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American Infrastructure, American Jobs

[ 73 ] April 12, 2014 |

American infrastructure funded with federal money should be built in factories that create American jobs.

Fort Pillow Massacre

[ 265 ] April 12, 2014 |

Battle_of_Fort_Pillow

On April 12, 1864, Confederate troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred black Union troops attempting to surrender after their defeat at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. In a war of horrible things, this was probably the worst, as angry southerners got their revenge on their slaves leaving them by dyeing the river red with their blood. Of course, the same Southerners who prefer not to talk about Fort Pillow or even defend Forrest love to hate on William Tecumseh Sherman, whose troops engaged in no such activities on their march through Georgia and the Carolinas. The preeminent historian and Grant biographer Brooks Simpson:

When it comes to Forrest’s responsibility (or culpability), I’ll simply note that one cannot claim that William T. Sherman is a war criminal without accepting that Nathan Bedford Forrest is a war criminal. After all, Sherman did not issue orders calling for the raping of women or the destruction of property outside the laws of war. Nor did he issue orders for the destruction of Columbia in February 1865. One can hold him accountable for (a) the orders he issued and (b) his actions (or inaction) in punishing his own men for violations of the law of war. One would have to hold Forrest to the same standard, unless you think the destruction of property is a greater crime than cold-blooded murder … or whether you think crimes against white people bother you more than crimes against black people, especially those wearing the uniform of the United States armed forces. Once you say that Sherman must be held responsible for the actions of his men, you must say the same for Forrest.

This Day in Labor History: April 12, 1934

[ 14 ] April 12, 2014 |

On April 12, 1934, workers at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo walked off the job in a strike that united unionized labor and the unemployed, creating a social movement that scared capitalists around the nation, helped spur more substantial labor legislation, and left two workers dead after a five day battle between strikers and the Ohio National Guard. If I had to point to a the most militant moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.

The Electric Auto-Lite company made electrical starters and spark plugs at a factory in Toledo. Although we don’t think of the American Federation of Labor as organizing industrial workers–because usually they didn’t–by the early 1930s, the pressure to engage in industrial strikes was forcing the AFL to move in a limited way on this front, particularly after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. So the AFL sought to organize the Auto-Lite plant, as well as several other auto plants. It had some early success, establishing temporary industrial unions at a few plants by March 1934.

AFL president William Green was never comfortable with this arrangement. He saw himself as the sole mediator between workers and employers and these industrial workers were too independent for his tests. When the auto unions decided on a strike in March 1934, Green tried to stamp it out, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, who offered mediation because he feared an auto strike would hurt the recovery; Green felt the unions were not strong enough to win. When Green agreed, auto union membership plummeted since workers no longer trusted him to represent them.

In Toledo, workers had organized Federal Labor Union (the AFL name for these temp unions) Local 18384. This local focused on Auto-Lite but actually had members from multiple car and car part companies in Toledo. This gave the local a lot of power because they could go on strike at one company but still have dues money coming in, allowing it to pay strike dues without becoming insolvent. On February 23, 1934, workers briefly walked out for union recognition and a 10% pay increase. They came to an agreement in late March on a smallish pay increase (the union wanted another 20%) and an agreement to talk further. But when management refused to sign the new contract, a group of workers walked out.

Unfortunately for them, only about 25% initially came out for that second strike. Very fortunately, the American Workers Party under the leadership of the legendary radical and former Quaker minister here in Providence AJ Muste immediately joined the strike, organizing the city’s unemployed both to radicalize the general population over the terrible conditions of the Depression and to ensure that they wouldn’t take jobs as strikebreakers. Muste was in his Trotskyite phase at this point and like the Trotskyite Minneapolis Teamsters who would strike the next month, was more invested in direct action than obscure theoretical arguments. AWP executive secretary Louis Budenz led the party’s actions from Toledo.

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AJ Muste

The strike quickly became a social movement. When unemployed workers came to the aid of the strikers, employers and the agents of power were shocked. After a century of using the unemployed against unions, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the employed and unemployed were uniting. The courts granted Auto-Lite an injunction against the strikers, limiting pickets to 25 at each of the plant’s 2 entrances, but that did not apply to the unemployed workers. The AWP responded that it would “deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking auto workers’ federal union.” The AWP and the unemployed continued to block the entrance to Auto-Lite, organizing them in part so that they would not serve as strikebreakers. Leaders of the movement were arrested but the protests continued.

By early May, with the strike leaders on trial, Auto-Lite decided to break the strike and began importing strikebreakers. When the workers heard of it, the protests grew rapidly. On May 21, there were 1000 picketers, 4000 on May 22, and 6000 on May 23. Between May 23 and May 28, the streets of Toledo were a battlefield and strikers battled the Ohio National Guard seeking to open the plant. It started when police started beating an old man. The crowd erupted, started breaking windows and throwing rocks at the police. The National Guard came in. FDR sent Charles Taft in to mediate. Son of the former president and a major political player in Ohio (you can also visit an animatronic Charles Taft at the William Howard Taft museum in Cincinnati), Roosevelt hoped he could calm the situation but he could not. He wanted the workers to submit their grievances to the federal Automobile Labor Board, but this would have forced the workers to give them their best weapon–the strike–and so they rejected it. The National Guard killed 2 workers on May 24 in a pitched battle with strikers. The next day, Auto-Lite agreed to keep the plant closed to avoid further violence. But on the same day, 51 of the city’s 103 unions agreed to begin a general strike. However, the violence began to die down on May 26 thanks to mass arrests, especially of local American Workers Party leaders.

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Seeing the writing on the wall, the actual Auto-Lite workers lowered their request at Taft’s urging to a 10 percent wage increase. The company again became aggressive, attempting to create a company union and rejecting everything the auto workers proposed. As May turned into June, the chances for a renewal of violence grew. More unions geared up for a general strike while the company asked the Ohio governor to use the National Guard to keep the plant open by force. Workers appealed to FDR to intervene on their side. Finally what ended this was employers throughout the city granting pay raises to the unions, beginning with an IBEW local that won 20 percent. On June 2, the auto workers came to an agreement, getting only a 5 percent wage increase but also union recognition. The AWP urged the workers to reject the agreement, but the workers wanted to work and felt they had won what they wanted. The National Guard withdrew from Toledo on June 5. The Toledo Central Labor Council held a huge victory parade on June 9 with 20,000 people. Regardless of the AWP’s revolutionary aims, for labor itself, this was a gigantic win.

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The power of workers at Auto-Lite helped build momentum for the National Labor Relations Act that followed the next year. It also increased the appeal of large-scale industrial unionism. The Toledo workers became United Auto Workers Local 12 when that union formed in 1937.

The factory closed in 1962 and was turned into a park in 1999. The Autolite company is now part of the Honeywell octopus.

This is the 102nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 11, 1986

[ 63 ] April 11, 2014 |

On April 11, 1986, police fired tear gas at strikers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota after UFCW Local P-9 shut down the plant by blocking the main gate to the building. 17 workers were arrested that day. The Hormel Strike was notable both for its militant local and the reluctance of the UFCW to put up a strong fight against contractual rollbacks. It also pioneered the modern corporate campaign as a labor tactic. Most importantly, the Hormel strike was a sign to the entire nation of the weakness of the labor movement by the late 1980s and the aggressive actions companies would now take to destroy their employees’ unions, a trend that has continued to the present.

In 1985, Hormel decided to bust the United Food and Commercial Workers union in its plant. Average wages in meatpacking plummeted in the early 1980s as capital mobility busted the industry’s unions. In 1982, meatpacking average hourly wages were $9.19. By January 1985, they had fallen to $7.93. Hormel demanded a 23 percent pay cut for the workers in Austin, to $8.25, even though the company made a $29 million profit in 1984. The Austin plant was a new, state of the art facility that could have been a model for a new day of labor in the industry, but Hormel ran a speedup and had a terrible safety record in the plant even before it demanded the wage decrease.

Originally the United Packinghouse Workers, a CIO-affiliated industrial union that cleaned up the horrible conditions Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle, the United Food and Commercial Workers represented workers in the industry. In the wake of labor’s overwhelming defeat in the PATCO strike, when Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union, UFCW leadership, like most of the rest of American labor, was afraid to challenge companies on anything because they too feared destruction. Nationally, UFCW acquiesced to these pay cuts because it feared a worse result if it said no.

But UFCW did not do this with the consent of the local. Local P-9 defied international leadership, preferring to go down fighting than just give up everything they had fought for over the previous decades. In response, 1500 workers walked off the job in August 1985, a strike that would last ten months. P-9 proved quite resourceful. It began what is known as corporate campaigns, hiring a PR person to go after Hormel nationally. That included national newspaper ads targeting the company’s poor labor practices, picketing at the company’s national headquarters, and turning a local campaign in a Minnesota town into a national event in order to gain public attention for their cause. This was not that different from how Cesar Chavez used white supporters around the nation to bring publicity to the cause of farm workers in the California fields. Among the successes of the corporate campaign was discovering connections between Hormel and the apartheid government of South Africa, leading to statements of support for P-9 from the African National Congress.

Nationalizing the cause was effective and brought Hormel unwanted publicity. National supporters sent money to P-9. Although the days of the union ladies’ auxiliary was long in the past, the wives of P-9 workers took the lead in organizing national fundraising, clothing drives, and other activities to sustain the strike. P-9 roving pickets at Hormel plants did have concrete results. But nationally, the UFCW opposed all of this. One shift of workers in Algona, Iowa crossed the picket lines because of orders from the union to ignore the pickets. At the Fremont, Nebraska plant, the union told workers that if they honored the picket line, they would be violating their own contract. Only 65 of 850 did so. Workers at a Dallas factory did respect the lines and briefly shut down this facility, but without support from the international, this proved very hard to maintain. When 750 workers in Ottumwa, Iowa honored the pickets, Hormel fired 500 because of the violation of the contract’s no strike pledge.

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Sympathy picketer for P-9

Hormel was annoyed by the corporate campaign but it made no difference to corporate strategy. It brought strikebreakers to Austin, getting them into the plant with the help of the National Guard. This undermined the strike itself. 460 members crossed it to retain their jobs after the company imported enough strikebreakers to get the plant started again. After 6 months, seeing a lost cause, UFCW leaders ordered P-9 to end the strike. An overwhelming majority of the workers voted no. At that point, the UFCW put the local into receivership and took it over. By September, UFCW negotiated a new four year contract with lower wages, the elimination of a guaranteed annual wage, and the 52-week layoff notice that the workers had originally won in 1940. Of the remaining 850 workers who had not crossed the picket line, fewer than 100 ever received their jobs back. A year later, Hormel demanded further concessions. When the union refused, the company outsourced most of the jobs.

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Teargassing P-9 strikers

Hormel later leased most of the factory to Quality Pork Processors, which took over the most dangerous pork slaughtering functions in the plant. By the mid-1990s, QPP had replaced most of the labor force with Mexican labor, recent migrants who would take jobs with declining safety standards at low wages.

In my view, perhaps the most significant thing about the Hormel strike is not the corporate campaign, a strategy beloved by many liberals, nor the defeatist behavior of UFCW leadership, but rather the aggressiveness by Hormel. By 1986, American corporations simply stopped caring about the appearance of compromise with organized labor. Capital mobility was in full effect by this time. The rise of Reagan and the growth of open union-busting after PATCO took off the facade that corporations ever accepted unions in their factories (despite the necessity for rhetoric claiming it was so in the 1950s and 1960s, rhetoric too often taken at face value today).

