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Anti-Legalization Pot Farmers

[ 61 ] February 13, 2013 |

So I found this Doug Fine piece on keeping cannabis production out of corporate hands a little frustrating. Fine’s basic argument is that with the increased likelihood of legalized marijuana production, we have to keep pot farming out of corporate hands.

Now, you might agree with this in principle. Certainly corporate farming has gigantic problems–terrible labor practices, vast monocultures that threaten the long-term health of the ecosystem, fertilizer use that creates a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, erosion, the squeezing out of small farmers, etc. So it’s not a good model for a sustainable and just food (and other things) system.

But we also have to look at the underlying arguments behind an anti-corporate message. Here it gets quite a bit sketchier. Read this:

The answer has as much to do with simple accounting as the more common outsider assumption: that farmers fear the price drops that come when a prohibitionary economy dissolves (though this is certainly part of the story). When, in three generations of farming, your family has never had to pay taxes, record payroll or meet building code, let alone meet a customer (the Emerald Triangle has an entire caste of middlemen and women who broker wholesale deals, so the farmer doesn’t have to leave the farm), the prospect of coming aboveground — and dealing with the same red tape every other industry does — can be terrifying.

Some of these farmers, like all successful small-business owners in any industry, resist change in knee-jerk fashion by distributing worst-case scenarios the way some people pass around business cards. “Look at tobacco,” Mark told me at the Food Bank. “They’ve made the paperwork crazy complicated so only giant corporate farmers can afford to grow it commercially.”

He’s actually correct. Section 40 of Title 27 of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations has 534 subsections. You need a corporate lawyer on call to endure this document without a migraine. The system favors big producers, and Big Tobacco is at least paying attention to federal drug law: NPR has reported that Philip Morris trademarked the brand “Marley” at the height of Just Say No in 1983 (though this doesn’t turn up at the United States Patent and Trademark site, and the company is mum). And Dan Mitchell reported in Fortune that tobacco company Brown & Williamson “enthusiastically” advised, in a 1970s internal report, that the company start viewing marijuana as “an alternative product line.”

A couple of points.

First, I’m not seeing any of this as a particularly bad thing. You mean, marijuana farmers should have to comply with federal regulations? Um, yeah. And pay taxes? You bet. I’m sure it’s a pain to deal with, but so what? The anti-regulation argument is one I really can’t stomach. Sure, the document causes a migraine to read. So is the answer that we get rid of these kinds of complex federal regulations? What is the alternative here? Fine notes the desire to look at marijuana more like craft beer and that’s fine, maybe the market will fall this way. But those craft brewers also deal with all kinds of regulatory frameworks.

Second, there’s some stories not told here. Marijuana without regulation means crops grown with absolutely no environmental restriction. It means farmers can dump gigantic amounts of rat poison around marijuana plants so that rodents die, which goes right up the food chain, among many other examples. Right now, the marijuana economy also does not have to abide by labor standards. On the farms, my understanding of it is that it’s a lot of transient labor looking for short-term work, but there’s no one enforcing any real labor law at all (though some of you may know more about this than I do). In the California dispensaries, the United Food and Commercial Workers has stepped in to represent these workers. While the article portrays the union as having generally OK relations with employers, the idea that hippies aren’t union-busters doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Hip capitalism is often as rapacious as its traditional counterparts in other industries.

There’s no question that northern California marijuana farmers are acting with their ballots–the risk of prison is worth the profits. Both Mendocino and Humboldt counties voted against Proposition 19 in 2010, despite the fact that marijuana is their prime economic base.

What we need is a fully legalized and very heavily regulated marijuana industry. I know that our regulatory system has problems (largely because of regulatory capture), but I at least prioritize enforcing labor law, environmental regulation, and the tax code over keeping the industry “anti-capitalist,” whatever that means in this situation.

This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1865

[ 12 ] February 13, 2013 |

On February 13, 1865, the Sons of Vulcan, the first American union in iron and steel, ended its strike, leading to the first union contract in American history.

