Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

Rising Oceans

[ 48 ] March 1, 2015 |

Welcome to the future:

Sea levels across the Northeast coast of the United States rose nearly 3.9 inches between 2009 and 2010, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The waters near Portland, Maine, saw an even greater rise — 5 inches — over the two-year period.

While scientists have been observing higher sea levels across the globe in recent decades, the study found a much more extreme rise than previous averages. Such an event is “unprecedented” in the history of the tide gauge record, according to the researchers, and represents a 1-in-850 year event.

“Unlike storm surge, this event caused persistent and widespread coastal flooding even without apparent weather processes,” the study’s authors wrote. “In terms of beach erosion, the impact of the 2009-2010 [sea level rise] event is almost as significant as some hurricane events.”

At least we are taking climate change seriously and are ready to do what it takes to save our coastlines…

Memorializing Slavery

[ 106 ] March 1, 2015 |

The fact that a wealthy white man would buy an antebellum Louisiana sugar plantation and turn it into a no punches pulled museum on slavery, the first museum dedicated wholly to slavery in the United States (the U.S. has the Holocaust Museum despite no appropriate museum dealing with its own genocidal projects) is remarkable and an obvious must visit the next time I am in the area.

This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1936

[ 15 ] March 1, 2015 |

On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.

The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.

The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.

The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.

Wash-No-2244

Building Hoover Dam

Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.

But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”

getimage.exe

The 1931 strike

The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.

The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.

This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“Because I Will Sign a Right to Work Bill, I Could Personally Have Defeated the Nazis”

[ 94 ] February 28, 2015 |

At one time, I was really worried about Scott Walker becoming president. But with each passing day, it’s increasingly clear that this is a person not ready for prime time. Instead, this is Sarah Palin in a tie. Just one of many examples:

In response to a question from an audience member at at the Conservative Political Action conference earlier in the evening, Walker brought up the massive protests in Wisconsin in 2011 over a law he signed stripping public-sector unions of their power to collectively bargain.

“I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists do not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world,” Walker said. “We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Following the remarks, the National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote that he took no pleasure in defending the union protesters, but that Walker gave a “terrible response” to the Islamic State question. A spokeswoman for Walker’s political committee later sent Geraghty a statement downplaying the governor’s mention of the protesters.

“Governor Walker believes our fight against ISIS is one of the most important issues our country face,” the statement to Geraghty from Walker spokeswoman Kristen Kukowski said. “He was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS. What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership. Those are the qualities we need to fix the leadership void this White House has created.”

In an interview with Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin and John Heilemann after the CPAC speech, Heilemann gave Walker a golden opportunity to deny that he was equating violent extremists with union protesters.

“You’re not actually comparing ISIS terrorists to the protesters in Wisconsin, right?” Heilemann asked him. “You’re not trying to make that comparison in either direction, that the protesters are equivalent to terrorists or that the terrorists are equivalent to protesters?”

“Not by a landmine — by a landslide out there difference, a Grand Canyon-sized difference,” Walker replied. “My point was just if I can handle that kind of pressure, that kind of intensity, I think I’m up for the challenge for whatever might come if i choose to run for President.”

I guess his strategy is to say as many crazy things as possible to win the Republican nomination and then assume the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson will buy him the job with hundreds of millions in negative ads. But there’s way too much he can’t walk back here and thinking about this man facing Hillary Clinton in a debate makes me laugh. Of course, it’s entirely possible his strategy could work.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and International Conceptions of Race in America

[ 2 ] February 28, 2015 |

Interesting essay on the influence of the racial stereotypes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on German conceptions of American racial issues.

For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi] Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States. But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message. The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.

A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device. A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change. Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake. History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy. This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.

As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’ Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America. The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii] The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation. When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.

De-tenuring

[ 47 ] February 28, 2015 |

A disturbing proposal out of Tennessee. In response to continued decreases in state funding of higher education, the Board of Trustees has announced cost cutting and revenue raising plans that are terrible for both students and faculty but fairly expected. And tacked on is something very weird and upsetting:

Tenure and post-tenure review process: To be conducted by UT System Administration and with involvement by the Faculty Council, to look at awarding of tenure, post-tenure compensation and enacting of a de-tenure process.