Hormel’s open contempt for anything the UFCW could do was notable to everyone involved. It’s why that while the UFCW international leadership comes out of this strike looking really bad, in a sense their position is understandable. P-9 decided to go down fighting, They had the right to do that and UFCW should have supported them. UFCW’s actions in attacking P-9 president Jim Guyette (who international leadership saw as a real threat and thus red-baited him) were reprehensible But it was truly a lost cause. Hormel had all the momentum and all the ability to simply close factories and move. Some will argue that the Hormel strike shows the moral bankruptcy of business unionism and the potential of corporate campaigns, and while I don’t totally disagree with that, I think any larger examination of the larger trajectory of the meatpacking industry during these years should make one skeptical of the potential that this strike could have succeeded.

The Hormel strike is perhaps most famous today for being chronicled in Barbara Kopple’s American Dream, not exactly one of the most uplifting films about American labor you’ll see. The failure of the Hormel strike and the horrible internal struggle became a national symbol for labor’s hard times.

For further reading, see Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.

This is the 101st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The U.S. is Truly a Greater Nation than France

[ 124 ] April 10, 2014 |

We American proles are busily doing whatever our bosses ask us to do whenever they want it, even if we are at home, because we support the noblest thing in the world–creating wealth for the 1%. What are those savage French doing? I’ll bet their workers think they have the right to a life outside of work!

Just in case you weren’t jealous enough of the French already, what with their effortless style, lovely accents and collective will to calorie control, they have now just made it illegal to work after 6pm.

Well, sort of. Après noticing that the ability of bosses to invade their employees’ home lives via smartphone at any heure of the day or night was enabling real work hours to extend further and further beyond the 35-hour week the country famously introduced in 1999, workers’ unions have been fighting back. Now employers’ federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require staff to switch off their phones after 6pm.

Under the deal, which affects a million employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC), employees will also have to resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones – or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita. And companies must ensure that their employees come under no pressure to do so. Thus the spirit of the law – and of France – as well as the letter shall be observed.

My god! If that kind of craziness happened here, bosses might actually have to hire enough employees to get work done by 6:00. All those takers would have jobs. That’s simply not acceptable. Can’t we just automate more work to free us from the oppression of employment and food? Certainly that’d be better than the hellscape of France.

Wal-Mart Organics

[ 52 ] April 10, 2014 |

Wal-Mart is introducing a line of organic food at low prices:

Walmart plans to announce on Thursday that it is putting its muscle behind Wild Oats organic products, offering the label at prices that will undercut brand-name organic competitors by at least 25 percent.

The move by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, is likely to send shock waves through the organic market, in which an increasing number of food companies and retailers are seeking a toehold.

“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries,” said Jack L. Sinclair, executive vice president of Walmart U.S.’s grocery division. The Wild Oats organic products will be priced the same as similar nonorganic brand-name goods.

So good, right? Well, yes and no. One of the legitimate criticisms of organic food is that it is too pricey, making it something for the nation’s elite. This would help reduce that. But what is the real cost of cheaper organics? Who makes up the difference? It certainly isn’t Wal-Mart. Rather, we can expect Wal-Mart to do what it does on apparel and foreign-made consumer products–put the screws on producers to lower production costs. That means labor, especially in a food production system without the same kind of chemical inputs as conventional food. How will the workers producing this food be treated? The article is silent on this, as are most similar articles that focus on this issue from the perspective of consumers and to a lesser extent from the corporate view. The voices and views of labor are completely erased from the conversation. And if we know one thing from Wal-Mart, it’s that people at work will suffer to produce this food.

As Mark Bittman has argued, food costs need to be higher and wages need to go up in order to allow the poor to eat it. This of course means in part taking the world back from the retail corporate domination of the Wal-Marts, Targets, and Gaps. A tall order, but just offering cheaper organic food under an exploitative labor system is not much of an answer to our ailing food system.

