Larry Bensky Original

Plague Journal #25: Laboring for Some Hope

Unemployment is down but still high, the virus is still here but nobody seems to care and the value of unions seems lost. Time to sing!
Multiple boats sank during a Trump “boat parade” in Lake Travis, TX, on Saturday, Sept. 5, due to wakes, and many participants had to be rescued. [Reuters photo]

 By Larry Bensky / Berkeley, CA September 7, 2020

Labor Day! Tens of thousands of people, tired and stressed by pandemic protocols, are now doing minimally and maximally dangerous things. Some do them deliberately, and then feel badly afterward. Some feel worse than badly, they feel sick. Like N.Y. Times Ur-liberal and COVID-19 positive Roger Cohen, who squeezes out an op-ed column (9/5/2020 “ Fighting the Virus in Trump’s Plague”) in which he confesses, “My daughter and her husband, both doctors, say I have a moderate case. I think I picked it up in a crowded Paris bar watching a soccer match. Whether soccer or life is more important is an open question to me.”

Yes, he really wrote that.

If it’s an “open question” for you, whether to be silly and stupid like Roger Cohen, well, you have lots of company. And lots of potential excuses:

  • “I’m confused by all the contradictory data, advice and attitudes out there.”
  • “I have a friend who just went to a crowded beach/party/church service and is OK.”
  • “Masks are ugly.”
  • “I try to not get pushed around by politicians.”
  • “If COVID-19 goes away there’s always going to be another something like it.”
  • “I prayed and talked to God.”

You can also be lulled into semi-oblivion about important matters like work, unions, and economic survival by noticing that on Labor Day weekend 2020 the S.F. Chronicle’s list of “things to do” includes not a single labor or union activity. The East Bay Times tells us about a dozen places where you can get takeout barbecue for your Labor Day picnic. (Barbecue? Filthy smoke adding to our unbreathable air? Highly endangered slaughterhouse workers in virus-prone environments? Pigs, naturally smart and gentle animals, cultivated in horribly cruel captivity so that humans can eat the worst imaginable meat, filled with fat and chemicals? Who cares? Let’s Party! Like Free People!)

Maybe some peoples’ attention may be gotten as some very scattered enforcement measures are being implemented for public health. It can now cost you a $250 fine in the city of Alameda if police see you on the street, any street, without a mask. Not in San Francisco, or Oakland, or just about anyplace else. Including dear “liberal” Berkeley, where elected officials stumble over each other to assure us they’re making statements, forming special committees, issuing proclamations about how Black Lives Matter. While “listening” to the business community about opening outdoor dining, and “listening” to landlords advocating suppression of code requirements thereby enabling the march of more and more ugly, space-grabbing residential structures, outward and upward in this now much less livable city

Labor Day. The Trump Administration’s Labor Department secretary, bearing the family name, Scalia, of his late father, the infamously conservative Supreme Court justice is, not surprisingly, another nepotistic swamp dweller thriving under a president who vowed to “drain the swamp.” He has this to say: “Today’s jobs report is encouraging news for American workers heading into Labor Day. The report significantly beat expectations, with the unemployment rate dropping to 8.4 percent even as more Americans entered the labor force. Unemployment fell across all demographics, and the 1.4 million jobs added showed increases across most industry sectors.”

As with so many other statements about important matters in the Trump era, this optimism is misleading. For one thing, people are still trying to catch up from the devastating economic effect of all levels of government allowing the virus to spread for months unimpeded after it exploded in China and then Europe, as if it would not migrate here with the thousands of travelers coming from those regions. The worst unemployment rate of the Great Recession was 17.2%, in December 2009, according to Forbes, while it hit a staggering 27.6% under Trump. Savings have been burned, credit cards maxed out, small businesses shuttered permanently.

Moreover, one in three people whose jobs went away but have managed to find other work are earning less than they did before. And, as always, nonwhite, nonmale workers are especially disadvantaged; “wage theft” is pandemic, as the Labor Department fails to enforce laws protecting worker rights. (“Stiffing Employees on Compensation Worsens in Recession” N.Y. Times 9/4/2020).

Instead of trying to do anything real to help the tens of millions of people in economic distress, Trump and his handpicked rightwing ideologues at Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are waging as wide and as loud an effort as they can to change the subject to the occasional, relatively minor violence that has occurred as Black Lives Matter and various other antiracist, anti-Trump organizations have taken to the streets.

Trump has tried to raise the temperature further, by climbing onto the latest version of the “Black Helicopter” hoax sightings of the 1970s. On Fox News and its web echo chambers, Trumpkins allege that masses of armed “socialist” people tried to descend on Washington during the August Republican Convention . There is no evidence to back this up. New Hampshire police and elected officials are alternatively amused, angered, and horrified that such actions could have been taken in their state without them knowing about it. (New Hampshire is where the paranoiacs say planeloads of people boarded for D.C.)

Of course, what is real and provable is that when a state government, like New York, wants to wash its hands of responsibility for yet another atrocity, it can count on elected officials to help them. And then finger-point and contradict each other as the story sometimes, backed by witnesses and video, begins to unfold. This week we learned more about Rochester, N.Y., and the sad saga of Daniel Prude, who died in March – handcuffed, naked, raving, unarmed and not resisting police who held him down. He was put in a “spit hood,” by eight police officers. Relatives and neighbors weren’t allowed to help or comfort him as he died of asphyxiation.

Rochester’s (Black) police chief and its (Black) mayor and the (Black) New York State Attorney General have been busily saying someone did or didn’t do what they say they did or didn’t do. The dance of avoidance continued until a video of the incident surfaced, thanks largely to the persistence of the N.Y. Times. Now the mayor apologizes. Not for the incident but for her reaction to it, where she says she had “the mindset of an attorney, and not necessarily in the mindset of a human being. What I saw in that video was a man who needed compassion, a man who needed humanity, a man who we should have respected, a man who was in crisis. Our response was wrong.”

