Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ludlow Colorado—100 years ago today

On this day 100 years ago, company goons in the employ Colorado Fuel and Iron, a kindly operation of the Rockefeller family, decided to attack some strikers in Ludlow.  The strikers were living in tents because they had been evicted from their company-owned homes.  It was a one-sided affair—the goons were heavily armed with weapons that included machine guns.  When the smoke cleared, at least 19 people had died including two women and 11 children who were huddling in a tent that caught fire.

The Rockefeller reputation never recovered but it wasn't for lack of trying.  A professional liar named Edward Bernays—who many consider the father of the "Public Relations" profession—was hired to shift the blame for the massacre to the striking workers.  Bernays was successful is muddying the issue but he never succeeded in clearing the Rockefeller name.  John D. would go down in USA history as arguably the most hated man in the country—ever.  Of course, there were dozens of other reasons why he was despised, but the Ludlow Massacre would tower above the rest.

One of the reasons Rockefeller's reputation would never recover is that on Jan 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced his plan to pay his workers $5 for an eight-hour day.  The biggest name in American manufacturing had broken ranks with the robber barons of his day.  And while the rest of them hated Ford for this heresy, he would go down as one of the heroic figures of USA industrial capitalism in the eyes of the general public.  The difference was astounding.  When old man Rockefeller died, a tiny handful of people showed up at his funeral and they expected to be named in his will.  When Ford died, an estimated 30,000 people stood in the rain waiting for the privilege to walk past his casket.  Folks understood that not all the rich are created equal.

1914 would mark another significant moment in economic history—the publication of Thorstein Veblen's magnum opus The Instinct of Workmanship. This work of towering insight would argue that labor needs not be terrorized by violent goons nor bribed by a large paychecks in order to accomplish anything.  Instead, Veblen would argue that people are internally motivated to do a good job and that this motivation was similar to the desire for parents to provide a good life for their children.  In his telling, good management would not only remove obstacles to a worker's instinct of workmanship, but would provide an environment where the instinct could thrive.

A century later, not much has changed.  We still have companies like Wal-Mart that severely underpay its workers and rely of professional union-busters to swoop down on anyone who would protest this arrangement.  We still have professional liars who attempt to "change the narrative" to favor economic reactionaries.  And on occasion, we still find companies who spend good money to enrich their workplace environments—although I am not certain foosball tables in the company break rooms are exactly what Veblen had in mind.  Folks who want to change the economic thinking of this age of economic stagnation and austerity will soon discover that they don't have to re-invent the wheel.

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