Gone, But Not Forgotten: Labor's Struggle with Itself

Each year at the end of April, Labor organizers across the country hold a vigil of remembrance called “Workers Memorial Day.”  Here in Johnson County, it was just this past Friday.  We gathered to remember and to hear speeches, but more importantly to hear the names and stories of the 36 workers who lost their lives on the job in Iowa in 2017.

Many in attendance lined up to read from a notecard about such a story. As each is read, the gathered crowd chants together, “Gone, but not forgotten.”  It is indeed quite moving as those words repeat, like a solemn drumbeat, another echo for each story read, another worker dead, each name mentioned, each face shown on the screen, and again: “Gone, but not forgotten.” And again. 36 people who went to work one day but never came home to their families.

When it was my turn, I read the story of Dan Heeren.  Dan worked at DuPont Industrial Biosciences in Cedar Rapids, where he was crushed by a semi at the loading dock on December 6th last year.  An OSHA investigation found the company negligent in not providing a safe way for workers to cross the dock.  They were fined $4,500. 

Dan was 46 years old.  He left behind a wife and four kids, both his parents, his brothers, a step-sister, and countless other in-laws, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors.

Some of the 36 killed last year were union members, and some were not, but each tragedy illustrated again the importance of workplace safety as well as the importance of Organized Labor.  It was the Labor movement that brought us workplace safety laws in the first place (along with things like an end to child labor and the weekend).  Someday, we all fervently hope, there will no longer be a need for Workers' Memorial Day.

Readers of this blog will remember my post from two years ago about the 130th anniversary of the Haymarket Strike, which was about the 8-hour workday, and where my great-grandfather wielded his shillelagh in self-defense.  Eight men were wrongly convicted of the bomb-throwing there that incited the riot.  Four of them were hanged before the rest were pardoned six years later.  That event was the origin of May Day as America’s first Labor Day.

Just a few years later though, after the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland officially moved the U.S. celebration of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, purposefully cutting ties with the original, in fear that a May Day celebration of Labor would build support for communism and other radical causes.

Now another May Day is upon us and the heat of the political campaign is increasing with the temperature outside.  From County Supervisor up through congressional races, Labor is an issue, especially at the state legislative and gubernatorial levels, where the damage done by two years of the Republican “trifecta” in Des Moines has laid waste to the remaining protections workers had in Iowa.  I am pleased to see strong labor candidates running at all levels, and this year holds great possibility for the future of workers across our state. Yet one obstacle could scuttle the whole deal.

In too many ways, in too many places, from too many people I am hearing criticism and bad-mouthing of pro-Labor candidates and their supporters BY their respective supporters and even by Unions themselves.  This circular firing squad on a burning bridge is the chief obstruction to the “Blue Wave” so many of us are hoping for in November.  It is a function of that age-old logical fallacy taught as “The No True Scotsman Fallacy,”  which usually goes something like this:

Glenn: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
Duncan: "But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge."
Glenn: "Ah, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."

Too many of us on the leftward end of the political spectrum find ourselves enraptured by one form of purity test or another. One is not a strong enough Labor supporter. Another is not Progressive enough.  Another is too Progressive.  This infighting and divisiveness is precisely what the other end of said spectrum wants to see in us.

In the pilot of a short-lived TV drama called “The Newsroom,” the main character, anchorman Will McAvoy (portrayed by Jeff Daniels) has a stirring monologue in which he sums up the problem quite well (terse language ahead):

“If Liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so God damned always?”

This is how come.  This right here.  This thing.  Bored of shooting ourselves in the foot we’ve taken to shooting each other’s feet.  Dancing like that is a sure-fire way to lose the marathon.

To that point: I am supporting Cathy Glasson in the upcoming Governor’s primary race.  I hope you will too.  But if by some chance she does not receive the nomination, the candidate who does will have my full-throated support, and I hope yours too.  Meanwhile, please, I beg you, stop criticizing fellow Progressives, fellow Labor supporters, fellow Democrats over who is the true Labor candidate for any office.  Because this election is too precious to be wasting our energies squabbling in just the way the anti-Labor, anti-Progressive factions want us to.  And because if we don't stop, we'll soon be gone, and forgotten.

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