For most of us Labor Day signals the end of summer, beginning of school, another 3-day weekend or giant shopping sales. Forgotten are the struggles that gave rise to this day and labor leaders who lead the way.
As a kid I read about Eugene Debs who organized the railroads and founded the IWW. Jailed for his leadership in the Pullman Strike of 1894 and later as a conscientious objector during WWI he became an early hero of mine. While incarcerated he ran for president and got close to a million votes.
Growing up I heard about the sit-down strikes in Detroit, John L Lewis with the United Mine Workers, Harry Bridges and later, Caesar Chavez. Today union membership has dwindled to around 7% from 25% 70 years ago. What would Karl Marx say about the club of millionaire ballplayers in dispute with their billionaire owners? I can’t imagine Woody Guthrie singing, Which Side Are You On, yet their cause is a freakish part of worker exploitation given their short professional life.
More to the point are the labor conditions of a century back. One of my favorite poems is Robert Pinsky’s, Shirt which celebrates the toil and the product of the ladies garment workers and the tragic fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of 1911. The poem’s genius is in the short, staccato phrasing which echo the rhythms of the labor and his focus on the detail and pride in the work.
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning."
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt