Monday, July 4, 2011

Subterranean Homesick Blues 2011

"Well, I rapped upon a house
With the US flag upon display.
I said, 'Could you help me out,
I got some friends down the way.'
The man says, 'Get out of here
I'll tear you limb from limb.' 
I said, 'You know, they refused Jesus, too.' 
He said, 'You're not him.'"
--"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"

One hundred and nineteen years ago on July 4th, the inhabitants of Homestead, Pennsylvania, were on edge.  The Fourth of July was one of just two days off annually for the workers at Carnegie Steel, the other being Christmas.  Only this year, 1892, was different.  On Saturday, July 2nd, the company had paid off all workers and served notices of discharge.  Andrew Carnegie was off in his castle in Scotland, letting Henry Clay Frick handle the situation. Frick had ordered a lockout.  He had called in the Sheriff to deal with the workers, but they had overpowered the lawmen and sent them away.  Frick then decided to bring in a private militia, the Pinkertons, to handle the workers.  The mercenaries were on their way by rail to Pittsburgh, where they would be loaded into barges and brought to Homestead.  The majority of these soldiers, many of them young men who had signed on for temporary summer work, had no idea how dangerous their job was going to be.
On this steamy, drizzly Monday, Homesteaders tried to carry on with their usual Fourth activities, but their hearts weren't in it.  Over the town hung the shadow of impending violence.  Most townspeople believed that Frick would try to bring in scabs via the river, as the deputies' arrival by land had been thwarted.  The workers, armed with guns, some dating back to the Civil War, patrolled the roads and lined the river banks, on the alert for the next assault.
 The confrontation between company soldiers and the workers came at daybreak on the morning of July 6th.  Very few on either side had any idea that this confrontation would blossom into a full-fledged battle that raged throughout the hot afternoon.  Frick, however, did know of the likelihood of war on the riverbank.  He had to know, as he had brought in both private and public militia to protect corporate interests on occasions before that, and they had all ended with one or both sides suffering casualties.  What he probably didn't understand was the steely (pun intended) determination of the Homestead workers.  
Usually, historical accounts of the Battle for Homestead focus on the casualties of the battle itself.  What they do not relate are the stories of the countless casualties that came afterward: strikebreakers killed by explosions and poison, strikers' lives claimed by despair and heartbreak.  The stories of these casualties have not been told in print. The company kept a lid on unionist sabotage at the mill because they didn't want to scare away new workers.  Many of the strikers, demoralized and starving, moved away, leaving the town to the company and its scabs. 

As a child, I heard the story over and over of my Great-Grandfather Busch's post-battle death in a boiler explosion set by unionists.  It made me anti-union.  In the 'Sixties and 'Seventies, the steelworkers' union was at the peak of its power and influence.  Workers who had not completed ninth grade were making two or three times what my father made as a teacher with a master's degree.  It didn't seem fair.

In 1986, three years after the Homestead Works shut down, I found myself confronted with the choice of whether or not to join a union, the union for faculty in the Minnesota State College and University system.  One had to pay one's fair share anyway, so I chose to join and thereby have some control over union decisions.  It took a few years, but I eventually realized that if it were not for the union, as an adjunct, I would be doing the same work for far less than full-time instructors, unable to build seniority, unsure of whether I'd be hired back during the next semester. 

Thanks to a fair and decent dean, Manley Olson, and a department chair, Karen Gleeman, who worked tirelessly to support adjunct faculty, I was hired as a full-time faculty member in 1992, assuming the rights and privileges attendant thereof--many of these acquired by union representation at MNSCU negotiations.  I enjoyed these benefits throughout my teaching career, but the situation started to change during the last few years.  When I retired in 2006, the department had more adjuncts than tenured faculty.  New hires did not get anything like the salaries and retirement packages my generation enjoyed.  I got in and out just in time.

Now, five years later, the situation with public unions is far worse than many of us could ever have envisioned.  With Wisconsin in the lead, many states are slashing away at unions, rescinding the workers' collective bargaining rights.  Governments at all levels are cutting away at publicly funded programs such as medical care for the aged, poor, and vulnerable, and police and fire departments.  Few would argue that we do not have to tighten our belts, to sacrifice some of the government benefits we've enjoyed for so long. What I don't understand is prevailing attitude among supporters of draconian cuts that these are all we need to set things right with the economy.  How conveniently they forget that it was the unbridled greed of banks, corporations and "investors" that took down the U.S. economy in 2008.  How easily they forget that it was the Bush administration that, while dragging the country into two extremely costly wars abroad, let this blind rapaciousness run unfettered. 

Take, for example, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.  He is trying to fuel his run for the presidency by bragging about what he did for the state during his tenure.  Go ahead and brag, smug Timmy, about how your "no-new-taxes" policy threw millions of dollars of tax burden onto the middle-class, especially city dwellers, who have been forced to live with much less while paying much more.  My property taxes more than doubled during your governorship, while my property value plummeted. You don't fool me, nor apparently 94% of your targeted Tea Party supporters, who are backing other candidates.

As I see it, the government of the state of Minnesota is shut down now, at a loss of millions in state revenue, for one reason and one reason only: Governor Mark Dayton's insistence that the wealthiest 1% Minnesotans pay their fair share of the tax burden.  There is no way to justify their refusal to shoulder a bit more of the burden to keep the state solvent.  Have we reached such a sad pass that the greedy rich have the state and nation in their grip so tightly that they are willing to the country go to hell before giving up even a little of their wealth? 

Doesn't it get you angry that Big Business and Big Government, bolstered by a stacked Supreme Court, have been methodically funneling the nation's resources into the coffers of the big banks, big oil companies, and big corporations for years now?  Doesn't it get you angry that this small minority--and their corrupt judges and public officials--want you and me to keep sacrificing so they can keep biggering and biggering?

If so, speak out.  I'm not arguing for you to grab a rifle and head for the riverbank. Just let the moneybags and their minions know that you are tired of their jive.  Unlike Homesteaders in 1892, you don't even have the option of moving to somewhere with better opportunities.  Where are you going to go--Iceland?  Greece? 

As Ben Franklin put it, if we don't hang together, we will hang separately.