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May Day Marking Mayday for Anti-labor Conservatives

April 30, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

While most in the United States celebrate Labor Day in September, a good chunk of the industrialized world observes International Workers' Day tomorrow. 

This May Day, as it's also known, Minnesota workers have a lot to celebrate, especially a new $9.50 minimum wage law. The thanks is due to progressive legislative leadership, the state's strong organized labor movement, and allies in the faith and labor community. 

While these groups have always been leaders in advancing workers' rights and labor conditions, past efforts to raise the wage, establish better working hours, and create safer job sites have had bipartisan support. That's not the case in this political climate, at least not in the U.S.

Look at the national drive for a $10.10 federal minimum wage. It comes with strong conservative opposition despite our closest economic allies raising wages with cross partisan support. Conservative-led governments in Canada and the United Kingdom are going to $9.97 and $10.16 per hour respectively (in U.S. dollars).

Norm Gronwold, a Norcross farmer and unofficial scholar on farm, labor, social justice issues, says a good starting point for examining the history of bi-partisan labor support would be President Abraham Lincoln’s first annual message to Congress in December 1861, in which the first Republican president waxes on about the role and functions of labor and capital with issues of slavery hanging over the country.

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” Lincoln said. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

President Teddy Roosevelt referenced Lincoln’s speech at Osawatomie, Kan., in 1910 in what became known as Roosevelt’s “new nationalism” speech:

“We come here today to commemorate one of the epoch-making events of the long struggle for the rights of man – the long struggle for the uplift of humanity. Our country – this great republic – means nothing unless it means the triumph of real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.”

Such sentiments set the tone for progressive leaders to follow, especially Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, whose socio-economic accomplishments have been steadily eroding in recent decades.

Gronwold particularly likes these observations from FDR and Eisenhower that have direct relevance to today’s issues:

FDR -- “It is to the real advantage of every producer, every manufacturer and every merchant to cooperate in the improvement of working conditions, because the best customer of American industry is the well-paid worker.”

Eisenhower -- “Today, in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those – regardless of party – who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

Times change. Here and abroad. Party affiliations and socio-economic thought migrates among groups over time. New takes on class warfare surface whenever some groups see an advantage in holding people back, in tearing down social safety net public policies, and in opposing economic stimulus policies for the greater common good.

The industrialist Henry Ford doubled autoworkers’ pay, Gronwold reminds us, because he realized manufacturers needed laborers as customers and not just as tools of production. In the U.S. today, individual and household consumption account for 70 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At the same time, income inequality is becoming greater and a serious problem for the economy if not for a small class of wealthy.

Two of Great Britain’s more famous conservatives - Tory prime ministers - foresaw such problems and warned UK citizens about inequality.

Harold Macmillan advocated a minimum wage when a parliamentarian towards the end of the worldwide Great Depression. “It would be a measure of social justice … it would be a measure of economic wisdom.”

Further, the same article cited above reminds us, the great Winston Churchill held similar social and economic views: “…it is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions…”

In more contemporary language, David Skelton in The Guardian cited Churchill’s comment that low pay was a “condition of progressive degeneration.”

Snow gives way to rain. Fields are struggling to dry for another planting and growing season in western Minnesota. But the farmer Gronwold is hopeful this May Day. He looks to a new springtime ending, what he calls, “a long season of ‘progressive degeneration’.”

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