Money, Guns and Workers: The True Meaning of Labor Day
After six days of wine tasting and pairing in Portland and Carlton, Oregon, we headed on a walking tour of the city and landed at Powell’s City of Books. Since Joe and I are secretly book nerds (we used to go on dates in Houston’s West Alabama Bookstore) we spent about three hours there. It clearly was not enough time to see the whole thing — but with only one full day to discover the non-tourista part of Portland, we had to save time for beer.
Wandering through the Purple Room, I found “Gun Thugs, Rednecks and Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars” edited by David Alan Corbin. Like me, Corbin grew up in West Virginia and attended Marshall University. He earned both his bachelors and Masters degrees there in history, and went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Maryland. Like me, Corbin failed to learn about West Virginia’s own “civil wars,” and the history of West Virginia Coal miners in public school. Not because we were lazy, or didn’t pay attention. But because it was not taught.
“When the United Mine Workers (UMW) stepped up its campaign to organize Logan, Mingo, and McDowell counties, coal operators retaliated by hiring private detectives to quash all union activity. Miners who joined the UMW were fired and thrown out of their company-owned houses. Despite the risks, thousands defied the coal operators and joined the UMW. Tensions between the two sides exploded into violence on May 19, when 13 Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived in Matewan to evict union miners from houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company.”
Corbin’s book is neither a work of fiction, nor his on opinion on the matter, although he does set up each chapter with a narrative. Gun Thugs, Rednecks and Radicals tells the story of the West Virginia Mine Wars from 1912 through 1921 through the eyes and words of leaders, rank-and-file participants, and the journalists who went to West Virginia to cover them for national publications including The Nation and The New York Times. It includes Congressional testimony and also focuses on the role of Socialist and Labor Star, a radical newspaper once published in Huntington, West Virginia.
Corbin’s book details not just the Matewan Massacre, but stories of martial law declared, and United States’ government planes intentionally bombing United States’ citizens within its borders — all in the name of “keeping the peace.” A peace that was directed at keeping workers from organizing, marching or striking, while company hired guns kept workers in line.
We, as Americans, take for granted the freedom to associate with whom we choose; to worship or not at a church of our choosing; to shop where we want, eat where we want, and live where we want. We take for granted the ability to earn a fair wage for an honest day’s work.
But it wasn’t always so.
While not unique to West Virginia and the coal industry prior to the enacting of Fair Labor standards, miners were paid in “script” not cash money. Sort of an IOU of wages minus any purchases, rent, utilities, equipment and fees. They lived in company-owned housing, attended company-owned schools, worshiped at company-own churches, and purchased goods from company-owned stores. Workers who met with other workers were suspect; they were often beaten, shot, or found drowned in a river. Workers who signed up with the union were summarily fired, often before they returned home. They and their families were evicted — their belongs, what few they actually owned, were thrown out into the street. Mining companies employed not only private detectives as guards, but assessed the workers to pay for the town doctor, the school teacher, and the minister. Politicians and judges were bought and paid for by the companies. The local sheriff and police force was usually company-owned as well.
Scary thought, isn’t it? Every part of your life, everything you did, was controlled by company that employed you. All the politicians, courts, police force, stores, churches, doctors and schools were beholden to the corporations who controlled them. Even though there were laws and Constitutional rights that were supposed to protect you and your rights, they were like feathers battling swords.
So not unlike the West Virginia coal miners, American workers joined together to create organizations to achieve a better balance of power. Because just one worker against all that money, wealth and might had very little control or bargaining power as an individual.
Well, I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians, too
I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this
I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock and the hard place
And I’m down on my luck
And I’m down on my luck
And I’m down on my luck
Now I’m hiding in Honduras
I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan
Send lawyers, guns and money…
- “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money,” by Warren Zevon (b. 1974, d. 2003)
Once again, to depart from the multiple posts you no doubt find on wines to pair with your Labor Day cook-outs (Burgers and Syrah, chicken and Chardonnay, grilled seafood and Torrontés, steak and Cabernet Sauvignon or grilled lamb and Syrah) I thought we would talk about “the true meaning of Labor Day.”
Some of this we posted in 2009 and 2010, but perhaps we all might need a refresher:
Labor Day and The Work of the Vine
With all of the recent talk about the looming deficit, Obamacare, the 2012 election and the socialism “fear factor,” it might be good to take a look at one of America’s favorite and revered family holidays. The one that marks the end of Summer, and the return of Football to America — Labor Day. Not just a Hallmark Holiday. And not simply designed to give all the bankers, school kids and government workers a day off. It is, in fact, a holiday born from the concept of socialism — the organized labor movement.
