Tag Archives: Billy Bragg

Celebrating the Much Despised Labor Day

5 Sep

Labor DaySince the Reagan era, we seem to have surrendered to what I would term an irrational, inexorable disdain for the laborer. Labor Day seems to have become a hollow holiday for some without a sense of history. Let us remember why it is important to celebrate and elevate the laborer. This is a time for us to reflect and look at how we value human beings; how we look at and address income disparities; how we address and look at people who are over-employed!

Yes, over-employed, those who have to work more than one job and still remain in poverty, while CEOs and those who enjoy being in the top echelon of corporations and organizations earn exponentially more than those who actually allow those organizations to sustain themselves. According to the Economic Policy Institute and Fortune, many top executives make over 300 times that of their employees, many of whom live at or below the poverty line. Yes, CEOs earn 20 times more than they did 20 years ago and 30 times more than they did 30 years ago. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, “In between 1978 and 2014, inflation adjusted CEO pay increased by 1000%,” while the typical worker has only seen a possible 11% increase in that same time frame. That 11% means workers are now either earning the same as they earned in 1978 or even less, allowing executives to earn so much money that it is next to impossible to chart.

We saw the architecture of this with Ronald Reagan, who did his best to bust unions. You remember the union, the reason why we have a little something called a “weekend,” and an 8 hour workday, and protections against the exploitation of children workers. Unions: the reason  we hope to never witness another tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

Just a little history about Labor Day. Labor Day was started in 1882 by labor unions, but it would be many more years before it would be recognized as a Federal Holiday. Oregon was the first state to recognize and honor Labor Day in 1887.  Finally in 1894, under the Cleveland administration, it became a national holiday on the first Monday in September.  Congress passed it unanimously, a very rare event indeed. Today we have an opportunity to reflect on why we need to celebrate the laborer and to look at the maldistribution of wealth in the United States. It’s particularly important to note how Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan show nothing but contempt, disdain, and even disgust for the laborer.

Many of us have been working in movements to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour. This would be just a very small move forward and still does not address a living wage. Sadly, the common theme from Trump and Ryan and their ilk — remember, they aren’t as different as they’d like you to believe —  has been nothing less than hostile. They all seem to subscribe to the false notion of a meritocracy. Our current Republican controlled House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted against the equal pay act — the same people who want to throw out the Affordable Care Act and witness millions suddenly going without health care. All the while ALL of those in our congress have Cadillac insurance packages and earn a minimum of $174,000. Yes, you read that number correctly. Please watch this very short video of the maldistribution of wealth in the United States.

Labor Day isn’t just an excuse for a long weekend or a chance to grill an extra burger before autumn sets in. It’s a chance to reflect on the work that is done at all levels of our society and the value of all that labor. It’s a chance to celebrate the collaboration that makes work better and working conditions safer. In the words of the great Joe Hill (as sung by Billy Bragg)

Now I long for the morning that they realise
Brutality and unjust laws can not defeat us
But who’ll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child

There is power in a Union.

Happy Labor Day to all who have to work today and that have no pension, no health benefits, and are at the poverty line. We must stand in solidarity!

The Laborer and the Economy…

3 Sep

The American Dream demands a fair chance for everyone

Labor Day was started in 1882 by labor unions, but it would be many more years before it would be recognized as a Federal Holiday. Oregon was the first state to recognize and honor Labor Day in 1887.  Finally in 1894, it became a national holiday on the first Monday in September under the Cleveland Administration.  Congress passed it unanimously, a very rare event indeed.

Reflecting back, the United States can proudly celebrate the influence of its labor unions and how they have helped to protect the too often marginalized and voiceless.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire proved there was still a great deal of work to be accomplished by the labor movement.  Labor Unions also worked to protect children and helped to establish an eight hour work day, fair wage laws, and breaks for safety and meals.

Sadly, America seems to be losing its appreciation of Labor Unions while privileging profit over people.  Thanks to President Clinton’s NAFTA and similar agreements as well as vulture capitalists like Mitt Romney, we find our country sending jobs to other countries where we exploit workers for pennies and then leave those countries to find even cheaper labor.

Even sadder is that when President Obama proposes work bills for the unemployed, all of the bills are met with categorical Republican Obstructionists. All this does is end up hurting the everyday worker in the Unites States.  I have to say it takes a great deal of chutzpah for people like Romney and Ryan to talk about solving issues of the economy when Ryan has been one of the architects of the Great Obstructionist Movement, privileging the rich while crushing and reducing the middle class.

