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Doc Watson

[ 13 ] March 6, 2015 |

On this Friday evening it’s worth remembering how amazing Doc Watson was.

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Contracts

[ 56 ] March 6, 2015 |

In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.

So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.

This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.

No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.

Albert Maysles, RIP

[ 2 ] March 6, 2015 |

The great documentarian has died.

This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886

[ 23 ] March 6, 2015 |

On March 6, 1886, the Great Southwestern Strike began, marking the start of a year of worker revolt against the exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism. Over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike, but the failure to win helped usher in the decline of the Knights of Labor.

The widely and publicly loathed Jay Gould was one of the leading railroad capitalists and financiers in the United States and he had invested heavily in the massive expansion of railroads into the southwest after the Civil War. This rapid expansion gave workers some level of power and for awhile they achieved good wages. But Gould’s managers consistently sought to cut costs and gain power over workers they thought far too independent.

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Jay Gould

By 1885, Gould had succeeded in gaining control over many of his competitors and he started looking to cut labor costs. That year though, railroad workers had success striking against Gould-owned railroads. Management attempts to cut wages sent workers off the job and the Knights of Labor, a rising labor organization attempted to organize all workers, stepped in and helped negotiate a settlement that included rehiring strikers and paying back wages. Specifically, Terence Powderly personally sat down with Gould and convinced him to grant the workers’ demands. Defeating Gould was the biggest victory the Knights would ever achieve. Feeling hope that a national organization could fight for their demands, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined the Knights in the next few months.

Gould however was not going to take his defeat lying down. He was determined to crush the Knights. The managers’ war on independent labor continued and another strike quickly seemed likely. As these things often go, the strike itself started over an isolated incident. In Marshall, Texas, a Knights member attended a union meeting on work time. He was fired and his fellow workers walked off their job to demand he be rehired. The strike spread like wildfire among workers infuriated with Gould for the terrible wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions along his rail line. Within days, the strike had spread across Texas and into Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

This became the largest of the nation’s 1400 strikes in 1886. Eventually, 200,000 workers (out of a total of 700,000 Knights members that year) went on strike. The strikers were hurt by the lack of solidarity from other unions, as the skilled labor union The Brotherhood of Engineers continued to work. On the other hand, one of the leaders Texas Farmers’ Alliance, William Lamb, declared a boycott of the railroads in support of the strikers, although this was controversial within the Alliance. The rapid growth of the Knights also was a problem. Powderly was generally opposed to strikes and the new members didn’t understand that the Knights actually had a pretty limited vision for labor reform that did not include very much direct action. While Powderly’s role in the strike is not entirely clear, he did not approve of the second strike, certainly did not grant it very strong support and stayed mostly hands off. In any case, when he did reach out to Gould to hash this new strike out, the plutocrat refused, seeking to crush the union entirely. Perhaps apocryphally, he said about the workers, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Ultimately, the strikers had trouble maintaining the popular support necessary to overcome the overwhelming odds against organized labor in the Gilded Age. This certainly wasn’t because everyday people loved Jay Gould. He was largely considered a villain at the time as he is today. But people were so reliant on the railroad for goods and transportation that the shutdown of the system made their lives difficult. And if we know one thing about labor struggles today, it’s that for many people, their support of workers remains in the abstract and at the first moment they are personally inconvenienced, that theoretical support dries up. In popular opinion, strike leader Martin Irons began to be portrayed as Gould’s equal in oppressing the needs of the farmer, both monopolists of a sort, a sign of the limited ability for farmer-worker solidarity in these years.

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Martin Irons

Gould also worked with local politicians to crush the strike. The governor of Missouri called out the state militia, while the governor of Texas built on that by calling out the militia and the Texas Rangers. The governor of Kansas however refused, noting the lack of worker violence that Gould claimed was the reason for the troops. U.S. marshals also assisted in ensuring the trains ran. Gould also called in the Pinkertons. What did cause property destruction was the state repression, which led workers to retaliate by burning machine shops and letting train engines go cold, which delayed trains for hours until they warmed back up. In both Fort Worth, Texas and East St. Louis, Illinois, actual violence eventually took place against Gould’s hired thugs, leading to the death of at least nine workers. Shootouts began taking place between workers and trains running through the strike. But the violence caused by the Pinkertons and state forced workers back on the job. The strike was mostly over by May and accomplished little.

