A Cautionary Tale for Labor Day

My Dad in the Army in 1945
My Dad in the Army in 1945

W.J. Astore

In December 2010, I wrote the article below for Truthout.  Even as the economy was sputtering and jobs were scarce, Congress was seeking to cut unemployment benefits.  Eventually, a compromise was forged to maintain the benefits; the price was more tax cuts for the richest Americans.  Angered by the hypocrisy and greed on display, and inspired by my father’s words and experiences, I penned my very own tale of two cities.  It’s not Dickens, but it has the merit of being far shorter.

The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Poorer (Posted originally at Truthout on 12/7/2010)

William Astore

More tax breaks for the rich in exchange for another year’s worth of unemployment benefits for the desperate: Now there’s a compromise that makes me proud to be an American. My father wouldn’t have been surprised. He grew up during the Great Depression and worked in factories before he was drafted and served in the Army during World War II. Dad told me that the harder he worked (physically), the less he got paid. And he told me there was nothing like repetitive and physically-grueling factory work to make you want to improve yourself. By becoming a civil servant (a firefighter), he escaped the factory and its dismal pay for a job that paid enough to provide five children with a lower middle class existence.

Today’s political elites seem to think that the proper way to stimulate economic growth is to empower the exploiters. That way, some of their enormous wealth will trickle down on the little people. My father knew from experience that it usually wasn’t money that trickled down from the high heights of the rich.

In the spirit of the holiday season, here’s a story from my Dad that recounts his attempt to get a dime pay raise at the local factory. Consider it a parable for the realities our working classes face day in and day out in this country:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise and he was refused. Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group. In our group he got ten men to approach Harry C. for a raise. But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry. Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise. I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise. Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?” So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise. So Harry said, “How much?” and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise. So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel. We agreed. So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires. No other truer saying than, That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.

Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of class warfare or even Marxism. It’s true that some of the worst abuses have been curbed (for example, my father worked from 6PM to 6AM without the benefit of overtime pay or time-and-a-half), but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be fired; scared that they’ll be replaced by automated robots. Thus they put up and shut up.

So, what’s the moral to the story? Our president promised hope and change. “Hope” has come in the form of more tax breaks for the rich. And “change”? To paraphrase my father: No truer saying than that politicians have no sympathy or use for the poor. 

5 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale for Labor Day

  1. Thanks for that powerful story. I am glad we are no longer “singing in the rain”.
    Your story is real and does not reek of ‘patriotism’. It is the story of the real country we live in and the constant struggle for justice.

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    1. Labor Day weekend, like most other long weekends, has become an excuse to shop. So much advertising for Labor Day “specials,” but very little notice of what Labor Day actually means. Meanwhile, most people, if they’re not shopping, are preparing for the kids to go back to school, or actually working today, since the malls are all open for business.

      Of course, much of what we buy is made in China or other faraway places in which labor is exploited. But we’re not encouraged to think about that. We’re encouraged to purchase bright shiny objects as a symbol of our freedom to consume.

      Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, but today religion is just another product. Consumerism is the opiate of the masses. And the world labors hard, and the earth suffers, to meet our insatiable wants for more stuff.

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  2. Reblogged this on The Contrary Perspective and commented:
    Today would have been my father’s 98th birthday. He lived through the Great Depression and worked long hours in factories for low wages until he became a firefighter after World War II. My father’s conclusion to the story he tells is an indictment of the selfish rich and their complete lack of sympathy for the poor. Sadly, in America today, the poor are still often blamed for their struggles to make ends meet, even as the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25. “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor” — a harsh saying, but my dad experienced it over years of working a tough job for ungenerous bosses. As my dad might have said, when it came to sharing profits with workers, the bosses passed around nickels like they were manhole covers. In other words, not easily, not often.

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  3. How times have changed! In 1947 I worked in the ‘labor gang’ in the largest steel mill in this country to augment my GI Bill for education. I belonged to the the US Steelworkers Union and earned $1.25/ hour and got paid double for overtime. At that time a union steelworker could afford to buy a house and send his children to college with his savings. A union worker with seniority and a specialty of course earned more than the $1.25 that a common laborer like me earned.

    So today $7.25, the federal minimum wage, which is roughly six times what I earned in 1947 will hardly pay a single person enough to live on, much less a family. We have moved backwards in this country and we have allowed the politicians of both parties and their corporate masters to engineer a society without unions to protect workers from the depredations of employers and corporations. A society that shifts well paying jobs to countries which exploit workers while we give tax breaks to the corporations that shift the jobs.

    Virtually no politicians in either of our two parties try seriously to change these destructive policies. We have a president that can wax eloquently over the plight of the poor but behind our back support every anti-labor demand of the banks and corporations. A president who is secretly negotiating the Trans Pacific Trade Pact which will further reduce not just the average worker but our entire country to the acquisitiveness of the huge corporations. It’s more than time for a fundamental change in our country and it’s up to the citizenry to break with this destructive corporatized political system.

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    1. Amen, traven. We have a rich country that postures as being “Christian” yet which refuses to take care of workers. The rich just can’t get enough, and the poor have to scrape and scramble to keep what little they have. I suppose the rich figure they can keep us all in line with police armed with MRAPs and machine guns. That, and lots of propaganda about the rich inheriting the earth — the opposite message from the New Testament, but don’t tell that to those in thrall to the “prosperity gospel.”

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