Bob Schwartz

Tag: Labor Day

Labor Day: The Wobblies – Industrial Workers of the World

From the IWW History Project at the University of Washington:

Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World captured the attention of a generation with its fiery rhetoric, daring tactics, and program of revolutionary industrial unionism. Pledging to replace the narrow craft unionism of the American Federal of Labor with massive industrial unions, the organization grew in numbers and reputation in the years before World War I, demonstrating an ability to organize workers neglected by the AFL, notably immigrant steel and textile workers in the Northeast, miners, timber, and harvest workers in the West.

But the IWW’s revolutionary program and class-war rhetoric yielded more enemies than allies. Frequently jailed or beaten when they tried to organize, Wobblies faced something more serious after the United States mobilized for war in 1917. Federal and state governments moved to suppress the organization, imprisoning hundreds of Wobblies, passing criminal syndicalism laws that made membership a crime. The IWW survived and is active today, but never regained the momentum of its early years.

International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union

ILGWU 1

It’s #LaborDay. My Grandpa Harry was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). He made beautiful coats. I still keep one of his union dues cards among my treasures.

All this talk about “Made in America” is incomplete. If we want things made in America, instead of all the other countries most of us buy most of our stuff from, we will pay a price. Unless we are planning to pay American workers the substandard wages of many of our import nations, we have to be willing to pay more for our goods. Are we willing? Are you willing?

Meanwhile, here’s the once famous song of the ILGWU. Maybe it can be famous again.

Look for the Union Label

Look for the union label
when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse.

Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
our wages going to feed the kids, and run the house.

We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the I.L.G. we’re paying our way!

So always look for the union label,
it says we’re able to make it in the U.S.A.!

And view this ILGWU singing ad from 1978.

Happy Labor Day.

Labor Day 2013

ILGWU - Yiddish, Italian, English
In talking about the labor movement, there are reasons to be encouraging and critical.

I grew up in a union household. My grandfather was an immigrant who joined and trained in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), famous for its “Look for the union label” song. I keep his union card handy in my desk.

The contributions of unions to American life, to the creation of a huge middle class, are beyond debate. Whatever you think of unions today, the labor movement helped make America.

Any critical comments will be taken as ammunition by those who oppose unions reflexively as an un-American scourge on our economy and way of life. Some of these people would not only eliminate the labor movement from present day America, but would be pleased to go back in a time machine and wipe it from history. There is little doubt that if this could somehow be accomplished, America might look like Czarist Russia or some other unbalanced and benighted society.

Those are the caveats. Here is the current situation.

Organized labor is disappearing from American life. Union membership as a percentage of the work force was 35% in the 1950s; it now hovers around 11% and is still dropping. The relentless push for right to work laws goes on, but even without that, the numbers may not rise, and may continue to decline.

It doesn’t matter how it got like this. There are plenty of rear view mirror analyses, including things like admitted abuses and overreaching, along with a shortsighted sense that the party would never end. For a lot of workers, union and otherwise, the party is over.

This, however, is not the end of the story. A heroic effort to re-imagine and re-vision unions and the labor movement can take place. This is going to take brutal self-examination and, as is implied, imagination and vision. Unions can evaluate who they are and who they can be in the context of 2013 and beyond—including being a centerpiece for progressive change. But with that, unions must also figure out who they can’t be and shouldn’t be. This is where having eyes wide open comes in. It is also where courage comes in and defensiveness must go out.

The idea that agents of progress look the same in every age is patently untrue. It is one of the traps of progressive movements, thinking that who and what worked a century ago or a few decades ago will work forever. It won’t. But there is something that will. Creating that something doesn’t begin by blaming the enemies, though enemies there be. It begins by admitting that there is a problem making unions fit in with current America, and an opportunity to create a labor movement that does.

There are Labor Day cakes in the local supermarket, decorated with American flags. The stores probably didn’t mean that Labor Day is the patriotic, all-American equivalent of Independence Day. Last night the local country club exploded Labor Day fireworks. That probably isn’t a political or economic statement. So maybe, as organized labor gets to work trying to figure out what exactly a 2013 movement looks like, it might start with the simple task of putting the “labor” back in Labor Day.