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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Laboring on Labor Day

I write this on Labor Day, knowing that LaGaceta had its Labor Day edition last week.  Historians are like that:  we want to examine things after they have happened, and we seldom speak prior to an event, even a scheduled event.  So I wanted to see how our local paper, the only one we have, dealt with this day.  Because the Tampa Bay Times no longer prints on Mondays, that meant going to the e-version, where I found what I expected:  zilch. 


A plethora of stories on this summer's protests, but not the slightest allusion to the protests that brought worker rights.   Not one word about the historic strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that ended what was essentially industrial slavery, especially for immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Just one example is Ludlow, Colorado in 1914, when the National Guard shot and killed coal miners and their families.  They followed that up by setting their humble homes ablaze. 


The same thing had happened in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, because textile workers rejected a pay cut.  Women were the majority of weavers, and most did not speak English.  They didn't obey the orders of policemen on horses and died as a result.  I'm going to quote a bit from my "Foreign & Female:  Immigrant Women in America."  This is by an on-scene reporter from "Collier's," then one of the nation's most prominent magazines:


I saw with my own eyes, under the gray light that precedes dawn a little group of twenty-five women shivering in the cold…I knew this was 'picketing,' which even when peaceful, is unlawful in [Massachusetts].  I saw a detail of men come down the street clad in police uniforms, [and] I heard horses' hoofs.  I saw the women flattened like hens as the shadow of the hawk falls… I heard a rough voice call upon God to damn them.  I saw the nightsticks driven hard against the women's ribs… I saw one who passed me.   "Listen," she called to a friend.  I go home.  I nurse the little one.  I be back yet."




After cloth was woven in New England, it often went down to New York where the garment industry flourished – unregulated, unsafe, and exploitive.  A 1909 strike, however, was unique.  It started out with the usual assaults by police, but they accidentally arrested a couple of prominent women, including a Vanderbilt.  For the next year, many affluent women supported the workers by refusing to buy new clothes, and the strike generally was successful.  Not all the manufacturers, however, settled with the strikers, and no one enforced safety. 


When a fire broke out in the Triangle Factory of Lower Manhattan in 1911, 146 people died in the flames.  Most were young, Jewish women, and some were the sole support of their families back in the Russian Empire.  They were so obviously desperate for money that they were working on Saturday, the Sabbath for most of them.  The shock for the public, though, was to learn that these women routinely worked behind locked doors.  They were caged like prisoners, lest a union organizer slip in to encourage them to strike as their sisters had done the previous year.  Dozens of charred bodies were piled up next to the doors that sealed them in.


One positive result of the tragedy was the creation of the Department of Labor in 1913, but the memo to law enforcement re worker rights was very slow to arrive.  Police brutality was standard procedure for decades – against white people, as well as black.  Employers used state and federal troops to end strikes from Arizona copper mines to Michigan autoworkers.  A 1929 strike at a textile mill in Gastonia, South Carolina, exploded into one of the century's most turbulent, a scenario further complicated by racism and politics.  Unfortunately, most people long have accepted the use of taxpayer-funded police who act in the interest of business as maintaining "law and order."  The effect, however, often is merely to maintain plutocracy.




Way back in the days of Roman glory, some smart manipulator recommended giving the poor "bread and circuses" to distract them from their sad lot in life.  That brings me back to the beginning, when I bemoaned the local media's lack of attention to Labor Day and working-class issues.  While the Times can't spare any attention to that, we are treated, of course, to its usual six pages of sports.  What is wrong with these guys?  And yes, of course, it is guys who make these decisions.


So I ask again, why can't the guys in suits bring themselves to send reporters to talk with the guys in jeans who still dominate labor unions?  Is it too much to send someone to MacIntosh Road to ask the plumbers how they are doing?  Is it too much to expect them to check out the Ironworkers headquarters on Hillsborough Avenue?  These are incredibility daring guys who climb nearly invisible ladders to frame the metal for big new buildings.  Our local has won international contests in speed and safety, but who tells that story?


You might not know that there are three branches of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Hillsborough County.  IBEW 915 on Harney Road does the sort of thing you think of electricians as doing:  installing and repairing the wiring that is essential to everything we do.  IBEW 824 on Chelsea Avenue represents telephone workers, and IBEW 108 on Hillsborough represents workers with TECO and Duke Energy.  (Or at least did, back when I knew about such stuff.)  And that's just a sample of the interviews that could be done, as unions have expanded to fields that include many women. 


