pinkerton’s men were allowed to get away with murder, literally.
To prevent organizers from speaking in public, ordinances would be passed prohibiting free speech. Any time someone would get up to talk about workers rights, he or she would be arrested. When one town tried this the union got together 4,000 workers, some of whom could speak no other English than “My fellow workers”, and had them all try to give a speech. After they were all arrested, the people of the town refused to pay to feed them in the variety of jails that had to be created, and the law was repealed.
In spite of the heavy odds against them, the unions fought on and through sheer perseverance and numbers they began to win their fights. In the end it would usually come down to the bosses realizing that paying the workers a little more, and working them a little less was still more profitable then not having them work at all.
These brave men and women who fought and died so that people who work in factories today are safe and paid fair value for their labour are largely ignored by the histories of our countries. If they are mentioned, it’s only as dangerous people who precipitated acts of violence such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which descended into a riot when the mounted police were ordered to disperse the marchers.
We write up and idealize the men who tried desperately to ensure that people would be treated like cattle and slaves with no rights and dignity. Even the term “Robber Baron” is used in affection. They’ve left tokens of their benevolence bearing their names for posterity: Carnegie Hall, The Rockefeller Centre and so on.
Edifices that were paid for with the blood and sweat of thousands of men and women who died from black lung and exhaustion in their twenties, from inhaling the dust in the weaving mills, and being shot on the picket line. These aren’t places of culture and beauty, they are tombs to the unknown soldiers in the wars for the rights of workers.
Maybe unions aren’t what they used to be. Maybe some of them are now as corporate and corrupt as the people they are supposed to be fighting. Some of them are probably even in cahoots with management to swindle the people they supposedly represent. But don’t let that diminish the work of their predecessors.
The next time you hear some corporate type slamming a union for forcing him to close his plant, or Wal Mart closes a store rather than let it’s employees unionize. Ask yourself what are they trying to deny the people who work for them. More and more the workers in North America are facing the real threat of seeing their jobs disappear out form under them as corporations close factories and reopen them where there are no laws governing their behaviour.
Unions are still being made out to be the bad guys just as they were a hundred years ago. Take a look at what was happening then and tell me who was the bad guy. Maybe we should be asking the same questions about today’s circumstances. Too many times unions have given concessions on salary in exchange for job security only to see the factory closed and the jobs moved anyway.
A fifty-something person who has worked in the same factory for most of their life facing the prospect of starting all over again has entered into a personal version of hell. Most of these new jobs being created pay far less than what they had previously made and are primarily in fields in which they have no experience.
Since no one else seems to care about them or their situation it is falling once again to the unions to fight for the rights of workers who are being tossed aside like dead wood. What’s so villainous about trying to guarantee security for people who have worked hard all their lives? Isn’t there some possibility that the blame could lie with those closing the factories? Think about it.