The Sons of Vulcan formed in 1858 in Pittsburgh, including workers laboring in the small but steadily growing steel industry that would explode after the Civil War. Most of these early iron and steel workers were immigrants who came over from the mills of England, Scotland, and Wales. The union consisted of puddlers, who stirred molten iron with iron bars in order to oxidize carbon in the iron and burn it off, as well as manufacturing rollers that shape the steel. Now I don’t know about you, but stirring molten iron with an iron bar and without any kind of workplace protection sounds pretty tough to me. As common at the time, this was really a union of puddlers alone, as they were committed to craft unionism.

When the Civil War began, the Sons of Vulcan found themselves with a lot of power. Their work was absolutely vital to the war effort and because it was skilled labor, employers did not want to fire them, even if they hated unionism. The Sons of Vulcan went out on strike in June 1864 because employers believed the war was winding down and lowered wages. They stayed on strike for 8 months, returning to work on February 13, 1865. Finally, the industry caved and employers agreed to wages based upon the price of iron, union recognition, and the first union contract in American history–quite a victory for 1865! The contract tied wage rates to market prices, ensuring workers a share of growing profit. In the case of a contracting market, the contract also froze wage rates before declining for 2 months to give workers some time, which provided some protections in the boom and bust economy of the Gilded Age.

This led to a rapid expansion for the Sons of Vulcan. Originally a Pennsylvania union, it soon organized locals from Kentucky to Maryland to New York, with widespread support in the steel forges. By 1867, the union had over 1500 members and by 1873, about 3300 members. The Sons of Vulcan’s peak of power was in the 1870s, when it was probably the strongest union in the United States. The Panic of 1873 caused widespread unemployment and union membership declined, but it was still the shining light of organized labor through this crisis.

That said, this is unionism in its infancy and they made a lot of mistakes that later unionists would learn from. First, financial contributions to the union were voluntary rather than dues-based. That made the economic basis of the union shaky even at its best. Second, when a group of people found it necessary to go on strike, union policy was that it was only those people who would strike. The rest of the production process would continue, even with other union members not touched by that particular grievance. This meant that employers could break these little strikes easily. Locals could easily collapse with the combination of these two policies and in fact membership fell by half in 1867 and 1868 after a number of failed strikes and lack of resources undermined over two dozen locals.

Like most unions at this time, the Sons of Vulcan banned black members, which allowed employers to use racism as a unionbusting force. With more African-Americans arriving in Pittsburgh to work in the city’s growing steel mills, employers used them to undermine organized labor. A Sons of Vulcan strike in 1874-75 was undermined by the importation of black labor from the South, specifically experienced puddlers from the steelworks in Richmond. It’s hardly surprising then that the African-American community held the American labor movement with such suspicion through much of the twentieth century. More broadly, the Anglo-Saxon membership of the steel mills would have great difficulty adjusting to the entrance of workers from eastern and southern Europe as well, and the story of how employers could take advantage of ethnic and racial tensions is well-known.

Ultimately, the need to think about steel through the process of industrial rather than craft unionism took hold, a lesson that many unions would not learn for a very long time (I’m looking at you American Federation of Labor). The difficulty of the 1874-75 strike that led to black strikebreakers really scared the puddlers and they began to believe they had to align their interests with other workers. Other craft unions had sprung up in the steel mills and all found themselves unable to halt production when striking. During the 1870s, the Sons of Vulcan began negotiating with these other unions, including the Associated Brotherhood of Iron and Steel Heaters, Rollers, and Roughers and the Iron and Steel Roll Hands of the United States, to merge. In August 1876, the three unions met in Pittsburgh, where they merged into the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the first industrial union in American history. The old Sons of Vulcan locals made about 85% of the new union at its creation and continued to dominate it well into the 1890s. That union became the organization that represented workers at the Homestead Strike of 1892, which effectively ended the AA’s leading role in American labor, although it would hang around until the 1930s. The continued opposition in the AA to black labor allowed Carnegie to use African-Americans as strikebreakers during the Homestead strike; an 1884 riot against the importation of blacks as strikebreakers certainly did not leave those workers exactly feeling solidarity with whites.

This is the 52nd post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

We Are All Maureen Dowd

[ 199 ] February 12, 2013 |

Not sure how many of you are on Twitter, but the progressive Twittersphere exploded in hilarity when Marco Rubio took a drink of water during his response to the State of the Union.

