Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembrance of Things Past

Last week my friend Joyce sent me a clipping from The Valley Mirror, a community tabloid with offices on Main Street in Munhall.  In his commentary "The Governor's Drama," Ernie Spisak gives a brief history of organized labor and its struggles throughout the last two centuries.  Of course, he mentions the Strike of '92 and the Battle of Homestead.  In conclusion, Spisak urges readers to "listen to the history of organized labor. Realize what it provided to you, even if you do not carry a union card. You have an eight-hour work day, paid vacation, paid holidays, paid sick days, and partially paid medical leave."

Frankly, I was surprised that the paper ran this commentary.  In almost every issue one of their columnists rants about how left-wingers are destroying the town, state, and nation.  Curious about local reaction to his piece, I contacted Spisak.  He said that his article had received some negative comments (not unusual for any commentary).  What took him aback is that these Steel Valley anti-unionists were all thirty-somethings.  Why couldn't they see the connection between their grandparents' fight for better pay and working conditions and their enjoyment of these fruits today?

To answer this question, I called my thirty-something daughter Ceridwen, with whom I see pretty much eye-to-eye on political and social issues.  We decided that every generation has to learn anew what previous generations figured out.  If one enjoys decent pay, safe working conditions, and other benefits, one has little motivation to buck the system.   It was always like this, wasn't it?

However, since the rise of Neo-Cons and Tea Partiers to positions of power, these hard-won gains have been increasingly eroded.  Gone is the kind of job security enjoyed by workers fifty years ago. The union-busting currently under way in Wisconsin and other states is the inevitable result of the wealthiest Americans ever-tighter grip on government and the media.

Take Rudolph Murdock, for example, who controls a significant portion of the "news" in both print and television.  Murdoch, the 36th wealthiest person in the US, owns not only the Fox News Channel and his News Corp, but also The Wall Street Journal, Direct TV, Intermix Media (MySpace), Sky TV, Star TV, and many other media outlets worldwide. The 2004 documentary Outfoxed estimated that Murdock's media reaches approximately three-quarters of the world's population. Pretty impressive.

On the other hand, the continuing efforts of Scott Walker to reduce workers' rights while keeping tax cuts for the rich, has generated significant resistance.  The Wisconsin state workers who sat through the last election in blissful oblivion suddenly woke up to the fact that It Can Happen Here. It brings to mind a favorite saying of Matt Stark, emeritus director of the ACLU-MN, "If you don't stand up for your rights, no one can do it for you."

Twenty-one years ago this spring, Henry Clay Frick's Pittsburgh estate Clayton was opened to the public after four years of restoration work.  My parents and I went on one of the first tours of the chateau-style mansion.  When we reached the master bedroom (see photo below), the docent noted that there Frick had recovered from wounds received in an assassination attempt "after the Homestead Strike of 1893."  My hand went up. "The strike was in 1892," I said. The docent shook his head. "I'm sure it was '93," he replied. To that, I said,"Well, we're from Homestead and I'm sure it was '92."

To my surprise, the effect on the group was electric. Their terrified stares telegraphed the message: "Here, right in Frick's own bedroom, are people from Homestead!  Run!"  The frightened docent acknowledged the correction, and quickly ushered us into another room.

When I told my architect friend John Martine this story, he told me that when he was working as a consultant on the Clayton restoration, those responsible for the project had received anonymous death threats.  Maybe the docent and tour-goers weren't overreacting, I mused.  But that was two decades ago. Many people in Pittsburgh are too young to remember Frick and his role in union-busting. For this and many other reasons, I think that the story of the Strike of '92 needs to be retold.

Case in point: In 1984, as US Steel was winding down operations at the Homestead Works in preparation for closing it, my friend Joyce's brother, Ken Bergert, was within a week of reaching enough service with the company to be eligible for a pension. They laid him off. (Frick would have been proud.) His co-workers offered to take a week's vacation so he could work, but the company refused to bargain. He was out, with nothing. The union stepped in, and after a protracted legal battle, got him his pension.  Without the union, he would have been, as my mother used to say, SOL.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings, take heed. In 2011, as in 1892, if you don't stand up for yourself, no one can do it for you.

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