Our Perennial War

Triangle Shirtwaist Strike, 1909-1910–a year before the fire

This is the first of a series.

I’ve been interested, lately, in the perennial war between capital and labor or, really, between the few who own the land, the factories, and sometimes the bodies of slaves who work for them—and the many who do the work. Today I’m taking a look at the long history of that conflict.

I do mean a perennial war! The oldest record of a strike is from ancient Egypt, around 1157 BCE, when tomb workers didn’t receive their rations. Three slave rebellions rocked the Roman Empire, the last of these in 73 BCE. We have accounts of peasant rebellions throughout the medieval period and even as recent as the 1890s, from Japan through Russia to Spain. Some were moderately successful in improving the peasants’ lives, while other uprisings were savagely repressed.

In more modern times, we’ve seen the French Revolution and various Communist revolutions around the globe. Despite the amount of bloodshed and backsliding, in my opinion the French were successful in the long run. They have a democratic government, the best health care system in the world (I’ve experienced it personally), and five weeks of paid vacation guaranteed. The Communist countries?—a mixed bag. Russia, China, and Cuba have had their successes, including technological modernization, universal health care, and a modern educational system. But they remain dictatorships.

Slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1865, but continued in the form of  prison chain gangs. In 1965 those too were abolished, but they were reinstated by some states in 1995. Now there are even chain gangs of women and juveniles. In most prisons inmates are given a choice between working for a few pennies an hour–if they get paid at all–or solitary confinement.

During the late 19th Century American workers began organizing but their unions were often illegal. Police officers arrested strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps. In 1909, while sentencing a picketer, the judge said, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!” Apparently the judge considered the right of capitalists equivalent to the divine right of kings.

In 1935, during the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration passed the Wagner Act. This established the National Labor Relations Board and legalized the right to form unions. In 1947 Congress (controlled by Republicans but with the support of many Democrats) passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which weakened the power of the labor unions. Nevertheless, by the 1950s, one-third of the workers in private industry were unionized. But in 1981, when President Reagan struck down the air traffic controllers’ union, the number of union members began to decline. By 2022 it was about 6%.

In 2006 Warren Buffet famously said “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Going hand in hand with, and as a result of, the decline in union membership, real wages in the United States have plummeted while economic inequality rose to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. For comparison: in 1897, the richest 4,000 families in the United States had as much wealth as the other 11,600,000 families all together. In 2017, the three richest individuals in this country had as much wealth as the bottom half of the population.

Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back, at least somewhat. During the last year, American unions have been making significant gains and many in the labor movement are optimistic. But will the recent spate of successful strikes make a permanent dent in the system?

To be continued…

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