A de-tenure process? First, what on earth does that have to do with the funding crisis? The answer is of course nothing but a university shock doctrine, with the Board using financial problems in order to gain power over professors. What would call for the loss of tenure? It’s unstated at this time, but one assumes the answer is anything that a provost or professor doesn’t want professors to say would be one likely category.

More here as the war on faculty continues.

King Art of North Carolina

[ 20 ] February 27, 2015 |

Art Pope’s rule as King of North Carolina continues with the closing of centers on North Carolina campuses that deal with social and ecological issues:

The full UNC Board of Governors met in Charlotte this morning and voted unanimously to close three academic centers.

The centers ordered to close are: the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill; the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central.

Board of Governors leadership denied that politics played a role.

Dozens of students and others attended the Board meeting and protested the decision. Several spoke out during the discussion and were removed from the meeting. Board Chair John Fennebresque eventually had to recess and move the meeting to another room as protestors shouted and chanted outside the door.

Not political?

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors, which consists almost entirely of Republican appointees, opted Friday to disband the think-tank run by Gene Nichol, a law professor and former Democratic congressional candidate from Colorado.

About two-dozen activists demonstrated against closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was created to help launch John Edwards’ presidential campaign. Some protesters were told to leave and led out by UNC-Charlotte campus police.

State university leaders moved to a smaller room, allowing in board members, reporters and staffers and leaving protesters to chant outside.

Nichol has acidly criticized the policies advanced by McCrory and Republican lawmakers. In one 2013 opinion essay, he compared McCrory to 1960s-era segregationist Southern governors because of his support for tougher election laws. Subsequent newspaper opinion pieces included the disclaimer that Nichol doesn’t speak for UNC.

Nichols swiftly responded to the decision, saying in an email to The Associated Press that it was an effort to punish him as the center’s director “for publishing articles that displease the Board and its political benefactors.”

Right.

What Could Go Wrong

[ 10 ] February 27, 2015 |

Good ol’ regulatory capture: Department of Agriculture edition from Tom Philpott:

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

What’s more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That’s when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speed-up formula sounds familiar, it’s because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did greenlight turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: 1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; 2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and 3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of 1) and 2).

Good times. My only problem with Philpott’s piece is how much it underplays the effect of the speedup on workplace safety. It’s referenced in passing, but like so much when it comes to the food industry, consumers’ interests are privileged above that of workers, when in fact the two are so interconnected that any reasonable analysis can not really separate them. The meat industry is already incredibly dangerous labor and speed-ups always make labor more dangerous, while also of course making inspections less rigorous and with greater likelihood of tainted meat getting to the consumer. Both issues are equally important.

Really, it’s impossible to see what could go wrong with the meat industry regulating itself. That is, if you like killing workers.

The NCAA

[ 44 ] February 25, 2015 |

As always, the NCAA is standing up for what is right and good in the world:

Baylor walk-on running back Silas Nacita announced he has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for accepting impermissible benefits while he was homeless last summer.

Nacita, a backup who rushed for three touchdowns last season, walked on to the Baylor program in the summer of 2014 after being homeless for a year.

“A few months before enrolling, a close family friend approached me and said they didn’t want me sleeping on floors and wondering how I was going to eat the next meal,” Nacita wrote on his @Salsa_Nacho Twitter account, “so they insisted on putting me in an apartment and helping out with those living expenses.

“Because I accepted that offer instead of choosing to be homeless, I am no longer eligible to play football and pursue my dream. I had no idea I was breaking any rules, but I respect the decision of the NCAA.”

Can we somehow get rid of this organization?

