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TODAY

Monday, October 21

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Airbags

The late night hours of May 4, 1886, saw a huge crowd of laborers and intellectuals convening near the Skid Row neighborhood west of the Loop, at Randolph Street and Des Plaines Avenue. In the unusual warmth, they stood shoulder to shoulder as their leaders shouted, argued, and cajoled with authorities to stop allowing big business run roughshod, to flunk their duty to the society which allowed them to exist. They wanted the government to offer them protection, or risk the workers themselves stepping in and taking it. A bomb was hurled -- some say by an agent provocateur -- and the police over-reacted, firing point-blank into the crowd of honest young men, hardworking immigrant women, and their children. Two hundred people were killed in what would come to be known as the Haymarket Square Riot, and several prominent labor leaders were sentenced to death by hanging. Today those people are martyred, for part of their cause -- the 40 hour work week, with overages specially compensated as "overtime" -- has become an American institution, the very basis of labor economics and evaluation of labor-based economic activity.

More than 117 years later, in the 1700 block of West Roosevelt Road, I stood, shoulder to shoulder, with three men in front of an all-night donut place. It was 2:30 in the morning, and only a service window was open, forcing us to stand out in the cold and wait for the one clerk to provide us with coffee, maybe a muffin or a bagel, and sugar packets.

"Lots of sugar," the guy in front of me repeated. "I work nights," he said back to me, "Security. I'll pass out if I don't get enough sugar in there." He was in the middle of his shift.

Behind us, the ABLA housing projects seemed to wave, with sick flickering lights spotting their monstrous facades. One of the other men, who lived in the high rises, his hands shaking from cold, was chatty, too. He also worked nights, at a plant in West Loop Gate -- mere blocks, actually, from the locus of the Haymarket Riot -- and always came here to get coffee and a donut beforehand.

The third man worked at the chain grocery store next door. He used to live in the project high rises, but had opted out and was living up the street, with Section-8 vouchers. Every week he asked the younger employees if they had any overnight stock shifts, which went from 9-2, they didn't want. Usually he could get at least one, on Wednesdays, and in good weeks he got a few.

"Without that," he said, "I'd have to move back there," he gestured to the high rises with his chin, "with my kids." Thankfully, his overtime pay was protected by his union.

I did not know how to tell these men that their president, the caretaker of their fate, had promised to knock down any overtime protection legislation passed by Congress.

The next night, at an all-night diner on Halsted Street, I sat at a table next to two men, Teamsters, discussing their home computers. Eventually I involved myself in their conversation and we turned to talking about college.

"I got two kids in school," one of them said, his cigarette hopping proudly on his lip, "one at DePaul and the other at State."

The other man had one kid in college at Loyola. That's a pricey school, I said. "They got loans to cover some of it. The rest I'm making tonight." They laughed. Apparently, it was an old joke: once the kids head off to college, it's time to pick up the over-time shifts. Just as they said this, six orange-vested city workers filed into the place, the waitress greeting them by name. They were working on a bridge right up the street and had elected to take on extra shifts to make up for the slowing in municipal work since the economy slowed.

In the far corner, four cops, their badges on beaded chains around their necks, rubbed their eyes and gestured for more coffee. The overnight shift is hell -- more danger, less support, and, of course, the time strain. But it's the best way to pick up some overtime pay.

In their fatigued faces was a spark of pride that can only be had by those who push themselves, work themselves ragged, for the chance to make life a little better for their families. The National Republican Party is working as hard as it can to extinguish that spark, and leave only fatigue.

Assuredly, overtime is not about leisure. Those two hundred laborers did not die so that America's millions of workers could live in leisure. They died so that American workers could offer their hard work and time to chip away at the monolithic, gilded, built-in advantage that the children of the wealthy already have. They did it so that American workers -- of all races, religions, and backgrounds -- could have one more avenue, however arduous, to offer their children a better life. Even with this advantage, as we have seen over the century that American workers have been offered overtime protection, the children of the wealthy, upper-middle class stroll through existence without a single care, worry or anxiety. Every simple pleasure conceivable to the poor, lower-class, and lower-middle class is offered to the scions of the wealthy on a silver platter.

