You will eat, by and by,
In that beautiful land in the sky.
Work all day, live on hay,
There’ll be pie in the sky when
you die (that’s a lie)
(From The Preacher and
the Slave, Joe Hill, 1911)
When Joe Hill, an organizer for the socialist union the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), penned The Preacher and the Slave, workers in America lived under conditions a Bangladeshi might recognize today. The hours were long, the work was brutal, and the pay barely kept working families alive. To organize against these injustices, or even to complain, could get you fired, or it could get you killed.
The song underlined Hill’s and the Wobblies’ disgust for missionaries who preached that workers should put up with suffering in this world and look forward to succor in the next. Among the preachers to fall under Hill’s disdain were the Salvation Army. The song, quoted above, was a spoof on the hymn, In the Sweet By and By, a favourite with the Starvation Army, as the Wobblies called them.
Today, the Sally Anne is a much-loved charity. They feed the hungry and provide badly needed services to the poor. At this time of year, when the Christmas kettles go up, we happily fork out our pocket change to help them help the poorest among us.
The days when the Salvation Army was looked on as the enemy of the workers died along with the 80-hour work week. When labour reforms meant working-class people could live a decent life, charity wasn’t for the workers anymore, but for the desperate poor who fell through the cracks.
Joe Hill was executed in Utah on what was almost certainly a trumped-up murder charge, presumed guilty on the grounds that he was a rabble-rouser, just one of many who died because they fought for fair pay and decent working conditions that for many years most people in the U.S. and Canada have taken for granted.
But wait, what’s this? The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Wal-Mart management has placed a box in an employees-only section of the store, with a sign reading, “Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” In Wal-Speak, associate means worker. A Wal-Mart spokesperson told the paper, “This is part of the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships.”
Wal-Mart is the largest private sector employer in the U.S. Worldwide, its stores rake in a tidy $1.8 million profit every hour, which is how the owners, the Waltons, have come to be worth about $150 billion. At the same time, Wal-Mart employees in the U.S. are more likely to require state support, including food stamps, than those of any other major company.
It is not, of course, just Wal-Mart. A McDonald’s employee hotline in the U.S. explains how to apply for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. An estimated 20 per cent of service sector workers live below the poverty line.
In Joe Hill’s day, you could die fighting for workers’ rights. Today, try to organize a Wal-Mart store and you will face every legal obstacle imaginable, and if you win the store might simply close. In 2009, Wal-Mart fired more than 200 employees in Gatineau, Quebec, after eight workers at the tire and lube shop won a bid to unionize. Although this tactic is illegal under Canadian labour law, Wal-Mart fought all the way to the Supreme Court, and won on a technicality.
Jobs at Wal-Mart and McDonalds are so notoriously bad, you might think they’d be hard to fill. In fact, both companies report that they have dozens of applicants for every position. That’s the labour market today. Since unemployment is built into the system, allegedly to control inflation, there’s always somebody desperate enough to take your job if you aren’t satisfied with it.
The problem isn’t that big service-sector employers do exploit their workers, it’s that they can. In the absence of fair labour laws, living minimum wages, and strong unions, corporate executives who screw every last drop out of their employees are simply doing their jobs. Curiously though, the same principle doesn’t seem to apply to their own multi-million-dollar pay packets.
Joe Hill and the Wobblies, and many others, put their lives on the line to lead workers out of those dark days. We’ve put those days a long way behind us. But when people with full-time jobs can’t feed themselves properly, we’re slipping back.
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002