“LABOR IS PRIOR TO CAPITAL” Abraham Lincoln at the Wisconsin
State Fair - 1859
Several of us from the Immigrant Workers’ Center – Voces de la Frontera - attended the Monday, December 16th hearing of the County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee on a ‘living wage’ ordinance. I was very disappointed. At least two of the Supervisors and a representative of the County Executive attempted to block the legislation. Final vote of the committee was delayed frustrating over 100 living wage advocates who were in attendance. A wage of 10% over the poverty level is being asked for which is not really a living wage but perhaps a beginning towards a living wage.
Several advocates mentioned Catholic Social Teaching which has supported a ‘living’ wage since Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Despite impassioned pleas from workers, testimony from a professor of economics and a prominent faith leader, Supervisors who opposed the legislation didn’t listen, and spoke without compassion or principle. They could only speculate a future of doom and gloom if the legislation were passed.
But this is not the time for personal or partisan politics; the situation is serious. Former chief economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz says the income gap threatens democracy. (Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 2012, p. xii)
PRINCIPLE AND COMPASSION IN U.S. HISTORY
For guidance let us consider the words of Abraham Lincoln in his speech at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1859. The nation was struggling with the issue of slavery. Lincoln advocated free labor. He said, “Labor is prior to Capital.” Just wages should determine political and economic structures.
Do we need to go back to Lincoln to find compassion and principle in U.S. economic thought? Economist Robert Reich notes that the 1929 income gap that preceded the Great Depression was similar to the present gap. The response was F.D.R.’s New Deal. Social justice legislation in the 30’s would be an example of legislation based on compassion and principle, but let us go back to the beginning of government legislating against free market capitalism and the criminal greed that disrupts the common good. Doris Kerns Goodwin in her book, Bully Pulpit, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013 ) provides a guide to the progressive era, the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Both were Republicans, but were separated by personality and political thought. The problems of the ‘gilded age’ were similar to the present. It was the epoch of the ‘Robber Barons’ and the income gap threatened to be a chronic disease of the economic system.
Theodore Roosevelt’s eyes were opened to the poverty in New York City by an investigative journalist, Jacob Riis. While T. Roosevelt was Police Commissioner and New York State Assemblyman, “Jacob Riis had introduced him [Roosevelt] to the realities of immigrant life in the slums, though Roosevelt found it hard to relinquish his conception of the poor as people who had ‘failed’ in life.” (Bully Pulpit, p. 213) Riis’ famous book, How the Other Half Lives stuck with Roosevelt. Doris Kerns Goodwin described T. Roosevelt’s final campaign speech at Madison Square Garden in his 1912 presidential campaign.
If the problems created by the industrial age were left unattended, Roosevelt cautioned, America would eventually be 'sundered by those dreadful lines of division’ that set the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s’ against one another. (Bully Pulpit, p. 735)
Abraham Lincoln was T. Roosevelt’s role model. (Bully Pulpit, pp. 79, 83, 566, & more) Lincoln at Gettysburg emphasized inalienable rights; Roosevelt did the same in a 1912 campaign speech at Columbus, Ohio.
We progressives believe that human rights are supreme over all other rights; that wealth should be the servant, not the master of the people. (Bully Pulpit, p. 678)
A GILDED BUT TARNISHED LEGACY – EXTREME NATIONALISM
W.H. Taft, T. Roosevelt’s successor, and more so T. Roosevelt himself are considered progressives in the ‘gilded age.’ They challenged liberalism (laissez fair capitalism) with neo-liberal legislation and judicial decisions. Kerns Goodwin listed the accomplishments:
A series of anti-trust suits had been won and legislation passed to regulate railroads, strengthen labor rights, curb political corruption, end corporate campaign contributions, impose limits on the working day, protect consumers from unsafe food and drugs, and conserve vast swaths of natural resources for the American people. (Bully Pulpit, p.xi)
But T. Roosevelt promoted the Spanish American War. His reaction to the 1886 Haymarket riot was couched in language distinguishing ‘Americans’ as law abiding as opposed to the immigrant German workers demonstrating against police brutality. Kerns Goodwin quotes Roosevelt from his western ranch in Medora,
Men here are hard working laboring men for no greater wages than many of the strikers; but they are Americans through and through, I believe nothing would give them greater pleasure than a chance with their rifles at one of the mobs. (Bully Pulpit, p.159)
Kerns Goodwin fails to note that the 1886 demonstrations in Chicago were part of the Knights of Labor national campaign for the eight-hour day, and that parades around the world on May 1st remember the Haymarket Martyrs.
The next posting, Part II of COMPASSION AND PRINCIPLE, will continue with the guide of Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book Bully Pulpit, but will focus on the role of McClure’s magazine as an agent for T. Roosevelt’s – ‘Bully Pulpit.’ How did Taft and Roosevelt differ? We will also consider Eugene Debs criticism of T. Roosevelt’s labor policy.
“LABOR IS PRIOR TO CAPITAL” Pope John Paul II (not Pope Francis) Laborem Exercens, 1982
The sketch of President Theodore Roosevelt is by Liam Gima Lange. Liam is a student at Aptos Middle School, San Francisco, CA
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