Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

“I’m a Suffer Yet”

[ 38 ] May 7, 2013 |

This collection of cat images used during the suffrage movement is outstanding.

Thanks to djw for sending this my way.

The Environmental President?

[ 27 ] May 7, 2013 |

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting argument for Obama as “the environmental president,” but I think it is the wrong question to ask.

Chait’s argument is that despite the failure of the 2010 cap and trade bill, the almost certain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other disappointments to environmentalists, Obama has actually done a great deal behind the scenes to fight climate change. That includes increasing mileage standards for automobiles, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions standards for power plants. These are all good things.

In some ways, Chait is right, but I think the article also reflects a larger problem of focusing too much on the legacy of presdients. First, Obama may well apply the Clean Air Act aggressively. I hope he does. It might create massive changes. But executive authority without legislative backing and court appointments to uphold challenges is a very tenuous and perhaps temporary way to create change. I think the auto industry is just waiting for the next Republican to take the Oval Office to challenge those mileage standards. I think Republican-dominated federal courts will overturn much that Obama can do.

In other words, the issue is not Obama’s legacy. It’s the national response to the greatest environmental crisis in world history. Obama is a major player here, but the nation as a whole has done so little to fight climate change and what has happened on the executive level can be reversed by another executive. At the same time, Obama should not be blamed too much for the failure of climate change legislation to pass because he can’t just wish it to be true. The real problem with the nation making the necessary improvements on climate change issues is the intransigence of the Republican Party with assists from coal state Democrats. Obama can do what he wants, but without a broad legislative commitment, I am skeptical about how much real change he or any other president can really create long term.

Similarly, there’s no question that the Keystone pipeline is a symbol since it alone is not going to make or break the climate, but it’s also a very important symbol. Here is an opportunity for the president to stand up and say that his administration will fight climate change, even at political cost. It’s clear he won’t do that, even though mining oil sands are about the worst thing we can do to the climate.

It is also worth noting that environmentalists themselves are devastated by the failure of cap and trade. Chait cites a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker piece on the bill’s failure. I haven’t read that. But I was a guest at an event at Harvard in February that Lemann moderated. Organized by Theda Skocpol, it was a general discussion about the bill’s failure that included some of the nation’s leading environmentalists. They were despondent. I felt like I was in a meeting of the labor movement about how no one listens to the AFL-CIO anymore. The entire environmentalist structure of creating legislative change–marshaling scientific expertise, professional testimony, lobbying, and funding politicians–completely failed. Environmentalists are becoming the next labor movement–easy for Democrats to ignore because they know that enviros will still write checks in the end.

So I don’t think Chait can so easily say that environmentalists are off base in their criticism of the Obama Administration to do enough on climate change, given how universal and deeply held their feelings are about the failure of that bill.

There’s also the more minor issue that Obama has been downright disappointing to those who prioritize public land management, energy production, and other environmental issues. Although he has created a few wilderness areas, his administration has also approved a lot of new oil and gas drilling on public lands. His selection of Ken Salazar as his first Secretary of Interior was predictably bad. Basically, I just don’t think Obama much cares about public lands. Of course, presidents do tend to cement their public lands legacies in the last years of their administration. So while we might say that Obama has been good on climate change, he hasn’t been particularly good on most other environmental issues.

In the end, as Chait points out, the nation may have seen greenhouse gas emission reductions since Obama took power, but they are almost all for reasons outside of his climate agenda–the bad economy, low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom, young people driving less and living in cities. This might tell us more about how change is created than focusing on presidential power.

The Terrorism Bogeyman and Regulating Hazardous Materials

[ 18 ] May 7, 2013 |

Remember the West, Texas factory explosion. It’s been 2 weeks and the story has almost completely disappeared from the media while CNN continued its 24-hour coverage of the latest details in the Boston Marathon bombings at least until late last week. The lack of follow-up coverage is a huge boon to capitalists who prefer that nothing change in the lax regulatory culture that plagues this nation and especially Texas.

