Sunday, September 02, 2007

Happy Labor Day

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

Happy labor day, on a beautiful weekend in Washington DC.

Not being a man of the left is no handicap in celebrating the achievements of the labor movement in the United States. Indeed, being a neo-con in the special meaning of someone who has moved from the left to the center-right, I know and worry very little about the canonical figures of the right, and know lots about the left, including the labor movement.

So - thanks to the folks who brought us the weekend, fought for health and safety and the end of child labor, gained the wages that allowed my forebears to join the middle class and its descendents like me to become moderately conservative intellectuals and professionals and, in the United States at least, opposed totalitarian communism in the name of trade union liberalism. If I lived in the world of a hundred years ago, locked out by birth and class, and race and sex, from the job I have today as a law professor, I would hope that I would be a militant trade unionist, singing the Internationale, urging the class struggle, and all that.

True, I don't think trade unions, militant or otherwise, are very relevant to working conditions and class in the US today - in a middle class, service economy, direct regulation is preferable - but the very possibility of that has come about because of trade unionism. And for that matter, even when I think, on balance, that some labor demand is a bad idea - usually because it is too expensive and is unsustainable - people like me of the comfortable upper middle class need to bear in mind that we would have thought the same thing of the laborer 150 years ago who demanded an end to hand-chopping mill machines, or social insurance for workers, or a mere sixty hour week, or any of the other things that we all take for granted today. It might indeed be too expensive and a reach beyond current resources - but that does not mean that the question is not worth asking, or the demand not worth making, if only to test the shifting limits of the possible.

(I should also add that the WSJ's opinion page piece a couple of days ago attacking the labor movement for its historical racism (Paul Moreno, Affirmative Action's Labor Roots, here) was gratuitously churlish on Labor Day weekend. When venues like the NYT decide to fill the op-ed page with anti-americanism just in time for July 4, the WSJ editorial page correctly takes it badly. It is not less offensive to trash the labor movement on labor day. The history of trade union racism is real, obviously, and Moreno's book an interesting one. But so too have been the achievements of the labor movement, and it is unworthy of the WSJ to treat it that way on labor day weekend. Shame.)

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