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The “Cancer” of Labor Day

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When I heard that Paul Ryan had been selected by Mitt Romney to be his Vice Presidential candidate in the upcoming election I almost did a spit take. I had been doing some rather depressing research into the right’s characterizations of progressives (it’s not pretty) and I had a day or so before found Ryan’s 2010 session on the Glenn Beck radio program where he and Beck agreed that, “progressivism is a cancer,” “a complete affront to the whole idea of this country” that “never sat right” with Ryan.

Now, I am used to the kind of grade-school sneering that typically comes with conservatives talking about “socialism,” but this was a much more explicit step. As an American citizen proud of our progressive moments in history I was honestly fearful during the 2010 election when Glenn Beck called on “progressive hunters” to help him and his then devout tea-party followers “take their country back.” While Beck has since been dismissed to the GOP’s extreme radio backwaters he has called this pick “political genius,” and among leading conservative thinkers he is not alone.

The conservative right is afraid of Hitler, Mussolini, Marx (for some reason), and the current economic conditions of Greece, that much is clear. But the inability to give progressive politics their place in American history is, to me, appalling. Granted, national applications of socialism can look all sorts of ways (nefarious to Norwegian), but it does not always end up in tyrannical rule and bankruptcy. Of course you would never know that from the histories we hear on the campaign trail or from the motives that have been associated obliquely to Barrack Obama since his election. Meanwhile capitalism, that gleaming and innocent evolutionary force (interestingly advocated frequently by opponents of evolution) knows no such evil in the minds of American conservatives like Ryan. At least nothing nearly as awful as those horrible dictators, critical thinkers, and Grecian social servants.

So let’s take a day, Labor Day seems as good as any, to remember the incredible gains made by labor activists, union leaders, progressive thinkers, and humdrum workers in the face of the tyranny of profit that ruled early industrial America, and which still threatens to set back human rights agendas the world over.

Sadly, Memorial Day and Labor Day have essentially been co-opted as ‘free time’ in America. I can personally say until very recently in my own history that I never kept either straight nor really understood what either was for. I’m embarrassed to say that did not change for me until friends of mine, young men and women in the post 9/11 world, began serving in larger numbers in the armed forces. One friend in particular lost a considerable portion of his heel in the opening days of the Iraq invasion. I remember the phone call from his crying sister telling me he had been wounded in battle, that they did not know anything else, and spending the next night wondering if he was still alive. These friends of mine are good people, fair people, loving and for the most part non-violent people, and they enlisted to fight for everything that they think America stands for that is good. They put their lives, livelihoods, and families on the line and exposed themselves to the violence of a faceless enemy in our name. Now I know exactly why we remember.

Countless other similarly caring Americans have since our inception put their lives and livelihoods as readily on the line to fight for freedom via worker protection. Just as young people of today cannot imagine being drafted, or serving in the numbers required to win WWII, we cannot imagine going to work before the age of 15, or being forced to work in locked buildings with no windows, ventilation, or breaks. But that is exactly what pre-progressive America entailed – and the “invisible hand” of capitalism has proven to be an equally formidable (and equally depraved) opponent as any that our armed forces have faced on the battlefield.

Nowhere do we see more starkly the realities of this history than in the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. We might call it the Lexington of progressivisim in this country, sadly we are obviously still waiting on our Saratoga.

Saturday, March 25th 1911 started like any other work day for the 500 workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of a rickety building in the burgeoning new mega city of  New York. The workers, according to the episode in the marvelous documentary on the city released by PBS, “teenaged girls for the most part [were eager to meet their quota] finish up, collect their pay, and plunge into the mild spring evening.” At around 4 pm a fire started that would lead to a disaster that would stand unprecedented in that great city for close to 90 years.

Nobody knows exactly how the fire started. Perhaps a worker carelessly tossed a match onto one of the many piles of clothing that littered the garment factory floor, but what ensued – for those who witnessed it – could no doubt never be forgotten. The building was ablaze in minutes and while the young NYFD was quick to the scene they lacked the technology to fight a fire so high in the sky. They were left helpless on the ground with a growing number of shocked spectators as the fire grew.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (two Russian entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris) were in the midst of a no-holds-barred capitalist nightmare that would make Foxconn (the Chinese company that produces Apple products for wealthy Americans) look like a daycare. Any extra expense added to the cost of the garments produced that could be skipped more-or-less had to be or the factory would lose their contract to an underselling competitor elsewhere in NY who avoided it. They had taken “reasonable steps,” calculated steps, certainly not malicious, made in the name of better business, and they cost 146 Americans their lives that evening.

