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This land was made for you and me

Just a thought

January 18, 2012
"This land is your land

This land is my land

From California to the New York island

From the Redwood forest

To the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me."

If he were still alive, Woody Guthrie, who wrote that song, would turn 100 this year. Since it was written, back in the days of labor disputes and union organizing, the song has become a sort of national anthem. It is sung by children in classrooms and gymnasiums, at political events, protests and even around Boy Scout campfires and encourages young people to be aware of how great this nation is and, indeed, how it belongs to all of us.

Many young people don't have a clue who Woodie Guthrie was, or even that he wrote the song that most of them know the words to, but they sing it still, and all of us feel something tugging at our hearts and a sense of pride when the song is recited.

Guthrie, who was from a working-class family in Oklahoma, came of age during the Great Depression and never forgot the hunger and pain on the faces of people all around him. He spent a major part of his life using his creative abilities as a musician/songwriter to further the cause of working people. Long before he was famous, he was a crusader, traveling around the country, showing up wherever there was a labor dispute or where workers were attempting to organize, and sang about them and to them. He encouraged working people to stand up to big business: to the mine owners, factory owners, steel mill owners and others who made huge fortunes off the backs of underpaid and overworked people in this country. He was one of those people who was instrumental in the creation of the middle class. He has been accused of being a communist, or a socialist, or a troublemaker, but, mainly, he was just a guy with a guitar who loved and understood working people.

Guthrie, who died in 1967, lived to see the middle class prosper. He saw his and the efforts of many others bear fruit as regular American workers were finally able to afford to buy the products they made. He saw them take their families on vacations. He saw the work weeks changed to 40 hours so Americans could have time with their families. He lived to see fewer workers injured and killed on the job due to humane safety rules. And he lived to see American workers have a voice and the ability to contribute in the decision-making process that affected their lives.

But just a couple of decades after Guthrie's death, everything that was gained through organizing became the target of greedy corporations once again. And even though they couldn't take those rights away from union workers without a huge battle, they began trying another ploy: buying politicians with the promise of large campaign contributions and insisting that they rewrite laws that favor big business. By no means all, but many politicians had no problem with the plan, and in the last few years, the investment corporations made to buy politicians has begun to pay off, big time. We're seeing that play out right now in Indiana with the "Right to Work" legislation. Even Kentucky had enough sense to reject the same union-busting attempt there.

And the safety nets like Social Security and Medicare that, since Guthrie's time, have provided Americans with a way to live their elderly years with some dignity, are under attack by many politicians, as well. Few companies offer employees any kind of pension anymore. They don't want to pay enough for people to be able to save for retirement either, and they want their paid political buddies, many of whom have jumped onboard, to abolish Social Security or, as Republican Rick Perry calls it, the "Ponzi scheme." The future doesn't look too bright for older Americans and the poor. If Woody Guthrie were still alive, I'll bet there would be a song about it.

In just the last few days, it was reported that a billionaire casino owner recently sent Newt Gingrich's campaign a check for $5 million. Can a rich person now buy an election? It certainly looks like it. No one gives anyone $5 million for nothing. The casino owner has $5 million available to have his voice heard. All workers have, if they're lucky, are their unions. Without union representation, workers go to work with a gag in their mouth; the boss will be the only voice. The politicians they vote into office no longer represent them; they represent corporations. Republicans now have many people believing that they should turn on their fellow Americans workers, that, if they don't like unions, they should have the power to deny them to others. Why do people believe this? Why do some people believe that if they help break their neighbor's union representation, their own lives will be better? Meanwhile, they drive around in their union-made cars and pickups, live in homes with union-installed plumbing and electricity, drive on roads and bridges built by union workers and work in buildings constructed by the sweat of union crews. They talk about union thugs but never mention corporate thugs, like Mitt Romney, the ones who do them the most harm. The brainwashing is simply amazing — resent anyone who makes a few more dollars an hour than you. Instead of striving harder to elevate yourself, you work to tear the others down to your level. That sort of reveals the Republican motto of "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" for what it is. Because all the while, they're nailing those boots to the floor to keep workers from going anywhere.

Members of Congress constantly talk about "what the American people want," but, in reality, they don't have a clue and don't care. With an approval level of only 8 or 9 percent, it's obvious they know very little about what Americans want. But they are certainly aware of what corporations and the rich want. We're seeing that right now in Indianapolis.

It's made an almost full circle now. We're going back, with the help of people who can't think for themselves and rich politicians who lead them around by the nose, to the days when corporations dominate us, when we don't have a voice, when we work 80-hour work weeks with no overtime, no vacation, sick leave, etc., and back to the days when the rich laugh at our ignorance and helplessness. Back to the days when there were no pensions and no Social Security. Back to the days when 75 miners die in an unsafe mine, they just seal up the hole and start another one somewhere else. Back to the days when corporations filled the lungs of their workers with asbestos, coal dust and deadly chemicals without a second thought.

Years ago, in Woody Guthrie's day, our fathers and grandfathers worked so hard and sacrificed so much to set us up to be treated with respect and dignity and to share in the spoils of hard work and innovation. Isn't that the American dream? Unions made it possible for workers all over the country to share in that dream, and, without those unions, the dream would look more like a nightmare. In this country, union workers make a median income of $917 a week while non-union workers earn $717; that's what this right-to-work legislation is about: lower wages. It is common knowledge now that corporations are making record profits and sitting on billions of dollars of cash, and it still isn't enough to please them.

"This land was made for you and me" is a line in a song that we all agree with. And that line was written to bring people together as a group, to give them hope, at a time when workers were paid $3 a day for an 80-hour work week. It is thought that about 40 percent of union workers voted for Republicans in the last election, but they have also joined those union workers who voted for Democrats in this fight against the Right to Work legislation. That's a good sign. The two parties can never seem to work together in Indianapolis or Washington, D.C., but if workers, both Democrats and Republicans, realize they all have the same goals and work together, they can hold the middle class together. They are the only group strong enough to do it. They did it once before, and Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it. "This land is your land, this land is my land."

Most of us know the three popular verses of Guthrie's song. But there was a fourth, one that many never wanted anyone to sing:

"In the squares of the city

In the shadow of the steeple

By the relief office

I'd seen my people

As they stood there hungry

I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?"

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Barbara Shaw
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