That said, the Texas legislature did hold hearings last week on the explosion in West, showing the utter lack of regulation that not only would allow a fertilizer plant to be next to a middle school and nursing home in West, but also a lack of knowledge about where fertilizer plants are actually located. This shoddy regulation says so much about the United States in 2013:

But since ammonium nitrate isn’t considered an “extremely hazardous” chemical by state and federal agencies, plants only have to report to authorities if they have more than 10,000 pounds of it on hand. The state could have stricter reporting requirements if it chose to, according to David Lakey, Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The maximum amount the West Fertilizer plant reported to the state was 270 tons.

And the burden for communities to know where these chemicals are stored, and how to respond to emergencies at facilities that store them, falls on local officials. There are over 14,000 facilities in Texas that self-report having “extremely hazardous substances” on site, according to Lakey of DSHS. Representatives from that agency testified that chlorine and battery acid are the most common hazardous substances near communities, but that they only oversee reporting, not safety.

“Have we done anything to survey the 41 [fertilizer plants] because of what happened in West?” Pickett asked.

W. Nim Kidd, Assistant Director of DPS and Chief of Emergency Management, answered that his agency doesn’t do surveys, but local fire chiefs have the authority to go in and inspect those facilities.

“Could you suggest that to them?” Pickett asked, wondering if the agency could do more to encourage local fire officials to conduct inspections and prepare emergency response plans.

Last week, I talked to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about how industry and pro-industry politicians use terrorist threats as an excuse to hide the location of hazardous materials from the public. (Part of my interview with Jonsson was also used in this piece). The Dallas Morning News tried to find out where fertilizer plants are located in Texas:

After the state, in response to media requests for more information about other fertilizer plant sites, invoked a little-known “confidential information” law that gives wide secrecy discretion to government officials, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote that avoiding tipping off potential terrorists is understandable, “[b]ut in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, [the state] denied the right [of West residents] to make informed choices and protect themselves from imminent danger.”

Industry uses terrorism as a bogeyman. Corporations have opposed right-to-know laws for decades. Terrorism is just a convenient excuse. If terrorists want to attack a chemical facility, there are thousands of poorly secured plants in the open they can target. Moreover, I am going to say this really slow and in bold letters to make this extra easy to understand,

If fertilizer plants are too dangerous to let people know where they are located, they are too dangerous to place next to middle schools and nursing homes.

If there is a real terrorist threat against fertilizer plants, then we need to regulate them like nuclear power plants. Place them away from neighborhoods and under the highest level of security with maximum regulation.

But of course, that’s not what corporations want and it’s extremely unlikely to happen because the terrorism threat is just fear-mongering and excuse-making.

One source of good Texas workers news at least–the United Auto Workers has won an election to represent workers at an Arlington auto parts factory.

The Greatest Beard in American History

[ 34 ] May 6, 2013 |

The title for greatest beard in American history goes to one Peter Cooper, 1876 Greenback Party candidate for president.

I don’t see how the competition for this title even comes close.

Not sure when the picture was taken but Cooper died in 1883.


[ 1 ] May 6, 2013 |

I was on the Alternet Radio Hour with Joshua Holland on Saturday, talking Texas, Bangladesh, and my joyous past with right-wingers trying to get me fired. Turns out the more I do this kind of thing, the less I sound like a bumbling idiot. Was on in good company too, with Dave Zirin and Lee Fang the other guests.

This Day in Labor History: May 6, 1882

[ 67 ] May 6, 2013 |

On May 6, 1882, President Chester Alan Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although not often seen by the general public as part of our labor history, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory for organized labor in this country. It generated out of the discontent of white labor in the American West toward Chinese competition in general and specifically out of the Workingmen’s Party, a political organization of California’s white working class that threatened to overthrow the state’s two-party system if its major concern was not addressed.

It is useful to think of Chinese exclusion in the context of Gilded Age capital and labor. With capital so overwhelming labor and the free labor ideology of whites controlling their own future through hard work, white labor looked for any solution to the crisis. Generally, they hoped for a single, simple solution that they could grasp onto. That might be Henry George’s Single Tax, the monetaization of silver, the ideas of Edward Bellamy, the 8-hour day, or Chinese exclusion. Workers might swing from one idea to the next, looking for a panacea to industrial capitalism that allowed them to retake control over their own lives. Why Chinese exclusion? The idea of a white man’s republic seemed under threat from racialized labor who would seem to take any job at any price, driving down wages for white men, channeling profits into the capitalists’ arms, and undermining the ability of white men to control their own lives. Eliminate the Chinese and you go a long ways to resetting the balance of power between labor and capital.

