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This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915

[ 62 ] March 4, 2014 |

On March 4, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, creating standards for working conditions on boats that the U.S. would enforce on all ships stopping at American ports, whether under American flags or not. It was not only a major early victory for American labor but is strong evidence behind the assertion that Woodrow Wilson is the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.

In the early 20th century, working conditions on ships were dire. Many ships were barely seaworthy. Sanitation on the ships was grotesque. A race to the bottom developed in sailing as manufacturers looked to reduce their transportation costs. In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent. Seamen called for “emancipation” from their shipowners. Penalties against desertion were still draconian. Although flogging had largely ended in the mid 19th century, punishing sailors in stocks and other forms of physical coercion were still common. They wanted the right to walk away from their contracts because of the near slavery of shipboard life. They were presently bound to their 1-3 year contracts with penalty of imprisonment and forfeiture of all wages if they deserted. Effectively, they lacked the ability to quit their jobs.

Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907 when they allied against the prosecution of Union Labor Party leader Abe Ruef for graft. LaFollette began to introduce the bill every Congress in 1910. It gained support after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When Wilson won the presidency that year, he named William B. Wilson, a cosponsor of the bill in the House, as Secretary of Labor.

From left to right, Andrew Furuseth, Robert LaFollette, and Lincoln Steffens

In pushing for the bill, the ISU explicitly connected it to the Titanic and the Triangle Fire of 1911, asking “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and the lock the doors. Is it not even more dangerous to jam a steamer full of passengers and then to send it out to the harbor without having on board the means whereby they may be taken off quickly and safely in case of need?” As with much of labor reform at the time, Furuseth and his supporters did take on a racial and anti-immigrant tone. He bemoaned that sailing was “the domain of those who fought life’s battles and accepted defeat, of the sewage of the Caucasian race and of such of the races of Asia as felt that their condition could be improved by becoming seamen.”

Such statements forced the Industrial Workers of the World, which had quite a few members on the ships, to answer a tricky question of supporting a law that would make their lives better versus the racial internationalism of their ideology. The Wobblies opposed the law in the end, claiming not only was the ISU racist but that Furuseth “very likely has a child-like faith in the state, far exceeding his confidence in the workers whom he is supposed to represent.” Moreover, the IWW actually used the argument that the would hurt their employers by driving American flag-based shipping from the seas, a rather surprisingly pro-business position employed by these anti-capitalists.

Seamen on the S.S. Minnesota, 1919

Wilson’s foreign policy team encouraged him to pocket veto the bill because it might upset the British. But when Furuseth went to lobby Wilson personally, the president’s heart melted in the face of this craggy old seamen telling stories about the horrors of the ships. The new law established the 9-hour day and 56-hour week on ships. It guaranteed minimum standards of safety and cleanliness. It recognized the right of seamen to organize. It allowed them to get out of their contracts with relatively minimal penalty–half their salary earned to that point in the contract. Most importantly, it applied to all sailors–regardless of national origin or citizenship status–if they landed in an American port. The LaFollette Act is thus probably the closest law passed in American history to something that created a “race to the top” in working conditions around the globe. If you were a French sailor and you landed in New York, you could desert and the U.S. government would protect your rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps surprisingly, declared the international enforcement provisions constitutional, at least at first. After a 1918 decision ruled against a seaman who used the act to desert in Mobile while demanding half his wages, Louis Brandeis moved the court to a unanimous decision in a similar 1920 case by explicitly arguing that the point of the law was to enforce nationalist conceptions of labor standards, stating “foreign vessels engaged in the American trade would be compelled to raise wages and working conditions to practically the standard prevailing in our coastwise trade.”

By not only mandating standards on goods entering the United States, but also giving workers an out from their contracts if they were dissatisfied, the Seamen’s Act had the potential to advance the rights of workers significantly. In the end though, the fears of the shipping industry over its effect proved unfounded, largely because the Commerce Department under Wilson and then subsequent Republican presidents consistently sided with employers in enforcement. Commerce ruled that the space provisions for workers only applied to ships built after 1915 for instance. The French redefined sailors under its flags as members of the merchant marine and therefore ineligible for the protections. Finally, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the international enforcement provisions unconstitutional and by this time the law was not widely applied anyway by a federal government interested in promoting global trade. This saddened the law’s supporters. In 1953, the Friends of Andrew Furuseth Legislative Association wrote, “If only the Seamen’s Act had been enforced from 1917 on, it might not have been necessary to have spent 19 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan, because the standard of living of European countries would have advanced more nearly to a parity with our own.”

Nevertheless, it marks perhaps the first time labor successfully used regulatory reform to advance the interest of specific workers and it provides an interesting precedent for those seeking to use the power of government to improve the conditions of workers toiling for American companies (or subcontractors for those companies) in a global marketplace. Can the American government implement standards in a worldwide economy reliant upon transportation methods to get apparel from Bangladesh? Could organized labor target transportation networks as a way to improve international labor standards? I do not believe a secondary strike by the ILWU or Teamsters in support of a labor action in Bangladesh would violate Taft-Hartley since it would not be an American union supported. The LaFollette Act wasn’t necessarily all that successful, but it suggests an almost totally unexplored strategy for international labor solidarity.

It is also worth noting that even taking into account the Red Scare and IWW-crushing that would take place later in the Wilson presidency, Wilson is still the most union-friendly president in American history before FDR.

I am drawing primarily from Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present for this post.

This is the 96th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Méliès Monday: A Grandmother’s Story

[ 2 ] March 3, 2014 |

This week, Méliès Monday brings you 1908’s The Grandmother’s Story.

Northup

[ 86 ] March 3, 2014 |

The New York Times article (PDF) on Solomon Northup and his book, 12 Years a Slave, from January 20, 1853.

Fantasy New York Times Columnist Page

[ 151 ] March 3, 2014 |

As I mentioned yesterday in comments, I’ve been thinking about the pathetic state of the New York Times columnist section lately. The Washington Post op-ed page is also terrible, but it’s terrible in the way that it should be terrible–a bunch of right-wing nuts, but they are influential (more or less) right-wing nuts, representing actual consistencies in the Beltway. The Times page is just bad. We’ve all known this for years, but I was really agitated by Kristof’s idiotic column about academics not writing for the public and there are so many bad or meh columnists on the page. I think Maureen Dowd’s column about Francois Hollande not cheating on his partner in the right way had to be an all-time low point for her, although the competition is stiff. Then there’s Tom Friedman writing columns that are nothing more than job advertisements for Google. Meanwhile, Kristof is flying first class around the world saving people while consistently refusing to support people trying to improve their own lives.

So what if we could fire everyone at the Times and start over? Let’s play that game. What would it look like? Who would you keep? I want to establish a vague metric, Value over Replacement Columnist. I’m assuming what one wants in a Times columnist is an original thinker with consistently interesting things to say who also works hard at their job. You want someone people are going to talk about, brands that are interesting and provide added value to the paper. You want high VORC from your columnists. Unfortunately, there’s only one person at the times who actually works hard, has interesting things to say, and grabs your attention. Krugman of course.

Unfortunately, everyone else falls into 1 of 2 categories. Either people talk about them all the time despite or usually because they are so bad (Brooks, Friedman, Kristof, Dowd, Douthat) or they are just not very good at their jobs, writing OK columns I guess but that nobody ever or rarely talks about (Collins, Blow, Nocera, Cohen, Bruni). The former have strikingly negative VORC, the latter replacement-level VORC. Blow is a nice liberal, but there are dozens of people (if not hundreds) who could do this as well as he. And if Blow did disappear, how long would it be before anyone noticed?