[PC]: The NCAA is a tax-exempt charitable non-profit organization, which means that its leaders are engaged in public service. Here’s how certain “key employees” were compensated for serving the public interest in fiscal year 2013 (these numbers are no doubt quite a bit higher now, with the advent of the non-profit football playoff):

Mark Emmert, President: $1,707,966

James Isch, Chief Operating Officer: $1,013,063

Donald Remy, Executive Vice President: $619,663

Bernard Franklin, Executive Vice President: $566,121

On the other hand, Roger Goodell got paid $44 million to do no one is sure exactly what for the NFL last year, so I guess these guys are practically giving away their public service, all things considered.

This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1908

[ 20 ] February 24, 2015 |

On February 24, 1908, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Muller v. Oregon. This landmark decision upheld the idea that, at least for women, laws restricting the hours of work were constitutional. This would be a major victory in the long fight to bring working hours down to eight hours nationally, a dream that had already extended for more than two decades and would not be realized for another thirty years. It also created gender inequities in labor law with implications that continue today.

In 1903, Oregon had passed a law limiting the hours of women to ten hours a day and sixty hours a week. Curt Muller, a laundry business owner in Portland, sued the state. Muller believed, for good reason given the predominant legal climate of the time, that he signed legal contracts with individual workers when he hired them and that those workers freely agreed to the terms of hours and wages when they took the job. Yet, these ideas were increasingly challenged during the Progressive Era, as activists sought to create a more fair America that protected basic rights of workers to a decent life. This was especially true for women workers, who many Progressives saw as both uniquely exploited and mothers responsible for raising the next generation of Americans. Progressives argued that whatever the merits of the freedom of contract interpretation of labor legislation, the state had a unique interest in excepting women from that principle. Progressives were especially prominent in states like Oregon, as well as Wisconsin and Washington, which would see the first workers’ compensation legislation a few years later. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the the state’s law and Muller then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Muller-v.-Oregon

Laundry workers

Supporting Oregon’s case was Louis Brandeis, who filed a lengthy brief, mostly created by his sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, an activist with the National Consumers League, about women’s working conditions and lives, helping to sway the case. Brandeis employed this paternalistic ideal of women as mothers to justify upholding the law because the state had an interest in the health of future generations of Americans. He used four specific arguments. First, women were physically different and weaker than men. Second, damage to women’s health on the job might affect their reproductive capacity. Third, the health of children might be damaged if the mother was overworked. Fourth, long workdays deprived family members of their wife and mother.

225px-brandeisl

Louis Brandeis

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the law’s constitutionality. David Brewer wrote the opinion. Part of the reason this was such a landmark decision was its partial repeal of Lochner v. New York , decided just three years before. Lochner invalidated state laws on the hours of bakers and thus hours legislation nationwide based on the idea of the liberty of contract that it read into the 14th Amendment. But Brewer was clear that this was no rejection of Lochner. Rather women were different than men and thus deserved protection:

That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

In short, the justices had a gendered construction of freedom of contract. They held to the Gilded Age belief that individual male workers freely signed agreements with employers (thus making labor legislation unconstitutional because it would violate that freedom of contract) but for women workers the state’s interest was greater than this freedom. This was not completely unprecedented however, for as early as 1876, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had founded similarly, as had several additional states between then and 1908, although Illinois had overturned a law restricting women’s hours that applied freedom of contract to women as well as men.

The legacy of Muller is complicated because of the paternalism at its core. It fit the ideals of many Progressive reformers, who used ideas of femininity and motherhood to protect women and children in a number of ways, but especially at the workplace. For people like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, these sorts of decisions were validations of their larger campaigns to protect poor women from the ravages of industrial life. But the small more explicitly feminist movement disliked the decision because it created artificial differences between the sexes.

Still, placing Muller in the context of the time, we should see it as an important victory because of its precedent setting approval of hours laws for anyone. Lochner reinforced the idea so prevalent in American business that corporations had no responsibility to anyone and that the halls of Congress and federal courtrooms would reinforce this if necessary. Even if Muller was sexist, for a lot of labor activists getting these principles applied to women laid the groundwork for all workers, which may not have been the goal of all Progressives, but was for labor activists. Establishing this principle did indeed start chipping away at the freedom of contract idea and within a decade, many industries would have 8-hour days.

