Police departments vs. labor

Starting with the George Floyd protests in 2020, we began hearing calls to defund police. Police departments, so the thinking went, mostly served White interests, and thus tended to support White supremacy. This argument may have been valid, but it ignored other interests that have controlled police departments in the U.S.

“On May 28, 1937, a strike of seventy-eight thousand steelworkers spanned seven states in the Steel Belt from Homestead to Chicago. The Little Steel Strike of 1937 showed that business would not accommodate unionization even in the face of federal directives. Little Steel companies came prepared. They each bought tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tear gas, gas grenades, pistols, and rifles to supply to local police and corporate guards to stop a strike. A congressional investigation found that the companies together had purchased $178,000 worth of such armaments. Bethlehem Steel had directly paid the policemen’s salaries. In Chicago, on Memorial Day, came the climax of the strike, when a thousand strikers took American flags and began to walk toward the steel mill. When told to disperse by police, they refused. The police fired on the crowd in what was reported as the Memorial Day massacre, killing seven and wounding ninety. Most of the injured were shot in the back. The strike fell apart soon after….” (Louis Hyman, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary [Viking, 2018], p. 35)

That’s just one small example of how police have always served the interests of corporate employers over the interests of working people. Police departments are still serving corporate interests over worker interests. I’ve never heard of a police department protecting striking union members from corporate security. I’ve never heard of a police department raiding a company’s premises to stop unsafe and exploitative work practices. You will never, ever hear of a police department shooting and killing CEOs. Police departments get paid to support bosses, not workers. (And please notice that I’m referring to “police departments” and not “police” — many police officers are ethical people working a tough job; but, like other workers, they have to do what their bosses tell them.)

The key point is that police departments serve the existing power structure. If the existing power structure includes systemic racism, then the police departments will support that systemic racism. If the existing power structure wants cheap labor to maximize corporate profits, then the police departments will suppress workers who go on strike.

Which raises an interesting point: It might be that the interests of Black and other non-White people, and the interests of working class people of whatever race, have some significant overlap.

Happy Labor Day

Labor Day has come again — at least, the United States version of Labor Day.

Everywhere else in the world, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1. But not in the United States. May 1, 1886, was the date of a general strike throughout the United States for the right to an eight hour day: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.” In Chicago, the strike continued through May 3, where as many as 80,000 workers stopped work. Though the workers were peaceful, the police were not — on May 3, they fired on striking workers, killing at least two workers. So a mass rally was arranged for the next day, May 1, in Haymarket Square.

Police arrived in Haymarket Square at 10:30 p.m., just as Methodist minister Samuel Fielden was concluding a short speech, and as the peaceful demonstration was beginning to wind down. Police Captain John Bonfield, backed by a large contingent of armed police officers, ordered the already dispersing workers to disperse. Then someone threw a bomb, killing one officer and wounding several others. Police began firing at the workers, and also apparently at each other. Seven police officers were killed, at least some of them probably by friendly fire. At least four workers were killed, and over a hundred people total were wounded.

Eight people were convicted of the bombing, in a trial that almost all historians agree was a travesty of justice. In 1893, the governor of Illinois pardoned the three who hadn’t been executed, saying, “Capt. Bonfield is the man who is really responsible for the deaths of the police officers.”

Old illustration showing Bonfield ordering crowd to disperse.
Detail of an illustration from the anti-union propaganda book Anarchy and Anarchists by Michael J. Schaak (F. J. Schulte & Co.: Chicago, 1889), p. 140. The original caption read: “The Haymarket Meeting, ‘In the name of the people, I command you to disperse.'”

But the damage to the labor movement had already been done. The Haymarket Massacre was all the excuse that employers needed to put an end to the call for an eight hour day. Corporations, newspapers, and politicians blamed the violence on immigrants and anarchists. The Chicago city government used the Massacre as an excuse to arrest scores of labor organizers. The massacre, which was acknowledged to have been incited by a police official, turned out to be a major setback for organized labor’s efforts to win an eight hour day for all U.S. workers.

The eight hour day finally became a reality — sort of — in the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which required about one fifth of U.S. employers to pay overtime if a worker had to work more than 40 hours in a week. Gradually, that sort of became the norm for most workers, and atually became the law in some states. By 1984, when I started working in a Massachusetts lumber yard (because there were no jobs for philosophy majors during a recession), we were required to work a 50 hour week, but at least we got paid overtime if we worked more than 40 hours in a week, or if we worked more than 8 hours in a day.

