Richard Reeves

'Which Side Are You On, Boys?'

LOS ANGELES -- Is there a wave of nostalgia for the 1930? I wouldn't have thought so, at least not until the Republicans of Michigan passed the bucket of anti-union legislation last week. The procedure they used to pass "right-to-work" was pretty sneaky: no hearings, no public readings, voting by a lame-duck legislature and signature by a governor who had given the impression that such doings and law were not part of his agenda.

I was surprised at what Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, and his boys did. I was even more surprised when I found myself humming "Which Side Are You On?" -- Florence Reece's labor anthem of 1931.

Reece was the wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. In 1931, the miners of that region were locked in a bitter and violent struggle with the mine owners, who hired the local sheriff to break the union and a few heads in the process. The sheriff and his imported thugs forced their way into her house, looking for Sam. This is just a bit of what she wrote after her husband escaped out the back door:

"Come all you good workers

"Good news to you I'll tell

"Of how the good old union

"Has come in here to dwell

"Which side are you on boys?

"Which side are you on?"

"Don't scab for the bosses

"Don't listen to their lies

"Poor folks ain't got a chance

"Unless they organize

"Which side are you on boys?

"Which side are you on?"

Well, I already know which side I'm on. I'm a member of three unions. I know what's good about them and what's bad about them. My formative experience, in 1963, was joining the Newspaper Guild at the New York Herald Tribune after leaving the Newark (N.J.) Evening News. My salary immediately went from $60 a week plus expenses to $163 plus benefits.

The 1930s, the 1960s -- those were the old days, I thought. But clearly conservative Republicans see it all differently. I did not agree with columnist Charles Krauthammer's remarks posted on RealClearPolitics.com, but his arguments had a good deal of validity.

"It's a wrenching choice. ... This is an adjustment to reality," he argued. "The fact is that, you know, in the glory days, the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the United Auto Workers was able to give its workers the highest wages, benefits in the world. That was because of an anomaly that we were only the industrial country that came out of the Second World War intact. Europe was on its knees, Germany and Japan were rubble. So, we thought that was the natural order of things. It wasn't. ..."

We should talk about that as unions decline and as corporations rise to become people with rights, according to Mitt Romney, whose father was governor of Michigan. That was a bit nutty, but nowhere near what wilder conservatives are seeing and thinking. One example is a columnist named Michelle Malkin, who wrote about the new Michigan law using phrases such as "labor bullies"... "terrorize" ... "thugs" ... "menacing union goons" ... "brass-knuckled Big Labor bosses"...

I take it she believes in these things, or she and a lot of conservatives just live in the past -- and want everyone to as well.

It sounds like civil war in Michigan. We may see which lasts longer, the right wing of the Republican Party or organized labor. Frankly, the conservatives and corporations are winning, which raises the question: "Which side are you on?"

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