The largest union today is NEA, the National Education Association, with almost three million members; the American Federation of Teachers has another 1.5 million.  The most politically active today probably is SEIU, Service Employees International Union, which began with health care workers.  Recent months have shown us how much we depend on these essential workers, and we should be paying more attention to their experiences and opinions.  There are stories here, stories to fill in the outlines of what always has been called the "Business" pages.  It should be the "Economy" or the "Marketplace" or something much more inclusive.




We get the Stock Market, which is not the economy.  Everything about our era is so like "the Roaring Twenties," when Wall Street rose to dizzying heights before it collapsed -- and almost all of these "investors" were unaware that there was literal starvation in the Dust Bowl of the Midwest.  Income inequality, then and now, is extremely important:  without a doubt, it predictably will crash a thriving nation.  So now, with Trump's gamblers firmly in charge, we face these startling statistics:


·      Since the beginning of the pandemic, 467 billionaires have increased their wealth at a rate of $5.2 billion per day.

·      For the first time since the end of World War II, female employment dropped by double digits during the summer.

·      Of those unemployed because their jobs require a physical presence, 39% earn under $40 K annually; of those who make $100 K or more, just 13% are laid off because their job means going to a workplace.

·      For the first time since measurement began, our national debt is larger than the GNP – the Gross National Product that is the real economy, not the Wall Street casino.


As a retiree, I'm supposed to be glad to see a soaring stock market because it is supposed to be reflected in the investments that Hubby and I have made.  I'm sorry to say that I don't see it.  I guess it's going to the billionaires above.  In any case, I care more about the real world and real workers, especially women.  The most feminist thing we can do this year, sisters, is to vote for candidates who support the $15 federal minimum wage to help end income inequality.


Along these lines, it was rising feminism that led to the 1907 federal Pure Food & Drug Act.  Prior to it, dairies delivered "milk" diluted with watered chalk, and pharmacies sold dangerous snake oil medications at a big profit.  Political action by women, especially the General Federation of Women's Clubs, resulted in today's FDA and our ability to (mostly) trust what we put in our mouths and on our skin.  We women need to repeat that activism now by insisting on enforcement that protects the mostly immigrant workers in the food biz. 


Despite the pandemic, essential workers have been showing up for months in Wisconsin meatpacking plants, Arkansas poultry processors, California vineyards, and more.  I know from personal experience that most of those who toil to provide our food have no labor protections.  They live in fear of deportation by the corporations that recruited them, and they don't complain when the money they put into payroll taxes never is returned to them.  They have suffered a disproportionate rate of COVID because they have neither sick pay nor insurance.  We should stand up for them -- and for ourselves, for both food safety and justice.




·      What is it with Pensacola?  Almost every hurricane heads there, and now they have an earthquake?  A beach community with an earthquake?  This might be a good time for self-examination, Panhandlers.

·      Someone should tell the police how to pose.  When Hubby was in the Army, all photographs were taken with soldiers' arms at their sides.  In a recent shot that featured men (and one woman) from the sheriff's office, the TPD, the FBI, the US Attorney, and even the Highway Patrol, half of the guys had their hands behind their backs, while the other half had their hands in front – nearly pornographically in front.  Pay attention, PR folks.

·      You've may have seen this elsewhere, but it needs reinforcement, especially with people who proclaim that all life is sacred.  Under Donald Trump, five people were executed in federal prisons during July and August.  That follows zero federal executions in all the years between 2003 and 2020.  I have to wonder why.  Did he plan on citing this as an achievement at the Republican convention, and then was advised that some pro-life people might be offended?  Or is the lack of publicity on these execution because four of the five were white males, and the Proud Boys might object?  I await an explanation from Attorney General Barr.

·      Please watch or re-watch "Norma Rae," a true story starring Sally Field as a union organizer.  And "Silkwood," with Meryl Streep.  And listen to Judy Collins' "Bread and Roses," about the 1912 textile strike.  (Okay, it was written by Pete Seeger, but she sings it better.)  If Hubby still were alive, we would have sung it again this year, a terrible year with no Labor Day celebrations.  I hope for never again.



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