Recently I read an essay on the Huffington Post written by Baptist theologian and activist, Jeff Hood, about developments in Ferguson, Missouri. Hood took issue with clergy on the scene who asserted to African-American protesters, “If we remain peaceful then we will get what we want!” On the contrary, Hood argued, suppressing anger in the face of injustice was its own kind of violence. “If peaceful protest is about controlling people’s emotions, then I believe it to be violently taking away the agency of people who have every right to be angry and engaged in resistance,” he said.
As an African-American man I am well-familiar with the threat that underlings had best “keep their place” and remain calm if they know what is good for them. But as Hood said so powerfully, “I am not sure that these clergy in Ferguson would have let Jesus demonstrate in the temple. The false promise that ‘peace will get what you want’ is absurd.”
Now a black man knows better than to challenge authority openly, even if the challenge is non-violent and “reasonable.” I learned that lesson (though mercifully at a distance) from Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia police force in the 1970s. But Hood’s whole line of thought struck me as being applicable to the world of class, too, and to the world of labor law about which I write frequently. Readers of this blog do not need to be reminded of the frequency with which any discussion of public policy or criticism of government that is based on class is magically converted by the Right as indulgence in “class warfare.” If I want to point out just how much more the CEO of a corporation makes than a front line worker of the same corporation, I am engaging in “class warfare.”
Resort to the phrase “class warfare” signals that you must cease talking about class immediately if you wish to be taken seriously. All substantive discussion of what is really going on in the underlying issue is squelched. Simply put, you must remain within a zone of calmness and take on what those above you deem to be an air of civility if you wish to be permitted even a seat at the “social bargaining table.” Otherwise, you are simply encouraging class warfare or racial strife and will be shunned.
With respect to labor law, the most aggressively enforced rules in that legal regime are those forbidding various kinds of picketing, even when it is peaceful. The law clamps down forcefully whenever labor attempts to expand beyond the confines of a discrete dispute in a particular workplace. Try to enlist your brothers and sisters in your labor cause and labor law becomes an anti-solidarity regime (after all, they may agree with you!) clamping down routinely on even peaceful speech. But when suppressing peaceful “solidarity picketing” (with federal injunctions, no less), the law proceeds on the fiction that the activity might lead to “labor strife,” which I translate as code for class warfare. More silencing.
Labor Day strikes me as an exercise in sanitized labor history. I may celebrate “labor” in some general and vague way. But it would not be considered civil or polite to remind people that, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Labor patriots have spilled blood, not merely experienced discomfort, for every benefit now extolled as almost a natural right of living in modern society: limited working hours; workplace safety; days off—you have heard the list, and it is all true.
What one does not hear, however, is that none of this was achieved “peacefully,” though much of it was achieved non-violently (if we are speaking of the labor advocates). Like Hood, “I am for nonviolence. I believe it is by far the most effective and moral way to confront injustice.” But also like Hood, I would like to “nonviolently make life intolerable for those who want to keep perpetuating injustice.” This is my Labor Day creed. Happy Labor Day.