States followed up on Mueller by passing night work laws for women to ensure they were not laboring during hours deemed by the state to be hours when they should be taking care of their children. Between 1909 and 1917, 19 states passed new legislation limiting the hours of women’s work, leaving only 9 states in 1917 that lacked any restrictions at all, a number that decreased to 5 by the mid-1920s. However, in most if not all of these states, the laws did not cover domestic or agricultural workers. The decision itself was rendered irrelevant by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 since it provided equal coverage for men and women. Yet gender inequities on the job have never fully been overcome, not even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The struggle for real equality on the job continues today.

I relied on Andrea Tone, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America and Nancy S. Jackson, “Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-Based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract” in Labor History, September 1989.

This is the 133th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 23, 1864

[ 10 ] February 23, 2015 |

On February 23, 1864, Kate Mullaney (sometimes spelled Mullany), leader of the Collar Laundry Union, the second all-female union in the United States (the Lowell Female Reform Association, established in 1845, was the first), led union members in Troy, New York out on strike. The CLU wanted higher wages and better working conditions. The strike succeeded, marking a rare union victory for women workers during the era.

Women working in commercial laundries faced the terrible working conditions that were becoming so common as the nation industrialized in the mid-19th century. They worked 12-14 hour days in extraordinarily hot workplaces. The Collar Laundry Union workers labored specifically with collars. This required the use of harsh, caustic chemicals and boiling water. Workers frequently suffered severe burns. Like in the rest of American work in the second half of the 19th century, rapid technological advancements came at the price of worker safety. In this case, it was new starching machines that were known for causing horrific burns for workers. Of course, companies were not held responsible for workers getting hurt or dying on the job. The pay for this labor: $3 a week.

Kate Mullaney was an Irish immigrant born in 1845, emigrating during her teenage years. Her family ended up in Troy, New York, a growing industrial city that specialized in iron foundries and collar production. Troy was one of the nation’s most prosperous cities at this time. In 1864, about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collar production (a popular fashion of the time) was located in Troy. In the 1860s, about 3000 women worked in the Troy collar laundries. Mullaney was forced into the labor force in the early 1860s when her father died and with her mother an invalid, she became the family’s primary breadwinner. Like the vast majority of the collar workers, Mullaney was a young unmarried woman. 92 percent of the Irish collar workers were single, and another 5 percent widows. Generally, the Irish worked in the collar laundries while native-born Protestants labored in collar sewing, as it paid better and was seen as more respectable, not to mention was less dangerous. Like much work as well, these jobs tended to be passed through families, as workers got jobs for their younger family members.

It did not take long for Mullaney to become a leader of the collar workers movement to make a better life for themselves. On February 23, 1864, she led about 300 workers out of the job and onto the streets. Within a week, 20 Troy laundries increased workers’ pay over 20 percent and agreed to work on safety issues. The strike made the union a successful operation. The CLU lasted for five years, which may not seem long to us today, but that in an era of nascent labor organizations, that was a pretty long run. In 1866, the CLU again went on strike, forcing employers to raise wages to $14 a week, over four times what workers made just two years earlier.

Under Mullaney’s leadership, the CLU was pretty radical for its time. It donated large sums to striking male unions in a time when that was not so common. In 1868, National Labor Union president William Sylvis appointed Mullaney to the NLU’s national office as assistant secretary and women’s organizer, probably making her the first woman to hold a position in a large national labor union. The NLU was also a Troy-based organization, with Sylvis the head of the Iron Moulders Union that had made that city a strong union town for the era. Sylvis also had long supported the idea of women’s unions and so was quite favorably disposed to the CLU. Mullaney was actually elected second vice president of the union at the 1868 NLU convention but she declined that offer.