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Battle between workers and U.S. marshals at East St. Louis

This was the first major defeat for the Knights of Labor. Up to this point, it had seemed a growing force in American life. A few weeks after the strike’s defeat, the Knights convened a special assembly where it banned the organization from participating in strikes. This was a terrible idea as employers who had previously capitulated to the Knights immediately rolled back workers’ gains, knowing the central organization had taken away their best weapon to maintain those victories. Combined with the Haymarket incident a couple of months later (Powderly himself refused to do anything for the anarchists thrown in prison for it), the corporate-dominated media was able to paint the Knights as violent radicals and public sympathy turned against them. Moreover, workers felt betrayed by Powderly for his actions during the year. The organization would decline soon after, with a loss of 90 percent of members by 1890, and the American Federation of Labor would rise in its place as the primary union organization of American workers, or at least the ones the AFL would accept.

Martin Irons would be banned from the Knights for leading this disastrous strike and was blacklisted from the railroad. He died in poverty in 1900.

This is the 135th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“YOU’RE GONNA RESPECT ME!”

[ 24 ] March 5, 2015 |

Perhaps the fact that the people of Chicago hate him is unnerving Rahm Emanuel. Or maybe he’s just an awful human being.

Greil Marcus

[ 64 ] March 5, 2015 |

I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.

So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.

Historical Images

[ 12 ] March 5, 2015 |

After a long hiatus to finish the two books, I have begun updating my historical image blog again. I just put up a set of images on immigration. I like to collect historical images for teaching, as I always have PowerPoint presentations for my lectures that consist of nothing but an outline, key terms, and historical images. If they are useful to anyone, have at it.

Lock Out the Kids!

[ 29 ] March 4, 2015 |

The refinery giant Tesoro has decided that it can’t allow youth baseball leagues to use the fields it owns next to its Martinez, California refinery. That’s because there are pickets at the plant due to the refinery strike. Oh, and also to protect the kids from the horrors of the outside agitator.

Oil giant Tesoro is locking out 600 youth baseball players from practicing on 15 fields located next to its refinery in Martinez, California. As part of a nationwide work stoppage involving some 7,000 workers, the Martinez workers have been on strike since Feb. 2, with regular pickets from the United Steelworkers and their allies protesting health and safety conditions.

“It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines,” Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche explained to the local press. “We just don’t have to expose them to any negative interactions.”

In another interview, Deutsche specifically mentioned the threat of outside agitators from groups like Occupy, the California Nurses Association and Communities for a Better Environment, a group that works on environmental justice issues affecting low-income and minority communities.

These groups insist they pose no threat to children.

“This is a PR stunt,” said Nile Malloy, Northern California program director for Communities for a Better Environment. “It’s just really sad — like, really? … Everybody who protests is peaceful. They’re there to demonstrate solidarity with the workers, to protect the health and safety of the community, the climate.”

“Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Charles Idelson, spokesman for the CNA. “How disgraceful [for Tesoro] to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”

“There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” Scott told the Vallejo Times-Herald.

Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee told International Business Times “there have been reports of strike-related incidents deemed to be unsafe at the gates of our refinery and in the areas near the facility’s ballfields.” But when asked for more information about the “strike-related incidents,” Barbee said she did not “have additional details to share.”

That is pretty pathetic. I guess it is an attempt to turn the community against the strike, but that is lame.

The Secret Talks

[ 18 ] March 4, 2015 |

The secrecy revolving around the Trans-Pacific Partnership continues to disturb those who are interested in fair trade. Noting that this agreement isn’t really even about American exports since the world is already basically fully globalized already, Robert Reich and Richard Trumka express their concerns over the TPP’s secrecy.

