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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Labor Day

When I was a child growing up in the textile company town of LaGrange, Georgia, during the 1960s, we began school each year on Labor Day. That was the town fathers’ way of expressing contempt for the labor movement, and their determination to keep LaGrange union-free. The word “union” was rarely uttered other than in whispers, and there were tales of organizers being beaten and locked up during brief efforts to unionize the mills in the 1930s and 1940s.
As I grew older, I came to realize exactly how atavistic this deep hostility to the right of workers to organize really was by national standards. Outside the Deep South, conservatives and business people often privately hated unions, but they had learned to live with them, and it wasn’t unusual for Republican politicians to court union leaders and rank-and-file alike for support. In my own memory, the partriarchal company-town mentality that I grew up with seemed as embarrasingly shameful as its psychological big brother, Jim Crow.
Now, so many years later, even though Jim Crow is long dead, and unions represent a much smaller share of the work force (particularly in the private sector), the old Dixie attitude towards unions has become commonplace among conservatives from coast to coast. The economy “can’t afford” collective bargaining, conservatives often say, as often as they say we “can’t afford” universal health coverage, action on climate change, or much of anything that addresses the inequality and powerlessness that chronically afflict working people. Even as conservatives have regressed from neo-Keynsianism to neo-Hooverism in their thinking about how to deal with a deep recession, they seem to have regressed in the direction of nineteenth century assumptions about unions as inherently illegitimate and anti-competitive.
It’s too bad that Labor Day has largely become a partisan holiday, but for that very reason, Democrats should celebrate it with genuine conviction, particularly at a time when no sane person can blame working people for the economic straits facing our country. Those so richly blessed by our capitalist system have once again blighted the standard of living enjoyed by those struggling to get by. Now more than ever, unions represent a last line of economic self-defense for millions of Americans, and we should honor them as such.

6 comments on “Labor Day

  1. John A. Leopard on

    When I studied in France in the 1970’s, what amazed me was the lack of a centrist party. It was a subject I discussed with Jean-Louis Servan-Shreiber (the brother of Jean-Jacques Servan-Shreiber who founded the “radical” or centrist party in France). In every French election approximately forty percent of the population voted for right-wing parties and forty percent voted for left-wing parties and the “centrists” made up less than twenty percent of the popular vote. I have the distinct impression that the U.S. is following that pattern. Those in the center are being shut out by those on the left and right – possibly because those on the left and right have more passion. Of course, the French concept of right and left is much more broad than the American concept – in school in Paris (L’Institue d’Etudes Politiques) we had people who were die-hard communists and die-hard royalists (and some who would not deny being fascists). Free speech has always been much more “free” in France and other European countries than the U.S. – but we are getting there – gradually.

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  2. John A. Leopard on

    Eddie – So you do remember me? It’s only been 37 years since we last talked. I assume you’re not going to be at Emory for our 35th alumni reunion next weekend? Nice to see a classmate do so well. My opinions have not changed one bit in the interim. When we last argued, I was working for McGovern and you weren’t. My political participation since then has been off and on.
    John

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  3. edkilgore on

    John:
    I’ve been pretty much in the same place politically for a quarter century or so, but yeah, I went through all sorts of changes before that. And for the record, I worked for Zell Miller before his bizarre apostasy.
    I’m still no radical, but what’s happened to the Right in this country tends to make one get a mite intemperate now and then.
    Hope you are well,
    Ed

    Reply
  4. ducdebrabant on

    Well, I’ll tell you what: I was one proud Democrat today, listening to the President’s Cincinnati speech. High energy, down to earth, eloquent, funny, youthful, spirited, smart and wise. I was enormously encouraged. It reminds me of 1917, when the European powers were bogged down in a war of attrition. Then America jumped in, and all those rested young doughboys came to the battlefield. It seems to me that if Obama is now rolling out his biggest weapon — himself — it won’t take long to eclipse the images of shrieking retirees with too much time on their hands and swastika signs, demanding the the government not get involved in health care for anybody younger than 65 and not to cut one dime out of their Medicare. And the sorry, daily parade of parochial, dishonest, vain, dumb, ill-intentioned, pandering and deeply dishonest politicians (some of them on the Democratic side of the aisle) is going to look like a tub of fishbait by comparison.

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  5. John A. Leopard on

    When I was a boy at Emory University in 1971, I made friends with a fellow student, we didn’t get along at first because he was somewhat conservative and I was not. Then he changed (or became more honest) and we began to seriously discuss political theory and I thought I had met my political twin, left-wing to the core and violently anti-Vietnam war. Then I went to study in Paris (where I ran into his girlfriend) for a year and when I came back this boy had become a Catholic Republican and we ceased to talk. Last thing I heard he was working for Zell Miller. I went on to Mercer Law School and we lost tract entirely. I’m still the radical that I always was, although not for the reasons he suspected. It looks like he came back to the fold. Right?

    Reply

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