Few of Us Can Remember the Stories
by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Remember the Almanac Singers?
“Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do:
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you…”
Much obscured by the calamitous news of this past week – Hurricane Ida; the chaos at the Kabul airport; deadly flooding; all-consuming fires in the West; the extended drought that’s finally calling our irrigated agriculture’s chickens home to roost; the abject and dangerous disintegration of Haiti, Yemen, and Nigeria; the massive release of sequestered methane by thawing permafrost in Siberia; the cleverly designed, brutal abortion law enacted by the Texas legislature and Governor – is the reason for the national holiday we’re celebrating this weekend.
“…I better explain why you got to ride on the union train:
…if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
we’ll all be a-waitin’ ’til Judgment Day.”
Just as more and more of us can no longer adequately appreciate the sacrifices and heroics of the Second World War, even fewer of us can remember the stories of the bitter, deadly strikes of the early unions protesting starvation wages and hazardous working conditions of – among many others – miners, migrant field hands, textile mill workers, and garment stitchers.
“You may be down and out, but you ain’t beaten
You can pass out a leaflet and call a meetin’
Talk it over, speak your mind
Decide to do somethin’ about it.”
Labor Day, the official end of summer for many, sees most of us turning from relaxed time off and facing a year of school, maybe back to the office, and in many ways – symbolic, as well as real – getting in our winter wood. It’s a day of ribs on the barbecue, a last spin around the lake, and a sigh at the sight of the early-reddening sumac and soft maple. But it’s not just a gift that dropped upon us from above. The path to its creation, just like those of Congressional acts guaranteeing civil rights, is strewn with the bodies of men, women, and children only trying to make a living. Just as in our current climate we’re witnessing the desperate legalisms of a threatened patriarchy, the early days of union formation in the United States struck fear into the establishment.
“Now, boys, you’ve come to the hardest time
The boss will try to bust your picket line.…
They’ll raid your meetin’, they’ll hit you on the head
They’ll call every one of you a goddam red”
The Almanac Singers’ pro-union and anti-discrimination stance eventually got them targeted by the FBI. They disbanded around 1942 and morphed some years later into the chart-topping Weavers. Just enough of the bad-boy, anti-establishment attitude hung about them to excite Senator McCarthy and weld me and my pals firmly to their side. I still remember to thank them, and all the martyred leaders of the movement, for my life of labor at 40 hours a week, time-and-a-half for overtime, and benefits. Our job now is to improve on, not let slip, what they fought and died for.
“…out at Ford, here’s what they found…
And down at Bethlehem, here’s what they found:
That if you don’t let red-baiting break you up
And if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up
You’ll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it!”