I know, right. Water! Ha ha ha ha?

I’m sure you’ll see plenty of hilarious discussions about this in the next 24 hours.

Look, Marco Rubio is an awful guy. He wants to destroy the middle class, make abortion illegal, etc., etc. The only reason Republicans are looking at him as their savior in 2016 is that he’s brown. There’s all kinds of things to attack him on. Go for it. Tear his horrible ideas to shreds.

But who the hell cares if Marco Rubio got cottonmouth and had to take a drink of water? Is this really what progressives want to be talking about? Are we all Maureen Dowd now, using trivia to make cheap, pointless political jabs based on nothing?

Between this and the George W. Bush paintings, the impossible has happened–I feel bad for right-wing politicians whose ideas I find abhorrent. Thanks!

Official LGM Valentine’s Day Dinner*

[ 55 ] February 12, 2013 |

When I was looking for the recipe for last night’s delightful meal recommendation, I ran across this classic seafood mousse dish that I thought would just be wonderful for all of you who are cooking a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner for your special someone.

Let me know if this helps make your day extra special.

* Not actually officially sanctioned by LGM. Or really, anyone.

Ted Cruz Makes Rand Paul Look Like Henry Clay

[ 62 ] February 12, 2013 |

Today’s hearings on Chuck Hagel just make me stand by what I said last week about Rand Paul not being one of the 3 worst senators.

Late Night Snacking

[ 75 ] February 11, 2013 |

To busy to blog much right now, but I am pretty hungry so I figured some late night snacking is in order.

Bon appetite, 70s style!

…By request, the recipe itself:

6 medium bananas
1/4 cup lemon juice
6 thin slices boiled ham (about 1/2 lb)
3 tablespoons prepared mustard
2 envelopes (1 1/4-oz size) hollandaise sauce mix
1/4 cup light cream

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Lightly butter 2-quart, shallow baking dish.

2. Peel bananas; sprinkle each with 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice, to prevent darkening.

3. Spread ham slices with mustard. Wrap each banana in slice of ham. Arrange in single layer in casserole. Bake 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, make sauce: In small saucepan, combine sauce mix with 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and cream. Heat, stirring, to boiling; pour over bananas. Bake 5 minutes longer, or until slightly golden. Nice with a green salad for brunch or lunch. Makes 6 servings.

The History of Pasta

[ 9 ] February 10, 2013 |

This is a really fascinating history of pasta, going way back to at least the 10th century Middle East. Long, but a really good read. Time for dinner as well.


[ 23 ] February 10, 2013 |

I’m not sure that giant giveaways of the playgrounds of public housing units to wealthy developers in order to build luxury housing is the best way to change New York City. Unless you are Michael Bloomberg and want Manhattan to be an exclusive island for the residence of the 1%.

Stand By Your Limousine

[ 82 ] February 9, 2013 |

In what is the greatest deal in the world, you can buy Tammy Wynette’s custom 1977 Lincoln limo for $7950.

And check out that interior!

I wonder what kind of mileage that thing gets? 2 mpg?

Here’s some Tammy and George for your Saturday night. If I only had her gallons of hairspray, I could light them on fire and get the 14 feet of snow out of my driveway. And speaking of The Possum, he’s about to embark on his last ever tour. I hope he lives up to his reputation and doesn’t show up to his last ever show.

First, I love the 70s. Second, what kind of pain went into singing “Golden Ring” together after the divorce? Wow.

Bad Ideas for Organized Labor

[ 51 ] February 9, 2013 |

Thomas Kochan of MIT has 4 ideas to make labor relevant again.

Let’s go through each individually.

1. The development of a national on-line workplace survey that workers can use to rate employers as places to work, and then publish the results widely on an easily accessible smart phone app. Ranking the quality of employers in an industry and region would provide workers a new source of power — one that is more widely accessible and more productive than a strike.

A smartphone app on good companies to work for. A Yelp for employers. OK, whatever. Big deal. Do it if you want. How this makes one iota of difference in even the most optimistic scenario is beyond me.

