Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day thanks to the folks who gave us the weekend

Labor Day, USA. So, let’s take a moment to give thanks for all those who fought for labor rights over the past 150 years. Talkleft has a nice quick history of the holiday and a Rolling Stones rendition of Salt of the Earth from Youtube.

I was a card-carrying member of the Teamsters Union for a couple of years, when I worked for a couple of years (before starting college (finally) at UCLA) at the truck loading dock for Roadway Express in downtown Los Angeles. This was in the late 1970s to 1980 or 81, I don’t remember very well. I finally decided that maybe I needed to go to college; not long after I left that job, loading and unloading big trucks, every kind of freight imaginable, the facility was closed and moved out to the desert town of Victorville. It made sense - it had become far too difficult to get huge freight trucks in and out of downtown LA, and made better sense to shift the freight from big trucks to smaller ones for urban delivery.

More importantly, the container revolution was just taking off - I didn’t know it at the time - and it was going to render an awful lot of loading and unloading unnecessary. It was a period of horrible productivity in American manufacturing - Roadway Express and I were certainly part of the less-than-stellar productivity, as we collectively were entirely indifferent to damage of any kind. Quality control was a wholly alien notion. The supervisors apparently were evaluated strictly in terms of meeting schedules and gross weight moved; I recall when we once unloaded a whole huge truck of glass fluorescent light tubes - the supervisor had us throw the boxes to speed things along and when I reported that I could hear the glass breaking in every single one, he snarled, who the fuck cares, insurance will pay for it. But I didn’t care any more than he did.

I look back over the hundred year old sloganeering of the unions, and although I am as critical as the next center right Republican about union demands, and anyway think that labor unions don’t really suit the direction of capitalism for the new century, nonetheless I stand in awe and respect for what they achieved. I don’t think that, as the 19th century slogan went, ‘labor creates all wealth’. If that were so, humans would have been far richer over the last 10,000 years; technology and innovation create wealth and none of that really took off until the Industrial Revolution. And, for the same reason, the takeoff of the labor unions themselves.

But those slogans were never truly about economics - they were an assertion of the inherent dignity of labor. To the folks who brought us the weekend, labor safety, the eight hour workday, and so many other inherent dignities of life we today take for granted - thanks.

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