Technology Will Save Us

[ 97 ] April 10, 2014 |

Since a cow isn’t an animal but an industrial product, I’m sure these plans will be totally successful and we will be able to continue on our ecologically destructive diet.

The Obama administration’s launch last month of a plan to curb methane emissions has given fresh relevance to climate-friendly technologies for cattle that range from dietary supplements and DNA gut tests to strap-on gas tanks.

Juan Tricarico, director of the Cow of the Future project at the Innovation Center for US Dairy, an Illinois research institute, said the initiative had boosted his quest to create the “star athlete” of the bovine world.

C-Lock, a South Dakota company, sells a feeding station that gives animals dietary supplements such as basil to cut methane production and measures the content of their breath by pulling it towards trace gas sensors with a vacuum.

Patrick Zimmerman, C-Lock’s founder, says prices start at $45,000 but stresses the economic benefits of improved efficiency. “Of the energy the animals eat, 3 to 15 per cent is lost as methane and that’s a waste,” he says.

At Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology, scientists have created backpacks that collect gas via tubes plugged into cows’ stomachs. A typical animal emits 250-300 litres of methane a day and researchers say this could be used to power a car or a refrigerator for a day, but Jorge Antonio Hilbert of the institute says the tanks’ use on a large scale is “totally improbable”.

Jonathan Gelbard of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, says: “Anyone who can come up with a cost-effective way to harness that methane is going to make a lot of money.”

Ilmi Granoff of the Overseas Development Institute said an alternative to controlling cattle emissions would be to cut the number of cows.

“Forget coal, Forget cars. The fastest way to address climate change would be to dramatically reduce the amount of meat people eat,” he said. “But that involves cultural preferences and they are difficult to touch.”

Where’s the pitchforks and torches! Someone needs to get that traitor Ilmi Granoff for suggesting something so crazy. He must be a food Luddite to suggest that we can’t engineer our way out of these problems!!

Shaving and Masculinity in the Gilded Age

[ 25 ] April 10, 2014 |

Good stuff here on shaving and masculinity in Gilded Age Britain. In an era when shaving could be a real health risk, crazy beards made sense. The situation, both in its gendered and public health facets, is quite similar in the U.S. and in fact the advertisements shown in the linked post were also seen in the United States and in fact are in primary source readers for U.S. history survey courses.

Dead Horses in American History (XI)

[ 22 ] April 9, 2014 |

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Pile of horse and human bones, the aftermath of

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the Battle of Little Bighorn, 1876.

Data is Not Objective

[ 132 ] April 9, 2014 |

This takedown of a FiveThirtyEight article on Venezuela is pretty complete and damning. Once again, data is in no way “objective” and Silver’s belief that it is has lead to some pretty bad articles at the new site.

Jim DeMint on How Slavery Ended

[ 327 ] April 9, 2014 |

Obviously I need to change the way I teach my Civil War course. Since Jim DeMint has the ear of God, we know his view of history is also correct.

DeMint: This progressive, the whole idea of being progressive is to progress away from those ideas that made this country great. What we’re trying to conserve as conservative are those things that work. They work today, they work for young people, they work for minorities and we can change this country and change its course very quickly if we just remember what works.

Newcombe: What if somebody, let’s say you’re talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, ‘that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later.’

DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

This is funny on so many levels but my favorite part of this “interpretation” that the federal government didn’t free the slaves is that in fact not only is this wrong, but doing so led to the largest expansion of the federal government in the nation’s history to that time.

Dumb upon Dumb

[ 84 ] April 9, 2014 |

Sadly today, as you have probably heard, a high school kid went ballistic with a knife in a Pennsylvania high school. Gun nuts are joyous–guns don’t kill people, people kill people!

Oh yeah, except that this kid didn’t actually kill anyone (at time of writing, word is everyone will survive) whereas he might well have killed dozens with a gun.

Of course, only a gun nut would celebrate school stabbings.

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