Starving Out Workers

Terrance Heath

I admit sometimes I look at the GOP majority in the House and wonder where these people came from. (Their districts, I know.)

Defending the Defense of Marriage Act? Hearings on Muslim Americans? Emergency meetings to defund NPR?

All this while unemployment is at 10.2% (according to Gallup), 14 million Americans are unemployed, there are 8 unemployed workers for every job job opening, unemployment adds 9 million Americans to the uninsured, so many people have been unemployed for so long that we’ve changed how we measure long-term unemployment, 1.4 million have been out of work for 99 weeks or more, and  3.9 million long-term unemployed ran out of unemployment benefits in 2010?

You can see why I began to wonder if these people came from another planet. But their latest move makes it all perfectly clear. They’re straight out of Central Casting, the stereotypical villains division.

Tula Connell notes the GOP’s latest strike at unionized workers: You strike, you starve.

How low can Republicans go in their attacks on working families and their unions?

Think Progress reports today that “a group of House Republicans is launching a new stealth attack against union workers” by prohibiting the family of a worker on strike from receiving food stamps.

The stealth provision is buried in  H.R. 1135, a bill based designed to ”provide information on total spending on means-tested welfare programs, to provide additional work requirements, and to provide an overall spending limit on means-tested welfare programs.”

Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Tim Scott (S.C.), Scott Garrett (N.J.), Dan Burton (Ind.), and Louie Gohmert (Texas) introduced the bill, which also includes a provision that would exempt households from losing eligibility, “if the household was eligible immediately prior to such strike, however, such family unit shall not receive an increased allotment as the result of a decrease in the income of the striking member or members of the household.”

Seriously, what’s missing here except for a black hat and cape, a stick of dynamite and a victim tied to railroad tracks. (Not high-speed rail, of course.)

And before anyone chimes in with, "You don’t work, you don’t eat," let’s get a couple of things straight. Striking workers do not belong in the same category as people who can work, but don’t work because they don’t want to.

Like the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, who burned to death 100 years ago today, workers who go on strike don’t do so because they simply don’t want to work. (If that were the case, they could call in sick, stay in and watch television instead of walking picket lines.

They’re hard working people who’ve been working, and are striking because they want to go back to work — but for better wages and safer working conditions. They want to work, but for wages that will feed their families, and give their children a better start in life. They want to work hours that let them see their families. They want to work under conditions that don’t endanger their health and safety. Most of all they want to be treated fairly at work. And like the Triangle factory workers, they knew there’s only one way to accomplish that.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

It’s about fairness, not laziness. And the last time I checked, starving our people who want fair treatment and a shot at the American Dream, wasn’t part of American values.

The 146 workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago today went on strike, with those demands. And were met with ever strikebreaking tactic the factory owners could think of.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

(The clips are from the PBS American Experience documentary, Triangle Fire. You can watch the whole thing online here.)

That treatment of strikers wasn’t all that unusual. Violence was regularly meted out to workers who dared demand fair or even humane treatment. Then as now, there were people who mattered and people who didn’t. There were somebodies and nobodies, and the former would accept nothing from the latter but abject obedience.

It was the age of Social Darwinism after all, when there were haves who were better off because they were better people, and have-nots who had not because … well … because they weren’t better people. Their very status was evidence of that. For if they were better people they would’ve been better off.

It was an age when, as Robert Reich put it, people were forced to live with the consequences of whatever happened to them.

The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is to force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.

The emphasis here is on "force," with was applied quite heavily to workers, if they did otherwise.

And this is where the GOP’s latest move comes into clearer context. It goes all the way back to that history. Violence wasn’t the only tactic used against striking workers. Literally starving them out was a tactic, too.

Those are a couple of examples of actual "starve-outs," but starving out workers who tried to organize — by shutting down mines and factories, fining workers for infractions, etc. — carried same message: knuckle under, or your family will starve; your children won’t eat.

Stopping the delivery of food to striking workers needs to be put in context too. Who’s delivering food to striking workers? Well, there was a time when unions were strong enough to support workers and their families during strikes, by giving workers "strike pay" to assist them in meeting their needs during a strike. In some strike situations, union support committees mobilized to deliver food to the families of striking workers. So, factory and mine owners didn’t necessarily  have the leverage of a worker’s starving family.

This phenomenon has a modern-day parallel: Solidarity Pizza.

Someone in Egypt has been paying attention to what’s happening in Madison and wanted to send a message of solidarity from across the globe — so they ordered a pizza.

It might seem like a small gesture, but it’s overwhelming to the staff at Ian’s on State Street — a campus staple mere blocks from the Capitol — where in the last few days, they’ve fielded calls from concerned citizens of 14 countries, and all 50 states and the District of Columbia looking to donate money to provide free pizza to the Wisconsinites who have congregated here.

On Saturday alone, Ian’s gave away 1,057 free slices in their store and delivered more than 300 pizzas to the Capitol itself.

By 2 p.m. local time Sunday, they’d given away 351 slices and sent countless other full pies to the rotunda, where protesters have been gathering since well before noon. As a few locals stood waiting for their slices, an Ian’s staffer went to the chalkboard hanging behind the register and wrote, “Turkey” in big block letters and co-workers expressed a sense of disbelief.

The reason we work under very different conditions thane workers did 100 years ago — the reason I can look up and see evidence of a sprinkler system, and the reason I’m leaving the office after 8 hours, and going to home to spend the entire weekend with my family — is because some people didn’t knuckle under long ago. They stood up for themselves and each other, changing their circumstances and ours for the better.

That’s what I’m guessing the GOP wants to fix — people standing together and demanding living wages and better working conditions — because it’s high time we got back to the way things used to be …. 100 years or so ago.

Not that there was any doubt, at least the GOP is letting us know which side of history their on.

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