To take a page from my friend Sonadora, I will add a disclaimer, and include a caveat: much of the foregoing information I gained from my labor law professors and my clerkship at a law firm that represented organized labor. (Special thanks go to Professor Joseph Slater.) The caveat: before I went to law school, and before I lived in a city that has been pummeled by the weakening of labor unions, I disdained them. For me, unions added only to the cost of my consumer goods. They were not really necessary. My beliefs were such because I was ill-informed; I had only heard the corporate side of the discussion.
The Toledo Auto-Lite Strike
Attending law school near the heartbeat and legacy of the labor movement gave me access to newspaper archives and oral history recounting the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike. Before labor unions, workers could be chained to their work stations (literally) and forbidden to take bathroom breaks. There were no guaranteed hours, no vacations, no paid holidays. If you did not like the conditions you could quit. If you took days off to care for a sick child you could be fired and replaced. Unemployment in Ohio was 37% which was bad enough. In Toledo, where workers made up the business of auto parts, 80 out of every 100 men and women were out of work. Wages were cut, assembly lines were sped up. And so the people decided to strike.
You read that correctly: eighty percent (80%) unemployment.
Pickets lines were tear-gassed. And if that didn’t send you back to work, the company hired others, “scabs” to take your job. If that did not break up the protests, corporations called in out-of-county National Guardsmen to gun you down. So to earn a decent wage to feed your family, you risked life and limb, either on the factory line, or on the picket line. The people of Toledo fought back. Blood spilled. People died. After months of bloodshed, the workers got the ability to form a union. To bargain collectively for basic worker rights.
Thus was the history of the city of my husband’s birth.
What does this have to do with wine and Labor Day? Continue, dear reader and all will be revealed.
The Birth of the Labor Day Weekend
Prior to labor laws and the labor movement workers had no “weekend.” Men, women and children worked long shifts with few breaks. Thanks to church-goers and organized religion, workers were eventually earned Sunday as a day “off,” from their succession of 12-16 hour work days. But in the beginning this kind of schedule was not a “right,” but earned through struggle, injury and even death. With the influx of Jewish workers, whose Sabbath was Saturday, businesses stopped splitting the week with days off of Wednesday and Sunday, and created a two-day break from the work week — what we now call “the weekend.”
Labor Day, the first Monday of September in the United States, is celebrated in most of the rest of the world as Labour Day or International Worker’s Day in May. The celebration has it origins in the eight-hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest.
International Workers Day, or May Day is a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement. May Day often includes organized street demonstrations and marches by millions of workers and labor unions throughout most of the countries of the world — though rarely do these same activities occur in the United States. Much of this has to do with the Haymarket Affair. Another massacre, this time in the city of Chicago.
The Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket riot or Haymarket massacre) was a disturbance that took place on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, and began as a rally in support of striking workers. An unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.
The remaining three were pardoned by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893. The Chicago Historical Society has a fascinating online digital history of the Haymarket Affair.
First celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882, the United States’ Labor Day was organized by an American labor leader inspired by parades in Canada celebrating labor. President Grover Cleveland had put reconciliation with labor as a top political priority following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike. Congress, fearing further conflict, unanimously rushed through legislation making Labor Day a national holiday, on June 28, 1894. It was signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. President Cleveland, concerned that aligning a U.S. labor holiday with existing international May Day celebrations would stir up negative emotions linked to the Haymarket Affair, chose to push for the U.S. celebration in September, rather than May. All 50 U.S. states have now made Labor Day a state holiday.
Labor and the Wine Industry
As a result of the Great Depression and record unemployment, a large number of Caucasians took over many migrant workers’ jobs in California. This left many Mexicans and Filipinos desperate, willing to do anything for money. Working conditions for the huge population of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants included horrible wages and exposure to toxic chemicals in the vineyards. These conditions evoked anger between workers and employers and set the stage for large-scale wage strikes for the next 50 years.
Due to the Great Depression and the crash of the grape market with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, jobs for vineyard workers became scarce. This was further exacerbated by the migration of workers from the Oklahoma and Texas dustbowls (epitomized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.)