When whites moved to California in the late 1840s, most saw it is as a white man’s country. This meant that any job done by a non-white was stealing a job from a white person. When they flowed across the nation during the Gold Rush, they assumed the gold was there for the taking, without competition. Lo and behold, news of the gold had traveled around the world. Native Americans were already there. Miners streamed northward from Mexico, Peru, and Chile. They came from France and Germany. They traveled across the Pacific from Hawaii, Australia, and especially China. While the Australians and Germans and most other Europeans were acceptable to the miners, the non-whites and the French were not. Mexicans and Chinese found their claims stolen, the French (who were seen on the same level as Mexicans) were made unwelcome. Most of the competitors went back home by the early 1850s in the face of American white supremacy.

There was one caveat for this. California was a nearly all-male space. Miners were totally out of sorts because there were no women to clean and cook for them. It really affected them profoundly, as one can see if you read their diaries. Mostly, they lived in filth. But over time, the Chinese were feminized to take over the jobs the whites did not want. This is the origin of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese laundry. Although gender ratios slowly equalized, the Chinese had developed strong communities in California cities. The Chinese also became the cheap labor of choice for industrialists looking to build railroad with inhumane working conditions that most whites would not accept.

Chinese-American children, late 19th century

So-called “anticoolie clubs” became common among whites resentful of Chinese labor. For example, in 1867, a group of white San Franciscans in an anticoolie club drove a gang of Chinese laborers from their railroad work. These ethnic-based clubs were not so different from the Protestant-supremacist riots of pre-Civil War New England against the Irish. These clubs engaged in a boycott of Chinese-made goods beginning in 1859. They also became connected to the burgeoning trade union movement in California. But unionism had a very difficult time getting established in California and the anti-coolie organizations helped fill that working-class vacuum.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Chinese question came to dominate California politics. Into this debate came the Workingmen’s Party. Began among German immigrants in the east in 1876 as a sort of socialist big tent party, in California, the leadership of Denis Kearney turned it into a 1-platform political movement: kick out the Chinese. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1873 and immediately became involved in politics. Combining fervent anti-Chinese hate with violent threats against his political opponents, Kearney took over the Workingmen’s Party to unite white working-class and anti-Chinese politics. At the 1879 California Constitutional Convention, Kearney and his supporters inserted a variety of anti-Chinese laws into the document. The most important of the clauses in the new constitution banned the employment of the Chinese. But business leaders opposed all of this and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these provisions.

Anti-Chinese image

For Kearney and his followers, eliminating the Chinese was just the first step in retaking control of the republic for the working man. Once the Chinese question was settled, Kearney wanted to go after the capitalists. Said Kearney,

”When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 mean ready to go out. . . and if ‘John’ [the Chinese] don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts [sic] into the sea… We are ready to do it… If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.”

Although primarily a California movement, by the late 1870s, the anti-Chinese fears began to spread among whites throughout the nation, despite the fact that outside of New York City and western mining towns, the Chinese population was near zero. In 1876, both parties adapted anti-Chinese planks to their party platforms. Kearney took an eastern tour in 1878, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Boston and campaigning with future Greenback Party presidential candidate Benjamin Butler, although his national star faded quickly, in part because of his anti-capitalist views, and he returned to San Francisco without the national popularity he craved. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among its provisions was to bar the Chinese from citizenship and required each Chinese to acquire a certificate of residence or face deportation. In 1902, the Geary Act made the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent, as opposed to the 10-year extensions mandated in the original law.

Workingmen’s Party poster

Organized labor strongly supported most laws to end Chinese immigration. The Knights of Labor were strongly anti-Chinese and banned Asians from the organization. A group of Knights in Tacoma, Washington spearheaded anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma, Washington in 1885. The American Federation of Labor began in 1886, after Chinese Exclusion, but AFL head Samuel Gompers supported the extension of the law, as well as other anti-immigration legislation through the 1920s.

