William Rivers Pitt: Hard Talk On Labor Day
William Rivers Pitt - Hard Talk On Labor Day
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 1 September 2003
The following remarks were delivered by William Rivers Pitt to the Greater Boston Labor Council's annual breakfast on September 1, 2003
Did everyone have a nice weekend? Good. Thank a Union.
I was tempted to come in here today and deliver a speech about how profoundly important unions have been to the development of this nation, and to me personally. After all, I make my living as a writer. Before that, I made my living as a teacher. The bedrock abilities I need to do both those jobs were given to me by union teachers. A union member taught me to read. A union member taught me to write. Union members taught America to respect the rights and strengths of working people everywhere. I submit that an America with no union organization would be an America most citizens could not be able to recognize, an America most citizens would want nothing to do with.
So, yeah, I thought about giving that speech. I figured it would be a home run ball. But then it struck me. First of all, you folks don't need to sit here and listen to someone wax poetic about the greatness of unions. You already know. Second of all, giving a speech like that, in this day and age, would be like sitting in the middle of a house fire talking about how warm and cozy we are. This house is on fire, and so today I want to talk to you about how we are going to stomp out those flames before they burn out everything that is important to us as citizens, and as a nation entire.
A man said, "On this Labor Day weekend, Americans pay tribute to the spirit of hard work and enterprise that has always made this nation strong. Every day, our workers go to factories and offices and farms and produce the world's finest goods and services. Their creativity and energy are the greatest advantage of the American economy."
What man said that? George W. Bush said that, on Saturday, from his ranch in Crawford Texas. Does anyone else appreciate the irony? This house is on fire, and George is sitting in the front yard with a great big flamethrower and a grin on his face. The history of unions has always been a story of the people versus the powerful, the worker versus the bosses, the folks scratching to keep the lights on at home versus the folks taking CEO salaries home that are so big they need a fleet of Brinks trucks to drive them, laughing, all the way to the bank.
Some will argue that George W. Bush is a great leader. I would argue that he is a symbol, in more ways than one. As a leader he is literally symbolic, a figurehead. Symbols are important. He is a symbol of what happens when workers stop believing that they have a say in their rights as workers. When that happens, guys like this find themselves able to run the show. And let's face it, ladies and gentlemen: The incredible mess this Iraq war is, and is turning into, is nothing more or less than a prime example of what you get when you put the boss' son in charge of the production lines.
It is all well and good for Mr. Bush to praise the greatness of the American worker. But it behooves us to look long and hard at how the American worker has fared under his administration, and to talk long and hard about what that record means to us, and to this country.
So let's talk hard.
The Bush administration has proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would strip millions and millions of American workers of the ability to earn overtime pay for overtime work. In this ongoing recession - helped in no small part by a couple of Bush administration tax cuts that were basically multi-billion dollar thank-you notes to the corporations that funded Bush's 2000 campaign - in this on going recession, many many many American families depend on overtime pay to make ends meet. If the White House gets its way, that thin safety net will be gone.
We shouldn't be surprised by this, by the cynical way Bush pats workers on the back with one hand while gutting their income with the other. This administration has made much of the need to support our troops in Iraq, something I am sure each and every person in this room agrees with. How, then, does this administration think it is supporting the troops by pushing a policy to cut hazard pay - overtime pay at the extreme definition - for our soldiers still under fire in Iraq?
Such actions demonstrate a callousness of spirit that is as unpatriotic as anything I have ever heard of. When American workers and American soldiers are menaced by the economic policies of a sitting President, that sitting President should be made to stand, and walk, right out the White House door.
Let's talk hard.
Let's talk about the 11 million jobs lost in this country during the tenure of an administration that some maniacs decided to give Fast-Track treaty approval to. Jobs in automotive, aviation, computer, data-processing and software-programming, for starters, are sprinting overseas in an stampede of 'outsourcing' that will only be exacerbated by the Bush administration's love affair with concepts like the Free Trade Area of the Americas zone.
I'm going to put my Wobbly hat on for a moment, and so I hope you will bear with me, because there are some old Wobbly ideas that deserve a second look in this brave new world. Those millions of outsourced jobs that union workers could be doing are leaving this country for one reason: Because the countries they are going to have no history of, nor protection for, collective bargaining to protect workers' rights and workers' wages. The companies that are outsourcing to China, to India, to Bangladesh, to the Philippines, are doing an end run around each and every one of us.
