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Four Pinocchios

[ 60 ] June 29, 2014 |

This is a week old now, but worth mentioning. I normally don’t much care for media rating systems like Politfact, but when the Washington Post decided to aim its guns at Little Tommy Friedman and his penchant for using false historical analogies to press his foreign policy aims (that are mysteriously incredibly influential on Capitol Hill), it’s hard to resist. Basically, Friedman decided to “quote” Dean Rusk in reference to current relations between the U.S. and Putin’s Russia, saying during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Soviet ships supposedly came within a few miles of the U.S. naval blockade, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Problem–the entire scenario was fabricated in Bobby Kennedy’s memoir. Does Friedman care that this is a falsehood? No, he does not care. Because he wants it to be true because toughness is a virtue and if he has to go all The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance about myths, well, print the legend. And if that causes U.S. relations with Russia to decline, great.

Thus, four Pinocchios for Friedman.

Thanks to BlueLoom for the link.

Bullard

[ 36 ] June 29, 2014 |

If you aren’t familiar with Robert Bullard, the founder of the study of environmental justice as a line of academic inquiry, you should be. For over 30 years, Bullard has straddled the line between academic and activist, working with local communities to fight for environmental justice and forcing rich white environmental organizations to come to terms with the structural inequalities in society and in their own movements that marginalize the concern of the poor. At the end, most environmentalism should protect the poor because it is the poor that are most effected by pollution due to their inability to move away from it and their lack of political power to prevent it from occurring near their homes. Unfortunately, this has not always been recognized by the environmental community as important. That has slowly changed, but it’s largely been more superficial than real, as the big green organizations remain mostly dominated by whites. An excerpt of this interview Guernica did with Bullard:

Guernica: As a corollary to marginalized communities shouldering a disproportionate toxic load, do you see the equity issue playing out in access to green energy? Because to date that appears largely clustered in communities of privilege.

Robert Bullard: Oh yes. We have a term for that: energy apartheid. At the same time that all this emphasis is being placed on going green and clean and renewable, if you look at the equity impact, there is a class bias, and a racial bias embedded in class. People with resources can have better access to clean energy and renewables, and better access to green transportation, while at the same time a lot of the dirty energy industry facilities are still getting placed in working-class, lower-income communities of color. We’re talking clean and acting dirty.

Look at the fact that the nuclear power industry is trying to redefine itself. There had not been a nuclear power plant built in decades, and it is not by accident that the first two plants to get permitted are being placed in Waynesboro, Georgia, which is overwhelmingly African-American and that already has two nuclear power plants. So you’re talking about a community of lower-income African-Americans that is going to be used as a guinea pig for restarting nuclear power, a very risky operation. We have to point out the inconsistency of these things—who is going to benefit from this green economy, who’s getting the jobs and the contracts and the benefits? There is a disconnect. If we are going to have a green economy and move toward a green future, we have to make sure that future is equitable and not an opportunity for some communities to just get more dirty industry.

Moments in Congressional History

[ 40 ] June 29, 2014 |

I ran across former Speaker of the House Galusha Grow today. Hadn’t thought of him in awhile and remembered he is one of the great names in Congressional history. I read his Wikipedia page and was reminded of just how horrible Congress was in the 1850s, when the Democrats became a party of fireeating extremists:

During the 35th United States Congress, on February 5, 1858, he was physically attacked by Democrat Laurence M. Keitt in the House chambers, leading to a brawl between northerners and southerners. Keitt, offended by Grow having stepped over to his side of the House chamber, dismissively demanded that Grow sit down, calling him a “black Republican puppy”. Grow responded by telling Keitt that “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Keitt became enraged and went for Grow’s throat, shouting that he would “choke [him] for that”. A large brawl involving approximately 50 representatives erupted on the House floor, ending only when a missed punch from Rep. Cadwallader Washburn of Wisconsin upended the hairpiece of Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi. The embarrassed Barksdale accidentally replaced the wig backwards, causing both sides to erupt in spontaneous laughter.

I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Republicans start physically attacking Democrats on the floor of the House.

Stadium Ruins

[ 92 ] June 29, 2014 |

A surprisingly harsh and direct article by Juliet Macur in the Times on the complete idiocy of stadium building for the World Cup. A lot of these new stadiums not only cost a ton of money, but they weren’t even built in cities with functioning soccer teams that can even come close to filling them up. They are used for 5 or 6 games and then just left to rot. The stadiums cost billions of dollars in total in a poor nation. What a total waste of money.

