Bil Musgrave

Guest Columnist

The 130th Labor Day Celebration, which is being held in Boonville, is the nation’s second oldest celebration. This year is a first — free carnival rides for the public.

It is also a time to look ahead to our future. But first, we must review the past history of American workers. Did you know that the first labor strike in America was held in 1619? According to Wikipedia, the Jamestown Polish craftsmen’s strike of 1619 occurred in the settlement of Jamestown in the Virginia colony and was the first strike in the recorded history of North America.

Polish craftsmen had been brought to the colony by colonial leader John Smith to make glassware, pitch, and tar. When the colony held its first election in 1619, the Polish craftsmen were not allowed to vote. They went on strike on June 30, 1619. Due to the economic importance of these craftsmen in the young colony, colonial leaders bowed to the pressure and gave full voting rights to the Poles.

In 1619, workers knew what is being lost in America today — sticking together for one common goal is the most powerful weapon that ordinary people can ever hope to have. The divide and conquer phenomena workers face today is by design from corporations and special interests, who many times use economic and political forces to achieve their desired outcome. They accomplish this in a variety of ways, and if one doesn’t work, they simply try another.

You see, corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent think in 100 year plans, while most workers think about how to put food on the table next week. This constant concerted assault is focused on degrading workers, making workers feel helpless and powerless, repelling the notion that working men and women can achieve long-sought-after higher goals of shorter hours, better wages and working conditions, healthcare benefits and secure pensions.

When people are so worried about their own future, they put the advancement and good of society as a whole aside. It is human nature. The end result for workers is lower standards of living, less security, less take home pay, fewer paid holidays, extended and undesirable hours of employment, a less safe workplace and pensions and healthcare stolen in planned corporate bankruptcies.

Did you realize that in 1800s it was common for workers, including children, to work 12 and 16 hour days in slave-like conditions? For 50 years, unions fought back for a 10-hour day. They then fought for another 36 years until 1886, when an eight hour day just a gleam in the eyes of workers. It took workers sticking together to achieve overtime pay after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even today, eight hour days are not the norm in some industries, but most are now paid overtime.

I like this quote from a CNN Money article written by Annalyn Kurtz July 9, 2013, “Back in 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted technological advancements would mean we would all eventually work just 15 hours a week. That same year, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley predicted the two-day work week. Both men warned that someday, we would have so much leisure time, we would be bored out of our minds. “The human being can consume so much and no more,” Huxley said in 1930. “When we reach the point when the world produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will, we must curtail our production of goods and turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our new leisure.” More recently, a 1965 Senate subcommittee predicted we would be working 14 hours a week by the year 2000, with at least seven weeks of vacation time. What happened to that?

I love America as much as any person. What I don’t like is the corporations and the 1 percent reshaping America, resulting in an eroded and devastated middle class with most Americans constantly losing ground. It is a downward spiral.

Another quote from the same CNN Money article, “Shorter weeks are also common in Europe. In the Netherlands, four-day work weeks are practically the rule, not the exception. And France tried a 35-hour work week for a few years, too. The average German worker puts in 394 hours less than an American each year — the equivalent of nearly 10 fewer weeks. The country is far smaller than the United States in area, population and resources, yet still manages to compete as the fourth largest economy and third largest exporter in the world.”

Did you realize that Sweden is moving to a six hour work day in 2016 and that includes a Toyota Plant? It is also standard in Sweden to get five weeks paid vacation and guaranteed healthcare. These are facts. Facts that we as Americans can compare our standard of living, health, and well-being to the rest of the advanced societies in the world.

Remember sticking together to achieve goals, or “solidarity” as it is known to union workers, is the only way we will advance our society. Corporations and the wealthy elite will do anything to lessen that power, including moving our jobs to Communist or impoverished nations. America has lost five million manufacturing jobs since 2000, many from American corporations who are moving our jobs to other countries. You may think this is absurd, but I predict that in the future, corporations will expect our children and our grandchildren to go to war with those same countries where our jobs have vanished to. Why? To protect the corporate interests that have dissolved our middle class and reduced the American standard of living.

United we stand, divided we fall. A wrong to one is a wrong to all.


Bil Musgrave is a retired member of United Mine Workers Local 1189, a longtime labor activist, active in Jobs with Justice, Board Member of LIFT (Labor Institute for Training) located in Indianapolis and a past Grand Marshal of the Labor Day Celebration of southwest Indiana. He resides in Chandler.

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