Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shoulder to Shoulder: An Album of Industrial Action

FGPlex is always on the lookout for cultural documents that memorialize key historical moments. Such is the presently ongoing public workers’ strike in Wisconsin against Gov. Walker’s effort to deprive public workers’ unions of their collective bargaining rights. A great deal is at stake: the leverage of unions nationwide in a time of quasi-fascist (classical definition) ascendancy, the successfulness of Walker’s bait-and-sink budget strategy, even the Republican presidential candidacy for 2012. For if Walker pulls a PATCO on the unions, he’ll look more demoniacally conservative than any other current GOP candidate. He’ll be the Reagan Revanant.

Which reminds me of great union-busters gone by: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I understand these, Reagan didn’t want to allow the federally-employed air traffic controllers a 32-hour workweek. He gave the striking 13,000 (of 17,000) 48 hours to return to work or get the sack. They didn’t, and he did—so we spent years training up new ones and there could have been monthly plane crashes, but luck held. This bold gelding set a precedent that continues to this day, of corporate revanche over FDR’s “welfare state.”

Thatcher did the same thing with striking coal miners, around the same time. Her government wanted to close coal pits all over the U.K., and laid up supplies in anticipation of a coal miners’ strike. The country did not go dark, the police stood firm with Thatcher, people were beaten and jailed (a few killed), the strike dragged on forever and lost momentum, finally crumbling.

Reagan had quoted Coolidge on public safety; Thatcher used military language and referenced her successful little dirty war: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” Welfare benefits were withheld from the families of striking miners, and they slowly starved despite the aid of NGOs.

During those benighted times, the socialist industrial band Test Dept. collaborated on an album with the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir.  Some exhortatory standards (Comrades in Arms, Stout Hearted Men, Take Me Home) are delivered with bracing style:

“Give me some men who are stouted hearted men/Who will fight for the right they adore/Start me with ten, who are stout hearted men/And I'll soon give you ten thousand more” —Stout Hearted Men (a propos, considering WI’s demonstrators number in the tens of thousands)

…rounded out by a couple monologues by Welshmen about Welsh vs. English culture:

“[The English, on trains] will put up their newspapers as a fortification against familiarity.”

…and the strike (video above): “I’ve been arrested twice and now the bail conditions are that I can’t go out again to go picketing. There’s a conspiracy by the police and the magistrates to stop us from winning this strike…now they’ve come for the trade union movement! You’ve got to get off your ass to help us!”

All this is rounded off by some industrial percussion and effects work pieces...must be the only album of industrial action about industrial action (haha). The whole package is a time capsule, timely yet. Listen in the spirit of Wisconsin, birthplace of the first public workers’ union, for I suspect this is no less a rubicon than PATCO or the mine strike.

Download the album (out of print) HERE

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