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How Many Products That You Buy Drive Human Rights Abuses? Many.

[ 24 ] October 29, 2014 |

This Vox piece on 5 products you buy that drive human rights abuses is good enough. I talk about the shrimp industry at some length in my forthcoming capital mobility book. If you are buying frozen shrimp, just assume you are either supporting slave labor or something way too close to it. The apparel industry is of course notorious for its exploitation, as is chocolate production.

But the larger point that the author doesn’t make is that most of the products you buy engage in outright exploitation because the system of capital mobility allows corporations to exploit workers and destroy ecosystems around the globe with impunity and the outsourcing and subcontracting system further makes protects corporations from accountability. So sure, these are horrible industries but if we want to do anything about them we have to think systemically about the system of modern global capitalism that creates these horrors. And the article doesn’t really do that.

A World of Dams

[ 20 ] October 28, 2014 |

Grand_Coulee_Dam_construction

Plumer has a good rundown of the complexity of dam building around the world
. The world’s rapidly growing demand for energy means that every way we can turn the natural world into power is going to be considered. Given how many of those methods of energy production also transform the climate in horrible ways, hydropower seems smart. But hydropower also has its own major problems. It forces sometimes hundreds of thousands to move from their homes. It drastically transforms aquatic ecosystems, imperiling fish and other species. It may well create unintended consequences that undermine its clean energy reputation. Building dams also reflects power differentials in society as a whole. Thus you have a nation like Chile seeking to dam rivers over the desires of the people who occupy the land, i.e., the Mapuche. So dam building becomes another round in the 500+ year history of colonialism and racism against indigenous peoples in the Americas.

And mostly, we don’t really know what we are doing when we build dams. In the U.S., this led to a lot of bad dams that provided little power but had significant negative consequences for people and ecosystems. That’s almost certainly happening around the world today.

As with all energy questions, there are no easy answers. But hydroelectric is not a panacea either and should be expanded with the kind of caution one would want to see with gigantic projects that will reshape entire parts of the world. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

He. Didn’t. Even. Try.

[ 128 ] October 28, 2014 |

If only Obama had given one more speech, the Democratic caucus in the Senate would have totally supported a Swedish-style single payer health care system:

One of the most interesting examples of the reform effort are the “copper plans” being proposed in the Expanded Consumer Choice Act, which is being pushed by seven moderate Senate Democrats: Mark Begich, Mark Warner, Heidi Heitkamp, Tim Kaine, Mary Landrieu, Angus King, and Joe Manchin.

The bill has been around for a few months, but it’s gained more attention in recent weeks because Begich — one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the 2014 election — is using it as proof that he really does want to fix Obamacare, rather than just protect it. If he wins his election, it could become a model for Democrats trying to run on Obamacare going forward. It might even end up being part of a Republican reform package.

Copper plans cover 50 percent of expected health costs (or, as the health wonks put it, they have an “actuarial value” of 50 percent). That means premiums are cheaper than the platinum, gold, bronze or silver plans — the consulting group Avalere Health estimates that copper plan premiums would be 18 percent lower than bronze plan premiums.

But if you get sick, the deductibles and co-pays are much higher. Larry Levitt, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says that the deductibles would have to be in the range of $9,000 — which would make them higher than the $6,350 out-of-pocket maximum that the law currently allows.

In other words, a significant percentage of the Democratic caucus is looking to fix the ACA by making it a lot worse for poor people.

When someone tells me how Obama was supposed to get votes 53-60 for a better health care bill–in a Democratic caucus that was worse in 2009 than in 2014, let me know.

Slavery and Higher Education

[ 11 ] October 28, 2014 |

It’s hardly surprising once you think about it, but you probably don’t think about it, so it’s worth noting the role slavery had in building so many of our older institutions of higher education. Finally, some institutions are becoming serious about remembering that history and commemorating the unfree labor who worked on these campuses. Brown University is probably the most famous case, but the University of South Carolina has also done good work on this. It’s important stuff and we need more of it.

Surely We Can Strive for 1929 by 2015!

