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Pastures of Plenty

I didn’t do much laboring on Labor Day. In fact, as I write this it’s 10:42 in the morning and I’ve had my shoes on for about half an hour.

I think that’s perfectly reasonable. It is a holiday, although Labor Day is another one of those holidays when we manage to take a day off and completely miss the purpose.

Seriously – Christmas is not supposed to be about presents, Thanksgiving is not supposed to be about eating ourselves into a coma while watching football on TV, and the of Fourth of July is NOT about a BBQ and fireworks.

I hope I didn’t shock anyone.

Anyway, Labor Day, believe it or not, honors the American worker in general and the labor union movement in particular.

I’ve never belonged to a union. I haven’t really had a boss since 1975 and for the past decade or so, my labor hasn’t been much more strenuous then getting a cramp on my typing hand. And, let’s face it – no one in their right mind would consider me oppressed.

But something I find interesting is that less than 10% of American workers belong to a union, and concerns about growing inequality are the worst they’ve been in 100 years. The highest level of union membership was in 1954, which, oddly enough, was the time with the least inequality among wage earners. In the last 40 years, pay for the average worker has gone up 12%, while CEO’s have, on average, had their compensation increase by 940%. That’ll make you cranky.

An odd confluence of coincidences triggered this column. First, a song that I hadn’t heard in years played on my pickup radio. I bought a newer pickup a few months ago and one of the features is that it talks to my phone. My phone talks to my computer, and together they decide which songs to put on my playlist.

At least, I think that’s what happens. It’s kind of a mystery.

Anyway, the song that came up was “Pastures of Plenty,” by Woody Guthrie.

If you don’t know this song, you should probably stop reading here and listen to it. There are a bunch of versions out there – I like Tom Paxton’s version best.

The story behind the song is that in the Forties, before Woody Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine and ended up ferrying troops and equipment to Normandy on D-Day, he spent some time in the Pacific Northwest. There, he was smitten by the workers, the migrants tending the fields and the construction workers building the dams on the Columbia River.

Woody wasn’t much of a worker, but he admired those who were. The song talks about what a hard life the workers lead, but it ends with this line: “This land I’ll defend with my life if need be, because these pastures of plenty must always be free.” Seems odd, folks who’d been handed the short end of the stick still willing to risk everything to honor a one-sided contract.

The other coincidence that influenced this column was that General James Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense, just released a book. In case you don’t follow the news - and I really don’t blame you - General Mattis resigned as Secretary of Defense a few months ago, because he had some serious disagreements with President Trump. He hasn’t said much more since then and made it clear that he won’t discuss anything while President Trump is in office. He uses a phrase that means “the duty of silence.”

That shows admirable loyalty, if not to a president, to an institution. Here’s the thing, though. For loyalty to work, it needs to go in both directions.

Both directions. Up and down, forward and back. If people are sacrificing for the team, those in charge need to respect that. Patience isn’t limitless. Stepping on the heads of those underneath eventually has consequences. Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” and ended up losing her head. The Russian czars built palaces out of gold and amber while millions suffered, ending up wiped from the earth. King George III overtaxed some peasants and lost America.

I think you get my drift. I’ve often said that the United States is like a pendulum, always swinging from one extreme to another. Right now, the swing is pretty far towards the rich, greedy, mean and powerful. Sooner or later, it’s going to swing back the other way, toward the workers who make everything possible.

Sooner or later.

Copyright Brent Olson 2019

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