A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2013: A Dickens of a time

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Jan. 13, 14 or 15

Charles Dickens is remembered for “A Christmas Carol” and a slew of popular 19th century novels about people coping with the Industrial Revolution, but his best lines may have been the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

That also could describe 2013 for everyday Americans.

In Illinois, the General Assembly took small steps toward greater freedoms, with the legislature legalizing marijuana for medical use, same-sex marriage and, arguably, concealed carry. But state lawmakers in a bipartisan bit of thievery cut pensions owed to state employees.

In Washington, the U.S. Labor Department finally clarified regulations covering the growing number of home care workers, extending minimum-wage and overtime-pay protection to almost 2 million people in the home health-care industry. The U.S. Senate also finally agreed with labor and other progressive groups and amended its filibuster rule, permitting up-or-down votes on key proposals. But elsewhere in the Capitol, the Obama administration continued to promote people from Wall Street and anti-union companies to influential posts and kept pressing for a dangerous trade pact that mimics the lousy North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Nationwide, unions won a local fight to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Seatec, Wash, and started taking that struggle to states since the federal government seemed gridlocked, with Republicans cowering before a relative handful of Tea Party extremists. They did so little on raising the minimum wage, reforming immigration or even passing a Farm Bill that the 113th Congress passed fewer than 60 laws making the Truman-era “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1947 seem productive. (It passed 388 laws.)

And the year’s AFL-CIO convention seemed to make a course correction for organized labor by stepping up partnerships with non-traditional labor groups and even progressive organizations working outside the workplace.

In the streets, low-wage, non-union workers continued from their modest 2012 successes with Walmart and fast-food employers. A walkout by hundreds of fast-food workers on one day in one city in 2012 grew to thousands of workers and supporters demonstrating in 100-plus communities in 2013.

Supported by the Service Employees International Union and the United Food & Commercial Workers union, those job actions were protests that disrupted employers but were never intended to shut down operations. In places ranging from New York to Peoria, and from St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest to coast-to-coast demonstrations, U.S. workers started flexing their muscles.

Organizers of last month’s nationwide protests claimed more than 1,400 demonstrations, 100 arrests and some 80,000 tweets to continue to pressure fast-food, big-box store and other exploitative employers.

“This year revealed unexpected vulnerability and unexpected vitality for the U.S. labor movement,” said journalist Josh Eidelson in

Dickens in his journal “Household Word” 160 years ago wrote, “If working men will be thus true to themselves and one another, there never was a time when they had so much just sympathy and so much ready help at hand. The whole powerful middle-class of this country, newly smitten with a sense of self-reproach – far more potent with it, we fully believe, then the low motives of self-defense and fear – is ready to join them.

“The movement, to be irresistible, must originate within themselves, the suffering many,” Dickens continued. “Let them take the initiative, and call the middle class to unite with them: which they will do heart and soul! Let the working people, in the metropolis, and in any one great town, but turn their intelligence, their energy, their numbers, their power of union, their patience, their perseverance, in this straight direction in earnest.”

[PICTURED: Martin Rowson illustration of Dickens for Marxist Update.]

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