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Monday, July 09, 2007
(9:58 AM) | Stephen:
Lesson Time

This is a photo of Shorpy Higginbotham, a "greaser" for a coal mine in Alabama at the turn of the 20th century, and his coworkers. Shorpy claimed to be 14, but in the original caption to one of his photos this claim is said to be "doubtful." His colleagues seem to be around the same age, early teens or so:

These boys were in constant danger of being run over by coal cars, let alone the health problems and other dangers of working in a coal mine 100 years ago. While Shorpy and his fellow coal minors were busy dodging coal cars and turning their lungs black, wealthier children were going to school, being tutored and playing games with one another.

Today, of course, children don't work in coal mines in this country. They don't work at other jobs, except a few accepted ones like paper routes. When teenagers reach a state's age of employability, their are always a host of rules governing how many hours they can work and how early or late in the day they can show up for work. Children and teenagers are expected to spend their time in school, not doing the most dangerous jobs in a coal mine for the least pay.

So what happened? How did we manage to turn childhood from a deadly period of exploitation to one of learning and play? Unions. Unions happened, and other liberal ideas like public schools. Ordinary people banded together and pooled their resources so they would have the means to stand up to the robber barons who cared only for profits, nothing for people.

Ezra notes today how fashionable it is for DC pundits to criticize teachers' unions, blaming them for every problem that faces public schools - especially those faux-liberal pundits like Joe Klein and faux-liberal publications the The New Republic. Liberals are still trying to prove that they're independent thinkers who aren't beholden to the progressive movement's special interests. Of course, all they're doing is taking cheap potshots at whatever target is the most vulnerable at the moment, and unions have been vulnerable for a while now.

Wages stagnate, benefits are cut, companies lay off skilled workers because they're skilled, pension funds are mismanaged and/or raided for the company coffers, basic safety measures are never put in place, and the business pages of our nation's newspapers are full of economic "good" news. The Dow Jones is breaking records, and that's supposed to mean something to the shrinking middle class or the fast growing lower classes.

Americans have a bad habit of complacency and apathy, especially progressives. Once major victories are won, once blacks and women have the right to vote, and there is a federal minimum wage, once companies are required to stop polluting our drinking water and to start providing a safe, harassment-free workplace, progressives tend to think the fight is over.

But the other side doesn't rest. The other side continues its campaigns to demonize workers as lazy, shiftless crooks, to paint unions as corrupt and greedy mobsters who want to destroy the businesses that are the source of their members' livelihoods. Old union problems like Jimmy Freaking Hoffa are continually brought before the public's attention, while the petty tyrants and criminals that continue to run our corporations such as Lay, Skilling, Ebbers, and so many more are treated like isolated incidents, unusual circumstances even as new revelations are unearthed every day.

Unions matter, now as much if not more than they ever have. There will always be people at the top looking for ways to squeeze one more penny out of every process, every person. And while the free-marketeers will claim with their dying breath that increased profits are always due to increased productivity, efficiency and superior profits, everyone with a smidgen of objectivity knows that it's far easier and more reliable to increase profits by cutting quality, making workers in an employer's market do more with less, reducing benefits, and often outsourcing the work to countries that don't have any wage, benefit, safety and product quality regulations.

If the developing progressive movement doesn't have unions as an integral part, we might as well quit now.

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