The situation dramatically reversed during World War II. Just as the wine industry was coming back, it was faced with a manpower shortage. In 1942, the United States negotiated a labor agreement with Mexico instituting the Bracero program in response to the shortages, which allowed Mexican farm workers to enter the country on a short-term basis to work the vineyards of California, as well as other farms. Under the Bracero Agreement, Mexicans entering the U.S. enjoyed guarantees housing, transportation and repatriation established under Mexican Federal Labor Law. Under its terms, it also guaranteed Mexicans entering the United States freedom from discrimination. Growers liked the program because it provided them with a pool of cheap, legal labor to meet seasonal harvesting and vineyard demands. But organized labor hated it, believing it depressed wages for all winery workers.
César Chávez, a young man from Arizona working in the Delano area of Central California, saw the benefits workers in other industries enjoyed through affiliations with labor unions. Opposed to the Bracero program, Chavez began organizing farm workers, including those in vineyards owned by large corporate wineries. In 1965, when workers organized under the AFL-CIO walked out in strike against grape growers in Delano, California, Chavez and his organization joined them in an effort to gain changes through peaceful demonstrations. Eventually merging into the United Farm Workers (UFW) under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, the union was successful in organizing and negotiating contracts with a number of growers. But this occurred only after five years of striking and a public boycott of Delano table grapes.
In 1973, Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery signed labor contracts with the Teamsters in order to block attempts by the AFL-CIO to organize the workers for the UFW. The UFW then went on strike and called for a boycott of E. & J. Gallo Winery. College students who had first learned to drink wine by passing around jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy at the beach and at concerts stopped buying wines sold under Gallo in solidarity with Chavez and the UFW. E. & J. Gallo eventually came to the bargaining table and the UFW claimed success.
In 1975, following the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the UFW sought to organize the vineyard workers of Sonoma and Napa counties. The Charles Krug Winery was the union’s next target. According to Carol Robertson in The Little Red Book of Wine Law: A Case of Legal Issues, Krug workers immediately voted to be represented by the UFW. But Krug fought the union with multiple court actions, and a contract was not signed until 1980 after Krug had exhausted multiple challenges. Acrimony between management and labor continued, and in 1983, eight years after the initial union vote, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board upheld a “make whole” remedy which required Krug to reimburse the workers for any lost pay or other benefits that they had suffered as a result of the delay from the time of the certification of the election in September 1977. Krug continued to appeal and filed a number of challenges.
In 1994, the UFW unionized the farm workers at the Gallo Winery in Sonoma, and in 2000 announced a historic Gallo-UFW contract in Sonoma County. In late 2005, the UFW notified Krug Winery that it planned to extend their existing contract, set to expire in December 2005. In January 2006, Krug notified the UFW that it was “going out of the vineyard management business and was turning its winery and vineyard operations over to a ‘land manager’ an independent company that would not be using any union labor.” The UFW protested this as a subterfuge to remove the union in violation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. In July 2006, the Charles Krug Winery fired the 36 unionized workers in its winery and severed ties with the union. In the Summer of 2006, the UFW challenged the firings with the ALRB and announced a boycott of both Krug and C.K. Mondavi labeled wines.
In June 2007 Gallo workers voted to oust the union and the ALRB announced that it would bring formal charges about the Krug Winery for violations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. A month later, workers at Kunde Winery in Sonoma County also voted to reject the union. In April 2008, the Krug winery workers were reinstated with back pay.
The struggle between workers and corporations continues today, with those in power doing all they can to create an unlevel playing field. And while the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United appears to give both sides the ability to control elections through money as speech, there has been a systematic effort to destroy the last stronghold of organized labor — the public sector workers’ unions. We think we have laws to protect us: the 40-hour work week, the 8-hour work day, employer-paid health insurance and pension funds, and the promise of our ability to count on our contributions to our Social Security insurance when we reach the age of retirement.
But what we count on as workers’ rights, did not come easily. They were hard fought battles, that continue today. Want to learn more? Here are just a few articles:
California’s Main Threat to Labor: Prop. 32 By ANDY MERRIFIELD and DEE DEE BRIDGES
California Farmers Leaving Crops Unpicked Amid Labor Shortage By Jane Wells
Proposition 32: A Fraud to End All Frauds Los Angeles Times
The Vineyards Silent Majority by Jane Anson at New Bordeaux
If Labor Doesn’t Speak Up for Workers, Who Will? by MARÍA ELENA DURAZO
Thanks Citizens United for This Campaign Finance Mess We’re In by Adams Skaggs in The Atlantic Monthly
Think about Labor Day and your Rights, be thankful for those who fought and died for them. And remember it in November.