When the fire began the girls found the doors to their factory floor locked or blocked from the outside. This was done to stop workers from stealing or from taking “unnecessary” breaks and to limit access to progressive advocates who would document the atrocious conditions and agitate among the workers for change. There was no law against this at that time. Nor was there a law mandating sprinkler systems so the factory, like most buildings in New York at that time, had none. In fact, the workers had no access to firefighting apparatus of any kind. There was not even any running water on some of the floors. The only options left for many of the young girls was either to burn, to suffocate, or to leap to their deaths from the windows (sometimes several at once, holding hands as they fell) to the concrete streets hundreds of feet below. As the smoke filled the upper floors and the heat intensified, so too did the parade of wives, mothers, and daughters – many of whom were in fact impaled on the wrought iron fence surrounding the building. The few dozen who could make their way to the fire escape found it brittle and rusted, and while some did make it safely down that way many more perished when it gave way in a horrifying display of twisted metal and screaming young people. According to wikipedia  the youngest victim of the fire was 11 years old.

A dozen or so days after the fire, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was back up and running a few blocks away, city inspectors found doors locked with workers inside and zero preventive measures taken. They simply “were not affordable.” Some historians believe that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a watershed moment for progressive politics – coming as it did on the tail of many failed demonstrations on behalf of factory-workers eager for safer conditions and better pay. But it would take decades, and a considerable amount of “big government” involvement to make noticeable changes. In the interim, American workers (many of whom were still children) were brutalized so a few could profit, and those fighting for their rights were assaulted, bankrupted, imprisoned, and even assassinated.

Memorial Day is an important day in America when we honor the fallen military heroes who made our nation great. No conservative would ever scoff at such a holiday, and Labor Day in particular and progressive politics in general deserve equal commemoration and respect. In many instances the sacrifices made by the victims and opponents of unchecked economic expansion were just as dire, and the gains have proven to be equally profound. So even though the teachers, artisans, craftspeople, laborers, service-providers (and not to mention all of their families) who put themselves on the line to provide our insanely humane and profitable American society were not wearing the uniform of our nation’s military, let’s give equal thanks.

Labor day is a day that we celebrate the countless cries of “that will END [insert regulated industry here]!!!!” which were dismissed in the name of progressive regulations and policies that took us in directions which proved to be fruitful for ALL. Weekends, a seemingly restrictive notion as-is to many cultures on this planet, simply would not exist in an America built solely on “the bottom line” and workplaces (for even the “tamest” of jobs) would be profoundly more dangerous. Don’t believe me? Just ask the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Unions are our friends, progressive / communal politics (scary-voiced “socialism”) is NOT a “cancer” but, rather, the cure for the free market which is otherwise incentivized to transform human lives and bodies into little more than profit for a very very few. These reforms (always cast as the downfall of morality or profitability or as an “attack on business” by those few who stand to lose the most) have frequently gone on to provide precisely the opposite effects – boosting equal access to success and drastically increasing productivity, sustainability and quality control.

In Ryan we have a young man who has admittedly recently dismissed Any Rand’s self-serving philosophy (so called “rational objectivism”) as an “atheistic philosophy” but he openly admits that Rand was the reason he got in to politics. Somewhere between the selfishness of the Rand’s, Blanck’s and Harris’ of the world and the charity of Christian love there is a profound division. We either care deeply for and advocate for the plight of the voiceless, or we uncritically turn efforts toward better health care, better wages, and safer environments into “entitlement complexes” or “failed European socialism.” America has long benefited from socialist policies – from our military, to our roads, to our water and electrical infrastructures, to our contributions to education, research and technology – all of which have required considerable investment (often read as “invasion”) by “government bureaucrats.” It is not hard to imagine how mandatory primary education for American children could have been misconstrued – sadly conservatives of the time did not have  Hitler to lean upon, and yet most Americans of today cannot imagine any alternative. And yes, frequently corruption and waste have run rampant among those appointed in our government. But in my eyes and in the eyes of many equally patriotic American citizens in many cases public bureaucrats who are in theory open to public scrutiny and removal (as opposed to made up of groups which answer to only a handful of shareholders) are preferable to the self-serving and exclusively privatized alternatives of our past.

