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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.

Winter Storm Hitler

[ 155 ] February 8, 2013 |

So as you may know, the Weather Channel decided to start naming winter storms this year. The only reason for this is to ratchet up the panic and increase ratings. Unlike hurricanes, which are named by a government agency, the Weather Channel just names whatever storm whatever it wants. Never mind that a storm that drops 6 inches of snow in North Dakota is a very different beast than a storm that snarls the entire existence of 40 million people in the Northeast.

So it’s really ridiculous, as MAWeatherBoy explains.

In my view, we shouldn’t name winter storms ahead of time. We should name them after the fact, perhaps giving them the names of horrible dictators, depending on how much the storm sucked.

There is an exception though and that’s this monster of a storm coming to the Northeast this weekend. The 18 inches of snow or whatnot, whatever. I’m irritated because it means I can’t see my wife this weekend. And it means I am going to be stuck in my apartment for the next 48 hours, turning very rapidly into Jack Nicholson in The Shining. No outside and no other people make Erik go crazy.

But really, I am so done with winter. December, January, it’s all good. But February is a horrible month. Any storm that gets in the way of seeing my wife for the first time in 3 weeks is pure evil. And thus forget the stupid Weather Channel names. I declare thee Winter Storm Hitler.

This Day in Labor History: February 7, 1894

[ 46 ] February 7, 2013 |

On February 7, 1894, gold miners near Cripple Creek, Colorado walked off the job, leading to one of the biggest victories for organized labor in the Gilded Age after the state of Colorado intervened on the side of the workers. This strike made the Western Federation of Miners the major labor organization among western miners, as well as a reputation for violence that made it unacceptable to conservative labor leaders in the American Federation of Labor.

By the 1890s, the area around Cripple Creek was the center of the Colorado gold fields. Cripple Creek itself was the second largest city in the state. The Panic of 1893 theoretically could have helped these workers; it was silver prices that collapsed and the government needed all the gold it could get. But this led silver miners to flood into the mines and convinced the mine owners to lower wages. Announcing a 10 hour day (previously 8) with no pay raise led the miners to walk out.

C.O.D. mine, near Cripple Creek, 1894

The strike was widespread and effective. By the end of February, virtually every gold mine in Colorado was shut down. A few gave in and restarted their mines after retreating back to the 8-hour day. However, the big mines were intransigent and brought in scab labor. At first, the WFM tried to organize these men into the union. But work was scarce in 1894 and even a low-paying job with long hours was too good to pass up. So on March 16, a group of armed miners captured and beat six sheriff’s deputies heading up to a mine at Victor, where they were to assist in the protection of scabs.

This act of violence led to El Paso County Sheriff M.F. Bowers to request state militia intervention from the governor, the Populist Davis Waite. Waite was not the preferred governor for Colorado capitalists. When he realized that Bowers was lying to him about the extent of violence and really wanted a state strikebreaking force, he withdrew the militia. Bowers then arrested the strike leaders, but a jury found them not guilty of trumped up charges. Meanwhile, the strikers began to attack the scabs, throwing bricks and getting into fistfights with them. The mine owners then attempted to negotiate with the miners, offering a return to the 8 hour day but at reduced pay.

When the miners rejected this offer out of hand, and with the refusal of Governor Waite to use the militia as the personal army of the mine owners, the owners decided to raise a private army of their own. They paid for an army of 100 men, mostly ex-policemen, to become sheriff’s deputies and protect the hundreds of scabs they intended to bring to the mines.

When the miners heard about this, they organized to defend themselves. On May 24, they took over the Strong Mine, near Victor. When 125 deputies marched to take it, the miners blew it up. The deputies fled and the miners wanted blood. They filled a railroad car with dynamite and send it down the railroad track, hoping to cause an explosion in the deputies’ camp, but it derailed. Many wanted to systematically blow up the mines. This didn’t happen, but tensions rose even further when the mine owners paid for an additional 1200 deputies for their private army.

Criminal Record of the Western Federation of Miners, compiled by the Colorado Mine Owners Association.

Fearing a complete massacre, Governor Waite stepped in. In an extremely rare move for the Gilded Age, Waite issued an order declaring the owners’ private army illegal and ordered the capitalists to disband it, sending in the state militia as a peacekeeping force. He then went to the miners and got their approval to be their bargaining agent with the mine owners.

