01 May 2017

Cat's Cradle On May Day

Today is May Day.

In much of the world, this day commemorates labor movements.   In the United States, too many people believe--as I did, before I learned otherwise--that it was celebrated mainly in countries that are or were Communist, like Cuba and the former Soviet Union.  And, when I used to hold such mistaken beliefs, "Communist" was one of the most pejorative terms one could apply to any person, place or thing.

The funny thing is that the origins of May Day are as American as, well, Schwinn used to be.  So, for that matter, is socialism, which has its roots in workers' struggles to obtain an 8-hour work day (10 to 16 was the norm) and safer working conditions.  In fact, socialist movements in Europe and Latin America took much of their inspiration from movements in the US.

Unfortunately, workers in the bicycle industry--a major employer at that time (late 19th Century)--were not exempt from exploitation by their employers, as so many workers were and are.  As an example, Schwinn's metal platers and polishers struck for a 44-hour workweek and 85 cents an hour in 1919; the company retaliated against striking workers as well members of other unions and dealers who cancelled, or didn't place, orders.  In 1980, workers in Schwinn's Chicago factory, who had recently affiliated themselves with the United Auto Workers Union, went on a strike that would last four months.  In the meantime, the company accelerated its overseas sourcing and built a new factory in Mississippi, where labor was less expensive and unions all but non-existent.  Within a year, the Chicago plant ended more than eight decades of operation.

Schwinn' Peoria machine shop, 1895

In 1963, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle was published. In the novel, the narrator--an everyman named John who calls himself Jonah--travels to the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo.   On his way there, he meets "another fellow American,  H.Lowe Crosby of Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel," whom he describes as "heavy people, in their fifties" who "spoke twangingly."  

Mr. Crosby says he owns a bicycle factory in Chicago and gets "nothing but ingratitude from his employees."  Therefore, he plans to move his business to "grateful" San Lorenzo.  

The narrator asks Crosby whether he knows San Lorenzo well.  Crosby admits that he'll be seeing it for the first time but that he likes everything he's heard about it. "They've got discipline," he explains.  In Chicago, he says, "we don't make bicycles anymore.  It's all about human relations."  He proceeds to bemoan, basically, having to treat his workers like people.  Jonah asks him whether he thinks things will be better in San Lorenzo.

"I know damn well they will be.  The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!"

Hmm...San Lorenzo sounds like a few not-so-fictional countries I can think of.  And Crosby sounds like a few not-so-fictional capitalists I can think of.


  1. ...and we all should know what became of Schwinn.

    Back in the early 80's my late ex-father-in-law owned a factory that made office supplies. The plant was in a northern state, which unionized. To the best of my knowledge, they never threatened a job action, nor made any unreasonable wage demands, but he decided to preemptively move the plant to a southern state. On top of the losses caused by trying to get the new plant operational, the workers there voted in a union. Eventually, the stresses of the changes cost him his health and shortly later, his life. i often wonder how it might have gone for him if he hadn't run away from the first union.

    i put much of the blame for today's anti-union environment on Ronald Reagan. Businesses were emboldened by his sacking of the PATCO air controllers. It is dark times indeed for the worker in this country.

    1. Mike--I'm no labor historian, but I think that the history of labor relations in the US can be divided into the time before and after Reagan fired the PATCO workers.

      I am sorry to hear about your father-in-law. It's sad and ironic that the things he ran from would catch up with him.

  2. When they've finally got us all working at Wallyworld for eight bucks an hour who are they going to sell stuff to. People who make eight bucks an hour don't buy new cars or new refrigeraters. Folks better wake up.

    1. Phillip--Henry Ford was terrible in all sorts of ways. But he at least knew that his assembly line would come to nothing if the workers couldn't afford what they were assembling.

      Folks better wake up, indeed!