Apple employees in Maryland have successfully unionized.
“Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth,” famous labor organizer Eugene Debs once told a judge about to sentence him to prison. “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Fighting for workers rights on the frontlines of brutal union busting in its heyday, Debs had, inadvertently but perhaps unavoidably, run afoul of U.S. authorities.
Eugene Debs is one of the most famous and radical figures in the early labor rights movement of 19th century America. But he wasn’t always that way.
On the contrary, once upon a happier time he was a man who prided himself on one organization he worked for- the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen- having never authorized a single strike from its founding in 1873 to 1887 when Debs left the organization.
His belief that, “labor and capital should be friends,” seems to have endured right up until the infamous Burlington Railroad Strike of 1888.
If that hadn’t done it, the Pullman Strike of 1894 certainly would have.
Understandably upset by a 29% cut in wages, Pullman Palace Car Company employees staged a strike. Though Debs advised against the strike, he was eventually convinced to take part. The strike grew to 80,000 workers who boycotted Pullman cars, refusing to transport them.
Unfortunately for the strikers, and for Debs, some of those cars contained U.S. mail. President Grover Cleveland used that mail as a pretext to call in the U.S. Army to force the striking workers to pull the cars.
In the end, 30 striking workers were killed, thousands were blacklisted from future employment, and $80 million in property damages were recorded. Eugene Debs and other labor organizers were thrown in jail for mail obstruction.
Branded, “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race,” by the New York Times, betrayed by President Cleveland, whom Debs had supported through three presidential campaigns, it was Debs’ time in prison which truly changed him.
There is an old joke that goes like this: “A liberal is a conservative who has been jailed; a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.”
There might be some truth to that: Crime does tend to make voters more conservative. The opposite certainly proved true with Debs.
Before jail, Eugene Debs was a mild-mannered, moderate, and thoughtful capitalist with gentle proletariat leanings. From jail, Debs emerged a full-blown socialist convinced capitalism had fallen sway to the worst exploitative impulses of humanity and was thereby irredeemable.
It wasn’t Debs’ last brush with the law, either; he was later tried for sedition and called a, “traitor to his country,” by another U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, for opposing the draft and encouraging others to do the same.
For his troubles, Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10-years in prison and was effectively marginalized for life.
Though yet a third U.S. President- Warren G. Harding- commuted Debs’ sentence to time-served after three years, he was never pardoned, though he was received by the White House upon his release and later nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The story of Eugene Debs should be a story which does not resonate with American workers today. That it does explains a great deal, including why two major companies- both owned by interests presumed to be progressive- recently had their employees unionize in U.S. firsts.
Yesterday, Apple employees in Maryland successfully formed the first Apple workers union of its kind in the U.S., following their fellows at Amazon, who did the same only two months ago.
The new Apple Coalition of Organized Retail Employees will be part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“The outcome is a blow to Apple’s campaign to blunt union drives by arguing that it pays more than many retailers and provides an array of benefits, including health care and stock grants,” reported the New York Times. “Last month, it increased starting wages for retail employees to $22 an hour, from $20, and released a video of Deirdre O’Brien, who leads Apple retail, cautioning employees that joining a union could hurt the company’s business.”
“Apple declined to comment,” deadpanned the New York Times.
Why are Amazon workers and Apple workers in the U.S. suddenly unionizing? The labor union movement has been dying out for decades; a victim, more than anything, of its own successes.
These days, most workers have so many rights, protections, dedicated government advocate agencies, and safety precautions, they hardly need unions anymore.
It isn’t 1900. In the U.S., in 2022, workers have rights. Unions are one of the reasons why workers have so many rights today. We have unions, and labor laws, for the same reason we have child labor laws; because we needed them.
U.S. factory workers were once locked inside unsafe buildings which burned down with them. In 1916, female workers in a watch-making factory were exposed daily to radiation on the job. They suffered horrific facial injuries and some died from radiation poisoning.
The “Radium Girls,” as they later became known, were required to actually lick the ends of the paintbrushes they were using to get a fine point before applying phosphorescent radium to the tiny hands of wristwatches.
This wasn’t ancient antiquity. It was practically yesterday; but it was yesterday.
Not long ago, mine, factory and forestry workers were shipped to remote sites where “The Company,” by necessity, provided housing and a general store for foodstuffs and household necessities. Some unscrupulous companies would then proceed to jack up prices in their tyrannical monopoly until workers, “owed their souls to the company store,” as the old song goes.
Essentially, workers would become indentured servants who would always- somehow- end up owing more than their wages would cover.
Occasionally, striking workers objecting to this and other indignities drew the following response: Armed Pinkerton detectives breaking the strike and the people striking.
“Get back to work or we kill you,” was a powerful corporate mission statement. Unions were the result.
Apple and Amazon employees may not be faced with unsafe working conditions and unscrupulous robber barons like the unionizing workers of eras past, but they obviously don’t feel they are getting a fair shake from these companies, hence the union.
Unionization isn’t a new movement; its an old one. That it is coming back in vogue now, as employees have do doubt watched the 10 wealthiest people on earth double their wealth during COVID19, says perhaps more about the wealth gap than it does about working conditions and benefits.
Sure, Apple and Amazon pay pretty well: Judging by their profits, some employees obviously think they could be paying better.
What would Eugene Debs make of this modern resurgence of labor unions in the U.S.?
Probably the exact same thing as another famous agitators for worker’s rights, British Prime Minister William Gladstone: “All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes.”
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)