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Hackneyed Anti-Union Historical References

[ 123 ] August 10, 2013 |

Dylan Matthews responded on Twitter to my brief criticism of his column on Thursday , leading to a good debate that eventually included Mike Konczal, Jamelle Bouie, David Roberts, Ned Resnikoff, and other smart people. Matthews admitted that he could see a scenario where there was no minimum wage at all, which I disagree with strongly. He claims to be for reducing inequality (which I believe does support) but shows no understanding about the importance of giving workers dignity and power to control their own lives. When I challenged Matthews’ claim that AEI economists had the interest of working-class people in mind (and I do not believe they do care about working-class people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be working for the American Enterprise Institute) by saying that if these were such good ideas, maybe actual working-class organizations like labor unions would support them, Matthews responded unfortunately, tweeting:

This is the anti-union equivalent of saying that we can’t take Democrats seriously on civil rights today because Robert Byrd was a Klan member in 1946. Who cares what George Meany’s foreign policy was in 1972? What on earth does that have to do with anything in 2013? But you hear this all the time. Meany’s support of Vietnam and hatred of McGovern remains a bog-standard anti-union argument from center-left people who are not comfortable with unions. At least mentioning Teamsters corruption and Jimmy Hoffa is so past its sell-by date that it’s not respectable to trot that one out anymore. But outside of saying that maybe we shouldn’t care all that much what AFL-CIO executives think about foreign policy, I can’t see what AFL leadership’s position on Cold War foreign policy 41 years after it happened matters one iota to the present and I certainly can’t understand what possible relevance it has to any economic debate today. Not only was that decision extremely controversial within the AFL-CIO, leading to many internationals openly bucking Meany, but the American labor movement also had a lot of other priorities in the 1960s and 1970s that are well worth taking seriously. Maybe Matthews could have mentioned union support for the Humphrey-Hawkins bill of 1978 that could have guaranteed full employment. Or the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Or increases in the minimum wage. Oh right, he doesn’t really support that one.

As regards Nixon’s health plan, while it might sound good compared what came after, it was hardly considered some great progressive bill in 1974. Unions believed it could be better. Ted Kennedy did not support it either. Nixon wanted to end Medicaid and replace it with significant employee contributions to health plans that did not exist in 1974. The plan as a whole was not terrible, but taking Nixon seriously as a progressive president domestically only makes sense if we complete ignore both the congressional and social movement context of the period. On all progressive domestic programs, Nixon signed what he had to and weakened legislation when he could in order to mitigate opposition to what he really cared about–fighting communists and cracking down on hippies. Nixon was moved very little by actually providing quality health care to average Americans, although his plan, if enacted, might have created real improvements. With hindsight, labor maybe should have supported it, but that was far from clear at the time.

I told Matthews that he needed to read less conservative economists and more labor history. The more I think about it, the more I believe he to delve much deeper into twentieth century American history. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. In general, we should all read more history, but for an important writer to not have the contextual historical background to make arguments that pull from the past to discuss legislation or ideas in the present is a problem. In any case, it’d be nice if liberal-centrist columnists who don’t much value unions at least updated their arguments to include some events that took place after I was born nearly 40 years ago.

America’s First Sex Manual, 1766

[ 69 ] August 9, 2013 |

Very interesting.

And thus those nobler parts we see
For such the parts of generation be:
And they who carefully survey will find
Each part is fitted for the use design’d:
The purest blood we find if well we heed
Is in the testicles turn’d into seed:
Which by most proper channels is transmitted
Into the place by nature for it fitted:
With highest sense of pleasure to excite
In amorous combatants the more delight.
For in this work nature doth design
Profit and pleasure in one act to join.


The Tyranny of Consensus

[ 128 ] August 9, 2013 |

One chapter of my book is on Oregon reforestation cooperatives from the 1970s who found their countercultural work ideal disrupted when the Forest Service sprayed them with pesticides. One of the key members of the main cooperative, known as the Hoedads, was Gerry Mackie. After fifteen years working in the forest, Mackie went into academia, eventually ending up as a political theorist at the University of California-San Diego. I was reading his M.A. thesis the other day, which deals with the rise and fall of the cooperatives. This is what Mackie had to say about consensus decision-making, something I oppose with every fiber of my bones:

