If This Goes On: Labor, Immigration and Activism

Miner at work in the Low Coal Bradford Mine

I’ve been doing some reading and documentary watching lately about labor movements and revolts, particularly in Wales.  Immigration and activism were two faulty valves that couldn’t keep up with the horrific pressure on labor movements in the UK. The history of labor in the 19th and early 20th century was bloody, and not just in terms of the opportunities for horrible deaths and maimings on the job. I can’t help but imagine similar squashings of fully justified revolts happening in the US again now and over the next 10 years or so.  Our government isn’t owned by plutocrats – to an overwhelming extent it is made of plutocrats. Trumpism has just revealed that identity much more clearly and unmistakably.


The UK’s welfare state (I love how this phrase has almost always meant “bad thing” in the US) has come unraveled over the last few years.  Their once enviable National Health System is being choked and starved to death. The welfare state in the US has been an anemic thing all along, but now that it is being systematically dismantled before its citizens’ eyes, many people aren’t just demanding that what we have now is preserved, but also that it be dramatically enlarged.

Welsh coal miners and iron workers in the late 19th century had pitifully little to lose when they made demands, went on strike for months at a time, and took up arms against their robber baron and governmental (often in the same person) oppressors.

The Family Connection

Some coal miners from Wales (and other countries, notably Italy) grabbed their picks and emigrated to the Southern United States to ply their trade. Some of them, from Wales and Newcastle, were members of my family. Several of my grandfather’s uncles and brothers died of Black Lung, aka Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. In my family, it was matter-of-factly called Black Lung. My great-grandfather made a break with the family’s historical ties to mining and became a farmer, and my grandfather took up carpentry as a trade, eventually becoming a foreman on what passed for large building projects at the time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The family coal miners didn’t seem to have any revolutionary fire, unlike the miners who remained behind in the UK. They lived in the company towns, shopped at the company stores, and coughed up their lungs after breathing the company coal dust for much of their short lives. Perhaps however short the lives and brutish the existences, they were enough better off than the situations coal miners in Wales experienced that they were content. Perhaps the opportunities in the South to leave the coal mines; the relative availability of land, housing and education provided pathways out of the mines that weren’t available to the children of their friends and families left behind in Wales, unless they, too, emigrated.

If This Goes On

Many people who protest and march and rally today have little idea how bloody things could get, and probably must get, if the power and resource grabs happening now are to be stopped.

What is it that we are losing?  What is it that we never had in the first place? The right to vote. The right to live free of abject misery. The right to education (hello, Michigan? No right to literacy for inner city children? Really?). The right to breathe air and drink water that aren’t poisoned at the behest of massive industries. The right to health care that doesn’t pauperize entire families when the bill comes due (assuming you weren’t turned away or turned loose with treatable cancer as soon as the hospital emergency room could roll you out to the curb and dump you). The right to seek refuge and safety from countries destabilized by, and horrible regimes propped up by our military in the service of multinational companies.

And we’ve offshored some of the worst and most toxic industries to people with even less ability to say not in my back yard or to fight back physically.

How much worse do things have to get before enough people think “what do I have to lose?” and take to the streets?  The irony of the 45th president’s use of this phrase isn’t lost on me.

If This Goes On was the title of a Heinlein novella published in Astounding Magazine in 1940.  It was later expanded and released as a stand-alone novel under the title Revolt in 2100.  The future he envisaged for the story was based on a history of the 20th century that featured a Great Awakening style religious movement that had been kicked off by a sleazy evangelist with a talent for putting on tent revivals.  The evangelist married politics and Christianity with the help of mass communications, applied psychology, and a hysterical populace. The evangelist, known as The Prophet, was elected in 2012.  There was no election in 2016.  The story, itself, was set nearly 100 years after that event.

If this goes on, Heinlein’s dystopian interlude, a nasty speed bump on the way to interplanetary and interstellar human expansion, will look like a picnic compared to what is in store for our children and grandchildren. And the path, thanks to climate change and the decimation of natural resources, probably doesn’t lead to the stars.

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