Tuesday, November 03, 2009

From Riches to Rags



You might ask yourself what air traffic controllers are doing in a film about the rag business. Valid question. But there they are, right in the middle of HBO’s documentary: Schmatta

Here’s a promo for it, sans controllers.



So why is a Southern redneck typing Yiddish (Schmatta means “rag” in Yiddish) and writing about the Yankee rag business ? Well, I’ll have to paraphrase because the segment that caught my attention isn’t on line. But it went something like this:

”They broke the union. That just wasn’t done. And it wasn’t the big businesses that did it. It was the government.“

The garment industry unionized after 146 (mostly) women were killed in a factory fire. The doors were locked in what was a pretty standard practice in the sweatshops of the time. The unions -- with the support of an outraged public -- transformed the sweatshops into an industry that moved the workers and their children into the middle class. That was the beginning of the “rags to riches” story.

The PATCO strike in 1981 marked the beginning of the “riches to rags” part. Don’t let me simplify it too much. It wasn’t the Shirtwaist Factory fire alone that began it and it wasn’t the PATCO strike alone that ended it. These are just significant events that we use to hang our historical hats on.

About now, I suspect there are two distinct reactions occurring. In the North, there are probably heads nodding. The guy that provided the quote above was a New Yorker -- where unions held real power. In the South, many are saying, “What’s this guy talking about ? Unions were busted all the time.”

If you’ll look at history with that regional perspective in mind, it will explain much of the last 30 years. This film looks at the garment industry. The same story could have been told using the steel industry or the car-manufacturing industry. The unions helped move Americans into what was truly a middle class. Unions were busted in the South. The only “rag” business down here were the cotton mills. And near as I can tell, they never moved much of anyone into the middle class.

If you’ll remember, Ronald Reagan ran using “the Southern Strategy”. (Note Kevin Phillips’ name at that link. You’ll be hearing more about him soon.) It’s the regionalism that I want you to note. The United States, about 30 years ago, turned towards the South. And look where we wound up. Need further proof ? Check out all the Presidents since LBJ -- keeping in mind that Johnson was the first Southerner “elected” President since the Civil War. Where did the Democratic ones come from ? Georgia and Arkansas. (I know what some of you are thinking. Yes, Gore was from Tennessee.)

The car manufacturers moved down South with the Republicans -- chasing the non-union (aka “pro-business”) environment. But there was one difference this time. The middle class didn’t grow. It actually shrank. The textile business moved on to even greener pastures -- where the herd could be slaughtered just like it was 1911 all over again.

Schmatta isn’t the first documentary to tell this story. It doesn’t tell it any better than the others I’ve seen. But if you’ve never seen one -- if you’ve never seen the truth about what unions did for Americans -- you should watch it. The Chamber-of-Commerce crowd would have you believe that all unions are bad for business. They don’t want you to see what’s important -- that unions are good for workers. The only question you have to answer for yourself is, “Are you a business or are you a worker ?” It really is that simple. Businesses will spend all sorts of time and energy trying to convince you otherwise. But the proof is in the pudding. Union workers still make more money.

If you’d like to see Schmatta, you can check the HBO schedule here.

Don Brown
November 3, 2009

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