Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich published a lament yesterday on the New York Times op-ed page, noting the huge unemployment rate and the long-term erosion of regular folks' wages:
What families didn't receive in wage increases they made up for in work increases. By the mid-2000s, the typical male worker was putting in roughly 100 hours more each year than two decades before, and the typical female worker about 200 hours more.This is not news to actual workers, of course. Earlier this year even the Times itself noticed the cycle of layoffs and shrinking wages that has beset everyday idiots over the past few generations. Not unreasonably, Reich likens the current financial predicament to the Great Depression and calls, once again and wistfully, for GD-level boldness in the response.
In the 1930s, the American economy was completely restructured. New Deal measures—Social Security, a 40-hour work week with time-and-a-half overtime, unemployment insurance, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the minimum wage—leveled the playing field.
In the decades after World War II, legislation like the G.I. Bill, a vast expansion of public higher education and civil rights and voting rights laws further reduced economic inequality. Much of this was paid for with a 70 percent to 90 percent marginal income tax on the highest incomes. And as America's middle class shared more of the economy's gains, it was able to buy more of the goods and services the economy could provide. The result: rapid growth and more jobs.This is axiomatic (the University of Chicago School of Economics notwithstanding). And yet Reich is pleading for policy changes that he knows will not come soon, even though, for the moment at least, the allegedly "socialist" Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the White House.So why are the "socialists" not restoring at least the token amount of socialism—regular wage increases, say, or the 40-hour work week—that our parents endured?To understand why things are this way, it helps to recall that, during FDR's time, labor unions were armed.From the 1880s through the 1940s, workers organized unions in the face of clubs, bullets, and supreme courts that regarded just about any labor action as "restraint of trade." (See, for example: Lochner v. New York; Gompers v. Buck's Stove and Range Co.; and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co., in which the Supreme Court ruled the 1919 Child Labor Tax Law "unconstitutional.")Working people were tough and organized. They won the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, and later, overtime, sick leave, and pensions with their blood.This fact is seldom mentioned in history class these days. I had to get halfway through college before anyone told me about the Progressives of the 1890s, the Haymarket Square bombing of 1886 (anarchists framed for blowing up cops), or the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which started in West Virginia and spread to Maryland after the B&O Railroad cut workers' wages for the second time in one year.Back then, ordinary people understood that unions and strikes could benefit them. Baltimore erupted when citizens attacked militia that were being dispatched to put down that strike.Arguably it was that tradition of violence, and not anyone's logical arguments in favor of fair treatment, that led eventually to labor's golden decades of the last century.The Ludlow Massacre of 1914 was perhaps the modern catalyst. United Mine Workers struck against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., and set up a tent city near the mine.The company hired strike breakers and guard squads from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, which brought in a sort of private tank, with a machine gun on top. Striking miners and their families dug foxholes inside their flimsy tents to protect themselves from the random sniper attacks carried out by the company's thugs.The Colorado National Guard was called in next and, on April 20, 1914, Guard members attacked the tent colony, burning and asphyxiating, among others, 11 children and two women trapped in the pit under one tent.Two years later the Adamson Act was passed, averting another rail strike by instituting the eight-hour day.Labor history, of course, is neither an unbroken string of progressive victories nor a steady parade of legal setbacks punctuated by extrajudicial killings of union members. A few years after the Ludlow Massacre, United Mine Workers of America members in Williamson County, Ill., proved they could give as well as they got, brutally beating, shooting, hanging, and slitting the throats of 19 non-union workers whom they had promised safe passage out of the county.If our friends on the Right had any knowledge of history, those Irish immigrants wiped out in the Herrin Massacre would today be held up on Fox News as martyrs to the "Right to Work" cause. But it's rare today to find a conservative who knows anything about labor history (or economics or, well, just about anything else).So the next time some barstool bloviator turns to you complaining about "socialism" this or "Constitutional" that, buy him a cold one and try to work into the conversation something about child labor laws, once ruled unconstitutional.If he brings the talk back around to the "Class War," remind him who started it, with their company towns, 12-hour workdays, arbitrary wage cuts, and Baldwin-Felts style detectives.And even though the labor movement has laid down its arms, there is no truce.Think of the 29 of our friends and brothers who died in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, run by the virulently anti-union Massey Energy; consider the 11 killed April 20 in the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion. Think of our neighbors who, a few weeks ago, were temporarily laid off at Sparrows Point.And remember our grandfathers and grandmothers, and our great-grandfathers, for whom the prospect of a better life meant so much that they would face violence—or resort to it—in service of the cause.Try to imagine, just for a minute, what that must have been like.