Originally written on Labor Day, 2016
Almost everywhere else Labor Day is on May 1, to commemorate the Haymarket tragedy in Chicago. Most other countries, from Canada to continental Europe, UK, etc., also have labor parties, a political party tied to labor unions. These parties are not perfect and when they have too much power for too long, they do often pass too many work rules and can put too much money in the pension system and other problems. You can find some pretty bizarre pension schemes in Greece, strange work rules in France, etc. The unions can become an interest group with a lock on government through their party, at least for the short term.
It’s bad when the candidates are tied in polls. It would be so much better if they were tied to poles.
However, countries with strong labor parties who celebrate Labor Day on May 1 do not have as much inequality as we do in America. The level of inequality in America is hard to beat. It is also very hard to move up in America, unlike in Europe. I know we think we’re the land of opportunity, but if you want to do better than your parents and if you look for people changing social class over their lifetimes, America is not very open. We have fancy private schools and elite public schools, then people get jobs by who they know, pass their wealth on to their children with little tax, move away from areas with too many poor people, etc. Soon enough, stratification becomes hard as rock. That’s America. It’s not great in other countries, but America is among the worst.
Countries with strong labor movements do not have stupid health care systems like we do. They have better public services in general. In Germany, the parks are beautiful, healthcare universal and good, college free, housing high quality, public transport excellent. Example: lead was never in their paint because the painters were unionized. The Social Democrats deserve the lion’s share of the credit, as a labor party, as their presence in the system moved the entire political system to the left and the right wing party in Germany, the CDU, is far to the left of the democrats in America on issues of social welfare and creating a society for all, not just a small elite group.
Why didn’t America ever develop a labor party? Violence and incomplete democracy. We have two races here in America over the entire period I am considering, about 150 years, black and white. That was always a stumbling block. Immigrant and native born labor. But aside from that, count the number of strikes that ended up with a lot of people dead in America. Look for examples like that in Canada, Australia, the UK, France… We have a lot more or that. And see what happened in other countries after labor violence versus what happened here, in terms of arrests, changes, response. The labor history of America is littered with a lot of dead bodies.
After World War I, European labor parties were all part of the system and incorporated into the governments in every country. I know Europe is not prefect — not then and not now — but I am pointing out one thing they do have that we do not, not comparing the whole society. I am using other countries to show that we are missing something: a labor party.
In the US, violence prevented effective union organizing on the scale sufficient to create a national party. Also the structure of federal, state and local government in the US is not as democratic as in most other countries. We have a creaky 18th century constitution which has done us well in terms of stability but does not allow for proportional representation, in which local elections can be corrupted, and in which the will of the people is only very tangentially related to the operation of government through layers of representation. Also, now it’s worse then ever with legalized bribery that would not be allowed in Europe or Canada or Australia, etc.
The lack of a labor party in our past is still crippling us. Obamacare is a flop. You can look around the world and see many different examples of universal health care, very different ways to do it in Germany, Canada, the UK, etc. Nevertheless, when Obama went to craft his plan, he looked to Massachusetts because he did not want to upset the private insurers and their investors. Why does a left wing president need insurance companies? Can’t he just rely on the nurse’s union to push through whatever would help the working people? Apparently not.
Walmart workers get food stamps. Is that some whacky ass shit or what? Would that happen if we had a labor party?
You have to pay for college at a state college. Are you kidding me? They put a $500 fee on registration for college in Germany and the students went nuts and they cancelled the fee.
If you get sick, you die. A nation for all the people? I think perhaps not.
Where’s the train? I don’t what to fly to Boston. Oh, it’s shitty and expensive.
Why is this city and neighborhood falling off the map and no one cares? Don’t the people who live here matter? Apparently not. Aren’t they citizens? Why don’t they vote for the party to rebuild this crumbling rust belt city?
Because there is no party to vote for. Because the unions are weak. Because elections don’t work in America. Because if you protest, there will be violence.
On May 1, 1886 the Chicago criminal justice system put ropes around the necks of 8 labor activists for a crime they could not have possibly committed after farcical trials and murdered them.
Labor Day is May 1. Today is a vacation before school.