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This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1941

[ 30 ] January 25, 2013 |

On January 25, 1941, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the most important civil rights leader of the World War II era, called for a March on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industry work. The success of this movement in convincing the government to act on employment discrimination both opened unprecedented economic opportunities for African-Americans during the war and helped lay the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement after the war.

The civil rights movement was perking up in the 1930s. Between the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, cases that led to the integration of the University of Maryland and University of Missouri law schools, and other small but significant victories, civil rights leaders had hope for the future. As the nation turned its attention to fascism in the late 1930s and President Franklin Roosevelt began to prepare the nation for war, civil rights leaders hoped that African-Americans would see their share of economic advancement. But persistent discrimination from both employers and labor unions meant that defense work remained strictly segregated.

Randolph and other leaders, including Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, and T. Arnold Hill, met with Roosevelt, hoping to convince him to desegregate defense work. But for as great as FDR was, he basically didn’t care much about discrimination against African-Americans. The New Deal in fact reinforced segregation on the job. For instance, TVA administrators were so worried about offending local racial sensibilities, they segregated what were previously integrated manual labor work. The result of this meeting was that FDR agreed more African-Americans should be in the military. In 1941, the Army had 230,000 members, but only 5000 African-Americans. But in creating more black units, Roosevelt explicitly said they would remain segregated.

A. Philip Randolph

Angry at Roosevelt’s indifference to advancing racial equality, Randolph and other civil rights leaders turned to more direct pressure. After planning the logistics of this in the fall of 1940, on this date in 1941, Randolph officially announced the March on Washington. He created the March on Washington Committee in Harlem, involved the NAACP, and began spreading the idea around the country. It was to take place on July 1 with estimates of up to 100,000 African-Americans attending.

Originally, much of the nation’s African-American leadership was skeptical that Randolph and the NAACP could pull this off. But Randolph’s tireless work and alliance building made the idea a real threat to the Roosevelt administration. Working with groups such as the National Negro Congress, as well as Randolph’s own close ties to socialist groups, the infrastructure to create what would have been a truly unprecedented protest in African-American history took shape. Most important was Randolph’s union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which not only used their privileged positions within African-American communities to give the movement legitimacy in cities across the nation, but also chartered buses and trains to take people from around the country to Washington before July 1.

Roosevelt was desperate to avoid the embarrassment of a nation preparing to fight fascism having its own caste system publicized before the world. He asked Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia to intervene, but Randolph refused to budge. Roosevelt finally decided to use his personal charm on Randolph, calling him for a private meeting, but again, Randolph remained firm. Randolph told the president:

Mr. President, time is running on. You are quite busy, I know. But what we want to talk with you about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries. Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can’t live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Roosevelt caved on June 25. He issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. The order also established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice to investigate and resolve discrimination on the job. Under last-minute pressure from Randolph, Roosevelt also agreed to end official discrimination in federal employment as well, although actual implementation of this was quite varied and depended on the agency (Hoover’s FBI, no).

This milestone cannot be overstated. It was the first federal action to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of race in American history. It also opened the door for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to achieve high-paying jobs during World War II, working in factories and building the economic and political base that would be vital to laying the foundation for the postwar push for civil rights. It was a key part in the NAACP’s Double-V campaign–V for victory against racism both at home and abroad.

In the end, the sheer need for workers was more important in African-American employment than the FEPC or anything else Roosevelt did. Desperation broke employer resistance. But the institutional framework for involving the government in racial discrimination on the job was absolutely necessary to these changes. African-Americans held about 3% of defense jobs in 1942, mostly janitors. But by 1945, that number had risen to 8%, including a lot of craftsmen, as well as industrial laborers more broadly. Black employees of the federal government tripled. In all of this of course, significant discrimination remained. Blacks were the last hired and first fired, were often paid less for the same labor, and had few chances at advancement on the job. That said, the World War II black experience at work helped create the postwar world.