Make no mistake: when abundant economic security is available, absolutely nothing is difficult. Those who have had to work for everything they've got cannot begin to fathom the explicit, shameful simplicity and ease that is existence for the wealthy.

Overtime is not a privilege for the working middle class. Overtime is a natural right that went through a painful, torturous birth right here in our own city -- right across the street, actually, from the outrageously expensive Blackbird restaurant. And the National Republican Party is trying, desperately, to destroy it. The party that accuses liberals of "class warfare" is quietly taking aim at another institution that protects those Americans who can get ahead only through the prostitution of their labor.

It has been said thousands of times: Chicago is The Great American City. Contrast the opulent splendor and wealth of numerous lakefront, North Side neighborhoods with the modest middle class neighborhoods of the Northwest and Southwest Sides, or the despairing poverty in pockets of the South and West Sides. There is the suburban safety of Jefferson Park and Edison Park, and the killing fields of Austin and Englewood.

Ours is a city that has suffered more than most from the insidious political practice of arbitrarily segmenting the citizenry for the purpose of extracting political loyalty. Why should (white) homeowners in Ravenswood pay high property taxes so that (black) poor folks on the West Side can have better schools? Why should (Irish) middle class residents in Bridgeport have less police presence so that poor (Polish) immigrants on the Southwest Side can feel safer? Why?

Because our nation is an organic whole, a unified polity that cannot be divided. When one group suffers, the whole suffers. Crime, poverty, and social ecology are infections that spread and make life worse for everybody. The pie, as they say, will get smaller. For everybody, that is, but the wealthy, who have no fears, no troubles and no obstacles. Theirs is a worry-free life in which the only concern is entrenching privilege. This is the Upper Class/Ivy League Mafia that plays on the insecurities of working people to their own advantage. And they are watching with bated breath to see if overtime pay is destroyed, so that profit margins can increase and stock dividends soar.

Why destroy overtime? What could possibly justify such a blatantly cruel, in fact misanthropic, measure?

So that people can spend more time with their families, is one defense. The Republican Party -- more specifically, the ruling coterie of the Republican Party that does so well in working-class suburbs -- argue that time off can be substituted for overtime pay. This way, they say, single working mothers can spend more time with their kids.

An employer will say, for example, "We have a lot of business right now. Why don't you put in 60 hours this week at your regular rate."

And then, when business is slow, he can say, "Remember all those extra hours you worked six months ago? Well, we'd like to reward you now that business is slow. You've ‘earned' two weeks, unpaid, off."

Splendid, family values, yes. That single mother can spend an extra week with her family in their dilapidated tenement, eating unhealthy fast food, marveling as the beautiful child, born ignorant so with limitless hope, grows into adulthood having nothing, knowing little, and fearing a fabric of human destiny crafted by the rich to allow them to sink deeper into ease while the working mother, the project family, and middle class parents from the airport suburbs watch everything slip away.

Contact your representatives.

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Comments

Cinnamon / November 26, 2003 4:36 PM

"Because our nation is an organic whole, a unified polity that cannot be divided. When one group suffers, the whole suffers."

Succinct and true. Beautiful piece, Ramsin.

miss ellen / December 1, 2003 12:25 PM

wow, great article, ramsin. almost missed it, glad i found it before it fell off the main page.

it's alarming how many people this will affect & sadly, not enough people even realize or care.

thanks.

Pete / December 2, 2003 11:55 AM

Another quotation comes to mind:

"No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." --John Donne

Bush, who clearly only cares about things that directly affect him and his kind, has obviously never read Donne. His subtle attacks on the working class and the military rank and file are nothing short of outrageous, especially given those groups' electoral support of him in 2000. Let's hope his shortsighted self-interest will cost him re-election in 2004.

 

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