[ 33 ] October 28, 2014 |

Daddy-Warbucks

Good times:

The debate over inequality often focuses on income, or how much money people earn. But perhaps even more important is wealth, or how much money people have. A person’s income can vary significantly from one year to the next, but wealth tends to be more durable, not just from year to year but from generation to generation. In this paper, the authors construct a new time series on wealth from Federal Reserve, Internal Revenue Service and other data. They find that wealth inequality, like income inequality, has increased significantly in recent decades. In 1978, the richest 0.1 percent of households held about 7 percent of all household wealth; in 2012, they controlled 22 percent. (The top 0.1 percent in 2012 comprised about 160,000 families with net assets above $20 million.) But wealth inequality still isn’t as high as it was in 1929, when the top 0.1 percent had 25 percent of all wealth. Overall, the authors find that the bottom 90 percent haven’t seen any increase in wealth since the mid-1980s after adjusting for inflation.

Daddy Warbucks for President!

This Day in Labor History: October 28, 1793

[ 29 ] October 28, 2014 |

On October 28, 1793, Eli Whitney submitted a patent for his invention known as the cotton gin. Perhaps more than any technology in American history, this invention profoundly revolutionized American labor. Creating the modern cotton industry meant the transition from agricultural to industrial labor in the North with the rise of the factory system and the rapid expansion and intensification of slavery in the South to produce the cotton. The cotton gin went far to create the 19th century American economy and sharpened the divides between work and labor between regions of the United States, problems that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

People had long known of the versatile uses of cotton. This plant produced fibers that could be used for many things, but most usefully clothing, which in the 18th century was often scratchy and uncomfortable for everyday people who could not afford finer fabrics, including cotton. The problem was the seed inside the cotton boll, to which the plant’s fibers stuck. Thus, the labor it took to process it made it a luxury good. The cotton gin solved that problem by mechanically separating the fibers from the seeds. This made cotton a universal product and the production of it an international business that would radically change the entire United States and transform work.

Whitney, from Massachusetts, became interested in the problems of cotton production while visiting a plantation in Georgia. Helping out the plantation’s owner (the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene), he created the cotton gin. On October 28, he send his patent application to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. He hoped to make a lot of money on it but American patent law was weak at the time and others copied him. Quickly the invention spread around the South.

49824_cotton_gin_lg

The cotton gin immediately transformed the South. By 1815, cotton became the nation’s leading export, tying the Southern elite to the factory owners and investors of Great Britain. By 1840, it was worth more than all other American exports combined. The system of chattel slavery that had under-girded the colonial tobacco economy had become heavily strained during the 18th century. Declining soil fertility and the expansion of tobacco production around the British empire meant that the plantation owners were not making the money off of slavery that they did 100 years earlier. The lack of an economic imperative for the institution went far toward the abolition of slavery in the North after the American Revolution. In the South, it combined with Enlightenment ideals to at least make plantation owners question the institution. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both admitted the institution was bad but could not imagine freeing their slaves because of the lives of luxury the system provided them. Others were slightly less selfish and either freed their slaves in the 1780s or freed them upon the master’s death, such as George Washington. The general assumption though was that slavery was going to disappear, even if Georgia and South Carolina wouldn’t like it much. As Oliver Ellsworth said at the Constitutional Convention, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”

The cotton gin ended this equivocation on slavery among the plantation elite and destroyed the myth of disappearing slavery in the North. Combined with the conquest of rich land in the hot climates of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana over the next few decades, the planters found new ways to make money using slaves. The southern discussion of slavery transformed from a “necessary evil” to a “positive good.” Thus we would enter the “classic” period of American chattel slavery, replete with the large plantation agriculture you probably think of when envisioning slavery. The lives for slaves were terrible under this system, with rape, beatings, whippings, murder, and the breaking up of families normal parts of life. Further advances in cotton farming created breeds that incentivized working slaves as close to death as possible while keeping them just alive to pick more. As the nation moved toward the Civil War, the southern labor system wrought by the cotton gin was becoming only more entrenched and more brutal for the laborers. Slaves would resist this in any number of ways–breaking tools, running away from masters, even revolt, such as Nat Turner’s revolt or Denmark Vesey’s supposed conspiracy. But by and large the system of racialized violence that kept the labor force in place doomed slaves to miserable lives. In 1787, there were 700,000 slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were 4 million and rising. Around 70 percent of those slaves were involved in cotton production.

