2014

16 April 2014: Wealth disparity keeps widening

Wealth disparity keeps widening

On April 20, 2014 Greek Orthodox members will celebrate Easter, coinciding with the date for Western-rite Christians.  On April 20, 1914, one-hundred years to the day, the Greek Orthodox Church again celebrated its Easter, but for 18 Greek Orthodox women and children of miners in Ludlow, Colorado, that Easter Sunday was a day not of resurrection but of death, huddled together dying of smoke inhalation from fires set by goon squads sent by coal magnates and the Colorado militia, which operated at their behest.

That event has been named the Ludlow Massacre, one of the dark stains on Colorado history, workers’ equivalent of the Sand Creek Massacre that had occurred 50 years prior a short distance away.

At that time, the Titans of Industry, led by John D. Rockefeller ruled.  Heavy industry was their empire, in this case the railroads and the requisite coal needed to fuel them.  The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by Rockefeller, dominated not only the economy but also the politics of Colorado.  Essentially, the Colorado National Guard and local sheriff departments had become hit men for Rockefeller and his cohorts for busting miners and other workers for attempting to unionize.

The mines were beyond unsafe.  Through nearly a three-decade span, from 1884 through 1912, 42,898 coal miners were killed in mine accidents across the U.S. with 1,708 of them in Colorado mines, twice the rate of the national average.

Research reveals investigative juries were hand-picked by local coroners and sheriffs and almost without exception absolved owners and management of any blame in the accidents.

Like today, the workforce was largely made up of minorities and immigrants, in the case of the CF&I strikers, Greek and Eastern European.  In 1912, for example, 61 percent of Colorado’s coal miners were minority/immigrant.  Ironically, many of the Ludlow strikers had gotten their jobs by being scabs who replaced strikers in 1903.  The tables were then turned on them.

So it goes.  That’s capitalism.

At least here in the U.S. today we no longer have overt goon squads; the forces of repression are far more subtle.  The pressure takes the form of economic deprivation and psychological warfare.  Workers are being convinced that they ought to appreciate having a job even if it barely, if at all, pays enough to pay the bills.  We no longer have company stores, but we have Wal-Mart.

What keeps American workers in place is the specter and reality of international trade that has opened the entire global population for competition.

“Don’t like working for $9.00 an hour?” say the magnates.  “We’ll ship your job overseas to really impoverished peoples who will happily make our products, which we’ll sell in Wal-Mart.”

The CF&I’s brutal assault on the miners and their wives and children won them the day in Ludlow; but the outcry and outrage helped sway public opinion towards the victims, which gave life to then still-struggling unionization attempts.  A quarter century later, in 1935, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act “to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.”

Union membership, however, has declined dramatically since its heyday in the 1950s when over a third of American workers belonged to unions and with it our standard of living has declined.  The income gap between the top one percent and the bottom 90 percent continues to grow with no signs of abating.

Gary Reber, founder and executive director of For Economic Justice, in a piece titled, “Economic Inequality: The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor,” argues that “the cause of the accelerated growth of economic inequality, is that the system, as presently structured, empowers a narrow group of Americans to concentrate ownership of wealth-creating, income-producing capital assets: the non-human factor of production (primarily productive structures, machines, tools, super-automation, robotics, digital computerized operations, etc.)”

“Those who address economic inequality and advocate for economic justice,” he continues, “should be sensitive to the systemic barriers in today’s tax laws, Federal Reserve policies and Wall Street financing practices that have enabled the 400 most wealthy Americans to have acquired more ownership of productive capital than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.”

Reber argues, though, that the old rules no longer apply, that the day of the management-labor construct has seen its day in that we’re no longer a goods-producing economy but rather a service one.  His ideas are intriguing.  More next week.

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