To say the least, the mine owners were apoplectic. This was the age of the Great Railroad Strike, of Homestead, of Pullman. Capitalists expected the state to do their bidding. When Waite called a meeting of the union and owners in Colorado Springs, a mob whipped up by the companies formed outside and threatened to lynch Waite and the unionists. Through a decoy, they snuck out the back door and escaped. Despite this, Waite forced the mine owners to agree to restore the eight hour day at the previous wages of $3 a day (about $73 today, so basically the equivalent of about $9 an hour for extremely dangerous work).

Even though they had reached an agreement, mine owners wanted revenge. Bowers could not control the 1200 deputies. After a confrontation with the state militia at Victor, the deputies went to Cripple Creek, where they arrested hundreds of miners on trumped up charges. They even formed a gauntlet and forced townspeople to run through it while being beaten. The state militia then rounded up the deputies, essentially arresting the police. The mine owners refused to disband the private army but the governor said he’d keep the militia in town for another month which meant that the owners would have to pay the private army to do nothing. Finally, they gave up. It was arguably organized labor’s biggest win in the entire Gilded Age.

The militia detaining the illegal sheriff deputies.

Governor Waite was seen by the respectable people of Colorado as a promoter of anarchy and was defeated in his reelection campaign in the fall of 1894, effectively ending the Populist movement in Colorado.

The Western Federation of Miners went on to play a key role in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, although it remained independent of that organization. It later became the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (or Mine, Mill for short), one of the communist led unions that the CIO eventually kicked out of the organization in the 1940s. It is probably most famous today for having produced the film Salt of the Earth, detailing a mining strike in southern New Mexico in the early 1950s. It finally merged with the United Steelworkers of America in 1967.

Cripple Creek itself became a gambling town in a state attempt to revitalize its old mining towns. Although less ravaged and gross than Black Hawk, which has become a gambling mecca for Denver that has completely obliterated the historical character of the town, the gambling has made Cripple Creek pretty unpleasant without providing many of the promised jobs.

This is the 50th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Tonight in Aesthetic Stalinism, er, Trotskyism

[ 109 ] February 7, 2013 |

When I think of a nice bedtime story, I think of Trotskyite music reviews. Here’s a lovely review of the new Alicia Keys from noted music publication World Socialist Web Site:

“Girl on Fire” is the album’s most recognizable single and its title track. One hears it everywhere. The song lifts a section of its melody from Berlin’s 1986 power ballad “Take My Breath Away.” Like that song, the single features its share of melodramatic qualities, as Keys’ reaching vocals herald the triumphs of a girl—any girl will do—against the odds. A repetitive and bombastic work.

“Girl on Fire” was also the song played by Keys during her recent performance at President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural ball. As the president and his wife looked on, Keys sang and changed her song’s lyrics to celebrate them. “He’s living in a world and it’s on fire,” Keys sang, “filled with catastrophe. But he knows he can find a way.” “Everybody knows Michelle is his girl,” she added, “together they run the world.”

This was pretty shameful, although predictable as well. Keys belongs to an affluent layer for whom race, gender and sexuality—and themselves, mostly—are the chief concerns in life and who have no difficulty at this point accommodating themselves to the actions of the Obama administration. Unfortunately, in fact, they hardly give the matter a thought. Such an accommodation with power and money, however, does not go hand in hand with serious artistry and an important treatment of life.

Is it any wonder so much of this music feels so thoroughly empty?

Sleep tight.

God Made a Farmer?

[ 101 ] February 6, 2013 |

I was going to respond to that ridiculous “God Made a Farmer” Chrysler ad that ran during the Super Bowl using the voiceover of Paul Harvey’s speech of that title as narration. Showing a lot of white people (and one black person!) farming, the ad was a million ways of problems. Between ignoring the actual people who do farm work in this country (Latinos) and the fact that farming is a hard, low-wage job where people struggle to keep their land in the face of increased centralization and corporatization, the ad was a giant lie. Which is like most advertisements, but this was especially egregious.

I was also going to remind everyone of what a reactionary Paul Harvey by providing some quotes from a book of talks by Harvey that was published in the late 60s or early 70s. It is full of hating on beatniks, how the kids have a lack of respect for Richard Nixon, and various other Abraham Simpson moments. Unfortunately, I can’t find it.

So I’ll let The Gurgling Cod tell you some of the reasons why this advertisement was an abomination, with proper historical context into how Americans have always aestheticized farmers.


The Return of State-Sponsored Sexual Assualts of Women

[ 20 ] February 6, 2013 |

Republicans in Michigan are bringing back transvaginal ultrasounds for women who want an abortion.

