Friday, September 01, 2006

For some reason, this picture just makes me happy.

This is Cecil Roberts. Cecil is the President of the United Mine Workers of America. The UMWA has one of the longest, most violent, and most storied histories in the American labor movement. I just finished reading "The Battle of Blair Mountain", by Robert Shogan, which chronicles the largest violent uprising in America that took place after the civil war. The long and short of it is that since the union miners in Mingo County, WV had been denied any legitimate forum to resolve their problems with the mine operators (who refused to recognize their union), they resorted to means which were bloody and dire to get their point across. I probably don't need to tell you how it all ended for them in the end. Not well, as it turned out. The US Army was actually brought in to settle the dispute, and they did. In favor of the mine operators.

I bring all of this up, because (to borrow a phrase from Rachel Maddow) the business community and the government keep flicking the same Bic lighters at the Constitution, at the National Labor Relations Act, at people's right to assemble, to petition their employer for the redress of their grievances, and to bargain in good faith collectively.

Recently, much has been made of the Kentuck River cases, which have the potential to bar millions of American workers from joining a union. The basis of the cases is that since some workers have miniscule 'supervisory' duties, they could be excluded from the right to bargain collectively. In the real world, this means that once an organizing drive is going, a lot of people will be getting a lot of meaningless promotions.

The labor movement these days finds itself in the position of pushing for recognition out of the traditional framework of the NLRA which provides only for union elections. As has been written at length, 'card check' agreements are quickly becoming the favorite tactic of unions looking to gain a foothold in an unorganized workplace. The reason is quite simple. Most employer simply use the elections process as the opportunity to harass, fire, and threaten workers in to voting 'no' on the union.

By filling out cards (or signing a petition) to signal their support, a majority of workers under 'card check' can gain the voice that an election (ironically) may have denied them. Which is why you see some unions going to such great lengths to get 'card check' recognition.

The point to all of this is that in the 1920's of "The Battle of Blair Mountain", labor similarly found itself in one of the most marginalized positions in its history. It finds itself there again. And before things get better, workers may have to resort to more desperate tactics to get their voices heard. They already are desperate. It's really just a question of how far they can go to get their point across.

Washington simply doesn't care right now. I guess that picture of Cecil makes me happy becasue I feel like screaming at the Bush administration, at the business world, at the NLRB. I feel like screaming that negligence isn't benign. It just kills. Their indifference isn't funny or hip. It's just running people into the ground. Being eloquent doesn't help our case. Being right doesn't even help. Sometimes, just yelling at the top of your goddamn lungs helps when nothing else will.

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