States would not fight this battle for us in the past, and “free-market” enterprise profits most when they can ignore it. We need a president and a vice president who understand the nuances of this debate. And we need to remember – as the right are fond of saying to justify their military adventurism – that freedom is never free.

Have a safe and happy Labor Day!

About the author

A.P.Donaldson

Aaron Donaldson is a Helena, MT native currently living and working in Denver Colorado.

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  • Just an excellent post. I think it has become too easy for us to imagine that the rights we enjoy as workers just happened. We should remember Labor Day for what it is–a celebration of the workers who built this country and demanded better conditions for those who came after.

    It is certainly more than a day off signaling the end of summer.

    Thanks for the post.

  • From Janet Daley of the Telegraph.

    “What is being challenged is nothing less than the most basic premise of the politics of the centre ground: that you can have free market economics and a democratic socialist welfare system at the same time. The magic formula in which the wealth produced by the market economy is redistributed by the state – from those who produce it to those whom the government believes deserve it – has gone bust. The crash of 2008 exposed a devastating truth that went much deeper than the discovery of a generation of delinquent bankers, or a transitory property bubble. It has become apparent to anyone with a grip on economic reality that free markets simply cannot produce enough wealth to support the sort of universal entitlement programmes which the populations of democratic countries have been led to expect. The fantasy may be sustained for a while by the relentless production of phoney money to fund benefits and job-creation projects, until the economy is turned into a meaningless internal recycling mechanism in the style of the old Soviet Union.

    Or else democratically elected governments can be replaced by puppet austerity regimes which are free to ignore the protests of the populace when they are deprived of their promised entitlements. You can, in other words, decide to debauch the currency which underwrites the market economy, or you can dispense with democracy. Both of these possible solutions are currently being tried in the European Union, whose leaders are reduced to talking sinister gibberish in order to evade the obvious conclusion: the myth of a democratic socialist society funded by capitalism is finished. This is the defining political problem of the early 21st century.”

    • Daniel Bell clearly outlined the conflict between capitalism (note, I did not say “free enterprise”), with democracy in “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” in 1976. This is not a new idea, but it is one that has been ignored by conservative “thinkers” (note, I did not say “readers”) since it’s publication. Bell predicted a severe crisis where the political power caused by the concentration of wealth dramatically undercut the basic social construct of democracy. He, of course, was systematically ignored by the rising radical right (once headed by Barry Goldwater but in 1976 was headed by Ronald Reagan).

      The solution is reining in unfettered capitalism in order to preserve free enterprise. That requires a cultural shift combined with regulatory and legislative changes that must more clearly delimit the market to the exchange of goods and services, and separate the market from the exchange of ideas.

  • Hi Ingemar,

    The article you post puts a lot on public investment, does it include infrastructure like roads, plumbing, electrical grids and basic preventive health care (care that empirically saves other first world nations billions each year)? That stuff didn’t come from nowhere, it was built and it is because of public investment like that that we have the economy that we have. Forcing business to install and maintain sprinkler systems, fire escapes, and to leave doors open so workers can leave as they wish was called a “fantasy” too, and yet we see such tremendous profit. Why the blanket statement? Where are the specifics?

    The biggest problem I have with that statement is it puts all of the “phony money” printing on the hands of “entitlement” (again, biting into the negative rhetoric of capitalists). In 2001, right before the September 11 attacks, my debate team was researching the cost of starting up a brand new single-payer health care system in the United States. It would save Americans billions and lead to significant gains in access to and quality of care. Estimates we found put the cost at roughly $500bn ($200bn of which would come from medicare/aid) / year, a staggering number indeed. “That kind of spending will wreck our economy!” we were told “we can’t print phony money forever!” they said. And then the twin towers fell and we invested almost exactly that sum in additional money every single year since in defense spending – where were the critics then? When do we end the fantasy of a nearly $1.5 trillion dollar military bonanza?

    It is estimated that 18,000 Americans a year die from preventable illness. That’s 9/11, 6 times, every single year. We spend more than twice on health care what even the most expensive single-payer systems spend as a percentage of our GDP and our costs are exploding as a result of our insistence upon a privatized system that exponentially increases administrative jobs without adding a single doctor or nurse to a clinic or hospital. We will eat those expenses as profit to major companies, why can’t we invest in turning that profit into savings for American people? Because Janet Daley says it’s a “fantasy?” That’s not responsive to my post.