“In the late 1970s, some new members imported a belief popular on the liberal-left, that democracy requires consensus. Consensus groups could function, but were unstable and usually the first to fall. There are several problems. Those with the least to do elsewhere in life have the greatest power in the interminable consensus process. Trust, ironically, is absent, in that no delegation of decision is permitted. The thought of a meeting then becomes so horrifying that a larger and larger scope of decisions is left to informal leadership and clandestine process, an undemocratic outcome. Consensus is always biased to the status quo, but problems usually originate in the status quo; rapid external change worsens the conservative bias. Further, consensus invades the individual personality and demands conformity; dissenters may acquiesce but in doing so are implicitly judged to have compromised the moral ideal. The healthy legitimacy of openly holding different views becomes suspect. Finally, rational unanimity is impossible for a larger class of goals. Just to illustrate with a trivial example, suppose it is time to decide where the crew works in the Spring. Six people want to work in Montana because they have friends there. Two people want to work in California because they have friends there. Three people don’t care. Under majority rule, the crew goes to Montana, and those in the minority might feel they are owed a little deference in some future decision (know to political science as “logrolling”). Under consensus, the different sides are denied the legitimacy of their individual interests, because there is only one rational goal for the group, which one side or another must adopt, or the group disband. Under majority rule one is subordinate to shifting impersonal majorities, but under consensus one is permanently subordinated to every other member in the group.”

Right–consensus decision making is the opposite of democracy. Not only does it empower the person with nothing else going on in their life, but it places everyone under the tyranny of everyone else. Meetings are impossible and effectively, consensus decision-making is a sure fire way to destroy your movement. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement and being outvoted. Unfortunately, too many of today’s social activists believe that such a thing as a consensus is possible, when in fact a consensus is the worst possible outcome.

This Day in Labor History: August 9, 1910

[ 33 ] August 9, 2013 |

On August 9, 1910, the first patent was issued for the electric washing machine. I am going to use this seemingly random event as a jumping off point to explore one of the most forgotten labor sectors in American history—unpaid domestic labor in the home. Like many household technologies of the twentieth century, the washing machine created radical changes to housework, almost entirely done by women. While Americans almost always embrace technological advances with the zeal of religious converts, in fact the larger effects of household technologies have been complex and not always great for the women engaged in domestic labor in the home.

I’m basing this argument off Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1983 book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. As Cowan points out, housework is the first form of labor humans are exposed to and through most of western history, it is the sector of work to which women have been delegated. The key transformation in this history was the arrival of the Industrial Revolution to the home in the late 19th century. Women always did productive labor, often unpaid, but in the earlier period that included canning, sewing, and other tasks that might bring income into the household. Women continued to produce domestic tasks in an industrialized household, but now the consumption of that work stayed solely within the home. The labor became entirely reproductive.

Cowan shows that despite the bold promises of industrial technology entering the household, the ultimate effects were complex. New technologies were sold as freeing women from generations of the boring drudgery that was household labor. There was a long history of trying to do this—many of the 19th century transcendental communities experimented in communal household labor precisely to free women to do more interesting things. When these went nowhere, the middle class hired people to do it for them. Technology again promised middle-class women a life of leisure. But while new tools may have made work easier, but it also meant that women had to do that work more often. The vacuum cleaner meant women cleaned their floors far more often than their mothers. The washing machine made cleaning clothes far easier. It also raised standards of cleanliness, meaning that women had to do laundry more often. Multiply this task by all the other tasks a woman now had to do to meet newly elevated middle-class standards of housework and you are talking a lot of work.

The washing machine itself came about as part of a larger process transforming the American home: electricity. In 1907, only 8% of American homes were wired for electricity, a number that jumped to almost 35% by 1920. With electricity, companies began developing a wide array of new appliances to sell to the modernized home. Electric fans, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines flooded the market. Soon electric stoves and refrigerators would follow. Taken together, these would revolutionize household labor. The work of women had increasingly separated from that of men in the 19th century (although this was often more true in aspiration than reality for the working class) with the rise of the doctrine of separate spheres and the creation of the modern factory. This would only increase with new technologies in the 20th. It also made household workers far more productive.

