Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.  –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.



  1. Tom McCormick says:

    Thanks for the post Sean. I came across it while looking for info on the Molly Maguires after hearing the song of the same title by The Dubliners. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone out there.

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