The Farmer-Labor Train
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
From the high Canadian Rockies to the land of Mexico, City and the country, wherever you may go, Through the wild and windy weather, the sun and sleet and rain, Comes a-whistlin' through the country this Farmer-Labor train.
Listen to the jingle and the rumble and the roar, She's rollin' through New England to the West Pacific shore. It's a long time we've been waitin', now she's been whistlin' 'round the bend, Roll on into Congress on that Farmer-Labor train.
There's lumberjacks and teamsters and sailors from the sea, There's farmin' boys from Texas and the hills of Tennessee, There's miners from Kentucky, there's fishermen from Maine; Every worker in the country rides that Farmer-Labor train.
There's warehouse boys and truckers and guys that skin the cats, Men that run the steel mills, the furnace and the blast, Through the smoky factory cities, o'er the hot and dusty plains, And the cushions they are crowded, on this Farmer-Labor train.
Listen to the jingle and the rumble and the roar, She's rollin' through New England to the West Pacific shore. It's a long time we've been waitin', now she's been whistlin' 'round the bend, Ride on on into Congress on that Farmer-Labor train.
There's folks of every color and they're ridin' side by side Through the swamps of Louisiana and across the Great Divide, From the wheat fields and the orchards and the lowing cattle range, And they're rolling onto victory on this Farmer-Labor train.
This train pulled into Washington a bright and happy day, When she steamed into the station you could hear the people say: "There's that Farmer-Labor Special, she's full of union men Headin' onto White House on the Farmer-Labor train."
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA
It’s disturbing to see the growing tendency of big business and well-off individuals to vilify unions. The rhetorical denigration of trade unions is accompanied by a concerted effort to prevent their inception and even to undermine and destroy
existing ones. Given the growing disparity between the rich and poor in North America and the political impetus on the part of the right wing to increase that gulf, the attempts to subvert collective bargaining rights are deeply worrying. There has been a deliberate and gradual movement away from societal support for organised labour; big business’s constant vilification and repeated empty accusations that union demands are responsible for the financial crisis have resulted in a Dickensian hostility to any attempts to protect the worker from exploitation.
The truth is that businesses have never been more profitable than they are now, never been subject to lower taxes, and their upper management has never been better compensated, with their incomes having increased at a pace ten times that of labour. Twenty years ago, an American corporate CEO took home forty times the salary of his average employee; today that same CEO takes home four hundred times the salary of the average worker in his company. Nevertheless, unreasonable union demands are frequently cited as the cause of the current economic situation. That current economic situation, despite unprecedented corporate profitability and billions of dollars in government subsidies to the most profitable corporations on the planet, is described as anti-business – with a straight face. Big oil companies, which are not just the most profitable corporations on earth, but are the most profitable corporations in human history, enjoy billions of dollars in grants and subsidies while their obscenely wealthy CEOs accuse their out of work customers as “takers” and “parasites” if they stoop to accepting emergency unemployment insurance.
Businesses are frantically trying to find ways of outsourcing jobs to avoid paying local workers on the one hand while referring to themselves as “the job creators” on the other hand. Anyone with even a smattering of understanding of economics or even a bit of common sense knows that the most powerful driver of any economy is a middle class with more money to spend; nevertheless the top 1% demand more and more concessions, for which the burden of payment must be borne by the middle class.
The wealthy rail against any suggestion that they pay any more in taxes, even rejecting the notion that they pay taxes at the
same rates that were in effect during the periods when their country was at its economic peak; meanwhile they demand cuts to the benefits that save the lives of poor and middle class citizens who pay higher marginal tax rates than they do. They demand more for themselves and they demand that the rest of us get less, and they refer to any attempts to redress this absurdity as “class warfare”. In that, for once they are right; this is a war of the rich against the poor – one that they are waging and have been winning.
While all this is going on, a growing number of business owners and CEOs have apparently decided that their authority over workers extends to controlling their vote. Plant workers and blue collar employees of several corporations across the US have given the media copies of memos they have received from their bosses telling them that it would be in their best interests to vote Republican; this is backed up by threats of layoffs or pay and benefit cuts if a Democrat is elected.
In the wake of the Obama re-election, Papa John’s Pizza and Denny’s Restaurants have publicly announced that they will be laying off employees and charging “an Obamacare surcharge” on their products and recommend that if their customers are not happy with the five percent increase in price, they ought to take it out of any gratuity they might have intended to give to the servers. Now that’s class warfare.
The six members of the Walton family, the inheritors of the WalMart stores, are collectively worth more than the bottom 30% of US families combined; they have a net worth greater than that of most countries on Earth.
Nevertheless, there isn’t a corporation that is more fervently anti-union anywhere, having shut down stores and bankrupted entire towns upon the rumour of a union being discussed during coffee breaks. A full time WalMart employee with five years seniority with a family to support can still be below the poverty line; but this is rare, because it is a WalMart policy only to hire part-time employees in order to avoid minimum wage regulations which in many jurisdictions only apply to full time employees. Hours are being cut, benefits are non-existent, and wages have actually gone down while employees are being asked to give up more and more in a call for austerity in tough times; meanwhile executive wages and bonuses increase every year.
People tend to forget that the annual vacations and weekends and eight hour workdays that everyone takes for granted wouldn’t exist as part of our labour landscape without unions. It was the right to bargain collectively that allowed those whose product for sale is their labour to charge a reasonable price. It was the exercise of that right that created the middle class; without the labour movement we would still have a society comprised of those who own the means of production and those who labour to maintain the ruling class’s wealth. And that is precisely why the right wing and big business and Republicans loath unions with such profound bitterness.
The anti-union activists in business and industry bemoan the existence of a middle class; the good old days they pine for are the days of pre-industrial Europe where there was the elite (as they see themselves) and the working class (that would be us). They claim to want to return to a mythical 1950’s Camelot, but their efforts are to restore a two class society not of the last century but of the 17 and 1800s that actually did exist. It was period of desperate poverty, ill health, and squalor; child labour and 14 hour workdays were the order of the day.
As WalMart employees strike this week, those of us who believe in a person’s right to stand with his coworkers and bargain for a fair price for the labour they sell will stand in solidarity with them. Some of us recognise that it was the emergence of a middle class that made western society the powerful proponent of human dignity and level playing field that it was and could be again. We recognise that the union busting that has been all too common in recent years is a tremendously retrogressive move and if supported, even tolerated, by society as a whole can undermine the very foundations of our economy.
It is time that we started to recognise that the rhetoric of the right in which people are divided into “makers” and “takers” has it backwards; the makers are those who actually do things; the takers are those who live in sybaritic luxury and milk those who actually labour until there is nothing left.