American workers deserve a better day

September 02, 2002|By Arthur J. Magida

WOODY GUTHRIE, God bless him, wrote a wonderful song in 1940 about a union maid who "never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks, and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid." Whenever the mood hit her, she threw her head back and sang, "Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union" -- over and over again.

What a time, what a dame! But 1940, as George Lucas might say, was long ago and far away in another galaxy. Culturally, morally, historically, politically, financially (the minimum wage was 30 cents, cars sold for $695, houses went for $1,500), Woody may as well have been strumming his guitar on a distant planet.

Now maids don't organize. They're happy cleaning windows. And troubadours don't wander from town to town, invoking fear in the hearts of plutocrats, magnates, moguls and tycoons. And sorry, Woody, there's not much life left in unions.

What we do have is life in the suites. A lot of it. Tyco bought an $18 million crash pad in New York for its CEO. Global Crossing paid for first-class tickets so its CEO's mom could visit him every week. Sandy Weill made $151 million running Citigroup. And Steve Jobs recently negotiated the biggest stock option heist in history -- $872,000,000.

Nice work, if you can get it. But what about workin' stiffs? And what can we expect to hear from the prez today -- Labor Day -- about them? A lot -- a lot of blather. After all, this summer, Dubya used the nine miners who escaped a flooded coal mine in Pennsylvania as a photo op but didn't mention his attempt to slash $7 million from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or that the very mine in which the men were trapped had 31 outstanding safety violations.

But bosh! Today's the day everyone's the Working Man's Pal, even George W.

In a sense, nothing's changed. Labor Day has always been a great excuse for politicians to salute the folks with blue collars who carry lunch buckets to work, sweat their way through the day and stagger home at night to a large brood of noisy, soot-faced children. And anyway, who listens to the speeches when there are picnics to go to and down-to-the-wire, preschool shopping to take care of?

There's one thing you can be sure of: No speeches will mention Matthew Maguire, the fellow who came up with the idea for the first Labor Day parade in 1882 while secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. Fourteen years later, he was so disillusioned about reforming capitalism that he ran for vice president on the National Socialist Labor Party ticket.

Originally, Labor Day parades were really protest rallies for better working conditions, improved wages, shorter working days -- the mainstay of American unions. This distinguished them from Europe's socialist-leaning labor movements, which demanded greater political and social reforms and weren't willing to wait around for government to give them a holiday.

They seized May 1 for their celebrations. This arrogance so thrilled the Socialist Labor Party in the United States that it ridiculed Labor Day as "a bonbon" for workers from "their masters." On May Day, cheered the American socialists, "the workers of all countries ... stand united for the overthrow of world capitalism."

Um, maybe you've noticed: The overthrow never came. But a preference for vacation time over wages -- for quality of life over the power of the pocketbook -- took European unions in a different direction than American unions. Fifty-, even 60-hour work weeks are not uncommon in the United States, while 35-hour work weeks are standard in Europe.

In the United States, no laws address vacation time; in Europe, every country has mandatory vacation time -- lots of vacation time!

In the United States, we get one crummy day a year -- the first Monday of September -- as a sop to our laboring, while most Europeans get five-week vacations -- plus May Day. Maybe Matthew Maguire, the father of Labor Day, knew what he was doing when he ran for the White House as a socialist. If he had won, we might be lounging around like our European cousins, sipping wine and nibbling on brie.

And Woody Guthrie might have written a song about the best way to order wine stewards around.

Oh, union maid! I'll have another round of Beaujolais.

Arthur J. Magida, the writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore, is writing a book on a New Jersey rabbi accused of hiring two hit men to kill his wife. HarperCollins is due to publish it next year.

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