In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders, in spite of labor's own
lack of understanding of its needs, the cause of the worker continues
onward. Slowly their standard of living rises. Slowly the cause of their
children becomes the cause of all. Slowly those who create the wealth
of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor's strong,
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, 1923
When Mother Jones wrote this, she had scant reason to be optimistic about the
future of workers’ rights. What she did understand, however, was that workers’
rights are the nexus of human rights. Had she foreseen an “International Human
Rights Day,” she would have rightly expected it to be a contemplation of economic
She would have expected this because she had witnessed first-hand the
nuances of slavery and other cultural dynamics that thwart human compassion.
The daughter of working-poor Irish immigrants, Jones survived the Civil War and
the deaths of her four children and husband in a plague that was the by-product of
disease-ridden stockyards of slaves hurriedly crammed into boats before
abolitionism ended the lucrative trade. The slaves were not caged near their
merchants but near the neighborhoods of the working poor. Few of the rich died
in that great plague, but thousands of the poor perished.
The similarities between her family’s plight and that of her African neighbors were
clear to Jones following the war as well. As she began to heal from her loss, her
small dressmaker shop burned to the ground in the great Chicago fire. While she
slept in homeless camps along Lake Michigan with thousands of others--brown,
red, black and white--she saw a devastating connection. Human suffering existed
because prosperous people did not care.
Frederick Douglass saw the same thing in his speech on July 4, 1852, “Your
celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty an unholy license,” he said when
speaking for the millions who did not enjoy those rights. Martin Luther King, jr.
saw it in 1968 when he began to organize all poor people. It is speculated that
King’s murder was catalyzed more by support of the garbage workers strike than
his efforts for race equality. Gandhi saw it when he observed that those serious
about human suffering were content to live at the simplest standard of living until
all had food, health care, and shelter.
None of these champions of justice, however, could have anticipated the human
devastation wrought by the economic globalization that emerged in the late
twentieth century. Worse than lost, human rights were commoditized. No longer
a human struggle, human rights became marketing collateral for any product
imaginable: posters, plays, t-shirts, bumper-stickers, music, automobiles--even
credit card companies used human rights icons in advertising. Human rights
morphed into a career track for the elite who appropriated the plum positions in
academic institutions, labor organizations or other non-profits from those for
which they were created. Human rights became tony fund-raisers at which to be
seen or manipulative spin from political power jockeys.
Conversely, there came to be no genuine human suffering that could hold public
attention past a long weekend, and certainly nothing disturbing enough to keep
them from shopping. Manifest destiny had never been more manifest. Working
people were never more exploited and never more blamed for their suffering.
The recent failure of SEIU to organize professional and scientific staff at the
University of Iowa is a prime example. The attempt didn’t fail because of the self-
serving and/or mediocre efforts of both the union and university. The attempt
failed because of the snootiness of university staff. When asked, most said they
saw themselves, not as workers, but as professionals and felt demeaned by the
insinuated association with the working class.
Our addiction to status and consumption has us so punch-drunk; we will buy
anything no matter how it came to be available. I’d like to think that if we had to
buy that sweater directly from the Chinese teenager who was beaten after
fourteen hours to remain at her post, we could not. Or, if we met the American
mother, now living in her car, who used to make that sweater, we would decline.
Our historic pathology suggests we might not.
Status is not an indication of social well-being; it is a moral carcinogen. If we truly
understood what the admiration of wealth and status do to us, we would petition
for coverage in our health plans to have it excised. If we sobered up long enough
from our misguided delirium and saw the consequences of greed on human
rights, we’d wear the same union-made sweatshirt everyday until all workers
were paid a living wage. We would demand that our elected officials and public
institutions only make public purchases from companies that pay a living wage.
There would be nothing we need at Wal-Mart (the 21st-century incarnation of the
company store) as much as we need to see Wal-Mart workers receiving health
care and reasonable wages. (If you still don’t understand singling out Wal-Mart,
see “Wal-Mart, the high cost of low prices.”)
The good news is this. The future really is in the hands of workers and those who
know this. Our discontent with the human condition has reached critical mass. In
throngs, people are leaving partisan politics and abandoning wealth for purpose.
Leaders who care about people more than position or profit are taking their
place. Human rights are again becoming a people’s movement. You are invited