    And the video about the teacher … I don’t get it. Looks like an advocate asking for more money for our schools, which in my opinion is a positively brilliant idea. Am I supposed to be upset by that vid?

    • Let’s delve deeper into Janet’s statement. Is she right in her assumption that we’re “bust” because we don’t have enough revenue or is that revenue being wasted? Let’s take your mention of roads and bridges. $38B/yr. is collected via gas taxes yet $38B isn’t spent on roads and bridges, only a portion of it. Some of stays in the beltway, some used for bike paths, Billings got gas revenue money for a new ballpark bolstering Janet’s stance on redistribution.

      Has the free market generated enough money? Last time I looked we’re a trillion short every twelve months. “Phony money” has two meanings to me. First our debt and our savings have become mere digits in a master computer bank. Plastic rules the day banks are required to keep only a small portion of what they lend or hold. Constant printing of money combined with inflation add to the phoniness.

      Your war #’s are a little off. Total defense spending has never exceeded $1T. In fact the cost of those wars make up only a small % of the overall combined budget.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:U.S._Defense_Spending_Trends.png

      If you want to replace all govt. spending with single payer then illegals better get those replacement livers quick cause Cuba and Venezuela would run the tables to the Canadian border. I’ve seen pictures of Cuban hospitals, not a pretty sight.

      I’m physically tired arguing HC. Tell you what, do single payer if the lawyers let you, but let me and others opt out of it. Opt out of SS, MC, MA too. When the producers all leave lets see what really happens.

        • I didn’t.

          And while it is certainly arguable that Democrats need to do better on labor issues, engaging this kind of trollish argument is tiresome. Craig has no interest in a real discussion.

            • I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here, lizard – are you suggesting that’s not precisely what Craig is doing and has been doing for the last several months? His tone reveals that he scorns those unions, but he’s happy to attack Democrats for doing exactly what he defends republicans for doing, because he finds it fun to argue with Don and I, regardless of what position he has to take to do it. I don’t hold it against him, but I hope you and other progressives realize that Craig’s comments are a microcosm of the GOP voter suppression strategy.

  • Gosh, it seems my every comment is screened these days, “Craig Moore September 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

  • Craig’s motivism aside, I will engage but I agree with Don. Rahm may be weaker on labor than he could be but at least he’s not a “hunter.” I felt like I was pretty clear as to why I targeted Ryan, he is the pick to be V.P.of the nation, not some mayor of a city. And he argues that progressivism is “counter to everything America stands for” a pretty bold claim given the content of my article.

    And “you guys have faults too” is a pretty weak response – I think it more-or-less proves the point that we could be doing more to fuel progressive policies, no?

    • if you’re looking for a weak response, check out how the DNC supported labor in Wisconsin during the recall effort.

      they won’t show up for you, but they expect you to show up for them, because the alternative is nihilism and apocalypse.

    • A VP has no real power except to vote in the case of a Senate tie. Rahm’s power is immense as the mayor of Chicago has more umph than the Illinois governor. As Obama’s chief of staff he held incredible policy authority. Now as Obama’s blessed operative in Chicago, it is rather telling how Labor is held in such esteem given his fight with the teachers union. Why haven’t you reflected on this and called for Obama to rein him in and give Labor everything they want, budget be damned?

  • No Lizard, the alternative in November is apparently “hunting progressives.” The DNC really does have a long way to go but at least they weren’t the ones ATTACKING unions in Wisconsin. They DID just champion pretty historic (and grossly inadequate) health care reform. They made sure women who worked for religious institutions had access to health care as well.BOTH were not only staunchly opposed by a GOP with zero alternatives but also demonized as uniquely anti-American. Which they very clearly are not. The claims that Obama’s policies are somehow especially progressive are clearly false, the claims that the tradition of progressive politics has no place in our success are clearly false, and the notion that progressive politics inevitably leads to an “entitlement meltdown” is clearly false. My argument is insisting on these positions (which the RNC pretty plainly did) puts the republicans on the wrong side of history, and on the wrong side of progress.

    And, again, why do I have to defend the DNC in order to prove that a stance denying the value of progressive politics in American history is bad?

    And Ingemar, what?

  • Craig, upon reflection I’m calling on Obama to (if he is even able) “rein in” Rahm’s anti-union efforts and to support progressive politics. I don’t know why I’m being asked to “give Labor whatever they want” as that pretty clearly was not my argument. It is however pretty telling of your effort to render it.

