I’ve been paying attention to labor issues for a long time. What I’ve learned is this: Americans will never have a collective, coherent appreciation of people working for others who profit from that work.

Brandi McNease announces March 27 that Chipotle Mexican Grill will pay workers at its former Augusta location $240,000 for breaching labor laws. McNease, who led efforts to unionize Chipotle workers at the restaurant, detailed the settlement at a news conference outside the shuttered restaurant at Marketplace at Augusta. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal, File

This year, a Chipotle in Augusta settled and remained closed rather than having its representatives attend a National Labor Relations Board hearing as its workers tried to form a union. Last year, Starbucks in the Old Port closed a month after its workers formed a union. Earlier this summer, all it took was a one-day strike by Little Dog Cafe workers in Brunswick to compel the bosses to call it quits.

The immediacy of our news cycles obliterates our desire to reach back for historical context – unless you’re a history nut, and who wants to listen to that guy at a backyard barbecue on Labor Day weekend?

Here’s an example. A few weeks ago, a college buddy of mine had a cordial, brief discussion with our friend and next-door neighbor, including this exchange:

“Nobody wants to work anymore.”

“Actually, that’s not true. Unemployment is at its lowest point in, like, forever.”


And then they talked about dogs and bees, which was probably a good idea.

We have always been like this, long before social media and the digital age or even television. The socialist, political activist and trade unionist Eugene Debs organized one of the most disruptive labor strikes in American history in 1894. It landed him in prison. He ran for U.S. president in 1912 and 1920 as a Socialist Party candidate, collecting nearly a million votes each time. While he wasn’t a real threat to our political and economic institutions, he ended up in federal prison in 1918 because of his efforts on behalf of organized labor (and his anti-war speeches). And a million people still voted for him to run the country.

John Reed, a journalist, activist and political wrecking ball, wrote stirring accounts of striking coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, from 1913 to 1914 and Paterson, New Jersey, silk workers in 1913. These labor stoppages earned the wrath of company owners, local police and (in Ludlow) the National Guard. Reed’s advocacy for labor unions and his contempt for wars benefiting uber-capitalists earned him four separate indictments for sedition or related charges. None of his cases ended with conviction, but our federal government exacted revenge by letting Reed rot in solitary confinement in Finland in 1920 after he tried to escape Russia (the Bolsheviks also got sick and tired of his agitation).

Halfway through the 20th century, Congress gave organized labor a smackdown with the Taft-Hartley Act, which banned sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts and secondary picketing. The law also placed restrictions on a union’s ability to collect dues from all members of its bargaining unit. President Truman vetoed the law, but the only thing Congress needed for an override was this nugget: Unions were embracing communists!

Today, when labor unions fight for worker rights, are they freaking out their fellow Americans? I think the answer is “yes.”

Is it because we are afraid of another Eugene Debs, or John Reed, or union-backed terrorism, like the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910? No. But we may be conditioned, for generations, to believe that labor union power is a direct line to socialism, which is … a direct line to the End of the American Way of Life As We Know It? What does that mean?


It means that we are still OK with 69% of our wealth owned by 10% of our earners.

We are still OK with stereotypes of unions protecting the jobs of bad teachers, bad cops and cardboard-cutout bureaucrats.

I am not a big fan of the remote workplace, but I find the conversation – and the debate – fascinating. I think workers are asserting themselves. They are delivering a message to their bosses, a message rooted in the beliefs of those who were assaulted, jailed or killed (the “Ludlow Massacre” of 1914) for pushing back over working conditions.

Here’s a radical idea: One hundred and twenty-nine years after the Pullman Strike of 1894, when an eight-hour work day was the No. 1 goal for Eugene Debs, workers may be wondering if the standard eight-hour work day is antiquated. As our son-in-law told us a few years ago, “That’s why we have meetings – to make sure we’re all busy.”

Harry Truman famously said there is no limit to what you can accomplish in life as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. Right now, according to The New York Times, fewer than one of every 1,000 hourly workers in the U.S. are making the federal minimum wage of $7.25. More than two dozen national-brand companies are paying $14 per hour or more for entry-level jobs, even though most state laws don’t require them to do so.

Is anyone going to give labor unions credit for moving the dialogue in that direction? Probably not. But we still need them.

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