The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was hardly the end of violence against Chinese labor, as the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming would find out in 1885. But it was the effective end of the Workingman’s Party and the end of anti-Chinese groups threatening the established political system.

Kearney’s star faded rapidly after the Chinese Exclusion Act. He died in obscurity in 1907.

Legal Chinese immigration effectively stopped until 1943, when the nation’s wartime alliance with China made exclusion politically untenable and when anti-Japanese sentiment put the Chinese in a new light for many Americans. However, with exclusion, the Chinese began to migrate to northern Mexico and British Columbia and crossing into the United States, forcing the U.S. to create the Border Patrol.

This is the 59th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Postwar Consumers’ Republic

[ 148 ] May 5, 2013 |

I recently rewatched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I was confirmed in my opinion that this is the greatest American film about work and class. The early scenes in the factory are the most famous, with the amazingly awesome food service designed to give workers lunch without them leaving the production line, the muscle memory forcing Chaplin to twist his hands like he was holding his wrench involuntarily even when a woman is coming with buttons on suggestive parts of her coat, the panopticon style surveillance system that catches him taking a smoke break in the bathroom, and of course his getting caught in the gears of the machine. Then there’s the scene where Chaplin wants to remain in prison because he gets fed there.

It’s all brilliant. But I think it is not the most important part of the film. Because I think, like the wonderful work of Preston Sturges, the later part of the film goes a long ways to explain the failure of class-based politics in American history and the supremacy of consumerism over radicalism. The real key to the film is the appearance of Paulette Goddard* as the youthful waif. She will do anything to feed her sisters or survive on the street. But it’s not a political action. It’s sheer survival, disconnected from politics, even if her father is killed in a protest of the unemployed.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, do so. If you have, think about the scene when Chaplin gets a job as a security guard and lets his young friend in for the night. She luxuriates in the consumer goods, wearing firs and laying in a soft bed. This is what she wants.

And all Charlie does is want to give them to her. When he ends up in leading the march of the unemployed, it’s by accident. He goes on strike when the shop goes on strike. But class politics isn’t Chaplin (even if Charlie himself was a socialist). It’s the sheer desire to work and provide your loved ones the goods that capitalism was denying workers in the 30s and not denying them in the 50s. When Chaplin and Goddard walk down the road at the end, it’s not to radicalism. They are walking to a life where someday, maybe, they can have the furs, or at least a home of their own.

This brings me back to Preston Sturges. In Sullivan’s Travels and in his other great films of the period, the working class is noble and brave and also loves to buy things and have a good laugh. But they know that for as horrible as poverty is, engaging in American consumer culture is way more fun than lame, boring, and dreary revolutionary politics. All people want is a home and maybe a few furs if they get really lucky. And however they get lucky doesn’t matter, so long as they aren’t poor.

I think these films are really profound about class in America. If you are a working-class person in the 1930s, much about your life is probably terrible. But if you can tap into prosperity in the 50s, why would you reject that for communism, especially when that communism is as puritanical and unpleasant as that of CPUSA or Stalin himself or the lovely nations of eastern Europe during the Cold War?

This doesn’t mean I don’t think the greatest mistake the CIO ever made was evicting the communists from the labor movement in the late 40s. In fact, that was a terrible idea. But the great working-class films of the Great Depression understood the American working class in a way that communists never did. As Lizabeth Cohen shows in her excellent history of consumerism and the postwar working class, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the working-class openly embraced consumer goods over radical class-based politics after World War II. And that’s OK. Let’s face it, as both Chaplin and Sturges knew, revolutionary politics are not fun for most people. Hard struggle stinks. Taking dangerous risks or watching television, which would you rather do?

For all as many of us might wish for a history of working-class politics that was more militant and created more power in the present, it is really very easy to understand why that didn’t happen.

Also I swear I’m not stealing SEK’s bit. Despite the heavy use of stills from the film!

* Paulette Goddard is really fascinating. She was married to Chaplin from 1936-42. Her last two husbands: Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque, of all people. She died extremely rich in 1990, leaving $20 million to NYU.