I continued to work hourly-wage jobs until 1997 when I got a FLSA non-exempt job. Of course, I just took the eight hour day and the right to overtime for granted. The story of the Haymarket Massacre, and the rest of the bitter fight for an eight hour day — no one told me that story. It’s the kind of story that gets people worked up, that makes them believe that their employers don’t have their best interests at heart, that makes them believe that they might deserve to have more control over their working life. But I didn’t know any of that. Labor Day took place in early September, not on May 1, and rather than commemorating the Haymarket Massacre, it was just a nice way to end the summer.

Today, the age cohort known as Generation Z has become very supportive of unions. No surprise there. Employers are paying less, finding ways to ignore labor laws, and generally treating workers like they’re disposable. Many in Gen Z have realized that their most viable path to a middle class life is through unionizing. Maybe Labor Day can become more than an end to summer — maybe it can become a celebration of Gen Z’s unionization efforts.

And as we celebrate another U.S. Labor Day, perhaps some members of Gen Z will join me as I hum to myself — quietly, so as not to disturb our corporate masters — an old song that still seems to resonate today: “The Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin, hummed to the tune of “Nellie Gray”:

In the gloom of mighty cities, amid the roar of whirling wheels,
we are toiling on like chattel slaves of old.
And our masters hope to keep us, ever thus beneath their heels,
and to coin our very life blood into gold.

Chorus: But we have a glowing dream of how fair the world will seem,
when we each can live our lives secure and free.
When the Earth is owned by labor, and there’s joy and peace for all,
in the commonwealth of toil that is to be.

They would keep us cowed and beaten, cringing meekly at their feet.
They would stand between the worker and their bread.
Shall we yield our lives up to them for the bitter crust we eat?
Shall we only hope for heaven when we’re dead?

They have laid our lives out for us to the utter end of time.
Shall we stagger on beneath their heavy load?
Shall we let them live forever in their gilded halls of crime,
with our children doomed to toil beneath their goad?

When our cause has been triumphant, and we claim our Mother Earth,
and the nightmare of the present fades away;
we shall live with love and laughter; we, who now are little worth,
and we’ll not regret the price we’ve had to pay!

(as learned from the SF Labor Chorus)

Seat at the table

I’m following the story of how workers in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are currently voting whether or not to join a union. The management of early twenty-first century Amazon warehouses sound a lot like the management of early twentieth century cotton mills: speed up work until the workers break, fire anyone who raises safety concerns, do anything to keep the unions out.

A BBC article on this story quotes Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights lawyer:

“The key question in America at the moment is are we going to have fair treatment of workers in the businesses that will dominate our future? … The concept that workers get a seat at the table is a radical concept for people in Silicon Valley.”

In fact, the assumption that workers should not have a seat at the table is a cornerstone of the Silicon Valley business model. Tech firms have been leaders at offshoring, outsourcing, using “contractors,” and requiring their few actual employees to put in 10-12 hour days as a matter of course. So why would they give workers a seat at the table?

The problem for workers: if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.

Happy Labor Day

To cheer you up on Labor Day 2014, here are some reports on labor issues from various sources:

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out that most tech companies in the Bay Area neither support nor oppose the proposal to raise the minimum wage in San Francisco, because they don’t bother hiring minimum-wage workers in the first place: “Large tech companies, whose workers make an average of $156,581, are mostly indifferent on the issue. They employ few minimum-wage workers, often contracting low-wage positions to outside providers.” [“Low-paying jobs may get a boost,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 2014, p. D1]

Today, an editorial in the San Jose Mercury-News bemoans the disappearance of the middle class. The editors reminds us of the recent news that, to no one’s surprise, tech workers are overwhelmingly male, and white or Asian. Then the editors go on to report that a recent study by Working Partnerships USA, a San Jose organization, found that there is plenty of racial and gender diversity in the maintenance and support staff of Silicon Valley companies: “The ethnic and gender divide parallels the economic divide: the service workers make a fifth of what tech workers make.” [“Middle class’ demise needs our attention,” San Jose Mercury-News, September 1, 2014, p. A11]

Finally, I am reading Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships by Tim Otto, a member of the Church of the Sojourners, an intentional Christian community in San Francisco (no connection to Jim Wallis’ Sojourners Magazine). The fifth chapter of Otto’s book is devoted to a theological reflection on how our current economic principles impact our families. He writes: “Consumer capitalism undermines the family by:
“1. Giving us less incentive to create strong families.
“2. Promoting [geographic] mobility, which weakens support for the family.
“3. Training us to see ourselves as consumers and other people as products.”