Ah, well. Let’s Sing!

The Last American Worker” / ©2011 Rod MacDonald Blue Flute Music/ASCAP

He was born in a land of plenty, served his country overseas
Worked hard to raise his family and have some security
He was looking forward to retirement, a little condo somewhere in the sun
Now they say we just can’t afford him ‘cause all of the money is gone


He’s the last American worker
And they’ve got him dead in their sights
They’re taking away everything that he worked for

Somebody turn out the lights

He invested his savings on Wall Street, now they’re worth 2 cents on the dime

The boys who lost all his money got a bonus and a bailout at the same time
His house is worth less than his mortgage, and he can’t make the payments anymore

And the bank is talking foreclosure since they shipped his job off to Bangalore.


He used to go and see a doctor before his waistline got thick
Now his insurance costs half his income, still won’t cover him when he gets sick

They passed a national health program for all of the people to share
Now they say we just can’t afford it and gave a tax cut to all the millionaires


Now the Governor had a vision of the future: all the children in public schools.
Staring at the same onscreen teacher broadcasting from Bombay or Fanjul

They all memorize the same test answers, they grow up a nation of fools
And re-elect the same politicians who send their own kids off to private schools


He still votes in every election for God-fearing candidates each and every one

They tell him they’re gonna end abortion and they’re never gonna take away his gun

Then they go off to Washington or Tallahassee, play the corporate ‘n millionaires game
They send his kids off to war ‘til there’s no money anymore
Then they tell him he’s the one to blame


“I’m a Union Card” / Sung by Kenny Winfree

Well, I was thumbing through my wallet just the other day
Well, I came to a certain spot, and I coulda swore I heard someone say
“Hey, I’m your union card; now don’t you forget about me”
Now listen to this story and just see if you don’t agree.

You may not know it but I do a lot for you
I protect your benefits and all your wages too
I might even keep you from getting fired
Praise the Lord that I’m a union card

Praise the Lord that I’m a union card
Could have been a Visa, could have been a Master Charge
Don’t worry about your money long as I’m on guard
Just praise the Lord that I’m a union card

Could have been the joker, could have been the old maid
Could have been the rooker, could have been the ace of spades
Living in your wallet here, it sure is hard
But praise the Lord that I’m a union card

Praise the Lord that I’m a union card
Could have been a Visa, could have been a Master Charge
Don’t worry about your money long as I’m on guard
Just praise the Lord that I’m a union card

I’m a postal worker who delivers mail to you
I’m a textile worker and I work on airplanes too
I’m carried by millions over near and far
Just praise the Lord that I’m a union card

Praise the Lord that I’m a union card
Could have been a Visa, could have been a Master Charge
Don’t worry about your money long as I’m on guard
Just praise the Lord that I’m a union card
Just praise the Lord that I’m a union card

Memories on Labor Day. A long time ago – 1979 – I spent over a month in Nicaragua as producer/co-director of a documentary shown on PBS the following year. (“Nicaragua: These Same Hands.”) This was before the era of high-quality video recording. Everything had to be shot with large, heavy cameras and the film later developed and then edited and spliced by hand. A complicated and very expensive process.

On a ruined street in central Managua, damaged in the 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt – international funding to do so had been stolen by the U.S. sponsored dictatorship – was a shabby building with a small sign, “Labor Tribunal.” Outside, a few men lingered on benches with awnings that provided some shelter from the overwhelming heat. Only one man was inside, a polite elderly official who told us he’d been there thirty years, wanted to retire, but as he was the only one able to navigate the thousands of case files stuffed into every room, he felt obligated to stay on.

We asked him to walk us through a file. I’ve lost the details and the notes that I must have taken. But I do remember seeing page after page of typescripts, each with an official stamp. And initialed – often with just an “X.” “Most people who come here can’t read or write,” the nice man told us. To provide the typed evidence, they had to find a “public scribe.” You saw many of them taking dictation in the poorest neighborhoods, rickety typewriters poised on rickety tables. But only a few petitioners could afford the (very small) scribe’s fee, as the average income at the time was $1 day.

The Labor Tribunal had existed since the 1930s, we were told, and had received economic assistance from unions abroad, as the Somoza family dictatorship wouldn’t support it. It’s worth remembering this Labor Day because the six principles it was tasked with enforcing still need enforcing, from China to Russia to Brazil to India and, of course, right here at home.

  1. Decent Working Conditions
  2. Freedom of Association
  3. Collective Bargaining
  4. Elimination of Forced Labor and Compulsory Overtime
  5. Elimination of Discrimination
  6. Elimination of Child Labor

[from “An Examination of Six Basic Labor Rights in Nicaragua,” Cornell University]

One can easily guess at the fate of those thousands of files and the people represented in them. After the 1990 Nicaraguan elections when the once-revolutionary government was replaced by another U.S.-sponsored politician, unions declined from approximately 600 to 150. Membership went down to 17% of its previous total. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost as U.S. agribusiness tightened its exploitation.

Can’t happen here? Take another look at our artificially bloated economy. Take another look at what the Labor Department does or, more commonly, doesn’t do these days. Take another look at the vastly outspent efforts to get Uber and Lyft drivers protection under the six basic labor rights in that decades-old Nicaraguan document.

Take another look.

Larry Bensky has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year” since mid-March for the Anderson Valley Advertiser and Scheerpost. He welcomes your comments and suggestions:

To read previous entries of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here.

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network.   He teaches Political Science at California State University, East Bay.

Copyright 2020 Larry Bensky

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