Neither FIFA nor Brazil learned from the past. So many cities regret playing host to huge sporting events. Athens, for one, fell into debt after hosting the 2004 Olympics. Most of its once-sparkling athletic venues, including an arena just for taekwondo, are used sparingly at best and stand as reminders that holding the Summer Games in their birthplace sounded wonderful but wasn’t at all practical.

“What are we going to use this stadium for after the World Cup?” Marília Sueli Ferreira, who works at a stationery store in view of the Natal stadium, asked through an interpreter. “The World Cup is made for tourists, not for residents, and the tourists are going to disappear very soon.”

The tourists started leaving Natal after the last game here, on Tuesday.

The stadium will not regularly host tens of thousands of fans. This city of fewer than a million people in northeastern Brazil does not have a top-level soccer team, and its lower-level teams attract several thousand fans only on their biggest game days.

Without a guaranteed tenant, the stadium has a murky future. But it has company.

The stadiums in Manaus, surrounded by rain forest; Cuiabá, the soybean capital of Brazil, near Bolivia; and Brasília, the capital, are also expected to become World Cup white elephants because none of them have soccer teams that can consistently fill them. The four stadiums cost about $2 billion, most of it public money. (The human toll was also great, as nine workers died during the construction in Brazil.)

Already the stadiums from South Africa 2010 are ghost towns.

Last fall, I paid about $4 to tour Cape Town Stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa but had turned into a cavernous ghost town. Maybe 100 people a week buy tickets to get a close look at the Cup-generated waste. The space can be rented for weddings or other events, like the small fashion show that I saw there.

Suites that once held World Cup parties were dusty and silent. The state-of-the-art locker rooms, with tiny safes at each stall and rows of sinks to wash dirt off cleats, remained untouched. Thousands of tiny lights glistened from the ceiling of a V.I.P. entrance.


It’s no wonder that peoples are starting to reject holding mega sporting events
. Easier for FIFA to place the events in countries dominated by egocentric quasi-dictatorial leaders than democracies. Everyone is cool with the bribes in that set-up too.

The Great Divide

[ 106 ] June 29, 2014 |

Joseph Stiglitz is ending his The Great Divide series on the Times and in doing so notes that extreme economic inequality under capitalism is not inevitable, but rather a series of policy choices:

So why has America chosen these inequality-enhancing policies? Part of the answer is that as World War II faded into memory, so too did the solidarity it had engendered. As America triumphed in the Cold War, there didn’t seem to be a viable competitor to our economic model. Without this international competition, we no longer had to show that our system could deliver for most of our citizens.

Ideology and interests combined nefariously. Some drew the wrong lesson from the collapse of the Soviet system. The pendulum swung from much too much government there to much too little here. Corporate interests argued for getting rid of regulations, even when those regulations had done so much to protect and improve our environment, our safety, our health and the economy itself.

But this ideology was hypocritical. The bankers, among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from the government in the bailouts that have been a recurring feature of the global economy since the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era of “free” markets and deregulation.

My only critique here is that Stiglitz doesn’t talk about racism as part of the choice structure. After all, a lot of Americans chose against their own economic self-interest by committing to racial self-interest and voting for politicians promising to cut welfare so those big black bucks would stop driving up to the store in their Cadillac and buying t-bone steaks on food stamps. Of course, these same politicians were cutting jobs and government programs for whites too, but so long as it was played as a race thing, millions of Americans were OK with it.

NHL Draft

[ 23 ] June 28, 2014 |

Presumably Scott has renounced the Flames in favor of the Buffalo Sabres.

This Day in Labor History: June 27, 1905

[ 123 ] June 27, 2014 |

On June 27, 1905, at a convention in Chicago, the Industrial Workers of the World was founded. The IWW would play a major role in the industrial warfare of the early twentieth century, scare the employer class, and capture the imaginations of late 20th century and early 21st century radicals.

