Friday, May 23, 2008

A Hole In Our History



A few days ago, as I was poking fun at my heritage, I was reminded of a bit of history that I believe worth sharing. In the mid 1990s, PBS showcased a documentary film entitled The Uprising of ‘34 on their series P.O.V. (Point of View).

I was absolutely dumbfounded by the program. The event itself was amazing but what stunned me was my complete lack of knowledge about it. I was in my mid-30s, I’d lived in the area of the event my entire life, I had helped start a union and yet -- I was completely ignorant of the largest strike in American history.

This quote from The Uprising of ‘34 highlights my point.

”Kathy Lamb, a former mill worker's daughter, is flabbergasted that her father never mentioned the strike. "I can't understand why my Dad didn't tell me. He could talk about the war and about people being blown to bits, but he couldn't talk about his neighbors being killed. It's like somebody trying to hide a dirty secret about their family, like they're ashamed. They ought to be proud of them. They stood up when other people wouldn't." “

I find it incredible that a society has so completely obliterated a historically significant event. The Haymarket Massacre in 1886 provided us with the lasting legacy of “the bomb-throwing anarchist” but a strike involving 400,000 people -- in which six picketers were killed in Honea Path, South Carolina -- has been wiped from our collective conscience. My grandparents lived a couple of counties over, in another of the endless mill villages in the Piedmont. That entire side of my family had worked in the cotton mills -- after coming out of the coal mines in southwest Virginia. I had never, ever heard a peep out of anybody about this strike. I just knew that unions were talked about only in whispers -- as if such talk was dangerous.

I urge you to explore this forgotten piece of history. I was going to buy the DVD of The Uprising of ‘34 so that I could refresh my memory -- until I found out it was $500 dollars. (Yes, it is curious.) I guess I’ll wait for PBS to run it again.

In the meantime, you can read more about the strike at Wikipedia.

Textile workers strike (1934)

While you are at Wikipedia, you might as well read about the Battle of Blair Mountain too. For the aviation fans (assuming any are still with me), you can read how General Billy Mitchell planned to use airpower to disperse the strikers. (Warning: Read more than one account of the story before you start quoting anything as gospel. What General Mitchell said and what he did are two different things.)

After you read all this, please sit down and do some serious thinking. Ostensibly, companies always fight unions to keep costs down so that the company remains in business. Looking at the cotton mills of the South, the companies successfully crushed any thought of unionizing. Wages stayed low -- and unions stayed out -- even into our times. As a matter of fact, wages stayed low until the cotton mills left for even poorer people in greener, foreign pastures.

What did the workers get ? I know what the mill owners got. Their children went to the nice schools, went to the good colleges and still live off the money their parents made -- until this very day. What did the worker’s children get ? Some got out. My family is living proof of that. A lot didn’t. What did their children get ? Besides another generation of poverty ?

Contrast that with the auto industry or the steel industry. The unions negotiated good wages and good benefits. They didn’t live in poverty. They became the middle class. Which was better for our country ?

There needs to be a balance between workers, company owners, corporations, citizens and our government. Finding that balance is never easy. It seems easier to judge if there was a healthy balance in the past. The problem is, we need to determine if there is a healthy balance now. I don’t believe there is. And I don’t believe we should wait until things are so bad that the government is shooting its citizens, before we act.

A little over the top you say ? Too far in the past to be relevant ? If you’re my age, ask your kids what they know about Kent State. “Kent State ?”, my daughter asked. “Never heard of it.”

Don Brown
May 23, 2008

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