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In the North, the revolution caused by the cotton gin was just as profound. Samuel Slater had opened the United States’ first modern factory, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a couple of years earlier. The textile industry would explode in the next several decades with all the newly available cotton. By the 1820s, New England had already undergone a massive economic shift toward textile mills that moved this region from rural to urban, with courts and politicians serving the interests of the industrialists over workers, farmers, and fishers. At first, this transformation was along the region’s copious waterways–at Pawtucket, Lowell, and Manchester. But further technological advances would for steam power meant owners could build factories anywhere and they dotted the region after the Civil War.

The impact upon northern workers was truly revolutionary. The agricultural economy certainly did not disappear but it soon became secondary to the textile factories in much of the region. The wealth spawned by textiles created other industries and new transportation technologies like the steamship, canal, and railroad, and by 1860, the growing northern industrial might had reshaped the nation. It took workers out of the farms and small shops that defined 18th century work and into giant factories. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution that the cotton gin brought to the U.S. meant that workers would lose control over their own labor, the ability to set their own hours of work, the possibility of drinking on the job, and the artisanship of American craft labor. Replacing it would be the factory floor, the time clock, and the foreman. This is largely in the relatively distant future from 1793, but the transformations began soon after.

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0

It also brought women into the economy in new ways. Supposedly because of their nimble fingers but really because employers could pay them less, women became desirable workers in the cotton factories. This upended gender roles and when American women resisted the treatment they faced in the factories, spurred the migration of immigrants from Ireland and then eastern and southern Europe to fill these low-paid jobs. In the early factories, work was hot, stuffy, and exhausting, with 14-16 hours days not uncommon. The creation of textile work as women’s work and thus highly exploitative never ended and continues today in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, and many other nations. The fight to tame the conditions of industrial labor wrought, in part, by the cotton gin, remains underway today.

This is the 123rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Guacamole Karloff

[ 38 ] October 27, 2014 |

Boris-Karloff_Frankenstein_HD_768x432-16x9

Who else needs Boris Karloff’s guacamole recipe?

B0_WUYCCUAEVsDu

Fast Food Wages

[ 98 ] October 27, 2014 |

Why it’s almost as if fast food companies are lying when they say they have to keep wages low in order to survive!

On a recent afternoon, Hampus Elofsson ended his 40-hour workweek at a Burger King and prepared for a movie and beer with friends. He had paid his rent and all his bills, stashed away some savings, yet still had money for nights out.

That is because he earns the equivalent of $20 an hour — the base wage for fast-food workers throughout Denmark and two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States.

“You can make a decent living here working in fast food,” said Mr. Elofsson, 24. “You don’t have to struggle to get by.”

With an eye to workers like Mr. Elofsson, some American labor activists and liberal scholars are posing a provocative question: If Danish chains can pay $20 an hour, why can’t those in the United States pay the $15 an hour that many fast-food workers have been clamoring for?

“We see from Denmark that it’s possible to run a profitable fast-food business while paying workers these kinds of wages,” said John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington.

And if those fast food companies are less profitable in Denmark than the U.S., well, good! Companies should have lower profits if that money is going into the hands of workers. This seems self-evident to me, but I know even many liberal Americans have so internalized the logic of modern profit ideology that the idea of lower profits in exchange for better lives for low-paid workers makes many people uncomfortable.

Romanticizing the IWW

[ 124 ] October 27, 2014 |

obu

This is as good a time as any to announce what I think my next book project is going to be, or at least what I am starting to work on. I want to write a new history of the Industrial Workers of the World that evaluates the union’s successes and failures in terms of what might be useful for modern activists in their own struggles. I am interested in this because the IWW basically exists in leftist memory as a romantic alternative to bureaucratic unionism, the promise of the revolution never achieved thanks to state repression, the AFL, corporate media, name your reason. Especially in an era where activists often don’t see the state as part of the solution, nor 20th century versions of socialism and certainly not the AFL-CIO, the free-flowing, culture producing, decentralized IWW seems an ideal. That the IWW promoted worker participation, bottom up organizing, democratic unionism, and all the other things that modern left critics of labor wants to see makes their vision of it, however accurate or not, powerful.

