Sunday, April 28, 2013

National Poetry Month—An Unknown Proletarian "We Have Fed You All for A Thousand Years"

Today is Workers’ Memorial Day which commemorates those who died at work or as a result of their labor. The date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in the United States and commemorates the day of a construction accident in Connecticut that claimed 28 lives. 
The first observance actually originated in 1984 by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), but has been embraced by American labor and has spread across the globe.
Beyond being a solemn memorial to the fallen it promotes safer working conditions for the living.
Some folks think that horrendous industrial catastrophes like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the many mine cave-ins and fires are things of the distant past.  But events of the past week lay that spurious notion to rest.  We have had yet another mass disaster at a Bangladesh garment factory—the third over the past few months—which has killed a thousand or more mostly female workers in a building collapse.  And here in the U.S. a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas obliterated much of a town and killed 14, including 11 firefighters responding to the emergency, wounded over 200.
Workers continue to die not only in mass casualty situations, but singly on construction sites, vehicle crashes, and every sort of horrid industrial accident.  Hundreds, probably thousands, perish every year from disease caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, dust, polluted air, and other environmental hazards on the job.
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that many of these deaths are preventable—if safety and the concern for workers’ health were not routinely placed at the bottom of concern, far below the maximization of immediate profits.  Workers are still disposable commodities for too many employers and the politicians who enable them.
On April 18, 1909 a poem ascribed to an Unknown Proletarian was published in the Industrial Union Bulletin, a publication of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  It was soon included in early editions of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, better known as the unions Little Red Songbook.  The words were set to music by Rudolph Von Liebich and the IWW published the sheet music which remained in print for decades.
We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years was performed by Utah Phillips and many other labor troubadours. 
Whether as a song or as a poem the words remain as powerful and true today as they were over a 100 years ago.
We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years
We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed.
Though there's never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool
But if blood be the price of all your wealth
Good God we have paid in full!

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth
Good God we have paid it in!

We have fed you all for a thousand years
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives
And we’re told it’s your legal share.
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God we bought it fair!

—An Unknown Proletarian

1 comment:

  1. I really like that, you know? Some things just can't be too strongly stated. As usual, thanks, Pat!