Kochan seems to also believe that unions use strikes as an everyday method that provide workers a source of power. This is mostly incorrect. Workers rarely strike in the 21st century. And when they do, it’s often a sign of desperation and a last-ditch effort to hold onto their jobs. There’s the occasional exception like the Chicago Teachers’ Union. But it’s the exception that proves the rule–it gets talked about so much because it was such a rare unqualified victory and expression of workplace power today.

2. The best employers and worker organizations could do what Kaiser Permanente and its union coalition are doing — build partnerships that nurture employee engagement. Workers respond well to these partnerships — despite some traditionalist union leaders who argue that all employers are manipulators who can’t be trusted. Workers know better. They can tell good supervisors, managers, and employers from bad ones.

Most unions are more than happy to work with employers and have been since the 1950s. And when you create these partnerships, who holds the power on the shop floor? The employer, unless you have an enforcement mechanism. I was literally just writing a paragraph yesterday for my book about sawmill workers in the 1970s complaining that they totally bought into workplace safety programs and then were shocked that the employer saw it as window-dressing and didn’t actually implement any of the recommendations. Sure, workers can tell good supervisors and managers from bad ones–but in this economy, what choice do they have if they get unlucky? Quit? Complain to their union? At least for Kochan, even if they did complain, the union’s job evidently is to be good friends with the company.

3. New lifetime membership models could be created to help members navigate the 7 to10 job transitions they will likely make over the course of their careers, and provide them with education and training to keep skills marketable. Employers might view them not as adversaries but as preferred suppliers of talent — at least as good as current temp agencies and other recruitment channels.

First, employers will always view unions as adversaries. Kochan knows this. When has an employer ever been like, sure bring in the union! That actually has happened, but it’s exceedingly rare (usually today it is European companies investing in the US who are used to working with organized labor). Notice two other things here. First, Kochan is completely accepting the 7-10 job transitions of the modern economy. That has happened precisely because capital mobility has made worker stability uncertain. He doesn’t question the root causes at all. Second, with union density so light, how is it supposed to help workers through these job transitions? If each job was in the same industry and it is 1952 and every steel plant is represented through the USWA, then sure. But if that were the case, workers wouldn’t have 7-10 jobs in their life. They’d have 1 or 2.

I mean, if employers want to welcome unions into all workplaces, I’d be happy to try this out!

4. Using social media, community organizing, and political pressure, unions should expose employers who exploit immigrants and other low wage workers. Violating basic labor standards or treating workers poorly would become a national disgrace that would force American employers to establish codes of conduct similar to what multinationals like Nike and Apple have had to do in response to exposes of abuse of contractors overseas.

You mean like they already do. I can tell you for certain that UNITE-HERE has never ever thought of that before. Certainly not in their Hyatt Hurts campaign! But like the media or politicians care about employers who violate basic labor standards. When did that create “a national disgrace?” The grape boycott in the 60s and 70s? Maybe the sweatshop stuff 15 years ago.

Or wait, I just can’t turn on the news without seeing more coverage of Hyatt’s terrible treatment of their workers! Give me a break.

Kochan places all the onus on organized labor and none on employers and does not seem to recognize the underlying conditions that have made union representation so difficult. He also effectively ignores what unions actually do and don’t do.

So I hope no one sees these ideas as a workable model to rebuild organized labor.

Why Buy Old Sounds?

[ 47 ] February 8, 2013 |

Sun Ra’s business card.

It’s a good question.

This Day in Labor History: February 8, 1887

[ 61 ] February 8, 2013 |

On February 8, 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Severalty Act into law. The Dawes Act created a process to split up Indian reservations in order to create individual parcels of land and then sell the remainder off to white settlers. One of the worst laws in American history, the Dawes Act is not only a stark reminder of Euro-American colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, but also of the role dominant ideas of work on the land have in promoting racist and imperialist ends.

We might not think of the Dawes Act as labor history. But I want to make the beginning of a case that it is absolutely central to American labor history, a point I will expand upon in the future. Labor history is not just unionism. It is histories and traditions of work. The Dawes Act was absolutely about destroying traditions of Native American labor and replacing it with European notions of rural work. That it did so while opening more land to white people was a central benefit.