[ 10 ] May 4, 2013 |

For all the talk we’ve been giving the late great George Jones here, we shouldn’t forget the nearly equally talented Tammy Wynette. I think overall Tammy’s potential was not quite as fulfilled as George because of a general sameness to much of her work, as well as the lack of a late career comeback because of the painkillers and early death. That said, when she was great, especially early in her career, she was truly great. Here’s an example, from the 1968 Country Music Awards. Note as well classically terrible awards show intro bit by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Jimmy Carter and Organized Labor’s Decline

[ 112 ] May 4, 2013 |

Historian Jefferson Cowie tells the following story in his outstanding book on the decline of labor and the transformation of the white working class, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. In 1979, a reporter asked International Association of Machinists president Wimpy Winpisinger a question about Jimmy Carter. Winpisinger was among the most progressive labor leaders of the decade, trying to shake organized labor out of its bureaucratic complacent doldrums.

Q: Is there any way the President can redeem himself in your eyes?
WW: Yes, there one way he can do it.
Q: What’s that?
WW: Die.

Winpisinger went on:

I don’t wish that upon him, but that’s the only goddamn way I know he can.

In another interview, Winpisinger called Carter, “The best Republican president since Herbert Hoover.”

I share this exchange because it gets at a question plaguing labor historians and labor activists for a long time–when and why did things turn bad for organized labor? Was it Taft-Hartley? The CIO kicking the communists out of the unions? The so-called “grand bargain” between labor and management that defanged shopfloor activism? The Border Industrialization Project and outsourcing industrial labor to Latin America and Asia? The rise of the conservative movement? The air traffic controllers strike?

The answer is in part all of these things and I’m not sure how useful it is to try and pin the problem on one primary issue. But I do think it is worth taking a quick look at Jimmy Carter’s relationship with organized labor.

As Winpisinger expressed, organized labor came to hate Carter. After placing a tremendous amount of hope in Carter after his election, the labor movement received almost nothing in return. As Cowie points out, Carter was the first president to treat labor as a constituency in the Democrats’ bag which he could ignore. Carter spent no political capital promoting the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill, which in its original form would have provided a federal guarantee of employment and even allow a person to sue the federal government if they did not receive work (although this provision was quickly dropped). Hubert Humphrey hoped this would seal his legacy. Augustus Hawkins was a leader in the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus, representing a district in Los Angeles. Carter’s own economists tanked the bill and what passed was a pathetic remnant that did absolutely nothing to guarantee employment. Carter’s embracing of conservative economics to fight inflation meant a bill with nothing behind it.

Unions deserved plenty of blame for this failure too–their inability to mobilize their members was costing them in all sorts of ways and they did no real grassroots work to get people out to rallies in support of Humphrey-Hawkins. Similarly, the rank and file failed to respond to the 1977 attempt for labor law reform. This bill would have done little to create real reform since the AFL-CIO quickly read the tea leaves and saw the dreams of repealing Taft-Hartley and getting card check were not going to pass. That said the minor bill that was proposed spawned voicerfious opposition from conservatives, who already smelled union blood in the water. Then Carter decided to prioritize the Panama Canal treaty over labor law reform and by the time the Canal treaty passed, labor could not rally enough votes for another controversial bill. Carter did virtually nothing as this bill died. Labor completely gave up on Carter and many unions supported Ted Kennedy’s failed primary challenge to Carter in 1980.

I mention this because of an interesting debate around Joseph McCartin’s book on the air traffic controllers strike of 1981, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. Big title, great book. McCartin goes into great depth about the PATCO culture, why air traffic controllers saw the need to unionize, and how they made a huge mistake by taking a go-it-alone attitude, which alienated them from the pilots union, not to mention the general public they inconvenienced. PATCO actually endorsed Reagan because its leaders hated Carter so much for the aggressive stance it took against the union’s demands for higher pay and more staffing.

But did the strike change America, as McCartin claims? I wonder. It could be a Dred Scott moment, which placed the issue into stark contrasts but didn’t really change the future. In other words, would the union movement be any better off today if Reagan had not crushed PATCO in 1981? Certainly the number of strikes declined rapidly after 1981 and business owners were emboldened to hire union-busting firms more than before. But they were already hiring union-busting firms, union numbers were already in decline before 1981, and as the Carter stories show, the Democratic Party was already marginalizing labor’s power.