Theoretically, that should be fine. People are going to use whatever pasts they choose to inform their present. But there are problems. First, the IWW couldn’t actually win anything. Part of that has to do with the conditions in which it organized with a hostile state. But no small part of it was with problems in the IWW organizing model that almost made long-lasting victory impossible. The modern left stance toward the union also leads to cheerleading for a past movement at the expense sometimes of analyzin it. Even professional labor historians are guilty of this, sometimes worse than anyone. When the 2013 Labor and Working Class History Association meeting was coming up, I noted to one of the organizers that it was taking place in New York on the 100th anniversary of the Paterson Strike Pageant. So I was lucky enough to then moderate the panel remembering the event. Before the panel, one of the participants, a major labor historian, was openly talking about how this event should be a celebration.

Well, why? Should any historians be rooting for our protagonists? Does that help? Or is hard-headed analysis pulling no punches about both failures and successes more useful? I’d say the latter. The Paterson Strike Pageant was a complete disaster. The IWW’s cultural production may be appealing to modern leftists, but in this case, it actually split the workers with jealousy since only some workers could participate. It also drew workers away from the actual strike, allowing the factory owners to bring in strikebreakers. It was a horrible decision that doomed that strike (which probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway). It also basically killed the IWW in the east. After 1913, the Wobblies focused almost exclusively on western resource extractive labor for its campaigns.

But the modern left loves the pageant. Why? Because it brought together workers and culture in fun and radical ways that seem to portend a bread and roses culture that is a dream today. Take this essay, which led me to write this post. It’s well researched and well written, yet seems to present a really heroic view of the strike. I haven’t read the book where this is excerpted, but while a People’s Art History of the United States is cool and all, don’t we have to talk about all the ways the Paterson pageant failed miserably? In this case, isn’t the people’s history of the Paterson pageant that it turned workers against one another? If we want to learn lessons from the IWW, shouldn’t they be the right ones? Isn’t the goal to organize workers and win? And if that is the goal, shouldn’t we think about how the IWW did that well and how it did that poorly, without sweeping the latter under the rug in favor of vague notions of solidarity?

So basically what I want to do is write a decidedly unromantic history of the IWW that considers their actions in the context of thinking about usefulness for modern activists. What should we learn and is there anything they did a century ago that might give us pause today? Moreover, I want this to focus more on the rank and file and less on ideology and leadership. Unfortunately, for all the left loves to talk about “the people,” leftists love their Great Man history more than anyone. Joe Hill. Frank Little. Big Bill Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But what about everyday loggers, miners, textile mill workers? Did the IWW work for them? How did they respond to the Wobblies? What did they want and how did the IWW succeed or fail in providing that to them? By exploring these questions, I hope to peel away some of the romance and provide people a more useful past than I think most writers on the IWW give. Even if some people will be mad that I am far from a partisan for the organization.

A This Day in Labor History post next week will expand upon these ideas in the context of a single incident.

This Day in Labor History: October 27, 1948

[ 25 ] October 27, 2014 |

On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.

Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.

The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.

In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.

DonoraSmokeStacks

Pollution in Donora (credit here)

The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.

DonoraSmogAtNoon

The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.

The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.

U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.

So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.

The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.

The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.

For decades now, anti-fluoridation nutcases have used the Donora Fog as one of their cases to prove that fluoride is the world’s greatest evil and the government is covering it up.

I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.

This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Beard Tonic

[ 36 ] October 26, 2014 |

In the spirit of allowing you fellas out there to adhere to Gilded Age masculinity or New Gilded Age hipster masculinity, I thought you might be interested in this product.

beard-generator

I was perusing old issues of Harper’s a few years ago and the back advertisements were full of beard tonics and the like.

Plutocrats Hate Poor People Participating in Politics

[ 49 ] October 25, 2014 |

The plutocracy might say the quiet parts loud in China because it doesn’t matter. But the economic elites in the US agree–and always have–that the poor should not have the same rights in the political arena. They might spice it up with rhetoric about “responsibility” or something, but it’s really just that the poor have different interests and therefore must be crushed.

But these strategies for protecting plutocrats from the mob are indirect and imperfect. The obvious answer is Mr. Leung’s: Don’t let the bottom half, or maybe even the bottom 90 percent, vote.

And now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win.

Democracy versus plutocracy was the fundamental battle of the Gilded Age as well. Democracy sort of won. Will it win in the New Gilded Age? Maybe. Maybe not.

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