The Business of the City: Miscellaneous

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Labor and Capital Redux: Collective Bargaining is a Right!

T. Thomas Fortune
As I follow the political developments in Wisconsin, I see certain resonances in the historic struggles of the working class against the depredations of those who would remove protections that workers in the 21st century have come to rely on. In my African American literature class, we are examining how 19th century black intellectuals (both radicals and moderates) advanced the critical conversation about equality and class struggle in America as they identified and negotiated strategies for black progress after the Civil War.

Since it is Black History Month, I wanted to honor Timothy Thomas Fortune* (1856-1928), the pioneering African American journalist, by reprinting excerpts (it's a fairly lengthy text for a blog) from his important speech on labor and capital, originally delivered on April 20, 1886 in Brooklyn, New York and published in his newspaper, the New York Freeman. Fortune viewed African American political, social, and economic progress in terms of class conflict and linked to the worldwide struggle for working people. 

This complete text of the speech and others in the black radical tradition can be found on The Black Past site: 


"The iniquity of privileged class and concentrated wealth has become so glaring and grievous to be borne that a thorough agitation and an early readjustment of the relation which they sustain to labor can no longer be delayed with safety to society."

"For centuries the aim and scope of all law have been to more securely hedge about the capitalist and the landowner and to repress labor within a condition wherein bare subsistence was the point aimed at."

"This species of oppression received its most memorable check in the great French Revolution, wherein a new doctrine became firmly rooted in the philosophy of civil government that is, that the toiling masses of society possessed certain inherent rights which kingcraft, hereditary aristocracy, landlordism and usury mongers must respect. As a result of the doctrine studiously inculcated by the philosophers of the French Revolution we had the revolt of the blacks of Haiti, under the heroic Toussaint L'Ouverture, the bloody Dessalines and the suave, diplomatic and courtly Christophe, by which the blacks secured forever their freedom as free men and their independence as a people; and our own great Revolution, wherein the leading complaint was taxation by the British government of the American colonies without conceding them proportionate representation. At bottom in each case, bread and butter was the main issue. So it has always been. So it will continue to be, until the scales of justice are made to strike a true balance between labor on the one hand and the interest on capital invested and the wages of superintendence on the other. Heretofore the interest on capital and the wages of superintendence have absorbed so much of the wealth produced as to leave barely nothing to the share of labor."

"It should be borne in mind that of this trinity labor is the supreme potentiality. Capital, in the first instance, is the product of labor. If there had never been any labor there would not now be any capital to invest. Again, if a bonfire were made of all the so called wealth of the world it would only require a few years for labor to reproduce it; but destroy the brawn and muscle of the world and it could not be reproduced by all the gold ever delved from the mines of California and Australia and the fabulous gems from the diamond fields of Africa. In short, labor has been and is the producing agency, while capital has been and is the absorbing or parasitical agency."

"I abhor injustice and oppression wherever they are to be found, and my best sympathies go out freely to the struggling poor and the tyranny ridden of all races and lands. I believe in the divine right of man, not of caste or class, and I believe that any law made to perpetuate or to give immunity to these as against the masses of mankind is an infamous and not to be borne infringement of the just laws of the Creator, who sends each of us into the world as naked as a newly fledged jay bird and crumbles us back into the elements of Mother Earth by the same processes of mutation and final dissolution."  

*Fortune's home in Red Bank, New Jersey (known as "Maple Hill"), is on the National Register of Historic Places. 


  1. Do you shop at Walmart? If you do, you are not as proworker and pro union as you make out.

  2. Hi, Blackdog,

    No, I do not shop at Walmart--either in-store or online. I haven't done so since about 1999. I know many people who do, though.


  3. Rebecca,

    Where do you see an inequity that must be addressed? People have been duped (by the unions) into believing the old "poor public servant" cry, only to find out that the poor public servant is making a great deal more in both salary and benefits than its equivalent counterparts in the private sector. Unions have been behind the collapse of many industries due to its higher than the market can bear wages and workers who have no accountability. I believe that unions once had a real purpose in this country in terms of protecting the employee from unscrupulous bosses, but that day has long passed. There are many avenues based on company policy plus laws that protect the worker today without needing a "union boss" to fight their battles. Collective Bargaining is not a basic right guaranteed by the constitution and, in addition, who are government employees bargaining with? I as a citizen feel I have the right to say "no" to their excessive wages and demands. Unions are a anachronistic holdover from a day long gone and it's time to evolve.

  4. What the workers in Wisconsin are being asked to contribute is still less than those of us in the private sector. I stand with the Governor of Wisconsin. When the times comes here in NJ, I will stand with the our Governor as well because we the taxpayers simply cannot afford these outlandish benefits anymore.

  5. To 8:22 am: I believe that rapacious corporations are responsible for much of what ails us--greed to the tune of billions and billions of dollars, as well as unfair lending practices, price-gouging, and Wall Street bailouts bear some responsibility. And I believe unscrupulous bosses still exist.

    To 12:25 pm: The governor of Wisconsin is trying to take away the worker's rights to bargain for wages.

  6. How about the rapacious union leaders? How about our corrupt government officials gouging the American taxpayer? I agree with you about Wall Street bailouts, they shouldn't have happened. I believe, without government intervention, the market will right itself and in so doing take care of price gouging. I guess I believe that the government causes more of today's ills than any corporation. Corporations have limited scope, I wish the same could be said for government.

  7. And at the end of the work day the government union workers get in their space ships and spend their money and pay their bills and taxes in Mars. They deserve decent salaries like private sector workers. No christmas bonuses, paid parties and vacations or revenue bonuses. Just families to care for and children to send to school too.