In the first three decades after World War II, “free trade” meant other countries opening their borders to American-made products, and the U.S. opening its borders to their goods. The United States chose free trade, and it worked. Living standards rose here and abroad. Jobs were created to take the place of jobs that were lost. Worldwide demand for products made by American workers grew and helped push up U.S. wages.

But American corporations have gone global, and in recent decades the payoffs from trade agreements have mainly gone to those at the top. Now they make many of their products overseas and ship them back to the United States. Recent trade agreements have protected their intellectual property abroad — patents, trademarks and copyrights — along with their overseas factories, equipment and financial assets.

But those deals haven’t protected the incomes of most Americans, whose jobs have been outsourced abroad and whose wages have gone nowhere.

As for the problems with the TPP? What’s been leaked about its proposals reveals, for example, that the pharmaceutical industry would get stronger patent protections, delaying cheaper generic versions of drugs.

Also, in Out of Sight, I argue for international trade law that empowers workers to sue employers in the country of corporate origin. I fully expect some to say that is a ridiculous and unworkable idea. But the TPP would guarantee something similar to this, except strictly to benefit corporations:

The deal also gives global corporations an international tribunal of private attorneys, outside any nation’s legal system, that can order compensation for lost expected profits resulting from a nation’s regulations, including our own. These extraordinary rights for corporations put governments on the defensive over legitimate public health or environmental rules.

The TPP would go far to override international law. Now, I doubt the Vietnamese could realistically attack the U.S. for its environmental legislation. After all, these trade deals do not leave all nations on an equal playing field. More likely is that American corporations go after the environmental and labor laws of the poorer nations. Either way, this is a horrible principle that continues what international trade law has done for a half-century–allow corporations to evade regulatory statues and laws that allow people to live a dignified life.

At the very least, shouldn’t Congress have the right to debate this treaty as it moves forward? I believe Obama is, frankly, completely deluded when he thinks the TPP will counter Chinese influence in the Pacific and it certainly isn’t worth risking American environmental and labor law over. There is no reason to give him fast track authority. This needs to be a public process. Right now, the TPP is as opaque as any corporate executive could desire. That is a very bad thing.

Previewing Two Years of Journalistic Excellence in Election Coverage

[ 38 ] March 4, 2015 |

Did Rand Paul clap loudly enough for Netanyahu’s speech? That’s what Jen Rubin wants to know at the beginning of an election cycle that is sure sure to be filled with hard-hitting two years of journalistic excellence. The Republican primaries are sure to be filled with such important points as who can scream loudest at Democrats and who can genuflect enough to Likud. But it’s not like coverage of the Democrats is going to be any better, as the e-mail “scandal,” which no doubt contains Hillary’s admission of personally murdering Vince Foster, shows.

Rising Oceans

[ 48 ] March 1, 2015 |

Welcome to the future:

Sea levels across the Northeast coast of the United States rose nearly 3.9 inches between 2009 and 2010, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The waters near Portland, Maine, saw an even greater rise — 5 inches — over the two-year period.

While scientists have been observing higher sea levels across the globe in recent decades, the study found a much more extreme rise than previous averages. Such an event is “unprecedented” in the history of the tide gauge record, according to the researchers, and represents a 1-in-850 year event.

“Unlike storm surge, this event caused persistent and widespread coastal flooding even without apparent weather processes,” the study’s authors wrote. “In terms of beach erosion, the impact of the 2009-2010 [sea level rise] event is almost as significant as some hurricane events.”

At least we are taking climate change seriously and are ready to do what it takes to save our coastlines…

Memorializing Slavery

[ 108 ] March 1, 2015 |

The fact that a wealthy white man would buy an antebellum Louisiana sugar plantation and turn it into a no punches pulled museum on slavery, the first museum dedicated wholly to slavery in the United States (the U.S. has the Holocaust Museum despite no appropriate museum dealing with its own genocidal projects) is remarkable and an obvious must visit the next time I am in the area.

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