Hallelujah, We’re All Bums

by Jim Washburn

There’s a song, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” that dates to before our current troubles, back to 1908 or earlier, when unions were new and fighting for a voice at the table. And I do mean fighting. Google “free speech fights” sometime, and you’ll find that the newly-formed Industrial Workers of the World were often beset by armed goons—some in police uniform, some hired Pinkertons—who would beat, arrest, kidnap and torture fellow citizens who had the temerity to practice their free speech rights by proselytizing for the right of labor to organize.

This happened in a lot of cities—Spokane, San Diego, Missoula, Montana and elsewhere—where business owners would get the local governments to enact laws restricting public speech; the IWW “Wobblies” would put out a call for persons willing to be arrested; and in grand, pre-Gandhi acts of non-violent civil disobedience, they would defy the law and so clog the jails and courtrooms that the laws became expensive and embarrassing to enforce.

While the police arrested labor organizers, they did nothing to curtail vigilante squads that attacked them. In the 1912 San Diego standoff, goons kidnapped Emma Goldman’s lover, the “hobo doctor” Ben Reitman (who later spent six months in prison for advocating birth control), and tortured him. Reitman later recalled, “With a lighted cigar they burned the letters I.W.W. in my buttocks; then they poured a can of tar over my head and, in the absence of feathers, rubbed sage-brush on my body. One of them attempted to push a cane into my rectum. Another twisted my testicles. They forced me to kiss the flag and sing ‘The Star Spangled banner.’”

I expect that must have sounded a lot like the overwrought renditions you routinely hear at sporting events now.

In the poor neighborhoods where the IWW organized, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” became something of a new national anthem. It’s unsure who first penned the song, but he’d obviously been around. A sample line:

Oh, I like my boss, he’s a good friend of mine,
That’s why I’m starving out on the bread line,
Hallelujah, I’m a bum.

My favorite version is by the late U. Utah Phillips, the greatest folksinger and storyteller that people never heard of.

The Wobblies eventually prevailed over the laws. It helped that they had the public, the US Constitution and a good song on their side. In the decades ahead, the fight for labor rights turned increasingly violent, with plenty of blame for both sides, though the hirelings of the business owners were almost always the first and the worst when it came to brutality. Workers and organizers went through some awfully rough times, much like what workers are facing today in the Wal-Mart-supplying nations, and what we’ll again be facing here if the anti-labor forces in Congress get their way.

Whatever piece of the good life most of us had in the last century was due in large part to the fights workers waged, for fair pay, benefits, a five-day work week and so on. Whatever piece of the good life we’ve recently lost is in many ways due to businesses doing an end run around the rights and protections American workers fought for, finding labor pools in lands where workers have few or no rights.

It’s turned into a continual race to find the new bottom. I’ve talked with people who worked at guitar-making factories in Korea, who made instruments for many of the brands you know and love. I’ve had some fantastic Korean-made guitars, a testament to the skill and labor these workers put into their work. While it made their bosses rich, their lot didn’t improve, and they began to organize to make their case for a living wage and improved conditions, such as not having to crap in the open field next to a factory.

So the owners simply padlocked the factories and moved production to China, where workers aren’t yet so uppity. When the locals do become so, the factories will doubtless move to the next hungry, lawless, fucked-up nation down the chain, until American workers will be competing with cave people.

I’m not fond of jingoism, and if folks in other nations can make a better, cheaper widget than we can, there’s something in that to be celebrated. Better is good; cheaper is handy. That’s the bread and butter of competition, but when it’s merely coming down to a competition of who can best exploit their workers and resources, it’s time to change the game.

For our conservative friends in Congress, the answer is to further erode labor’s status in the US and to gut regulations on business, this despite the general avarice and disregard for the common good evinced by much of the business community. Our national surplus of mining disasters, oil disasters, financial disasters, gamed utilities and sundry would suggest regulation is a prudent thing, and something that levels the playing field between good businesses and corrupt ones.

So you’re competing with nations that resort to child labor, and slave labor when they can get away with it, where overcrowded people are willing to work 14-hour shifts in a dangerous and toxic workplace for the thinnest of subsistence wages and regular sniffs from the glue pot. How is your liberal arts degree going to stack up against a resume like that?

We’re all complicit, of course. Businesses wouldn’t have shifted all their production to China if we hadn’t been buying the shit. I went shopping for a padlock the other week. I know I’m never going to see another American-made TV, but I assumed that brutish metal products like padlocks and barbecues would be made domestically. Nope. The closest I could find is a padlock assembled in Mexico from US parts. Even my favorite make of toothpick, Stim-U-Dent, has had its production moved to China. The price sure hasn’t gone down, and the damn things have splinters now. If I had Andy Rooney’s energy, I’d go on about that for five minutes. Instead, let me note that I saw a junky, Chinese-made guitar recently. The brand on the headstock was “American Legacy.”

Because we have little manufacturing base anymore; because some vested interests in this country would be happy to erase the entire 20th Century’s human progress; because we are such sappy losers that we don’t know how to fight vested interests anymore, we are sinking under our own dead weight.

That’s evident in the poverty numbers released a few weeks ago, showing that not only are 46.2 million Americans living in poverty—15.1 percent of us—but that 6.7 percent of us are living in what’s called “deep poverty,” where they’re making less than half of the poverty line amount. That number includes one out of every ten American children.

Just this past week my only regular source of income announced cuts, which includes me making significantly less than I was. I have no complaints. From a business perspective it was the only thing for them to do. And maybe I’ll write more compassionately about the impoverished the closer I get to their ranks.

It will be interesting to see how and if our shared problems cause us to pull together as a people. I was just thinking of a cautionary Paul Schrader film from 1978, Blue Collar. Its protagonists are getting screwed over by the auto plant where they work. As the soundtrack’s title tune, sung by Captain Beefheart, puts it:

When I was a schoolboy, teacher said study as hard as you can,
It didn’t make no difference,
I’m just a hard-working, fucked-over man.

 Some of the workers decide to advance their own lot by robbing a safe, but by the end, the management has turned them against each other, playing on differences in race and other wedge factors to divide them. That may be the way we go as a nation.

On the other hand, maybe we will pull together. The words “President Elizabeth Warren” are sounding better to me every day. There’s videos of her just speaking her mind in someone’s living room, that have gone absolutely viral on YouTube. It’s good stuff, full of blunt realities, but also full of the notion that we might yet have a future.

Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


Jim. You covered the most important base, namely the painful rise and equally onerous decline of blue collar workers but did not mention “out sourcing” the scourge of whit collar workers and that proverbial elephant in the American living room, illegal immigrant workers.
Try as I may, as someone who jumped through all the hoops and then some to live and work here, I have neither empathy with nor compassion for the later. By taking jobs that the marginally employable here used to propel themselves forward, yes into union jobs too, and to learn the value of a work ethic (the kids who now, like it or not, get to spend their summers lounging wherever) and who thus grew and continue growing into leaders who don’t give a shit how anything is made and where it came from. Where to pin the blame? By now God only knows. We might start with now fat middle-aged yuppies unwilling to do their own shit work but, across all class lines, a culture with a continuously eroding work ethic will soon have no work. As for bums, the “teabags” in are about to vote them in.

2011-09-30 by Daniella Walsh

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