The employment of African-Americans in the defense industry reshaped the geography of African-American life. Blacks moved in huge numbers not only to northern cities but to the American West as well, establishing large communities in important manufacturing centers like Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. 750,000 African-Americans moved during the war. This caused massive tensions of its own, including the Detroit Hate Strike of 1943. In the South, blacks usually worked in segregated jobs, but in northern cities integration caused wildcat strikes, particularly among the recent white migrants from the South for those same jobs. Yet despite violence, de facto segregation, white flight, and massive employment discrimination, African-Americans kept coming after the war. Why? The prospect of decent work in the wartime and then Cold War defense industry offered the hope of a better life.

Randolph’s inspiration for the March on Washington was recognized by Martin Luther King and other leaders of the postwar movement; although isolated from the movement in the 60s, Randolph was asked to be on stage in 1963. Perhaps his most notable contribution to the March was talking John Lewis off the ledge when an increasingly infuriated SNCC demanded change now, with a tone that made a lot of allies, including United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, organized labor’s most important ally with the civil rights movement, nervous. Lewis agreed to tone it down slightly after a discussion with the godfather of civil rights.

This is the 49th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Value Proposition

[ 34 ] January 25, 2013 |

DS Wright with some valuable commentary on major union leaders wanting to retire Scabby the Rat because it doesn’t fit their “value proposition.

A sad and familiar refrain among the now fading trade unions – foregoing confrontation for illusory accommodation. There is perhaps no dumber talking point than that of the “value proposition” or the idea that union labor is of higher quality therefore brings more value to a job than non-union. First, there’s flimsy evidence to support that being true and second, no one cares anyway.

Labor unions, especially trade unions, were not developed because of a lack of job training, they were developed to ensure fair compensation for workers. The “value proposition” makes no sense for an employer or developer – they care about profits, that’s their value proposition. If globalization has proven anything it is that cheaper unskilled labor is considered more valuable to capital than more expensive skilled labor (see Walmart for details). Which makes complete sense – the honor is in the dollar. Even if, for some odd reason, there was higher quality and less cost overruns with union labor why the hell would management care if they have to pay more than the difference in wages and benefits?

This accommodation strategy is essentially Third Way economics, pretending labor unions are somehow both good for Capital and Labor – news flash: they aren’t. That’s why Capital has been trying and succeeding at crushing Labor for the past 30 years. They don’t want to pay higher wages and provide benefits they want to cut those costs so they can have higher profits.

Playing Capital’s value game hasn’t been working for Labor so far. Maybe it was Scabby’s idea to leave the AFL-CIO, rats know how to leave sinking ships.

You can certainly debate the efficacy of an inflatable rat. It might be a bad, or at least lazy, tactic. But that’s not really the point here. The larger question gets at the failure of union leadership to understand why the labor movement became successful and what creates a culture where the risks of an organizing campaign are acceptable to workers.

The ability to talk and negotiate with employers is important. But it only matters if you have an organization that actually organizes workers. Fundamentally, if you think that making nice with CEOs is more important than organizing culture or building workplace solidarity, you don’t understand why the labor movement succeeded. I know these labor leaders have been active for decades and so maybe deserve a break, but they’ve overseen the collapse of organized labor. Much of that isn’t their fault. But then there’s parroting corporate speak, prioritizing the boardroom over the shop floor, and trivializing workplace culture and solidarity. When you do these things, you aren’t creating a movement that will exist in 10 years.

Today in the Coming Republican Coalition

[ 34 ] January 24, 2013 |

I can see why Republicans are trying to rig the 2016 elections. Their politicians are utterly hopeless in appealing to the mainstream of this nation. A couple of fresh examples from today’s news.

Here’s James Lankford, Republican congressman from Oklahoma and #5 in the House leadership.

SALLY: I want to know if you’re aware of the Substances and Mental Health Services Administration that has a book called the Provider’s Introduction to Substance Abuse Treatment for Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Individuals.


