Nepali Times
Here And There
Labouring for change


TORONTO, 1 SEPTEMBER - As I write this, people in North America are celebrating a holiday they call 'Labour Day'. In these days of devastated trade unions and market fundamentalism, it's little more than a day off work at the end of a summer's play: the upper, middle and working classes cavorting for one last time before getting their group nose to the grindstone. But Labour Day is far more than that. It's a chance to reflect on the contributions of labour and the working classes to what makes Western society 'developed', much of it the fruit of trade union and worker agitation in bygone days.

This is, of course, a point of view-one that right-wingers and corporate apologists would hotly contest. Unions, they tell us, reduce productivity, and the 'flexibility' of the labour market. For 'flexible', read 'cheap' but in a spin obsessed age, there's hardly a word that doesn't have a kinder, gentler alter ego.

Unions also retard the growth of employment, says a recent study by the World Bank. That may have some truth to it. But what even trade union opponents can't deny, is the role of unions in social reform, and ultimately in making capitalism more palatable and communism a less likely option for development.

Worker agitation in Europe in the 19th century brought about massive workplace reforms. Fewer young children working in devilish conditions in British coal mines, for example. Public health improvements, sanitation, and perhaps most impactful of all, mass education: all this came about because the working class got "mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore". The writings of a then obscure German economist named Marx terrified the elite, but the masses knew nothing of him. They were Marxism in action, intuitive, and bringing about social change that continues to put most European countries and North America well ahead of the rest of the world in development indicators.

In the 20th centuries, trade unions have championed women's voting rights, civil rights for minorities, environmental protection and improvements to public health and education. Usually, on the opposite side, there was a phalanx of big corporations headed by immensely rich robber baron capitalists predicting the end of civilisation as we knew it. They were wrong of course. In fact, each of those improvements, like the great Reform Acts of the previous centuries, enhanced the market economy, enabled trade and growth and made workers healthier, smarter, happier and more productive. Trade unions also indulged in organised crime but I suggest respectfully that even Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters in the United States were amateurs alongside the murdering excesses of many big corporate interests and their callous, cynical friends in Washington.

The 60s brought trade unionists a conundrum. The student revolutionaries all around them were largely middle class and nihilist, not their cup of tea at all. But over time, the radicals grew up, joined unions and worked for social change alongside fathers and mothers, within the system and successfully. Then Europe and America began to diverge and the rot set in encouraged by the ever-vengeful elite, the media and large swathes of paid academe.

Organised labour became an enemy of progress in the 1970s when British governments of the left failed to meet various challenges and their unionised supporters got the blame. In America, Ronald Reagan-a trade unionist and early agitator for, of all things, actors' rights in Hollywood-launched an all out assault on unions.

aradoxically, workers supported him in this, even as they lost their jobs and their rights, and watched the rich get richer while they struggled. Nineties style capitalism spread the canard that anyone could be a billionaire if they dot-commed and scammed the market. The working classes were pooh-poohed by the same 60s radicals and their descendants, now cyber-salesmen and women on the Nasdaq track.

Union membership in America is now at an all time low of under 15 percent and the plutocrats are back in charge, nakedly rolling back all that labour and the working classes have worked for. There's little to celebrate this Labour Day in North America, save the incompetence of the right and its failure to leave any lasting, positive legacy beyond their own enrichment.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)