Author Page for Erik Loomis
On a recent afternoon, Hampus Elofsson ended his 40-hour workweek at a Burger King and prepared for a movie and beer with friends. He had paid his rent and all his bills, stashed away some savings, yet still had money for nights out.
That is because he earns the equivalent of $20 an hour — the base wage for fast-food workers throughout Denmark and two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States.
“You can make a decent living here working in fast food,” said Mr. Elofsson, 24. “You don’t have to struggle to get by.”
With an eye to workers like Mr. Elofsson, some American labor activists and liberal scholars are posing a provocative question: If Danish chains can pay $20 an hour, why can’t those in the United States pay the $15 an hour that many fast-food workers have been clamoring for?
“We see from Denmark that it’s possible to run a profitable fast-food business while paying workers these kinds of wages,” said John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington.
And if those fast food companies are less profitable in Denmark than the U.S., well, good! Companies should have lower profits if that money is going into the hands of workers. This seems self-evident to me, but I know even many liberal Americans have so internalized the logic of modern profit ideology that the idea of lower profits in exchange for better lives for low-paid workers makes many people uncomfortable.
This is as good a time as any to announce what I think my next book project is going to be, or at least what I am starting to work on. I want to write a new history of the Industrial Workers of the World that evaluates the union’s successes and failures in terms of what might be useful for modern activists in their own struggles. I am interested in this because the IWW basically exists in leftist memory as a romantic alternative to bureaucratic unionism, the promise of the revolution never achieved thanks to state repression, the AFL, corporate media, name your reason. Especially in an era where activists often don’t see the state as part of the solution, nor 20th century versions of socialism and certainly not the AFL-CIO, the free-flowing, culture producing, decentralized IWW seems an ideal. That the IWW promoted worker participation, bottom up organizing, democratic unionism, and all the other things that modern left critics of labor wants to see makes their vision of it, however accurate or not, powerful.
Theoretically, that should be fine. People are going to use whatever pasts they choose to inform their present. But there are problems. First, the IWW couldn’t actually win anything. Part of that has to do with the conditions in which it organized with a hostile state. But no small part of it was with problems in the IWW organizing model that almost made long-lasting victory impossible. The modern left stance toward the union also leads to cheerleading for a past movement at the expense sometimes of analyzin it. Even professional labor historians are guilty of this, sometimes worse than anyone. When the 2013 Labor and Working Class History Association meeting was coming up, I noted to one of the organizers that it was taking place in New York on the 100th anniversary of the Paterson Strike Pageant. So I was lucky enough to then moderate the panel remembering the event. Before the panel, one of the participants, a major labor historian, was openly talking about how this event should be a celebration.
Well, why? Should any historians be rooting for our protagonists? Does that help? Or is hard-headed analysis pulling no punches about both failures and successes more useful? I’d say the latter. The Paterson Strike Pageant was a complete disaster. The IWW’s cultural production may be appealing to modern leftists, but in this case, it actually split the workers with jealousy since only some workers could participate. It also drew workers away from the actual strike, allowing the factory owners to bring in strikebreakers. It was a horrible decision that doomed that strike (which probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway). It also basically killed the IWW in the east. After 1913, the Wobblies focused almost exclusively on western resource extractive labor for its campaigns.
But the modern left loves the pageant. Why? Because it brought together workers and culture in fun and radical ways that seem to portend a bread and roses culture that is a dream today. Take this essay, which led me to write this post. It’s well researched and well written, yet seems to present a really heroic view of the strike. I haven’t read the book where this is excerpted, but while a People’s Art History of the United States is cool and all, don’t we have to talk about all the ways the Paterson pageant failed miserably? In this case, isn’t the people’s history of the Paterson pageant that it turned workers against one another? If we want to learn lessons from the IWW, shouldn’t they be the right ones? Isn’t the goal to organize workers and win? And if that is the goal, shouldn’t we think about how the IWW did that well and how it did that poorly, without sweeping the latter under the rug in favor of vague notions of solidarity?
