Saturday, April 2, 2016

unfocused labor rant

This 1886 engraving was the most widely reproduced image of the Haymarket affair. It inaccurately shows Fielden speaking, the bomb exploding, and the rioting beginning simultaneously.
An eight-hour work day.

There is little or no heavy breathing and few acid epithets when an eight-hour work day is mentioned these days. A full-time job (where available) is roughly eight hours per day or 40 hours per week. No sweat, no argument of any force. Eight hours out of 24 ... one third of a (wo)man's life.

But the late 19th century was not the same. Twelve hours was more the norm. The cry for an eight-hour work day was seen by some business owners as an indicator of "socialism" or "anarchy" or "communism," all words that continue to resonate today... although usually they are veiled by reasonable sounding terms like "productivity." In the 1880's and 1890's, business owners owned the police more openly and the police were employed to assure that socialists, anarchists and communists did not gain the upper hand. Blood flowed.

Still, today the eight-hour day excites little or no surprise.

And yet the question remains today as it was once stated so long ago: What is a third of a (wo)man's life worth? A hard-working business man or woman may sweat long hours to get a business up and running. Their hard work sometimes bears wonderful financial fruit. And why should they be asked to give away what they worked to hard to attain? Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynic was a man who knew "the price of everything and the value of nothing." Perhaps the egregiously greedy may be accused of cynicism or even evil.

So what is the value of one third of a man's life?

Cautious Christians will remember that the biblical injunction is not "money is the root of all evil," but rather, "the love of money is the root of all evil." And by this yardstick, it is a short step to suggesting that the labor strife that arose in the late 19th century was an example of some interesting evil.

The price of everything and the value of nothing.

Unions in the late 19th century got a bad rap based on events like Chicago's Haymarket Square confrontation. Immigrants of a variety of stripes were branded and bad-mouthed. The virtue and industriousness of the business interests -- and by extension the country -- were upheld. Murder was not exactly murder when the crazies were targeted. "Trickle-down economics" had not yet been invented as a protective shield, but that didn't mean it was not emplyed.

And yet the eight-hour day made it through this baptism of fire. Other reforms -- as in working conditions -- came in its wake. Over time, union membership has risen in the American service sector and declined in private industry. There may be fewer "foreigners" to kick around, but there is no shortage of doubts about unions ... doubts that seldom find co-equal force when applied to management. Do businesses open their books to prove how deleterious unions are to the bottom line?

Today, we say "productivity" as if that too -- like trickle-down economics --  might be forgiven: Mediocrity, and lots of it, is OK as long as the money rolls in. Seeming honest is as good as being honest.

What is the value of a third of any person's life? "That's not my problem," the hard-working business owner may claim. And yet the result of not engaging with that problem has given us "occupy wall street" and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders... each of them powerful statements that the price and the value are not one and the same.

Blah, blah, blah ... no focus here ... just muttering.

1 comment:

  1. I forget the term used as one of the battle cries leading up to the american civil war, but it was something about freedom to work. It was touted as better for industry and workers than slavery. The employer would have to pay wages, but would no longer be held responsible, by any measure of diligence or laxity, for the well being of the worker. The worker would have to feed, clothe, house and raise a family from his wages, sufficient or not. Personally, i feel that no matter the skill level, if you work a 40 hour week you should be able to own a home, raise a family, and live at, if not above, the poverty level.