SALLY: They are going around the nation, they just did this here in Oklahoma, December 7th, and having conferences that are educational…. About 2 percent of the conference is dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. 98 percent is doing indoctrination or pushing the homosexual agenda. This is what our president is doing. He has a federal agency doing it. Our state, the Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Department, put this conference on and is indoctrinating our citizens who are totally against this. Is there any way you can look into this?

LANKFORD: Oh yes, sure. You know I can absolutely get a chance to take a look at it. We’ll start the process, try to see what we can do to identify it. Some of those things you have the power of humiliation where you can raise it and put in sunlight. They love functioning in the dark. You put some sunlight on it, that does help. But, we’ll see. I’m glad to take that on.

The Power of Humiliation. I think we have the 2016 Republican presidential campaign slogan already picked out.

And then there’s the state-level insanity. Let’s go to my former home of New Mexico. State Rep. Cathrynn Brown has introduced a bill that would criminalize abortion in cases of rape. Why? Tampering with evidence.

Yes, you read that right.

Criminalizing abortion in the case of rape because of evidence tampering.

“Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime,” the bill says.

Of course, we all know that legitimate rape means you don’t get pregnant. So these sluts deserve it. Or something. Anyway, doesn’t the election rigging make so much more sense now?

Things I Would Pay Money to Watch

[ 33 ] January 24, 2013 |

I would pay money to watch former Colorado congressman, anti-immigrant racist, and overall jerk Tom Tancredo smoke marijuana. And at least someone is going to have that chance.

The World’s Worst Deliberative Body Retains Its Title

[ 153 ] January 24, 2013 |

Filibuster reform is dead. Why? Harry Reid and senior Democrats flat out don’t want it.

Reformers think Reid changed his mind again in December, after a series of amendments to the Defense Authorization bill went awry and he began to worry that a talking filibuster, if not properly managed on the floor, could actually mean no filibuster at all in some cases. Reid said as much to me during our interview. When I asked him why he didn’t go for Merkley’s talking filibuster proposal, he said he’d concluded that it actually does get rid of the 60-vote threshold. He was, instead, pursuing a gentleman’s agreement with McConnell to encourage more talking filibusters.

A second explanation for Reid’s early enthusiasm for reform might be that Reid needed to convince McConnell to strike a deal and that the only way to do that was to scare him a bit. “Whenever you change the rules here,” Reid said, “you have to show the other side you can change them with 51 votes.” It’s the fear of the partisan reforms, in other words, that leads to bipartisan reforms.

Reid still wants to keep Republicans a little scared. He recalled that earlier in the 112th session of Congress, Senate Republicans began filing motions to suspend the rules after their filibusters were broken. “They couldn’t win these votes,” Reid said. ”It just ate up time. I put up with it for awhile and then said no more. I went to the floor, and I said that’s dilatory. The chair said no, it isn’t. I overruled the chair, and now you can’t do that because I set a precedent. I’m capable of doing more of that.”

Oh, Reid wants to keep Republicans scared! If there’s one thing Harry Reid is good at, it’s cowering the Republicans into not using every tool at their disposal, including turning the Senate into a one-chamber government shutdown, in order to do it!

What has really outraged Reid is that Jeff Merkley has called out which Democratic senators are at fault by name:

On a private call with the Bay Area Democrats on Wednesday, Merkley identified Reid as the key person in the talks, and he urged activists to target members of Reid’s leadership team ahead of their meetings next week, according to people on the call. He also characterized Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Joe Manchin (West. Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) as wrestling with his proposal, sources say.

A lot of usual suspects here. Baucus and Feinstein are terrible. Manchin genuinely doesn’t want to see the Democratic agenda pass. Unclear whether Pryor really does either. Disappointing on Leahy and Boxer, but a lot of older Democrats, and this includes Carl Levin and Reid, would rather see nothing happen today than not have the ability to ensure nothing happens when the Democrats next lose the majority.