The IWW had many roots. Socialists and anarchists looked to form a broad-based labor organization. The Western Federation of Miners, a radical union with strongholds in the Rocky Mountains, wanted to expand their form of industrial unionism nationwide. Radicals of various stripes came to Chicago in late June to form this union. Among them was WFM leader Big Bill Haywood, who would become the union’s leader, although it was always a decentralized organization, especially when compared to both the American Federation of Labor and its constituent unions that were quite top-down, even in this era. Eugene Debs, former head of the American Railway Union and socialist candidate for president attended. The legendary matron saint of the United Mine Workers, Mary “Mother” Jones was there. Socialist leader Daniel DeLeon played a major role. Lucy Parsons, leading anarchist, African-American pioneer in American radicalism, and widow of one of the Haymarket martyrs attended. Haywood was the clear leader of this motley crew. The radical western miner stated the goal of the IWW was to form “a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”

While most of the people at the convention were independent operators, representatives of small groups, or famous radicals, the most important constituency was the Western Federation of Miners, who had faced significant repression from mine owners throughout the Rockies and who had found out firsthand how bad the AFL was with industrial solidarity. The radicals controlling the WFM realized that only industrial unionism could fight the aggressive and repressive tactics of American corporations, which included martial law and the murder of union organizers. The WFM formed after the 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike, brutally repressed by the mine companies. This led to the belief among radical miners that only organizing throughout the West could bring the mine companies to heel. Taking this idea nationwide was the next logical step in 1905. In 1902, it named Haywood its Secretary-Treasurer, aligning it with the Socialist Party.

The IWW called for direct action, putting power in workers’ hands to make their own battle against capitalism. Ultimately, for many this might mean full workers’ control over the means of production or revolution, although in 1905 this was less clear. While Wobbly organizing could be pragmatic and its ideology flexible depending on the campaign (my own interpretation after a long time studying Wobblies in the Pacific Northwest forests is that they were really quite opportunistic and thus frequently contradicted themselves over time, a situation exacerbated by the union’s decentralized nature and multiplicity of voices), it became most known for its version of anarcho-syndicalism where workers would win power not through violent revolution but a general strike that would ground the economy to a halt and allow them to take over. Yet the IWW never defined itself as an anarcho-syndicalist organization, rather focusing on the One Big Union concept that focused on democratic control over the union rather than ideology. I’d argue that historians have overstated the importance of Wobbly ideology and understated the importance of pragmatic action; there is a significantly above zero chance this is the topic of my third book.

Outside of ideology, the IWW filled a necessary void in the American labor movement. Since the decline of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor had come to define American unionism. The AFL genuinely represented the workers of its affiliate unions, but those workers saw themselves as working-class elites, white, male, Anglo-Saxons. They were uncomfortable with the changing American workforce (and larger society) that included millions of immigrants, women, children, African-Americans, and Asians. They also longed for an era of skilled labor in a society where mass production had taken over. This meant that the AFL and its constituent unions had little interest in organizing most American workers. Outside of a belief or lack thereof in radical Wobbly ideology, there was a huge demand for organization by millions of workers. The IWW had its limitations, but did more than anyone else to provide an avenue for American workers to attempt to improve their lives.

The IWW directly rejected craft unionism at its founding convention, noting:

The directory of unions of Chicago shows in 1903 a total of 56 different unions in the packing houses, divided up still more in 14 different national trades unions of the American Federation of Labor.

What a horrible example of an army divided against itself in the face of a strong combination of employers

Such a critique of craft unionism would continue among industrial unionists for decades.

The IWW got off to a pretty rocky start as many of the founding figures peeled off in the inevitable infighting and destructive focus on personalities that has always plagued the American Left and continues to do so today. By 1908, the Western Federation of Miners had left their national project behind as moderates gained control over that union and returned to the Rockies. Daniel DeLeon was expelled, trying briefly to operate an alternative One Big Union from Detroit. The reformist socialists split with the revolutionary socialists in 1906. Some of the radicals believed the union’s political goal should have focused on mobilizing a working-class vote; others felt American democracy worthless for workers to take part in. Yet the IWW slowly gained credibility with real workers, with it leading a silver mine strike in Goldfied, Nevada in 1906 and sawmill worker strike in Portland in 1907; the latter made the AFL realize what a real threat the Wobblies could be and it worked with employers to bust the strike. in 1908, the IWW reorganized and became a tighter organization, dedicated explicitly to organizing the industrial masses into the One Big Union and focusing on direct worker action to take control of the means of production.

Over the next 15 years, the IWW would go on to be involved in many of the era’s most important and famous labor conflicts, including at Paterson and Lawrence. Organizers like Frank Little and Joe Hill would be murdered. Police and corporations would take extra legal action against them at Bisbee and Everett. When they fought back, such at Centralia and Wheatland, they would be railroaded into prison and even lynched. The Red Scare made the IWW largely irrelevant by the 1920s, but part of that was also the Bolshevik Revolution. The success of a leftist movement overseas meant that most radicals became communists in the 1920s and 1930s and the IWW was an irrelevant rump of just a few workers scattered here and there.