    And the Cheney administration pretty much obliterates your post about the V.P. Just because Biden is a tie-breaking vote in a suite that does not mean Ryan would be. And were he to become president (as many V.P. candidates eventually do) then we’d be in real trouble if the rest of my article is on point. Which so far it appears to be.

    We can all agree the left can do more, the right needs to stop demonizing and essentializing this issue.

    • Cheney administration????? Again the VP has no real power. However, that is not to say that any president doesn’t defer to others in areas where he feels inadequate. Do you not think MIchelle Obama has no persuasion on a variety of issues? Didn’t Hillary Clinton hold a certain derived power when Bill was president?

  • Craig,

    Yeah, the administration of people working under Cheney when Bush was president. Under Cheney’s direction they worked to drastically expand the office of the V.P. This went well beyond advice and tips, Cheney kept confidential files and extended executive privilege in ways that meant he could avoid investigations launched by the President himself. And did you read the rest about how V.P.s become Presidents some day? As I said before if the rest of my post bears out then that’s bad enough.

    Michelle probably has a little pull on her husbands ear, and most first ladies sponsor policy initiatives that are significant (Hilary Care(s)!) but they certainly have not historically drafted justifications for torture and used executive privilege to avoid investigation. Oh yeah, and what’s the point of this thread of argumentation? How does it engage my post? Again I’ll say “you’re people are bad too” is not a response, if anything it’s an extension of my “this is bad” argument. So as long as you agree with me on the stupidity of demonizing progressive policies we’re done here.

    I don’t know you Craig, so I’m hazarding a guess here, but by insisting that I’m not attacking powerful Democrats I feel like you’re trying to paint me as playing favorites. Somehow ignoring issues in “my own party” so I can demonize yours. My biggest problem with this tactic is that instead of engaging the particulars of my post you’re going after my motives and credibility. Considering we’ve never met that’s a pretty dangerous angle.And last, please don’t speculate about my stances toward prominent democrats. Obama (like Bush) is imo a war criminal. Elsewhere online I’ve advocated voting third party or green and I would be doing so myself if I wasn’t so concerned about Romney/Ryan’s rhetoric on progressives and women’s health issues. Insisting that my argument is nothing more than playing favorites is divisive and, as the above paragraph indicates, distracting. Try to stick to the thesis/warrants in my post, if you wanna talk executive function let’s do so elsewhere.

    • Comparative discussions work better than the one-sided diatribes that are so often the fare hear. I wasn’t going after your motives or credibility, just the empty space that should have been filled with the broader context.

  • Well there are an infinite number of things that I didn’t say … none of which stand as a response to what I did. But thanks for your thoughts.

      • Craig, standing on the outside tearing down both sides is not comparative exposition. That’s the case whether it comes from Dave (Libertarian) or from JC (Green). Though I think Dave was simply expressing personal sentiment, most of the time such narratives are usually meant to disengage the reader from a stance already taken in favor of fluffing whatever preference such a ‘comparator’ favors. That A.P. didn’t do that stands to his credit, because at heart it is simply rote manipulation.

  • Well thanks for that but, again, it doesn’t really implicate anything so long as it is not indicting my motives or credibility. A nice link though.

  • I tried to resist the impulse, but I’ve failed. it amuses me no end when ‘the left’ comes poncing on in here to talk smack about Democrats have failed labor, when the left abandoned labor some time ago. And they actually have the hutzpa to defend themselves as superior ‘progressives’ while chiding Democrats for failing to do what they have no interest in doing at all. That’s not really any different from Republicants, is it?

            • that link goes to a Naked Capitalism piece, which is a good read about how the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all become problematic with their advocacy for labor rights, meaning they don’t really. I don’t see how that translates to an indictment of the entire left, especially those marginalized by mainstream Dems. if anything it exposes the rightward drift of institutions that put politics above people. is that really the point you’re trying to make?

  • This is an excellent post and caused me to reframe my understanding of the meaning of Labor Day. It seems fitting that we honor Americans who sacrificed and died in the service of our national security on Memorial Day, and honor Americans who sacrificed and died in the name of our national economy on Labor Day, with Independence Day sitting right in between them. Thanks for this.

  • Cap,

    I couldn’t help but wonder how a conservative base who will go to no end of one-ups-manship to “honor the troops” could, at the very same time, be so dismissive of the equally incredible sacrifices made by Americans demanding fair labor practices and corporate accountability. In my opinion, BOTH serve the security of America, albeit on drastically different fronts.

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