Now, it’s worth noting that there is nothing like a “Native American tradition of work,” now or ever. There were thousands of different ideas of labor. Eventually, I’m going to try and touch on a few specific examples of 18th and 19th century Native American labor. The Dawes Act was largely directed at the Native American populations that had developed their cultures and work systems around horses and nomadism. Acquiring horses by the early 18th century, some peoples such as the Crow, Comanche, Utes, Blackfeet, and others made the conscious decision to convert to horse-bound hunting cultures, which created entirely new ideas of work that included men on long hunts, women treating bison hides, horse pastoralism, and other labors to create a bison economy. These choices allowed them to resist white encroachment with real military might. It also meant they received quite sizable reservations when the U.S. signed treaties with the tribes in the post-Civil War period.

“Cree Indians Impounding Buffaloes,” from William Hornaday’s The Extermination of the American Bison.

At the same time, white Americans were populating the West through the auspices of the Homestead Act of 1862. Beginning with the Northwest Ordinance, white Americans had gridded the land to sell it off in 160 acre parcels. This led to the relatively orderly (and lawsuit-free) population of the West as Native Americans had been pushed off. The Homestead Act encouraged this process across the Great Plains. Although it had little immediate effect because of the Civil War, beginning in the late 1860s, white Americans began pouring into the Plains.

White ideas of rural labor on the Great Plains.

So when whites saw relatively few Native Americans holding legal title to vast tracts of lands on the Great Plains and American West, it offended both their notions of race and work. Whites saw land as something to be “worked” in very specific ways. Work meant the individual ownership of land or resources that create capital accumulations as part of a larger market economy. Proper labor “improved” upon the land; because Native American conceptualized the land differently, they did no legitimate work. The actual tilling of land for cash crops was the only appropriate labor upon the land, once existent resources like timber, furs, or minerals were extracted. The land did all sorts of work for Native Americans before 1887. It fed the bison upon which they had based their economy since they acquired horses in the early 18th century. It provided the materials for their homes and spaces for their camps. It also provided fodder for those horses. To whites, this was not work. It was waste typical of a lesser people.

The Dawes Act split up the reservation lands so that each person received 160 acres of land, the amount a white settler would receive under the Homestead Act. After allotment, the remainder of the reservations could be divided under the normal methods of the Homestead Act. Native Americans could not sell their land for 25 years. At the end of that time, they had to prove their competency at farming, otherwise the land reverted back to the federal government for sale to whites. By trying to turn Native Americans into good Euro-American farmers, the Dawes Act also upset the relationship between gender roles and work among many tribes. To generalize, men hunted and women farmed. But with the single-family breadwinner ideology of whites thrust upon them, it turned farming into men’s work, which many Native Americans resisted and resented.

Naturally, there was the usual language of concern for Native Americans in creating the Dawes Act. Cleveland claimed he saw this as an improvement on Native Americans wandering around their desolate reservations. I don’t want to underrate how tough those lands were by 1887; with the decline of the bison, an intentional effort by the federal government to undermine food sources and the willingness of Indians to resist conquest, poverty and despair was real. But of course, whites had created this situation and the “solution” of dispossessing Native Americans of the vast majority of their remaining lands was hardly a solution at all.

Allotted land for sale.

The Dawes Act devastated Native American landholdings. In 1887, they held 138 million acres. By 1900, that had already fallen to 78 million acres and by 1934 to 48 million acres. About 90,000 people lost all title to land. Even if Native Americans did try to adapt to Euro-American notions of labor on the land, the land itself was mostly too poor, desolate, and dry to farm successful crops. The Indian schools such as Carlisle continued this reshaping of Native American work, theoretically teaching students skills they could take back to the reservations, but there was little use for many of these skills in the non-existent post-Dawes Act indigenous economies. Plus that goal was always secondary to killing Indian languages, religions, and traditional workways.

The Dawes Act finally ended in 1934 with the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act.

There were many acts and events that ruptured the relationship between indigenous labor and the land in the late 19th century American West. The Dawes Act is among the most important. By thinking of the Dawes Act in terms of the relationship between nature, labor, and racial notions of proper work upon the land, we can expand our understanding of both labor history and the history of Euro-American conquest of the West.

This is the 51st post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

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