What’s also clear is that the Democratic Senate caucus is generationally divided, more so than Republicans. Newer senators came into the body at a time of extreme partisanship and a Republican war on the body’s traditions. Older Democrats still want the body to be a genteel place where we can all listen to Trent Lott and John Ashcroft sing and have martinis together after the session. In other words, one generation understands what it takes to win, the other does not.

Basically, what this means is that nothing will get done in the next 2 years because the Senate will continue to get in the way. In 2015, we will have this fight all over again. Merkley, Udall, Warren, and other filibuster reform supporters will have 2 choices. Try to finally convince their senior colleagues (some of whom will retire by then) that change needs to happen for the good of the republic. They’ll probably fail but we might see some more changes of various efficacy. Or the Republicans will win the Senate (I am skeptical of this because I think they will again nominate enough loons that people like Pryor and Begich might hold on a la McCaskill) and hopefully the reformers will join the Republicans in gutting the filibuster once and for all. It’s undemocratic no matter who controls the Senate.

…Tom Harkin with the reality of what Reid’s actions mean:

“He can go out and give wonderful speeches, things like that,” said Harkin. “But with the House in the hands it’s in, and the fact that the Senate, now, you have to have 60 votes to pass anything… well, I daresay that Obama’s package, his very aggressive proposals, will not get very far. They’ll be so watered down that they won’t be recognizable.”

Thanks Harry.

The Decline of Unions

[ 74 ] January 23, 2013 |

Not a good day for a labor person.

Labor Department figures released today showed that 11.3% of the American workforce belongs to a labor union.
That is the lowest number since 1936. To put that in context, the National Labor Relations Act was upheld by the Supreme Court and the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from the American Federation of Labor in 1937. This is down from 11.8% in 2011. The sudden drop was two-fold. Continued losses in public sector work was one piece. Bigger was the Wisconsin and Indiana right-to-work laws, which led to major membership declines in union membership in those states. No doubt, the Michigan law (and potentially Pennsylvania) will lead to even lower numbers next year. Business has reversed the entire union gains of the New Deal. And of course their goal is to also reverse the policy changes and social programs labor helped create.

What kind of plans do AFL-CIO leaders have to turn around the labor movement? Not much. And what they have are bad. Take for instance the legendary union puppet Scabby the Rat.

You see Scabby at big labor rallies. It’s a fun way to get the message across. But some in labor don’t like it. Take Sean McGarvey, president of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Department. Today McGarvey tweeted this:

Meeting with our Presidents and state councils. Issued a call to retire the inflatable rat. It does not reflect our new value proposition.

Wow. A few big issues here. First, what the deuce is a “value proposition?” One thing it certainly is: corporate doublespeak. Does McGarvey also support leveraging some holistic change? Engineering some maximum synergies? What on earth is McGarvey doing parroting corporate language? How is that going to motivate people to join unions? Of course it won’t. But it’s also McGarvey’s big strategy, according to Mike Elk :

The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department did not respond to a request for elaboration. However, McGarvey and many other construction union leaders favor taking a “business-friendly” approach rather than adversarial approach to relationships with management. The council states on its website, “We will prove to contractors and owners that a partnership with North America’s Building Trades Unions is the best investment they will ever make.” Construction union leaders often publicly stress the value that their unions bring to companies, pointing to the fact that union projects are more likely completed on time without cost overruns.

In this context, abandoning Scabby the Rat appears to some union members like a call by such leaders to work out deals with management nicely, quietly and behind-the-scenes, instead of confrontationally, such as by placing giant 16 foot inflatable rats outside of corporate offices.

For rank-and-file dissident construction workers such as Gregory Butler, retiring “Scabby the Rat” symbolizes a turn back to the labor-management cooperation models that often left rank-and-file union members like him behind.

Ugh. Double ugh.