The End of Cod

[ 145 ] February 5, 2013 |

Last weekend, I decided to check out Cape Cod in the winter. It was pretty great, even if cold. On my way to the Cape, I drove past a Wendy’s. They were offering a fish sandwich–made with North Pacific cod. That’s right, North Pacific cod on Cape Cod.

The cod fishery of the North Atlantic and the livelihoods it sustained for 300 years are basically finished. The New England Fishery Management Council has reduced the cod catch by 77% in the Gulf of Maine, 61% on Georges Bank. The reality is that the fishers probably won’t even catch that tiny quota. The fish are gone, driven to near extinction not by the family fishermen that work out of the small ports in New England but by giant industrial fishing trawlers that are taking every fish of any edible size out of the oceans at an alarming rate.

Here’s a graph off the annual catch off the Grand Bank:

Reduced quotas have not brought the fish back in the last 15 years because there just aren’t any left. The only way to bring this back at all is a total moratorium on fishing for at least 20 years and then maybe not. A lot of fishermen are angry–but what can we do? There’s just no fish left.

There actually are two things we can do. Neither will bring the fish back, but that’s a done deal. First, as the first linked article suggested, we can develop alternative economies for these fishing ports around wind energy. That’s very different work than fishing, but it’s something. Some of these cities–New Bedford for instance–have developed reasonable tourist industries and have attracted some young people to live there and build some kind of alternative economies. Many–Fall River for instance, a mere 15 miles from New Bedford–have not. This is the best and most obvious way to create at least some jobs based upon harvesting natural resources, albeit in a very different way.

The second thing we can do is to take some kind of national responsibility for workers who lose their jobs because of resource depletion. There’s actually significant precedent for this in the Pacific Northwest. The Clinton Forest Plan that provided some finality to the old growth/spotted owl logging wars in the 1980s and early 1990s provided retraining programs for loggers and mill workers who lost their jobs due to the industry’s disappearance. My own father took advantage of this program, although he later found work in another mill.

Even more interesting is the case of the Redwood Employee Protection Program. The first real battle in the Northwest over the forests, really the precursor to the spotted owl, was the successful campaign to expand Redwood National Park. When the bill was signed by President Carter in 1978, it included REPP, a program that provided significant payments to workers displaced by the mills that had to close down. They received direct payments from the federal government until 1984 to build a bridge until they could find other work. The generosity of this was controversial–Carter himself was quite skeptical. And in many ways it didn’t work that well. There were battles over who should qualify–were the mills shutting down because of a lack of timber or because of globalization and mechanization? Moreover, there were some disappearing funds and management issues. We don’t need to get into these details now. What’s notable though is that at least one time the federal government decided to expand the welfare state, however tentatively, to workers put out of work in order to save rare resources.

Of course, this is politically impossible, even unthinkable, in the modern political climate. But rather than throw the fishermen and their families on the street with few economic opportunities, wouldn’t a program to help build regional economies and stabilize communities make a lot more sense? I think it would.

House of Earth

[ 17 ] February 5, 2013 |

Wow. As of today, Woody Guthrie’s previously unpublished 1947 novel, House of Earth is available for us to purchase.

Finished in 1947 and lost to readers until now, House of Earth is Woody Guthrie’s only fully realized novel—a powerful portrait of Dust Bowl America, filled with the homespun lyricism and authenticity that have made his songs a part of our national consciousness. It is the story of an ordinary couple’s dreams of a better life and their search for love and meaning in a corrupt world.

Tike and Ella May Hamlin struggle to plant roots in the arid land of the Texas Panhandle. The husband and wife live in a precarious wooden farm shack, but Tike yearns for a sturdy house that will protect them from the treacherous elements. Thanks to a five-cent government pamphlet, Tike has the know-how to build a simple adobe dwelling, a structure made from the land itself—fireproof, windproof, Dust Bowl–proof. A house of earth.

Though they are one with the farm and with each other, the land on which Tike and Ella May live and work is not theirs. Due to larger forces beyond their control—including ranching conglomerates and banks—their adobe house remains painfully out of reach.

A story of rural realism and progressive activism, and in many ways a companion piece to Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” House of Earth is a searing portrait of hardship and hope set against a ravaged landscape. Combining the moral urgency and narrative drive of John Steinbeck with the erotic frankness of D. H. Lawrence, here is a powerful tale of America from one of our greatest artists.

I’m curious as to this “erotic frankness of D.H. Lawrence bit. This could be disastrous. But whatever, I’m glad it’s available. Certainly would a read, since at the very least I imagine the prose flows quickly.

