On Eugene Debs & Labor Day

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man, who does absolutely nothing that is useful, to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of men and women, who work all the days of their lives, secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Eugene Debs said that, 99 years ago, in September 1918, as part of a statement he made to the court just before they convicted him of sedition.

Few people know about Eugene Debs. He was a great American, and he gave his life fighting for the working class. In the process he suffered countless hardships and was even jailed for sedition, a charge one step shy of treason.

On the other hand, when we hear Rockefeller, Carnegie, or Vanderbilt, most people recognize those names. The History Channel even produced a stern, one-sided, somewhat entertaining mini-series about them called “The Men Who Built America.”

A more accurate title would be “The Men Who Robbed America Blind.” Each one of them got obscenely wealthy on the backs of people they paid barely enough to survive. But that’s what unfettered capitalism does, and does best: it makes a handful of people exceedingly rich at the expense of everyone else.

If one man had as much wealth as the rest of the world combined, this capitalist system would not only enable that, but encourage it, and defend it as well.

How does the system achieve that? By actively suppressing the power of the working class, and one of the best strategies for doing that is by keeping the workers dumb.

Make no mistake, it’s no accident that almost nobody knows about Eugene Debs. It’s no accident that young people are ignorant of the history of labor in this country, of how every single work-place advantage that we enjoy today was fought for and won with the blood, sweat, and tears of union members from days past.

Corporate America didn’t give the workers one single thing out of the kindness of its heart. Not one. Whether it’s the 8-hour day, or the 40-hour work-week, or sick leave, or vacation — the list is long — every single thing we take for granted in the working world today was literally fought for by the unions — and the corporations fought back tooth and nail.

At times, the company men were overt and vicious, like when they literally machine-gunned strikers at a coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado. While they were at it, they set the little tent city on fire and incinerated women and children alive. Sticklers will say that the National Guard actually did that. Don’t make me laugh. Everybody knows the attack dogs obey their masters.

Mind you, that’s just one of many such examples of extreme brutality on the behalf of the genteel titans of industry.

The corporate undermining of labor runs the gamut from open attacks to petty misrepresentation, and Labor Day is a prime example. Originally, Labor Day was celebrated on May first, May Day, and called International Workers’ Day. It was a world-wide celebration, but since it smacked of communism, the American establishment would only allow an official labor holiday in September, not May, thus defeating the original sense of global solidarity.

That’s only one of hundreds of examples of corporate America’s relentless campaign against the labor class. The latest, and possibly the most nefarious example of these efforts, is the establishment of anti-union think tanks that pose as pro-labor advocates. If weasels had kings, these guys would wear crowns.

They like to paint unions as useless, predatory entities that do nothing but take money. They pretend to speak on behalf of the worker who doesn’t want to join the union and pay dues, but still wants to benefit from the union’s collective bargaining. It’s a total con, but a lot of people fall for it.

Union membership is at its lowest point in decades, and it’s no coincidence that wages and benefits are also lagging far behind the record-breaking profits that we see on Wall Street.

The minimum wage would currently be around $22 an hour if the wealth were spread proportionately. Of course, Wall Street would prefer we didn’t know that, and most of us don’t. They want us to think that we’re just lucky to have a job, and that they’re actually doing us a favor by paying us barely enough to survive, just enough to go a little deeper into debt every month.

Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, three names we hardly ever hear. If you want to thank someone for making your life better, thank them. Labor built America, not wealth, and everything we have today was fought for, and won. Remember that.

To paraphrase Debs, “Ignorance alone stands in our way.”

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