“And The Beat Goes On…” –Sonny Bono

“The weakness of labor is everyone’s problem — and its revival everyone’s opportunity.”-Eric Liu

HAPPY LABOR DAY!  I remember before I even began teaching, the importance of unions and the blood that was shed to form unions. Woody Guthrie really risked his life traveling around and helping to unionize migrant workers and other workers and sang about their plight. Once, in North Carolina, when the tobacco workers were on strike, Woody went there to support them, but there was also segregation going on and Woody did not want to sing if the audience was segregated. He ended up singing for the Black workers only. “In December 1947 he was paid a hundred dollars to sing for striking tobacco workers in Winston-Salem. He quickly ran into trouble, though, when he wrote a picket line song that included the verse:

     All colors of hands gonna work together

    All colors of eyes gonna laugh and shine

    All colors of feet gonna dance together

    When I bring my CIO to Caroline, Caroline

“The problem was, of course, that the [Food, Tobacco, and Allied Workers] union was segregated. The organizers insisted he cut the verse. ‘I [said] that if the line got the blue pencil, me and my guitar hit the road for home,’ he reported in the Daily Worker. But the union held firm, and the white workers boycotted the meeting… ‘It cut me to my bones to have to play and sing for those Negroes with no other colors mixing in.’ ” Joe Klein, “Woody Guthrie: A Life, 1980

Woody also wrote one of my favorite songs, “Deportees,” which has been covered by other folksingers as well. He wrote it after the 1948 plane crash carrying Mexican immigrants from California back to Mexico. Phil Ochs also wrote a song about this time, “Bracero,” where our government and the government of Mexico implemented the “Bracero” program. “The Mexican migrant worker has been the foundation for the development of the rich American agricultural industry, and the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border region has played a key role in this historic movement. One of the most significant contributions to the growth of the agricultural economy was the creation of the Bracero Program in which more than 4 million Mexican farm laborers came to work the fields of this nation. The braceros converted the agricultural fields of America into the most productive in the planet. Mexican peasants were hard-working, highly skilled agricultural laborers. Yet, despite the fact that two million peasants lost their lives in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the government failed to provide them the resources needed to improve their lives. By the late thirties, when the crop fields began yielding insufficient harvest and employment became scarce, the peasant was forced to look for other means of survival. The occurrence of this grave situation coincided with the emergence of a demand in manual labor in the U.S. brought about by World War II. On August 4, 1942, the U.S. and the Mexican government instituted the Bracero program. Thousands of impoverished Mexicans abandoned their rural communities and headed north to work as braceros. The bracero contracts were controlled by independent farmers associations and the “Farm Bureau.” The contracts were in English and the braceros would sign them without understanding their full rights and the conditions of employment. When the contracts expired, the braceros were required to turn in their permits and return to México. The braceros could return to their native lands in case of an emergency, only with written permission from their boss. The braceros labored tirelessly thinning sugar beets, picking cucumbers and tomatoes, and weeding and picking cotton. The braceros, a very experienced farm labor, became the foundation for the development of North American agriculture. Despite their enormous contribution to the American economy, the braceros suffered harassment and oppression from extremist groups and racist authorities.   By the 60’s, an excess of “illegal” agricultural workers along with the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester, destroyed the practicality and attractiveness of the bracero program. The program under which more than three million Mexicans entered the U.S. to labor in the agricultural fields ended in 1964. The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, had described it as a system of “legalized slavery.”farmworkers.org

Unions have been under attack for quite a while now. Union membership is declining and has been for many years. “Based on studies conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership is at an all-time low in the United States. Approximately 11.3 percent of all public and private workers belong to a union. Only 6.6 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. The rate is significantly higher in the public sector where 35.9 percent of workers are union members. Union membership has consistently declined in the United States since the 1950s when at one time nearly 35 percent of all private and public sector workers were union members.”Gregory Fisher















4 thoughts on ““And The Beat Goes On…” –Sonny Bono

  1. Love Paul Robeson’s ‘Joe Hill’ a lot – thanks for a fine post. Solidarity forever and ever, world without end, amen!

    “If we won’t fight for the working poor, we’ll slave for the idle rich. – Unknown

    This world is such a strange and a funny place to be,
    Where the gambling man is rich, while the working man is poor … – Woody Guthrie

    United we bargain – divided we beg! – Unknown

    Poor folks ain’t got a chance, unless they organize. – Florence Reece

    (And I can’t resist adding this personal favorite, from a Wisconsin protest sign in 2011

    A Woman’s Place Is in Her Union!)

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