Shakes Fist In Air, Screams “Caaaaaaastrooooooo”

[ 53 ] February 5, 2013 |

That Fidel Castro. He might be 130 years old and in terrible health. But his power to destroy America remain unlimited. Just ask New Jersey Congressman Albio Sires, who blames recent allegations against Senator Robert Menendez on the nefarious island nation of Cuba:

“I won’t even be surprised if somehow the Cuban government is involved in this to try to damage Bob Menendez because he’s been so steadfast against the Castro government. He’s been a critic all his political life,” Sires said in a phone interview. “I would not be surprised if they are behind some of this stuff, some of these allegations. The Dominican Republic has a lot of relationships with Cuba.”

Sires, who like Menendez (D-N.J). is Cuban-American, succeeded him in the House when Menendez was elevated to the Senate.

Menendez has denied anonymous allegations that he had trysts with prostitutes, some of them underage, at a Dominican Republic condo owned by wealthy eye doctor and campaign donor Salomon Melgen. But Menendez’s office has said the senator reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for two round trip flights on his private jet on January 4 of this year—more than two years after the trips, and without disclosing them.

The Dominican Republic does share a lot in common with Cuba. Both have long histories of exploitation by Spain and then the United States. Both were sugar colonies where slaves were sent from Africa to be worked to death. And Fidel Castro was very good friends with psychopathic Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo… Wait, what? No, that was the U.S. who supported that murderer for decades. Oh right. Well then, the DR and Cuba are basically one and the same because they are both island nations and speak Spanish and also some other things that I’m sure I’ll think of at some point. I guess the real question is how Puerto Rico is involved. A Cuban 5th column under the American flag! What will Castro think of next?!

Seriously, is there anything Cuban-Americans won’t blame on Castro?


[ 61 ] February 4, 2013 |

Laura Flanders nails much of the reason why Nicholas Kristof is so irritating:

Kristof certainly dedicates plenty of words a year to the women at the bottom of the heap. But that’s another part of my beef. A classic Kristof story portrays a former prostitute-turned-businesswoman who’s lifted herself and her children out of grinding poverty. Watch his PBS series and it’s packed with this sort. There’s abuse and grinding poverty and then there’s the woman who gives her bootstraps a tug. It’s a similar narrative to the woman with the ho-hum career in the macho business – and then there’s Sandberg, who by dint of leaning in, rises to the top of Google, then Facebook.

What are common in Kristof’s stories are heroes. What are rare are movements or groups. A hero like Sandberg can win a prize, break a record, even crack a glass ceiling, but change the working conditions for all workers?

Even a woman who isn’t aggressive deserves not to be destitute. That’s what collective bargaining is for. Yet Kristof seems to like unions less than heroes. Peruse the long list of “ways to lift women out of poverty” at the Half the Sky program web site and collective bargaining doesn’t receive a mention. Last fall, when the 87-percent female Chicago Teachers Union went out on strike, Kristof came out strongly against. In a blistering column, he wrote, “Some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved…. ”

In a question and answer session on Reddit, when a reader made the point that most teachers in Chicago get laid off for financial, not performance reasons, Kristof declined to comment.

I would only add how often Kristof likes to play the hero himself, helicoptering in to rescue deserving women. Ultimately, Kristof cares far more about creating a narrative than he does about creating meaningful change. The problem with that is that his powerful voice can actually hinder the creation of change, as he pushes narratives that emphasize modern-day Horatio Alger stories and denigrates the poor organizing to demand their rights.

New Jersey

[ 59 ] February 4, 2013 |

If you haven’t read this piece on how the New Jersey Democratic Party’s commitment to big money over popular support helped create the Chris Christie phenomenon that could have major implications for Democratic control over the state legislature in upcoming elections and allow all sorts of bad policies to pass, do so.

In other words, maybe nominating wealthy capitalists like Jon Corzine instead of politicians with actual connections to the New Jersey people might not be such a good idea.

Happy Birthday to the Income Tax!

[ 43 ] February 3, 2013 |

A hearty Happy 100th Birthday to the graduated income tax, one of the greatest laws in American history. The 16th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1913. I wrote about the history of the graduated income tax in detail here.

Also, it’s worth noting that in a lot of debates about presidents, people credit Woodrow Wilson with this because it happened in 1913. But Wilson had nothing to do with it–he hadn’t even taken office yet when it was ratified. Moreover, even if presidents had taken office on January 20 like today, he still would have had absolutely nothing to do with it. If you want to credit a president for the 16th Amendment, it has to be Taft.

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