One change these appliances created was a decline in hired domestic labor. Middle-class women often hired a laundress to do work. The electric machine meant the expense of hired help was not necessary. In 1900, there 1 was servant for every 15 households. By 1950, that dropped to 1 for every 42. But it also meant that the middle-class woman actually did the laundry herself now, and usually several times a week. The woman of the household did just as much work as before, but now without the help. Add to this the movement of children away from work (increasingly, even chores at home) to schools and the rise of a youth culture, and with each passing year, women became more like the sole worker in a factory of never-ending meals, laundry, diaper-changes, vacuuming, floor washing, window washing, dusting, etc.

Technologies did not inevitably lead us down this road. Cowan also argues for the possibility of eliminating much reproductive labor through these technologies, a road not taken. She looks at the history of commercial laundries, noting they peaked in the 1920s, when the new technologies made it possible to take that sector of work out of the home entirely. But the electric washing machine killed the commercial laundry. Cowan argues, “The decline of the commercial laundry is, in fact, one of the few instances we have of a household function appearing to be well on its way to departing from the home—only to return.” (107). The creation of the modern automatic machine in the late 1930s made this history. While many at the time and today looked at washing machines as a good investment because of the cost of doing laundry, Cowan points out that only makes sense if you calculate women’s time as worth nothing. Given the significant labor of doing laundry yourself, especially if you have a family, valuing your time even at the minimum wage may make commercial laundries a sensible option. Yet even today, most people either have their own laundry machines or do it themselves at laundromats.

There are somewhat legitimate critiques of this line of feminist inquiry into technology and labor. For one, Cowan focuses too much on the middle class and ignores working-class women who not only lost their jobs as housekeepers through these technologies but had to find other employment and try to hold up to heightened middle-class standards of housework. Cowan also downplays just how hard some of this labor was pre-technology in order to make her larger points. I’ve read plenty of descriptions of just what doing laundry was like when you had to haul and boil water. Let’s just say that I’d embrace a new technology too. In a related point, she ignores rural women for whom these tasks were the most onerous. But this is a relatively minor critique of a brilliant book that provides an important line of argument for thinking about household labor.

This is the 71st post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

Stand Beside Her And Guide Her

[ 69 ] August 9, 2013 |

As you probably heard, Karen Black died. A key actress to so many major films of the 70s, she succumbed to cancer. She could have had a dignified end of life. Or maybe even defeated her cancer. Instead, she lived in the United States, where our disastrous health care system (even after the significant improvements of Obamacare) forced Black and her husband to crowdsource her cancer treatments after they used up all their savings.

At least Black had the name to do this. How many thousands of people just die because they don’t have the ability to put up even a basic fight against illness?

Cowboy Jack Clement, RIP

[ 8 ] August 8, 2013 |

One of the unsung legends of country music. More known as a producer than performer or songwriter, but he was everywhere in country music for 50 years. “Let’s All Help the Cowboys Sing the Blues” is probably best known because of Waylon Jennings doing it on his seminal album Dreamin’ My Dreams, but it’s a Clement song.

He also produced most of Townes Van Zandt’s early records. Some thought he overproduced them but I have no problem with adorning someone with a rough voice like Townes with a higher level of production, even including the string section on “Kathleen.”

Labor Historians and the Labor Movement

[ 5 ] August 8, 2013 |

I was asked to provide a write-up of a panel at the Labor and Working Class History Association meeting on the Chicago Teachers Union struggle. It gave me an opportunity to muse a bit about the relationship between labor historians and the labor movement (and really between any social movement historians and the social movement for which they study and advocate).

The CTU panel was one of many LAWCHA panels that focused on the present rather than past. This opens up important questions about the relationship between ourselves as historians and current struggles. As labor historians, we really want the CTU to be the harbinger of a turnaround for organized labor. But I think we have to create some critical distance between our work and our hopes that any given workers’ movement will finally be the spark that revives the labor movement. I’ve recently read historians who wrote about contemporary struggles following the WTO protests in Seattle, Occupy Wall Street, and the rebellion against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Each of these incidents led historians to predict a resurgence for labor. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened, making some of this work dated mere months after its writing. I have no idea whether the CTU is an isolated case or the beginning of a more militant teachers union movement willing to push back against the bipartisan project of undermining teachers. The panel certainly didn’t help me decide this question. But it did provide valuable context and first-hand accounts of the struggle that we can hope becomes a model for other public sector unions across the country.