The literature on the IWW is tremendously large. For an overview, I still recommend Melvyn Dubofsky’s 1969 book (there are more recent editions and an abridged edition as well) We Shall Be All, in no small part because too many writers for the IWW are openly cheerleading for them, even the professional historians, and Dubofsky does a good job of maintaining a more even treatment of their failures and successes.

This is the 111th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Today in Stupid

[ 237 ] June 26, 2014 |

Today’s winner in stupid punditry goes to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry for his piece about Vox and “the intellectual stagnation of the left.” I’m not even going to address the idea that Vox is somehow on the left, which it is only if our definition of left is “slightly left of center.” For conservatives who don’t pay attention to the actual left, it’s all pretty much the same. But what’s the problem with the modern left? We are so out of touch with our boring old ideas:

Meanwhile, two things are particularly striking about the current Democratic agenda. The first is that it’s so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the ’60s. The second is that nobody on the left seems to be aware of it.

Oh, those liberals and their tired ideas like wages and the environment. BORING!!! The cool kids are totally into the extra fresh ideas of Herbert Hoover’s economic model, Gilded Age taxation structures, and belching smokestacks. And look, the conservative writers Gobry talks of as counter to the boring old Democrats are very, very forward looking:

A flurry of innovative young writers like Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Tim Carney, and Avik Roy put out fresh, 21st-century ideas on everything from tax reform to health care to social mobility to poverty to curtailing the power of Big Business. Many of these ideas are now compiled in a seminal new book. And many of these ideas have been adopted by the most prominent GOP politicians and presidential candidates. Only with the right leader will the GOP truly embrace what’s been called reform conservatism, but it’s clear that the GOP is becoming the party of ideas again.

Totally the party of all the ideas! There’s Ross Douthat, longing for projecting his imagined view of 1950s gender and sexual relations onto the American people! And Reihan Salam promoting a permanent occupation of Iraq! Why, I bet these writers in this seminal book new also promote such cutting-edge ideas as busting teacher unions, destroying the social welfare net, expanding dirty energy production, and bombing nations of brown people! Why, I wonder if these groundbreaking ideas might, just maybe, promote the interests of the rich? These are ideas never before thought of in American history! I for one feel the left is permanently doomed by these brazen new models of thought. Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions precisely to describe this level of brilliance and insight! We will never be the same!

Meet the New New South, Same as the Old New South

[ 85 ] June 26, 2014 |

I’m not sure that I’m quite as pessimistic as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein about the early 21st century South. But he’s certainly right about the attempt to reinstitute white supremacy.

We used to call it the “New South.” That was the era after Reconstruction and before the Civil Rights laws — when the states of the old Confederacy seemed most determined to preserve a social and economic order that encouraged low-wage industrialization as they fought to maintain Jim Crow.

What was then distinctive about the South had almost as much to do with economic inequality as racial segregation. Between roughly 1877 and 1965, the region was marked by low-wages, little government, short lives and lousy health — not just for African-Americans but for white workers and farmers.

The Civil Rights revolution and the rise of an economically dynamic Sun Belt in the 1970s and ‘80s seemed to end that oppressive and insular era. The Research Triangle in North Carolina, for example, has more in common with California’s Silicon Valley than with Rust Belt manufacturing. The distinctive American region known as the South had truly begun to vanish.

This is the thesis of economic historian Gavin Wright’s new book on the economic consequences of the civil rights revolution, Sharing the Prize. Ending segregation, Wright argues, improved the economic and social status of both white and black workers The South became far less distinctive as wages and government-provided benefits increased to roughly the national level.

But the New South has returned with a vengeance, led by a ruling white caste now putting in place policies likely to create a vast economic and social gap between most Southern states and those in the North, upper Midwest and Pacific region. As in the late 19th century, the Southern elite appears to believe that the only way their region can persuade companies to relocate there is by taking the low road: keeping wages down and social benefits skimpy. They seem to regard any trade union as the vanguard of a Northern army of occupation.

Lichtenstein concludes:

This is, however, not just a product of racial fears and resentments. Instead it appears to reflect an increasingly inbreed Southern hostility to the exercise of economic regulatory power on virtually any level. As in the 19th century, many in the South, including a considerable proportion of the white working-class, have been persuaded that the federal government is their enemy.

