Our Other Civil War.

This past Labor Day should give us pause to consider its real meaning. More than a 3-day weekend, the unofficial end of summer and a shopping holiday, it’s a celebration of labor – the hard-working men and women who built this nation. In many ways, it also represent the end of our second civil war.

The war began in the late 1800’s when wealthy industrialists discovered they could exploit the flood of new immigrants by forcing them to work long hours in dangerous conditions, all the while paying them barely subsistence wages. The battlefields were in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Reading, San Francisco, and on Blair Mountain, West Virginia. The combatants were ordinary working people demanding living wages and safe working conditions who were often attacked by armies of security companies, law enforcement…even veterans from the American Legion.

The battles raged for decades until workers finally won the right to organize and negotiate with their employers. This collective bargaining, as it came to be called, eventually brought us the 5-day, 40-hour work week. It brought us paid holidays, paid sick leave, workers’ compensation insurance, and retirement benefits. Collective bargaining ended the practice of forcing men, women and children to work in dimly-lit, poorly-ventilated sweat shops. It ended company stores which were used to accumulate workers’ debt and hold workers captive from cradle to grave.

Even if you have never joined a labor union, you benefit from the efforts of those brave enough to fight the establishment.

Unfortunately, the exploitation only ended in the United States and other advanced nations. The descendants of the industrialists – the CEOs and directors of large, multi-national corporations – merely exported the exploitation elsewhere…to countries lacking collective bargaining. They simply moved their factories to China, to Bangladesh, to India, to Pakistan, to Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Viet Name and elsewhere. In those countries which have few government regulations and no labor unions, they are free to force workers to slave away in sweat shops, often paid by the piece and made to work seven days a week.

Of course, this is no longer called exploitation. It is now called globalization. And, whether or not we care to admit it, we all participate in this exploitation. US corporations get their products made at lower cost and American consumers benefit from lower prices. Corporate shareholders see dividends and higher profits. And while the corporations despoil the land, air and water of other countries, we can breathe more easily because the pollution is out of our sight and, therefore, out of our minds.

So what can you do to stop the exploitation? You can vow to purchase products that are humanely made and sustainably grown. You can divest your investment portfolio of the corporations that are the worst offenders. You can write letters to the leaders of those companies. You can boycott their products. And we can end the current war on collective bargaining began when Ronald Reagan, a former union leader himself, betrayed PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union. You can support collective bargaining for teachers, first responders and government workers. And you can demand that your company have a representative of its workers on the Board of Directors as is the case in many European companies.

Then, and only then, will we be able to truly celebrate Labor Day.

Detroit Is Merely The Canary In The Coal Mine.

It’s popular for conservatives to blame the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit on a history of Democratic leadership. Indeed, the conservative commentators seem to revel in the city’s troubles. And since Detroit has a high percentage of African-Americans, the problems also conveniently fit their racist narrative.

The wingnuts believe that this simply couldn’t happen to a government run by white conservatives.

Hmmm…What about California? Following a government led by Ronald Reagan and, more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state was teetering on the abyss. But after a return to Democratic leadership, California is regaining economic health and running surpluses. The same can be said for Minnesota.

Detroit’s problems aren’t merely the fault of city leadership. The state of Michigan has failed to deliver the aid it promised. But the real problems are the result of national and international politics. As part of globalization, greedy corporations shipped Detroit’s manufacturing jobs out of state and out of country in order to avoid paying for employee health care and pensions. In addition, many of the city’s mostly white executives fled to the suburbs leaving the poor and the unemployed to pick up the tab for their excesses.

Given the many factors contributing to the city’s financial problems, it would have been virtually impossible for Detroit to overcome them by itself. Detroit didn’t create the problems on its own. It shouldn’t have to face them alone.

Moreover, Detroit may be just the first large city to declare bankruptcy. Other cities that were once home to large manufacturing plants are facing many of the same difficulties. And, depending on what happens in Detroit, they may follow its lead.

Sadly, the situation in Detroit reminds me of the aftermath of natural disasters. When the Midwest was devastated in the nineties by floods, many on the East Coast objected to paying for disaster relief. Many across the nation objected to paying to help New York City after 9/11. Many objected to the cost of rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina. And congressional representatives and senators from other states voted against funding to New Jersey and New York to pay for relief from Hurricane Sandy.

Far too many Americans lack compassion for their fellow Americans. Instead of looking for ways to help, they are more intent on affixing blame. They assume that they are so smart that such a disaster could never happen to them. Invariably, they are wrong.