On a personal note, it also saddens me that people like Romney and Ryan are working hard to allow companies like Chick-Fil-A to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and deny us employment for being gay.  At the Federal level, pointless votes are taken to repeal the Affordable Care Act, money is wasted defending the clearly unconstitutional DOMA, and the war on women has the House attacking birth control and Planned Parenthood. They bleat about jobs and the economy but do nothing, while at the state level the Scott Walkers are dismantling unions and isolating workers from the political process.

Labor Day isn’t just an excuse for a long weekend or a chance to grill an extra hot dog before autumn sets in. It’s a chance to reflect on the work that is done at all levels of our society and the value of all that labor. It’s a chance to celebrate the collaboration that makes work better and working conditions safer. In the words of the great Joe Hill (as sung by Billy Bragg, thanks to my husband for the choice of Bragg):

Now I long for the morning that they realise
Brutality and unjust laws can not defeat us
But who’ll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child

There is power in a Union.

Happy Labor Day to all of our brothers and sisters that have to work today and that have no pension, no health benefits, and are at the poverty line.

Wednesday Word of the Week: March 23

23 Mar

Bargaining, not bullying

This week’s word is: BARGAINING

the negotiation of the terms of a transaction or agreement – WordNet

Anyone who doubts the cynical political motives of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his ilk should be required to recite that definition 100 times. Walker (and other Republican Governors like him in thought but so far unlike him in success) maintains that public sector unions are so powerful that they run roughshod over state budgets. He and the Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate created the union-busting bill pretending that it was necessary as a way to balance the state’s budget. The core of the bill eliminates or restricts collective bargaining activities for public sector employees.

Before the odious bill was rammed through in a manner so dubious that a judge has already halted its implementation, working conditions for public sector employees in Wisconsin (and Indiana, and Ohio, and teachers in Idaho) were mostly governed by a collective bargaining agreement.

COLLECTIVE

involving all the members of a group – Macmillan Dictionary Online

BARGAINING

the negotiation of the terms of a transaction or agreement – WordNet

AGREEMENT

a decision about what to do, made by two or more people, groups, or organizations – Macmillan Dictionary Online

That’s right, according to Wisconsin Republicans, unions held all the cards because of a process that involved all parties to the negotiation. A process of negotiation. A process resulting in a decision made by all the parties together. The very definitions of these words put the lie to Walker’s claims.

If the public employees’ unions were being so unreasonable that the budget was truly at risk, then they would be hindering the negotiations. The state has the power to call an impasse and set its terms. If the unions don’t agree, they can strike. That’s what collective bargaining is all about. If Walker were interested in setting a hard line for what the actual budget could sustain, this is the course he would take. Instead, the bill clearly nullifies all three of these concepts neutering the workers’ ability to have any direct control over their working environment.

So if these anti-union actions aren’t about balancing the budget, what are they about? The answer is simple and chilling. These bills are all about political and commercial power. Walker and his nasty brethren are part of the wave of tea that stained America last fall. Funded by the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, these politicians are interested in shifting the already imbalanced investment in political campaigns even further to the Right. By crippling unions, which traditionally donate just Left of center, a major funding source for Democrats dries up. Scott Walker is willing to scuttle fair labor practices and reasonable benefits for thousands of workers just to make sure he can get re-elected.

Fortunately, America seems to be jolted out of its recent complacency by this mad power grab. Democrats and union leaders are joining forces to recall Republican senators in Wisconsin and shift the power in that state a bit out of Walker’s hands. So far, those efforts look promising. Governors and Legislatures across the country are watching to see what the backlash will be. Let us hope that it will be serious and sustained.

As Billy Bragg reminds us, there is power in a union. Without a formal agreement, negotiations mean nothing, as the British coal miners learned in the 1960s. Collective bargaining leverages the work of few to benefit many. In an age of increasing corporate greed and a shrinking middle class, we must rise up together and shame those who would silence us. With perseverance, the workers can insist on their rights. We can punish politicians who strike deals and pass bills to harm us.

Let’s hope that the recalls in Wisconsin work out for the people, not the politicians, and that a few Republican state senators suddenly find themselves practicing another kind of bargaining altogether.

It’s A Mighty Thin Line Between Art and Hate: Homophobia in Music

13 Feb

Lady Gaga & Katy Perry: Supportive vs. Sensationalist

The use of character and language in music is not black and white; it is a continuum. When is the use of a stereotype or a slur justified? When is it shameless sensationalism? When is it hatred?

The other day I had one of those weird moments of inspiration that turned into a blog post. I was sitting at my desk at lunch, listening to music and browsing the news online. I saw a post about Lady Gaga’s new, very pro-gay song Born This Way while my desktop jukebox was playing the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. As I was smiling at the transcription of the lyrics to the new song, the old favorite belted out “you cheap lousy faggot.” I winced and thought, not for the first time, “That’s a great song by a great band. Is it ruined by that slur?” I knew what my instinct said, but as a good librarian, I decided to do some research.