There was a forum in Labor on McCartin’s book that you can access here. Jack Metzgar, author of the superb memoir/history of the 1959 Steel Strike Striking Steel takes up this question:

Here is my counterfactual question: If PATCO had accepted the Reagan administration’s “final offer” (which included most of what the union had been fighting for, including some valuable precedents for federal workers generally) and there had been no strike, what would have changed? Would strikes be a vital part of labor relations today? Would Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Danley Machine here in Chicago, and all the other successful strikebreaking efforts in the 1980s not have happened? Would the situation of private-sector unions be any different today? Posed that way, I think the answer is obviously “no.”

What happened in the private sector would have happened exactly the same way it has happened with or without PATCO. Most of McCartin’s evidence to the contrary comes from various statements by labor leaders, political journalists, and a few labor historians about the symbolic importance of President Reagan breaking that strike. There is no evidence of Phelps- Dodge or other corporate executives saying how important this presidential precedent was to them, opening their eyes to possibilities that had never occurred to them before. This is likely because the PATCO defeat provided absolutely no practical mechanisms for breaking strikes in the private sector (let alone for using “the strike as a management weapon,” as Tom Balanoff described it at the time). Unlike with PATCO, strikes in the private sector were legal, and workers had a right to return to work and other legal protections that PATCO workers did not have. Strikebreaking in the private sector had to devise a sophisticated array of tactics and strategies to trick workers into striking and then to first artfully dodge the law and eventually use it against the strikers. McCartin says Reagan’s breaking of PATCO “legitimized” strikebreaking, but I doubt the pioneering strikebreaking executives in the private economy needed that public relations gloss anywhere near as much as they needed the practical mechanisms. My impression is that these mechanisms were being developed in the 1970s, initially by union-avoidance firms, often in the health-care industry, after workers had successfully organized into a union. Indeed, McCartin cites some of the evidence for this.

Metzgar gets a bit personal in the rest of critique and I think treats McCartin unfairly. McCartin took exception to some of this, as he should have. But I also tend to think Metzgar is mostly right on the issue. The PATCO strike is important for what is represents. But if PATCO wins that strike, is anything fundamental different today? Who can tell, but I am skeptical. The structure to destroy organized labor was already in place. Reagan gave it official government approval, but the tacit government approval to dismiss labor that characterized Carter’s strategy was enough when combined with the unionbusting tactics private industry had already started to embrace.

Final Words

[ 0 ] May 3, 2013 |

George Jones was laid to rest yesterday. In his honor, one more great song by the Possum.

Sherpa Exploitation

[ 158 ] May 3, 2013 |

When we think of labor, we probably don’t really think of the Sherpas, who guide climbers up Mt. Everest and other high Himalayan peaks. But in fact, the climbers often treat the Sherpas like beasts of burden. It is very dangerous work and Sherpa deaths are far from uncommon. The Sherpas aren’t organizing into a union or anything like that, but they do sometimes get sick and tired of being treated like animals. A group of Sherpas got into a fight with the climbers they guided when the climbers didn’t listen to them and kicked ice down the mountain at them. That the climbers are largely very rich people and the Sherpas very poor has also caused resentment. This is a thoughtful overview of the issue from a climber’s perspective.

As a side note, it’s been my experience that mountain climbers and even rock climbers are the least pleasant group of people you meet in the outdoors world. Both are dominated by highly masculine cultures that revel in the challenge of conquering something and are too often indifferent to the rest of the natural world out there, not to mention the pollution and other problems they can cause. When you add in the extreme wealth of high-end mountain climbing, the potential for jerks can be quite high.

….Note–this story makes it clear that the fight was between solo climbers and the Sherpas who were working for a different group.

This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1911

[ 27 ] May 3, 2013 |

On May 3, 1911, Wisconsin created the first workers compensation program, followed almost immediately by Washington and most of the Northwestern states. This was the beginning of a system, albeit quite limited even now, to compensate workers properly when they are injured or killed on the job.