As in the New South era, Southern whites, both elite and plebian, have adopted an insular and defensive posture toward the rest of the nation and toward newcomers in their own region. Echoing the Jim Crow election laws promulgated by Southern states at the turn of the 20th century, the new wave of 21st century voting restrictions promise to sharply curb the Southern franchise, white, black, and brown.

The new New South rejects not only the cosmopolitanism of a multiracial, religiously pluralist society, but the legitimacy of government, both federal and state, that seeks to ameliorate the poverty and inequality that has been a hallmark of Southern distinctiveness for more than two centuries.

The Civil War has yet to be won.

My relative optimism has to do with demographics. As it becomes politically more and more difficult to thrive as a white supremacist, as Latinos become an ever-larger part of the southern population, and as the people become more worldly, threatening conservatives with the moral decay watching soccer causes and the like, these politics, at least around race, become harder to sustain. Into that gap can come voter suppression and other tools of white supremacy, but unless the Supreme Court is willing to overturn the Voting Rights Act entirely, which is not impossible given who makes up the court in 2014, this seems like a loser’s game in the long haul. On the other hand, the attack on unions as monsters can easily transcend its southern rhetoric as agents of northern occupation and morph into a general hatred of workers uniting for higher wages, better working conditions, and a voice on the job. With Obama’s own former appointees leading some of these charges, that seems almost likely, if depressing.

Conserative White Male Resentment of the Day

[ 447 ] June 26, 2014 |

Rollin+coal.+Never+been+a+big+fan+of+stacks+but_e88351_3790692

All those liberals driving Priuses make big strong tough American white men feel threatened
. So they typically have to bully others.

In small towns across America, manly men are customizing their jacked-up diesel trucks to intentionally emit giant plumes of toxic smoke every time they rev their engines. They call it “rollin’ coal,” and it’s something they do for fun.

An entire subculture has emerged on the Internet surrounding this soot-spewing pastime—where self-declared rednecks gather on Facebook pages (16,000 collective followers) Tumblers and Instagram (156,714 posts) to share photos and videos of their Dodge Rams and GM Silverados purposefully poisoning the sky. As one of their memes reads: “Roll, roll, rollin’ coal, let the hybrid see. A big black cloud. Exhaust that’s loud. Watch the city boy flee.”

Aside from being macho, the rollin’ coal culture is also a renegade one. Kids make a point of blowing smoke back at pedestrians, in addition to cop cars and rice burners (Japanese-made sedans), which can make it dangerously difficult to see out of the windshield. Diesel soot can also be a great road rage weapon should some wimpy looking Honda Civic ever piss you off. “If someone makes you mad, you can just roll coal, and it makes you feel better sometimes,” says Ryan, a high school senior who works at the diesel garage with Robbie. “The other day I did it to this kid who was driving a Mustang with his windows down, and it was awesome.”

Nice.

Contractors Saying No to Apparel Companies Helps Apparel Companies

[ 37 ] June 26, 2014 |

The European companies seeking to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh are facing resistance from the factory owners who are heavily invested in the current system, politically powerful, and don’t care about dead workers. We might read this resistance as a sign that there’s really nothing rich world corporations can do about working conditions in nations like Bangladesh. But in fact, these contractors resisting very much helps the multinational corporations. If there’s “nothing they can do” then they can do nothing. Of course there is much they can do. They can refuse to do business with contractors who don’t live up to certain standards. They can also *gasp* run their own factories! I know, this is an unheard of idea in the history of industrial production. But in fact, clothing companies have the ability to directly run an apparel factory. Stopping the current outsourcing system is not without its challenges because the companies have empowered local elites to exploit workers as intensively as possible, but that does not in fact get them off the hook.

This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1938

[ 48 ] June 25, 2014 |

On June 25, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation, while flawed as almost all progressive legislation must be to pass Congress, set the standards of labor that defined post-war America, including minimum wages, overtime pay, and the banning of most child labor.

