Trying times for the U.S. worker

The American self-image rests on pride in entrepreneurial achievement. What would America be without Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, and others less known but deserving of a place in the pantheon of grade school heroes – for instance, Madam C.J. Walker, founder of a line of beauty products for African-American women and ultimately the highly profitable Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co.?

On a local level, what would Dunkirk and the entire manufacturing Northeast have been without the hard work of Sir Henry Bessemer or his American counterpart, William Kelly, both of whom invented a method for removing impurities from pig iron? Further improvements in steel production gave United States workers dependable jobs well into the 20th century. Along with these jobs – largely private-sector union jobs – came a ladder into the middle class, suburban living, and all the comforts so many of us “of an age” remember because we grew up in this neck of the woods.

The record of history awards inventors and entrepreneurs with all the written accolades. But the companies they inspire rely on a huge backbone of blue-collar laborers and white-collar workers. Without them, invention, entrepreneurship, and business would grind to a halt. It is fitting that on Labor Day, everyone in the business chain from managers to line workers to consumers should take a pause from the picnics and poolside respites to reflect on the importance of workers. It wouldn’t hurt to contemplate the likely fate of America’s workers in a political climate whose key players want to continue the three-decade shift of prosperity away from the working poor and middle classes.

It’s impossible to pin down a founder of Labor Day, but it has been a legal American holiday since Congress made it so in 1894. This legislation traces directly back to the Pullman Palace Car Co.’s mistreatment of its workers. Wage cuts and union busting by the strong arm of management led to a strike, which resulted in the government’s use of military troops. This was the final straw that unleashed waves of rioting.

The good news is that awareness of workers’ rights increased. At the time, the labor-management balance was lopsided; labor worked grueling hours for minimal pay and Gilded Age bosses lived lavishly off the backs of those laborers.

Is it any wonder workers banded together to push back against the basic injustice of conspicuous labor disequilibrium? Those organizations of people demanding basic prosperity for their hard work were called “unions.” There was a time when unions were a political positive. Subsequent demonization of union members is based on the provably false assumption that worker prosperity causes management poverty. The years when unions and corporations flourished simultaneously render anti-union claims absurd.

The rise of Reaganism in the ’80s swung the economic imbalance back to the wealthy. Three decades of trade deals and legislation bestowing tax breaks on executives and corporations have created a growing gap between the wealthy and those who do the actual wealth-generating work. Thanks to outsourcing, too many Americans rely on service economy jobs that suck the life out of them through skimpy pay and nonexistent benefits.

Union crushing was the first salvo in a long war whose end game is enhancing the wealth of the planet’s corporate behemoths. Today’s tactics use trade deals to achieve that end, the most conspicuous being the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP will do what previous trade deals have done – grant more wealth and political power to multinational corporations on the backs of increasingly poor laborers in the United States and other countries that sign on to “free” trade.

So who’s to blame for these anti-worker pacts? The TPP has bipartisan support from senators in both parties, including vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine. It’s no secret President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton pushed hard for the TPP. This is clearly not a conception of the right or the left; it is a conception of the unibrow political establishment, and leaders of both parties seek to deliver these dangerous deals to a troubled world. As usual, workers will pay heavily for that.

In years to come, what meat will occupy the Labor Day grill – steak or hot dogs? Maybe neither. Backyard squirrel, anyone?

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to