The 19th century was terribly dangerous for workers. The 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Company codified the doctrine of risk for workers on the job, saying that employers had no responsibility for workplace injuries or death because workers agreed to take on the risk when they took the job. This decision comes out of the growth of northern free labor ideology, which essentially held that each individual had the right and responsibility to control one’s own labor and contract it out if they wished. But after the Civil War, with the rapid growth of industrialization, the reality of the American workplace meant gruesome injuries and horrible deaths spun out of control in steel mills, on railroads, in meatpacking plants, in coal mines, and really everywhere through the workforce.

As a scholar of logging, let’s look at how a couple of loggers died. On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from the saw he worked when he fell into it, killing him. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” Perhaps Koski’s engagement in his own work did not allow him to hear the fallers. Or perhaps he had a poor knowledge of the English language and could not understand the shout. He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him almost beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Anderson & Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson died the following day, leaving behind a wife and child.

Shingleweaver in timber mill with his remaining fingers, circa 1910s

Workers began fighting back though through the courts. Although most courts stood by Farwell, after 1900, judge and juries began loosening the restrictions and granting payouts to workers. Again, let’s look at logging in the Pacific Northwest. Timber executives breathed a sigh of relief in 1901 when a Lewis County, Washington judge dismissed a case filed by a mill sawyer who sued for $6000 over the loss of three fingers. The company denied responsibility because the sawyer assumed the risk when he took the job. But in 1904, a Washington court granted a worker who lost both legs in a mill accident $50,000, leading George Cornwall, the publisher of the timber magazine The Timberman, to complain about personal injury laws “causing a flood of litigation of a very questionable character.” Moreover, beginning with the 1898 case Holden v. Hardy, when the Supreme Court upheld a Utah court decision which upheld a law limiting smelter workers hours due to the toxic nature of fumes, courts began slowly, though inconsistently, moving toward a doctrine of state regulation of workplace health and safety.

Washington first introduced a bill for workers compensation in 1909; Cornwall announced his support to protect the industry from the growing number of lawsuits filed by “ambulance chaser lawyers.” Ralph Clement Bryant, professor of forestry at Yale University, summed up the industry’s desire for a new system, noting that lawsuits “usually proved expensive to all concerned, often resulting….in granting heavy damages to those who were not entitled to them.”

Thus, soon after Wisconsin passed its law, the Pacific Northwest states followed, with Washington leading the way and seven additional states by the end of 1911. Angry employers who resented any responsibility for workplace conditions immediately sued in Wisconsin, but the state Supreme Court upheld the law in November 1911. Oregon paid out its first death claim in July 1914, after Julian Mason died while working for the Nibley-Mimnaugh Lumber Company of Wallowa, Oregon. His widow received $30 a month until remarriage, when she would receive a $300 lump sum. The final state to pass a workers’ comp law? Mississippi (big surprise!) in 1948. Until 1917, these laws were participatory for employers, but after the Supreme Court ruled the laws constitutional in that year, states changed the laws to make workers compensation required for most workers.

Interestingly, much of organized labor was quite suspicious of workers’ compensation laws because the AFL and other relatively conservative elements in the labor movement thought social welfare programs would undermine the independence of the American worker to control his (and they meant his) own labor. This despite the obvious changes in the American economy that made American workers almost helpless in the face of modern corporate capitalism. They didn’t like that employees could no longer sue corporations for damages. Labor leaders were also not convinced that employers would take advantage of lower premium rates by making workplaces safer. But Samuel Gompers convinced the AFL to reverse its opposition to these laws in 1909.

What the workers compensation laws did ultimately was to limit liability for employers. Washington’s workers compensation law only provided minimal compensation, leading to questioning the humane side of the law. One worker missed twenty-four days after an injury. He lost $108 in wages and his medical expenses came to $19.50. His state compensation amounted to $27.65. Another missed fifty-five days. He lost $192.50 in wages and had medical expenses of $55.50. He received $63.45 from the state. Although better than no compensation, workers arguably had a better chance for a fair financial settlement through the courts than the state systems.

The American workers compensation system has never properly compensated people suffering from workplace injuries or the families of those killed on the job. Yet at least it is a sign that the government felt some responsibility for the care of injured workers.

Note as well that this is also a taste of my theoretically forthcoming book (someday!) on timber unions and the environment, as most of this post is drawn directly out of that project.

This is the 58th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

  • Switch to our mobile site