Sweeping laws to regulate wages and hours had been bandied around for some time, including a bill sponsored by Hugo Black in 1933 to reduce the workweek to 30 hours. Black continued to push for some kind of comprehensive labor regulation bill, although against significant Congressional opposition from conservatives. Roosevelt campaigned on wage and hour legislation in 1936. In 1937, a new fight was undertaken for such a bill and it took nearly a year of contentious negotiations to make it happen. On May 24, 1937, FDR had the bill introduced through friendly congressmen. The original bill included a Fair Labor Standards Board to mediate labor issues, and a 40 cent an hour minimum wage for a 40 hour week, as well as the prohibition of “oppressive child labor” for goods shipped between states. FDR told Congress, “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling worker’s wages or stretching workers’ hours.” The administration tried to stress that this was actually a pro-business measure. Commissioner of Labor Statistic Isador Lubin told Congress that the businesses surviving the Depression were not the most efficient, but the ones who most ruthlessly exploited labor into longer hours and lower wages. Only by halting this cutthroat exploitation could a more rational and well-regulated economy result.

Organized labor was split on the FLSA. Many labor leaders believed in it wholeheartedly, including Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky. Interestingly, both AFL head William Green and CIO leader John L. Lewis supported it only for the lowest wage workers, fearing a minimum wage would become a maximum wage for better paid labor. This reflected the long-standing mistrust of government by labor, lessons hard-learned over the past half-century, but ones that could get in the way of understanding the potential of the New Deal. Of course, today’s reliance upon the state by the labor movement would confirm much of what Lewis and especially Green believed, but that’s a subject for another post.

But all this happened while FDR was also engaged in his court-packing scheme. The embarrassing failure of that idea threatened the FLSA’s passage. It was quickly moved through the Senate but the House stalled, leading to it taking over a year to make it through Congress. It was only after Claude Pepper beat off an anti-New Deal challenger in the Florida primary that enough southern Congressmen would vote for the bill for it to pass, even in somewhat weakened form. The bill FDR finally signed over covered about 25 percent of the labor force at that time. It banned the worst forms of child labor, set the labor week at 44 hours, and created the federal minimum wage, set at 25 cents an hour.

Of course, corporate leaders howled about the impact of this 25 cent minimum wage. It was a big enough threat that Roosevelt addressed it in a Fireside Chat, telling Americans, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

The impact of this law cannot be overstated. The minimum wage had been a major project of labor reformers for decades. During the Progressive Era, reformers had made some progress, but the Supreme Court ruled a minimum wage for women unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923, killing the movement’s momentum. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 set an important precedent for federal regulation over wages and hours, but the Supreme Court overruled this in 1935, leading to the National Labor Relations Act and FDR’s attack upon the Supreme Court as an antiquated institution destroying progress.

It’s worth noting how important the child labor provisions were. Child labor had been the bane of the country for a century. Children were often expected to work through most of American history; they had always worked on farms or in the apprenticeships that defined pre-industrial labor. But in the factory systems, children were employed explicitly to undermine wages and increase profits. Organized labor and reformers had fought to end child labor for decades, with industries such as apparel and timber leading the opposition to it. This largely, although not entirely, ended with the FLSA, to the benefit of every American.

There were unfortunate exceptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most notably, agriculture received an exemption, part of its long-term exploitative labor methods. This was something of a compromise as southerners complained about having to pay northern wages in an area of the country long used to cheap labor; in fact, those disparities had long been used by northern and western industrialists against a minimum wage in their states since they said they couldn’t compete with southern employers as it was. Other groups still largely excluded include circus employees, babysitters, journalists, and personal companions.

The agricultural exemption is the most damaging. Farmworkers remain among the most exploited labor in the United States today. The federal government still has no child age limit on farm work and only 33 states have stepped in to create one. Most of the states that exempt farm work from child labor laws are in the South, but among the other states is Rhode Island. Those state laws are limited, as state regulation often is. Washington for instance allows children as young as 12 to pick berries, cucumbers, spinach, and other groups when school is not in session. Workers under the age of 16 are prohibited from hazardous jobs on farms, but who is checking that? Not enough inspectors, that’s for sure. Farmworkers under the age of 20 only receive $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of their work. In short, there are still huge gaps in FLSA coverage and in today’s political climate, they are more likely to grow, not shrink.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was significantly expanded over the years. Each increase in the minimum wage is an amendment to the FLSA. In 1949, Harry Truman expanded its reach to airline and cannery workers. JFK expanded it to retail and service employees. The 1963 Equal Pay Act expanded its reach to require equal pay for equal work for women and men.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was the last major piece of New Deal legislation. FDR was facing a backlash from the court-packing incident and the alliance of southern Democrats and Republicans determined to limit the power of the liberal state. After the 1938 elections, FDR’s ability to create groundbreaking programs declined significantly and then World War II came to dominate American political life.

This is the 110th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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