And if this kind of thing — the demise of the middle class, the sexism and racism of the big tech companies — makes you feel bad, might I suggest that you should go out and buy more consumer goods, which will help keep those low-wage workers in China fully employed. Happy Labor Day!

Labor Day picnic

Carol and I went to a Labor Day picnic in Alameda today. But this wasn’t your typical backyard barbeque. I’ve started singing with the Bay Area Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus again, and the Chorus got invited to sing at a Labor Day celebration sponsored by the Alameda County Coalition of Unions.

Carol and I got to Alameda Point Park a little early, so we had time to wander around. Several of the unions had booths set up, and Carol got to talking with a nurse who was at the booth that said: “Lemon-Aid To Save Pediatrics.” The nurses union is trying to convince Kaiser Permanente not to shut down a pediatrics inpatient unit. The nurse told us that Kaiser is building a new hospital — a good thing, since the old Hayward hospital does not meet current state requirements for earthquakes — but the new facility will not include a pediatrics inpatient unit. We talked about the craziness of the health care industry these days, and we all agreed that Kaiser is one of the best health care providers out there — yet the health care market can cause event hem to make bad decisions.


The nurse had to go serve lemonade to someone else, so we walked around some more. I saw all kinds of people from all kinds of unions: teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, electrical workers — I saw a sign for IFPTE Local 20 Engineers and Scientists of California, lots of t-shirts that said AFL-CIO, someone was wearing a button that said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. This being the Bay Area, no one racial or ethnic group predominated. I saw parents with babies and little children; Carol pointed out one big man with a little boy on his lap; the man had a colorful Rosie the Riveter tattoo on his right bicep. Bigger kids without any parents nearby were running around playing together. Some firefighters from Alameda drove a big ladder truck around the periphery of the picnic area, and waved out the windows at the kids.

At some point, it hit me that we were all representatives of the eroding middle class. The people around me were people who managed to make it through the Great Recession still holding on to their decent middle class jobs with benefits. I’m one of those people. Even though Unitarian Universalist ministers aren’t unionized — all we have is a professional organization that is pretty toothless — ministers fit right in with cops and nurses and teachers and electricians. All of us in the middle class are facing the same problems: we feel lucky to have jobs, we’ve lost ground in terms of real wages over the past couple of decades, there are fewer full-time job openings than there were ten years ago. But we’re holding on. The middle class keeps shrinking, but we’re still in it. For the moment.

The director of the Labor Chorus showed up, and she found us a place at the opposite end of the picnic area from the rock band that was playing. We warmed up for a few minutes, then the rock band quit and it was time for us to get up on stage. Carol said that when we went on stage, it took awhile for people to realize that we weren’t going to be singing rock ‘n’ roll. It took a few minutes, she said, but then you could see people realizing that we were singing labor songs. Up on stage, I noticed that when we sang phrases like “We’re talking about dignity,” or “All we need is unions,” or “Don’t you cross that picket line,” I could hear some cheering. When we got to the final three songs, “Roll the Union On,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Solidarity Forever,” Carol said people started singing along — as you can see in this thirty second video clip of the final chorus of “Solidarity Forever”:

After our half hour set was over, we in the chorus all hung around for a while at the picnic, and ate hot dogs and veggies burgers cooked by guys wearing AFL-CIO t-shirts. It was a good way to celebrate Labor Day.

Labor Day, LGBTQ rights, and the 1963 March on Washington

We’re all hearing a great deal about how the 1963 March on Washington featured Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I’ve been thinking about jobs and LGBTQ rights.

With Labor Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about how it was billed as a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Shannon sent me a link to the Organizing Manual (you can view it online here) — and the Organizing Manual contained this passage about jobs and labor:

Why We March

“We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

“That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

“Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

“Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

“The Southern Democrats came to power by disfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.”


That’s something to think about on this Labor Day weekend. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we think we have in the last fifty years — with the salaries of the CEOs rising, and the middle class disappearing, these days many white workers are also entering semi-slavery….

And then one of the two names listed on the front page of the Organizing Manual is that of Bayard Rustin. He was crucial to making the March on Washington become a reality. But because he was openly gay, the others who were in charge felt they had to keep Rustin in the background. At least we’ve made some progress in the area of LGBTQ rights; today, they might even have let Rustin speak, or at least show his face on the speaker’s platform [but see Erp’s correction to this statement in the comments below].