In March 1869, the CLU won another strike, but this convinced operators to destroy the union. That May workers again walked off the job. But the owners were starting to follow a strategy that would prove very effective throughout this period at forestalling unionization in the United States–they organized and planned a common strategy against the unions. They pressured smaller operators to hold out against the CLU, began to recruit scab laborers, and worked to control press coverage of the strike in Troy. The workers protested the bad press coverage, but while the Troy Times published a letter by the workers, it refused to endorse their actions. New York City newspapers provided more sympathetic coverage, but that was relatively far away. Perhaps the most effective action was to lockout union members. The owners offered more wage increases to workers, but only if they agreed to leave the union. This proved effective. The strike was lost and the union destroyed.

In its wake, Mullaney and some of the other collar workers formed their own collar manufacturing cooperative, Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactury. Mullaney became president of that cooperative and, working with friends in the women’s rights movement, sought wealthy investors to fund the enterprise. Alas, the cooperative failed in the wake of both struggles to keep up with the latest technologies and the replacement of cloth collars with paper collars, which led to the slow decline entire Troy collar industry, although factories were still active into the 1880s. In 1870, Mullaney dissolved the CLU, which was also suffering after the death of Sylvis and the loss of support from the National Labor Union.

At this point, Mullaney and her fellow workers returned to work for their employers at the May 1869 wage levels, but again, this did not last long because of fashion changes. Mullaney eventually faded from view after 1870. We know she married at some point and that she died in in 1906 in Troy. She ended up remaining poor, being buried in an unmarked grave until the 1990s, when women’s rights and labor rights advocates fought to create a National Historic Landmark to remember Mullaney and the CLU. She was given a proper headstone and her home marked with a plaque.

Kate Mullany House dedication

Dedication of Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark

Collar workers continued to organize, with hundreds joining the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.

I borrowed much of this material from Tiffany Wayne, ed., Women’s Rights in the United States: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Events and People, Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-86, and a bit from Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, eds., America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present.

This is the 132nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Your Annual Reminder

[ 335 ] February 22, 2015 |

On Oscar night, it’s always worth a reminder that Crash is a disgusting, loathsome piece of garbage that is the worst Best Picture winner in Oscar history, despite what SEK says (and I grant him that under normal circumstances Titanic should have a good claim, but this is Crash we are talking about here). In 2013, Mallory Ortberg and Anne Helen Petersen had a conversation about just how awful it was. The conclusion: truly awful.

Mallory: Liking Crash is a symptom of the worst kind of moral and cultural laziness. I feel free to make the wildest assumptions about Crash enthusiasts: they probably also enjoy Dave Matthews’ “Crash” and making Guy Fieri jokes. They pronounce it “cue-pon,” not “coo-pon.” They eat at the kind of restaurant where the provenance of each ingredient is carefully listed but the servers and bussers don’t get health insurance. They buy scented candles and the wrong kind of disposable napkins. Crash fans also wade into the comments of news articles to take issue with referring to George Zimmerman as a murderer because “we don’t have all the facts yet” and pride themselves on their objectivity. Related: I am a monster.

Anne Helen: Can we talk about how for many years the movie was perpetually #1 on Netflix’s most-rented list? That fucking kills me. Why do people rent this movie? Do they rent it and realize that they never want to watch it because it’s so self-congratulatory and head-thumpingly moralistic and thus never send it back? Or, WORST NIGHTMARE, do they rent it, watch it while sharing a bottle of Chardonnay, turn it off, and talk about how awful those things were but thank god we don’t live in a place where racism is actually a problem?

Mallory: I do worry about this! I worry about these people very much (you’re welcome, people. I am looking out for you).

Anne Helen: Crash pushes the sort of middlebrow pseudo-intellectualism that I have zero problem decrying. I’m not a total asshole; I’m constantly interrogating the conflation of taste and class. But as you say above, admiring Crash is lazy. Thinking it’s deep is lazy.

Mallory: Also this movie has the worst and weirdest moral equations going on, like Q: If someone who sexually assaulted you later saves your life, is he still racist? A: My daughter is dead.

If anything, this underplays how bad Crash is.

Page 1 of 29012345...102030...Last »