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Diana Shaw: Walker should learn from Big Labor’s history

Democratic Voices

Posted: March 8, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 8, 2011 1:55 a.m.

My sympathies to Wisconsin’s taxpayers, marching in the snow to stop Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican legislature from terminating their collective bargaining rights.

Confused by my opening words? Maybe you’ve bought into the carefully framed anti-labor spin that hard-working taxpayers and greedy unions are irreconcilable polarities. But union workers are indeed taxpayers, and they are making their voices heard across the land.

If we refuse to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Denying workers a say in their own destinies has had unfortunate consequences in the past. People have died for the right to bargain.

With multinational corporate power tugging at our seams, we cannot succumb to thinly veiled power grabs and greed if we are to prosper.

Notwithstanding what you’ve heard, events in Wisconsin are not about a budget. If they were, Walker would agree to the financial concessions offered by the unions.

No, Walker knows that unions support his Democratic opponents. Like any politician, he wants to get rid of his opponents. That is what this fight is about.

Hammering out compromises at the collective bargaining table is a civilized way to let off the steam that naturally grows out of the opposing interests of labor and management.

If you don’t understand what I mean by “steam,” the largest labor battle in U.S. history, the Battle of Blair Mountain, is instructive.

In the late 1800s, coal companies created company towns, paying private detectives to intimidate, evict and even murder challengers.

Yet by 1920, most of America’s coal miners had organized unions to present and work out their grievances, resulting in improved wages and working conditions. Among the last anti-union holdouts were the companies in southern West Virginia.

In Matewan, every single miner joined the union — and every single miner was fired. On May 19, 1921, 12 company detectives marched into town to evict these miners and their families, starting with a woman and her children, forced into the rain at gunpoint.

The town’s 27-year-old sheriff, Sid Hatfield, and a group of deputized miners confronted the thugs. In the end, 10 men, including the town’s pro-union mayor and some detectives, lay dead.

The Matewan Massacre, as it came to be known, made a hero out of young Hatfield, and energized the state’s miners, who vowed to unionize the rest of West Virginia.

That summer, as the unarmed Hatfield and his deputy climbed the stairs of the county courthouse with their wives, they were ambushed and gunned down by company detectives.

The young hero’s death enraged miners, who gathered by the thousands to march across the mountains and valleys of West Virginia into nonunion Logan County. They were met by Sheriff Chafin, itching for a fight.

On the company dole, with an arsenal of World War I-era planes and bombs, Chafin’s smaller forces were spread across the ridge of Blair Mountain, their guns aimed down at the hapless miners.

The intimidated miners turned around, but upon hearing that Chafin’s men were shooting union sympathizers, they decided to fight. To identify each other, they wore red bandanas around their necks. (A possible origin of the term “rednecks.”)

In the end, 100 miners and 30 company men died, many were injured, and almost 1,000 miners were imprisoned, some for years.

Union membership plummeted in West Virginia and across the country, but the companies’ victory was pyrrhic. Union leadership took a page from Sheriff Chafin’s book.

Realizing Chafin’s political power was financed by the companies, they too entered the political arena. With labor support, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. By 1935, all of West Virginia’s coal mines were unionized.

This is the history that Walker, financed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is so cavalierly trying to nullify.

Given the blood and sacrifice played out at Blair Mountain, it is unlikely organized labor is going to give up this fight. That’s why it’s marching in the freezing cold.

Labor didn’t start this recession. Yet, teachers, nurses, librarians, cops, firefighters and janitors are being asked to pay for Wall Street’s shenanigans.

Our prosperity depends upon the wages they’re paid circulating into our economy, paying for cars, furniture, houses, clothes, and yes, taxes to pave our streets and build our infrastructure. They are the middle class, the backbone of this nation, and they set this country apart from others.

I oppose the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. I’m glad an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that 62 percent of America agrees with me.

Diana Shaw is a Santa Clarita Valley resident and an entertainment attorney. She represents the 38th Assembly District on the L.A. County Democratic Central Committee and the State Democratic Central Committee. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Democratic Voices” is written by local Democrats and runs Tuesdays in The Signal.


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