High-Density Housing Must Be The Future

[ 171 ] January 23, 2013 |

As Sean Griffiths points out, cute semi-detached housing might make for aesthetically pleasing New Urbanist cities, but it is not sustainable as a dominant mode of architecture within the 21st century city. Density is the only answer, not only for social and environmental reasons, but because the cost of land in cities has skyrocketed to the point where only the wealthy can purchase such housing.

You: Worse for Animals Than Chernobyl

[ 100 ] January 23, 2013 |

Where is this amazing photo of a wolf near a wetland taken? Chernobyl. As has been noted before, the most militarized parts of the earth (the DMZ for instance) and the most contaminated parts of the earth are the best places on the planet for wildlife to survive. Why? Because the sheer existence of humans is a disaster for 95% of the species on the planet. Worse than land mines, worse than nuclear meltdown.

The Death of Football?

[ 112 ] January 22, 2013 |

The news that you can scan for CTE in living football players is a pretty big deal. Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks it will lead to the end of football. I am skeptical. I think it might lead to the end of upper class white kids playing football. But I do not think one can overestimate how ingrained football is in American culture. I am sure that plenty of players would continue playing, even if they knew they had brain damage. And while one can argue that the government can step in and end such a violent game, that’s not going to happen. It’s possible that it could lead to shorter professional careers, some people dropping out of the game before they suffer damage, etc., but there will be hundreds of people to step in their place. The overall quality of the game could theoretically drop, but I doubt it. Coates uses the decline of boxing as an example that this can happen. But while it’s remarkable how quickly boxing fell off the sporting map, it’s replacement by ultimate fighting certainly suggests neither the appetite for bloodsports nor the willingness of poor people to engage in them has waned at all. The decline of boxing is complicated and more related to factors ranging from a decline in compelling American heavyweights to corruption and mismanagement than an existential crisis that led to its end.

Two Stonewalls, Two Americas

[ 123 ] January 22, 2013 |

Barack Obama’s second inaugural address:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth,” Obama said.

The Virginia state Senate, at the exact same time:

Democrats in Virginia are accusing state Republicans of taking advantage of a prominent civil rights leader’s trip to Washington for the presidential inauguration to pull a “dirty trick” in order to take control of the state Senate in the 2015 elections.

The state Senate is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats. On Monday, while state Sen. Henry Marsh (D) — a 79-year-old civil rights veteran — was reportedly in Washington to attend President Obama’s second inaugural, GOP senators forced through a mid-term redistricting plan that Democrats say will make it easier for Republicans to gain a majority.

Politically, the move coud derail McDonnell’s ambitious agenda for his last year in office ahead of a rumored run for higher office. Optics-wise, the state Senate GOP’s move could reverberate far beyond the Commonwealth: after using the absence of civil rights leader Marsh to push through the legislative changes, the Senate adjourned in honor of a well-known Confederate general.

“On motion of Senator Stosch, the Senate adjourned in memory or [sic] General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson at 4:10 p.m. to convene Tuesday, January 22, 2013,” read the official minutes of the legislative day.

According to the progressive blog Blue Virginia, Deeds also took to the state Senate floor to speak about Jackson after the new district lines were approved.


[ 38 ] January 21, 2013 |

Miss Idaho Potato, 1935.

Everyone needs some weirdness in the evening.


[ 71 ] January 21, 2013 |

I have nothing of interest to add to the inauguration discussion. But I do want to link to Atrios on the shocking significance of Obama to anyone with an understanding of American history.

Whatever one thinks of Obama, it says something positive about our country that we actually managed to twice vote for an African-American man for president. More than that, I don’t think that anyone should doubt that we’d be ready to elect a woman president, too. I’m not saying the playing field is level and the country, or at least enough of it, is race- and gender- blind for these things, just that 20 years ago I would’ve put both in the near-impossible category.

About once a month, I sort of come to this realization that, holy moly, this country has voted a black dude president. Twice! That is hard for me to believe. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. And if it did, it would be a Republican.

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