After services this morning, a visiting Unitarian Universalist from St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me while he was in California he was going to visit Rosemary Matson. He told me that Rosemary Matson’s husband, Rev. Howard G. Matson, had been a chaplain to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and Rosemary herself continued to be involved.

On the Farmworker Movement Documentation Web site, I found more information about Rosemary and Howard Matson. Howard Matson helped found the National Farm Worker Ministry, an interfaith group supporting farmworkers. Together, Rosemary and Howard had created the Unitarian Universalist Migrant Ministry. Both of them worked with Cesar Chavez and other major figures in the struggle to gain rights for Mexican Americans. Rosemary Matson recorded this anecdote about Chavez:

I remember my unexpectedly providing lunch for Cesar and 15 of his delegation at our home in Berkeley. They were between meetings in Oakland. A trip to the deli for pans of lasagna sufficed for all except Cesar, who I found out was a vegetarian, drank carrot juice, and needed a nap.

We have just completed a “Justice General Assembly” focused on immigrants’ rights. Although Rosemary Matson received an honorary degree from Starr King School fo the Ministry, I cannot help but think we should be paying more attention to those Unitarian Universalists who have been working on this broad issue since the 1960s.

West coast port shutdown, Oakland

Occupy Oakland is participating in the West coast port shutdown organized for today. Here’s my account of participating in this morning’s action — my perspective is very limited, but I felt it was worth presenting the unspectacular side of the Occupy movement.

I arrived at the West Oakland BART station right at 5:30 a.m., the time we were scheduled to start heading out to the various berths. I looked around for Kurt and Craig, the ministers I was hoping to meet, but couldn’t find them in the pre-dawn darkness. The organizers started us walking towards the terminal; we moved along at a pretty quick walk; this was a serious and committed crowd of people.

I joined the contingent heading to berth 30-32. One of the organizers told us that members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 said they would not cross a picket line, so we formed two picket lines at the two gates near us. It was not the best-organized picket line I’ve ever seen: people kept drifting away and standing in the middle of the road in front of the gates, then drifting back. I saw a few people wearing shirts or carrying signs identifying themselves with organized labor — some members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) carrying a banner of their union, someone with an IWW banner, and one or two others. The OEA members and the Wobbly stuck to the picket line.

OEA members on the picket line

I got to talking with Mark, a physician who works for one of the Bay area counties. Continue reading “West coast port shutdown, Oakland”

One possible litmus test for “UU culture”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is in the middle of an attempt to cut the state budget, and at the moment he’s focusing on passage of a bill that will end collective bargaining for state employees. This action sparked protests and a Democratic walkout, and for four days now state workers and their supporters have basically taken over the Rotunda of the state capitol building.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am fascinated by our religious response to this event. For anyone with a union connection, the events in Wisconsin will be seen as a watershed event — indeed, if Scott Walker’s bill passes, what’s happening in Wisconsin could be as important to union supporters as last year’s anti-immigration legislation in Arizona was to those working on immigration reform. But Unitarian Universalists have been basically ignoring what’s going on in Wisconsin; aside from a blog post by Patrick Murfin, I have seen no UU response.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. When Arizona passed anti-immigration legislation, Unitarian Universalists were furious, and a number went and got arrested in protests. However, Unitarian Universalists generally do not show much support when it comes to unions and worker’s rights. If Scott Walker’s bill passes (as it is likely to do), I do not think we will see a massive upwelling of support among Unitarian Universalists for collective bargaining rights.

This, I believe, reveals something about what Chris Walton and UU World magazine have been terming “Unitarian Universalist culture”. While Unitarian Universalists have a strong tendency to support politically liberal causes, they do not support all politically liberal causes equally, and unionism is one cause that gets little or limited support. Because of this, I predict that we will not be seeing prophetic statements from the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association condemning Scott Walker; I also predict that the Standing on the Side Of Love campaign will not start including love for union workers the way it included love for immigrants in the wake of Arizona.

I’m fascinated by the way Unitarian Universalists pick and choose among politically liberal causes, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this might be so. Specifically, why don’t we support unionism (with the exception of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers union, but then maybe that was more about immigrants than about unions)? Is it because our strong strain of individualism is repelled by collective bargaining? Is it because so many of us are members of the managerial class that we tend to distrust unions? Or what? Maybe this will help better define what “UU culture” really is.