It can be argued that the process of 'Economic Globalization' has been going on since the first Chinese trader met the first Indian merchant on the Silk Road and said, "Have I got a deal for you." It can be argued that globalization is inevitable, especially given the incredible technological leaps forward we make, seemingly on an hourly basis. But if that globalization is allowed to continue without giving workers around the world the ability to unionize, to fight for a living wage, to strike for the right to improve their lot, workers here in America and around the world will reap the whirlwind, will find their backs broken at the expense of bosses who have been historically allergic to giving their employees the rights they so richly deserve.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Bush administration is symbolic of. They symbolize the repudiation of that right to collective bargaining that, simply put, made this country what it is today. They symbolize the stripping of your much-deserved power within this economy, for no other purpose than to empower the few over the many.
Talking hard is dangerous, especially these days. As a nation we have, since September 11, been cautious and deferential about criticizing the actions and ideologies of the boys and girls in Washington. We've had to deal with the idea, evinced clearly by this administration, that to criticize is to be unpatriotic. We've been told, by none other than White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, to "Watch what we say."
I submit that union men and women have earned the right to speak openly and strongly against the direction this country is headed. They earned that right with the blood and lives of the union men and women who charged headlong into two burning buildings two years ago. Union men and union women do their jobs. On that dark day, union men and union women spent their lives on the job, and they did it without a second thought or a hesitating step. Union men and women earned the right to speak their minds after their fallen brothers and sisters were used by the Bush administration as props in a photo-op, and then were shamefully slapped across the face by that same administration.
Here's the news, America. 'Homeland Security' is not a bunch of guys in black suits and sunglasses. Homeland Security is cops, and fire fighters, and emergency medical teams, all the people who work every day to save lives. Homeland Security on September 11 was union workers all, and those cops and fire fighters and EMTs have since had their funding eviscerated by an administration that took their pictures and then gave them the back of its hand.
Oh, yes, ladies and gentlemen, the right to speak out has been earned here.
Caution and deference have no place in this conversation anymore. We gave those people our caution and deference, and they have paid us back by steamrolling us. So enough of caution. Enough of deference. It is time to talk hard. If we can't speak the truth in the daylight, we will never be able to begin the process of changing that which desperately needs to be changed. Every great movement in history has begun with one thing: Words exchanged in truth between people of good conscience. So let us, as people of good conscience, exchange a few hard words in the hopes of beginning something whose time has come.
A long time ago, a man named Benito Mussolini invented something called Fascism. In the time since, fascism has come to be defined by Nazis, by war, and by crimes against humanity that defy description. But when Mussolini invented fascism, those definitions had not yet established themselves. Mussolini, the inventor of fascism, defined it differently. "The first stage of fascism," said Mussolini, "should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and Corporate power."
Now, even with all my tough talk about hard words and doing away with caution, I am appropriately cautious about using so bloody a word in this setting. Well I should be. But I ask you: What do we have today if not the beginnings of the merging of state and corporate power? Even if you refuse to see our current situation through Mussolini's eyes, even if you refuse to use that hardest of words, the simple fact that the corporate world and the federal government are becoming one and the same is clear, and unavoidable. Is that merger complete in America? Certainly not. Are we headed in that direction? Lawyers use a Latin phrase: "Res ipsa loquitor." The thing speaks for itself.
What will the place of unions be in such a world? Where are the rights of workers?
I say unions and the rights of workers are and must continue to be at the forefront of a fight that is not new, but is now as desperate as it ever has been. There are millions and millions and millions of Americans who would join a union tomorrow if given the chance. We must fight to see that they are given that chance. A man staring down the barrel of a gun once said, "Don't mourn. Organize." We are staring down the barrel of a gun today, and if we don't organize, we're finished.
I believe, at the end of the day, that America is an idea, a dream. You can take away our cities, our roads, our crops, our armies, you can take all of that away, and the idea that is America will still be there, as pure and great as anything conceived by the human mind. I believe the idea that is America stands as the last, best hope for this world. When used properly, it can work wonders.
I believe that the idea, the dream, that is America was made possible by the men and women who lived and worked and died for the right of workers to stand collectively for themselves. The idea that is America would not exist without unions, period. We must make people understand that. A great, great many Americans are well aware that the folks running things today do not have their interests in mind, but instead serve the interests of entities that would see workers' rights ground to powder.
That awareness is out there. We must make them aware that unions offer them the best possible chance to bring change, to turn back this tide, to bring us more fully towards the realization of that idea that is America. In your hands is the power to do these things. In your hands is the future of this great nation.
The word 'Union' is synonymous with the word 'Work.' I say let us begin this work, let us begin it today, let us not stop, let us not tire. I say let us begin.
Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a
New York Times bestselling author of two books - - "War On
Iraq" (with Scott Ritter) available now from Context Books,
and "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," now available at http://www.silenceissedition.com/ from Pluto Press and
"Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available in
August from Context Books.