I found two great sites that helped me organize my thoughts.

The presence of homophobia in music falls into four categories:

  1. Violent lyrical content,
  2. Homophobic performers,
  3. Stereotypes and trivializations, and
  4. Songs performed in character.

Some music is aggressively homophobic. Dancehall performers like Buju Banton often have violent, even murderous, anti-gay lyrics.  The lyrics of rappers like Li’l Wayne (who chants “no homo” with great abandon) often include homophobic language as well. When the music advocates violence against LGBT people, condemning it is quite straightforward.

Singers with such violent lyrics are often outspokenly anti-gay outside of their music as well. Some performers, however, don’t address gay topics in their music but are very homophobic in their words and deeds. Country performers Big & Rich and Brad Paisley often speak out against gay rights. It’s difficult to condemn their music if it isn’t actively homophobic, but I certainly won’t buy anything performed by someone who uses their fame to advocate against my equality.

The next category is a bit trickier. Songs like the Kinks’ Lola and Monty Python’s The Lumberjack Song use cross-dressing stereotypes but are clearly meant as humorous (and probably ironic). Humor definitely has its place in music; it is very important as we hunt for the demons that we not lose our ability to laugh. Some stereotyping, however, is gratuitous at best. The Dire Straits (more on them shortly) song Les Boys serves no apparent purpose but to stereotype the gay community. There is no artistic merit in such behavior.

Katy Perry is another performer that I put in this category. Her song Ur So Gay is pretty vile, using the word “gay” as a slur while attacking a man for being unmasculine. Her I Kissed A Girl is trickier, but I file it in the no-thank-you category as well. She uses a flirtation with lesbianism as a cute hook, exploiting the gay community with a wink, a nod, and a rush to #1. Treating legitimate exploration of sexual identity as a fairly cruel “experimental game” tips the song into homophobia.

The toughest category to analyze are the songs sung in character. Some performers clearly use the “It’s not me, it’s my character” line as a dodge; the aggressively homophobic Eminem is a perfect example. (Sorry, Mr. Mathers, singing with Elton John doesn’t get you off the hook. Sir Elton’s credibility as a judge of character ended at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding.)

Many great songs are written in character, and it is clear that the listener is supposed to support or condemn the words of the character from the structure and tone of the song. Richard Thompson is a master of this; we are clearly not meant to sympathize with the sociopath whose voice is presented in I Feel So Good. Billy Bragg’s song Valentine’s Day Is Over is sung from the perspective of a battered spouse and is extremely powerful in some ways because of the disconnect between the singer’s gender and the lyrics of the song. The use of a homophobic character in a song could be powerful and educational. Sadly, this is not typically the case.

The prime example of a failure of character is the huge late-80’s hit Money For Nothing by Dire Straits. (I told you they’d be back.) The song repeatedly uses the word “faggot” to attack a singer seen on MTV. Writer and singer Mark Knopfler has defended this by using the character defense. The song is cast from the perspective of a laborer in an appliance store. According to Knopfler, he lifted much of the language from direct observation of an employee in a store. Sadly, there is nothing in the song to provide a sense of context or irony. (Having Sting bleat “I want my MTV” at regular intervals is probably intended as humorous, but it does nothing to ameliorate or contextualize the loathsome language of the narrator.) As an added bonus, the protagonist gets in some pretty racist language as well.

Another point worth making about both Katy Perry and Dire Straits is their decisions to release the song as a single. A song in character as part of a larger work has an entirely different impact than a song heard as part of the pop stream on the radio. Hearing “look at that faggot” as part of the mix of I-love-you’s and why-did-you-leave-me’s legitimizes its use in a dangerous way. Getting your jollies sucking the cherry Chapstick off an unsuspecting young woman’s lips just because trivializes the real struggles of LGBT youth.

So where does that leave me with my longtime enjoyment of the Pogues’ song? Sadly disappointed. It’s very clear that the two protagonists are working-class Brits with a love-hate relationship. Shane MacGowan is as masterful as ever in setting the mood and using language to create tension. One lover calling the other a “lousy faggot” is a very realistic line in context. Is it necessary development or gratuitously shocking? After long analysis, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

As always, I am not advocating censorship. All of these performers are entitled to their opinions and even have the right to put those opinions, howver ill-considered or vile, to music. When that recorded opinion incites violence, however, responsible media should think carefully about airing it. More importantly, good consumers should think twice about where they spend their entertainment dollars.

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