August 26, 2014
Honoring All Workers on Labor Day
Once again we prepare for the Labor Day weekend. Picnics, cookouts, and football help to celebrate the last hurray of summer. Over the course of time, the real reason for Labor Day has been lost to recreational pursuits, but we should always remember that Labor Day is the one day of the year set aside to recognize America’s workers. After all, it is America’s workers that built this great nation- not the robber barons and vulture capitalists on Wall Street.
When we think of those who have built this country, we must remember all Americans who have given their sweat, muscle, blood, and lives. It was the immigrants that came here and did the dangerous work, the hard work, and the thankless work. If you are not a Native American, at some point in time your forefathers came to this country seeking a new life.
Today I was traveling through Nashville and saw people hanging signs for a “Secure Our Borders” rally being held there. As I passed the sign I began to wonder about the hard labor of immigrants in this country and the impact their struggles have had on shaping this nation. It is true that illegal labor drives down wages for other workers, but the real enemy is the people who profit from that labor not the workers themselves.
Between 1850 and 1860, over 40,000 Chinese immigrants came to the United States and began working in the gold mines. Animosity toward the Chinese workers made life in the mines difficult, as white miners resented the Chinese competition for the gold. The state of California began taxing the Chinese immigrants at the urging of the white miners running many out of the mines.
Central Pacific Railway Manager Charles Crocker saw the displaced Chinese workers as a business opportunity. Building the transcontinental railroad was dangerous work. Displaced Chinese workers from the gold and silver mines were hired at a third of the cost of the white workers by earning lower wages and no housing allowances. The Chinese workers suffered from lower wages, the European workers from competition for the jobs, while the pockets of the railroad barons were padded by additional profits from lower cost.
As the 1800s moved on into the 70s and 80s, the Industrial Revolution found its way to America as Robber Barons Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller saw their wealth grow at enormous rates off the sweat of immigrant labor. In the 1880s there were over five and half million immigrants coming to America from European countries, with another four million in the 1890s. Irish, German, Italians, Russians, Greeks and so on, boarded ships often provided by the robber barons to flood the labor market to keep wages low. The immigrants were blamed for the lower wages and were met with violence and animosity by the existing workers. Signs proclaiming “No Irish” showed up in boarding houses, stores and restaurants by frustrated workers. The wedge was driven between workers by those who benefitted the greatest from their labors- these robber barons.
The children of these immigrants would move westward and pick up jobs as sharecroppers. Then when the Dust Bowl disrupted their lives in the 1930s, again they would be cast to the wind to be exploited by rich farmers in Southern California as the area grew filled with desperate former share croppers trying to provide for their families.
Immigrant workers began in this country with slavery, as human beings were captured from the native lands in Africa and shipped across the ocean in conditions that would claim many lives. If they were fortunate enough to survive the passage, all that awaited them was a lifetime of hard labor and no rights. Later, indentured servants would pay for passage to America with years of free labor and no rights. These atrocities occurred while the rich grew fat on the suffering of the working class. Attempts by the working class to organize were met with resistance and violence by the wealthy.
Today we face the same issues. Since the passage of NAFTA, workers in Mexico have found themselves trying to live in a U.S. styled economy on third world wages. The result is to try and relocate to the States to take their chances living illegally rather than face starvation and poverty in their homelands.
Recent attempts to offer amnesty turned into a political quagmire with nothing being done except the Republicans whipping their base into a fury and resulting in rallies such as the one I saw taking place in Nashville. Realistically, the workers are already here and working. The politicians who oppose immigration and worker programs are not honest about their real intentions. Undocumented workers are not covered by worker protections such as minimum wage and health and safety requirements. Just as the Chinese workers on the railroads worked for a third of the going wage, undocumented workers earning half the minimum wage today drive down wages for other workers. If they were granted amnesty then they would be covered by national wage and health and safety standards and the people who are exploiting them would have to adhere to those standards and not be able to use them as a threat to attack legal workers rights. Do undocumented workers harm the living wage and job security to legal workers? Of course they do. But it is time we turn our anger against the real people profiting off the labor- the people who employ them.
This Labor Day let each of us stop and remember the workers who built this country – and let’s face it- most of it was built with immigrant labor. While most people reading this were born here- somewhere down the line you had a forefather that took that leap of faith to a land where they hoped opportunity awaited. Labor Day is for workers- all workers. It is time the working class band together to stop anyone who exploits workers- documented or not.
Peace my brothers and sisters,
LUCA Advisory Council Chair