So basically what I want to do is write a decidedly unromantic history of the IWW that considers their actions in the context of thinking about usefulness for modern activists. What should we learn and is there anything they did a century ago that might give us pause today? Moreover, I want this to focus more on the rank and file and less on ideology and leadership. Unfortunately, for all the left loves to talk about “the people,” leftists love their Great Man history more than anyone. Joe Hill. Frank Little. Big Bill Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But what about everyday loggers, miners, textile mill workers? Did the IWW work for them? How did they respond to the Wobblies? What did they want and how did the IWW succeed or fail in providing that to them? By exploring these questions, I hope to peel away some of the romance and provide people a more useful past than I think most writers on the IWW give. Even if some people will be mad that I am far from a partisan for the organization.
A This Day in Labor History post next week will expand upon these ideas in the context of a single incident.
On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.
Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.
The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.
In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.
Pollution in Donora (credit here)
The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.
The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.
The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.
U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.
So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.
The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.
The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.
I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.
This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
In the spirit of allowing you fellas out there to adhere to Gilded Age masculinity or New Gilded Age hipster masculinity, I thought you might be interested in this product.
I was perusing old issues of Harper’s a few years ago and the back advertisements were full of beard tonics and the like.
The plutocracy might say the quiet parts loud in China because it doesn’t matter. But the economic elites in the US agree–and always have–that the poor should not have the same rights in the political arena. They might spice it up with rhetoric about “responsibility” or something, but it’s really just that the poor have different interests and therefore must be crushed.
But these strategies for protecting plutocrats from the mob are indirect and imperfect. The obvious answer is Mr. Leung’s: Don’t let the bottom half, or maybe even the bottom 90 percent, vote.
And now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.
The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win.
Democracy versus plutocracy was the fundamental battle of the Gilded Age as well. Democracy sort of won. Will it win in the New Gilded Age? Maybe. Maybe not.
Hiltzik has another good piece, this time featuring maps of preventable diseases to show the impact of the anti-vaccination foolishness. The general outlines we know here since we have slammed on the anti-vaxxers many times. But I thought this was an important point we probably haven’t really covered:
The surge of measles and whooping cough cases underscore the irresponsibility of opinion leaders like Katie Couric in giving anti-vaxxers a popular platform. Too many figures in the entertainment business (Dr. Oz, I’m looking at you) don’t care about making sure their audiences get information tested by science, as long as they can rake in the big bucks. They have a lot to answer for.
Indeed. Much like climate change, the idea that news has to be entertaining and thus present “both sides,” as if there are two sides to the need to get your children vaccinated or the science behind climate change, is incredibly damaging to the world.
If there’s one thing the world needs, it’s Martha Stewart’s website telling people how to host punk rock parties.
The comment section is really great here.
A couple of weeks old, but I figure most of you hadn’t seen it.
Personally, I fear they will ally with the monkeys and robots to enslave us.
Once upon a time, the American economy worked for everybody, and even the middle class got richer. But this story has only been a fairy tale for almost 30 years now. The new, harsh reality is that the bottom 90 percent of households are poorer today than they were in 1987.
This is actually a much more dramatic statement than it sounds. While the Federal Reserve has already told us that the median households is worth less now than it was in 1989 — that’s the household right in the middle — it turns out that everybody but the richest 10 percent of Americans are worst off. That includes the poor, the entire middle class, and even what we would consider much of the upper class.
It’s been a lost 25 years for the bottom 90 percent, but a lost 15 for the next 9 percent, too. That’s right: altogether, the bottom 99 percent are worth less today than they were in 1998.
But this isn’t a story about the top 1 percent running away from everybody else. It’s a story about the top 0.1 — scratch that, the top 0.01 percent — doing so. You can see that in the chart below, again based on data from Saez and Zucman, of each group’s share of US wealth. Indeed, since 1980, the top 0.01 percent’s piece of the wealth pie has increased by 8.6 percentage points, while the next 0.09 percent’s has done so by 5.4. The bottom 99 percent, meanwhile, have seen their wealth share fall an astonishing 18 percentage points.
Forcing impoverished graduate students and adjunct faculty to travel to a random expensive city for 30 minute first round job interview is one of the least morally defensible parts of academia. Professional associations need to stop it.
[SL] Make sure to click through and read this as well. Even before the age of Skype this practice was absolutely indefensible; the application materials and perhaps a phone call are perfectly sufficient for a preliminary interview process. It’s just a bigger disgrace now.