It Certainly Seems to Me that Referring to the Team as the “Washington Racist Insignia” is Entirely Appropriate

[ 145 ] August 8, 2013 |

Good on Slate for joining other news organizations in refusing to use the given name of the Washington football club. I do disagree with David Plotz about what he calls the subtle case that “Redskins” was always racist. Just because Native Americans were seen as irrelevant and therefore worthy of becoming mascots through most of the 20th century doesn’t mean that process and its results weren’t full-fledged racism. On the other hand, I do like Plotz’s promotion of the term “Redtails” to replace the name, given the relationship of that term to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Minimum Wage

[ 143 ] August 8, 2013 |

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the WonkBlog is promoting conservative economists that want to allow employers to pay less than the minimum wage.

[SL] I suppose considering Obama’s actual proposals for combating unemployment would be too much to ask, and I don’t find it hard to explain why he’s not making a lot of concrete proposals given that anything he proposes will be defined as beyond-the-pale socialism by House Republicans.  But, sure, if he cared about unemployment like conservative economists do he’d give everybody a free bus ticket to Minot and have the taxpayers pick up the tab so that profitable corporations can pay workers even less, what great ideas.  In particular, I can’t imagine any bait and switch in which the minimum wage is relaxed and the compensatory tax credits mysteriously vanish.  I mean, if it’s proposed by a conservative think tank you know it’s in good faith!


[ 78 ] August 8, 2013 |

Breitbart evidently now has a sports page, where its writers provide the same acumen for terrible analysis that they do on the political side. Because you see advanced statistics and math is for liberals. Instead, conservatives need numbers that reinforce their already existing beliefs against reality. Like all that matters in understanding pitchers is if the pitcher’s team racks up a win:

In this article, columnist John Pudner introduces a new, proprietary metric, called Value Add Baseball. The idea behind it is to evaluate starting pitchers based not on how well they pitch, but how well they pitch in specific game situations. If a starting pitcher’s team scores six runs, he can give up five runs and still maintain a lead; by contrast, if a starting pitcher’s team scores only two runs, then he can give up three runs but still fall behind. The point of Value Add Baseball is to adjust for this: To make it clear that the pitcher who allows five runs when his team has scored six has done better than the pitcher who has allowed three runs when his team has scored two.

Sound crazy? It should! “The starting pitcher is the one player who has responsibility each game for getting his team the win,” Pudner writes. But, actually, it is not the pitcher’s job to get his team the win. It is the team’s job to get the team the win. Baseball is a team sport! The starting pitcher contributes to the win—typically, I agree, more than any other individual player does—by helping, along with his defense and catcher, limit the other team’s runs. But this metric holds the pitcher completely responsible. And it subscribes to the myth of “pitching to the score,” which is just plain wrong.

Consider: It is generally agreed that the best baseball game ever pitched came on May 29, 1959, when the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Harvey Haddix was perfect through 12 innings before he gave up a run to the Milwaukee Braves in the bottom of the 13th. (Hank Aaron was on base at the time.) Because the Pirates themselves had scored no runs through 13, Haddix “lost” the game. If I understand Value Add Baseball correctly, his “rating” for that game is worse than that of a starting pitcher who gave up five runs through seven innings while his own team scored nine. That is, plainly, ludicrous.

Look, Harvey Haddix sucked that day, OK. And the greatest pitcher of all time is obviously Jack Morris, he of the 5-run win. Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young in 2010 was the greatest travesty of all time except for the Kenyan Usurper’s two presidential wins and of course that evil George H.W. Bush stealing the 1988 Republican nomination from godly Pat Robertson. And how dare those liberal sportsnerds create a statistic called WAR, taking away from what war is supposed to do, kill brown people.

Popcorn Futures Up 30%

[ 62 ] August 7, 2013 |

Please please please please let this happen:

Louie Gohmert for Senate? That’s what a number of Texas tea-party activists are hoping for. They’re not happy with Senator John Cornyn, and Katrina Pierson, who serves on the Texas Tea Party Caucus Advisory Board, tells me she’s heard from a number of activists pushing for the outspoken East Texas congressman to challenge the senator.

And JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of East Texas–based Grassroots America We The People, says she’s hearing the same thing. She knows Gohmert personally and says she’s had numerous activists tell her she should ask the congressman to run.

This would be the greatest primary in history, if your definition of great consists of Texans in a competition to say evil things. And of course it’s impossible to say who would win such a primary.

Profile of a Racist

[ 82 ] August 7, 2013 |

Your daily American racist.