I’m also setting two vague groundrules that you can accept or not at your pleasure. First, the columnist page should look more or less like it already looks. Which means you have to have conservatives. The Times has 2, so let’s keep it at that. And the page can’t be a bunch of flaming left-wingers either. Liberals of various stripes, yes. But the game isn’t about finding the people who are all ideological the same as you. Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky are not realistic options. The choices also have to provide diversity of topic. If you are keeping Krugman, you can’t have a bunch of other liberal economist types. Second, I’m going to assume the Times management isn’t going to take a lot of risks. They aren’t picking an LGM writer. Too unknown. So who already has a platform large enough to come to the Times attention?

Finally, I respect DJW’s idea that the whole columnist page is ridiculous as set up, but for monetary reasons it’s not going to go away. One can certainly argue that no one should keep the job for more than 5 years and there’s no question the Times needs to use a tighter leash. But Krugman shows that it can be done.

So who do you want? I keep Krugman and Brooks. Everyone else is gone without a second thought. Why Brooks? You have to have conservatives. And he actually does represent a certain type of Beltway constituency. He’s terrible, but again, he’s terrible in the right way. Plus he’s fun to make fun of. If you can nominate a conservative to replace him, go ahead.

Who else would I want on my Times fantasy columnist page? Despite what he says about not wanting the job, Ta-Nehisi Coates is on board. He’s too modest. Dahlia Lithwick would be awesome as well, as Scott has argued for years. Since I’m a historian, let’s add Jill Lepore. She consistently connects past and present, works hard, and is incredibly productive. Since we are dumping Friedman, we need a foreign policy person. How about Fallows? We are already raiding the Atlantic here, might as well complete the job. I’ll note that Lydia DePillis is the best writer over at WonkBlog (Evan “Unions Are Evil” Soltas is the worst. Typically, he’s the one going with Klein to his new and seemingly very centrastic site) and could be good and have a large enough platform for consideration, as well as being diverse enough in topic to not just be another Krugman. Could we add Dave Weigel as the other conservative? Is he conservative enough? I think all of these people have significant VORC potential.

I’m not picking any of several excellent choices on economic issues (DeLong, Hiltzik, etc). And this page is too white. But it’s a start. Who else should be on board?

Democrats and White Male Voters

[ 84 ] March 3, 2014 |

I suppose it’s fine to try and carve out positions that explicitly appeal to white male voters, but not if it means watering down the core values of the Democratic Party. If fighting for a higher minimum wage attracts white males, great. But if Democrats equivocate on support for gay marriage, then it’s not worth it. I’d like to say the same thing about gun control but since the major political fallout of the thousands of people killed every year but stupid gun violence/accidents in this country is Colorado state legislators being recalled for trying to do something about it, I can see why Democrats don’t center the issue.

This Day in Labor History: March 3, 1931

[ 14 ] March 3, 2014 |

This post is a special request from Anna in PDX to help her work out some thorny issues she faces in her local. If this series can be of use to your local or organizing needs, drop me a line.

On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the Davis-Bacon Act, establishing a requirement for the government to pay local prevailing wages on public works projects. Even since its passage, it’s been tainted with an accusation of racism, which will be the subject of today’s post, as we try to untangle the complex knot of race and labor in American history.

The law was prompted by Robert Bacon, a congressman from New York who allied with former Secretary of Labor (1921-30) Senator James Davis. A contractor in Bacon’s home district built a new VA hospital. Rather than hire local workers, he brought in low wage African-American laborers from Alabama. Bacon worried about the government undermining local wages and he sought to put a stop to it. It took the Great Depression to make Bacon’s bill a political possibility. Congress rejected it the first 12 times Bacon introduced it, but the desperation of the Depression created a political force that would lead to the construction of America’s labor law regime. One of the first victories in this was Davis-Bacon. The Hoover Administration itself requested that Congress take up the bill once more in order so that it could seem like it was doing something about falling wages. The law only covered government contracts greater than $5000 (amended to $2000 in 1935) and did not force contractors to hire union labor. As federal labor law often does as well, many states created little Davis-Bacons to cover state contracts, helping to raise the standard of living for construction labor.

James Davis and Robert Bacon

From the time of its passage, opponents portrayed Davis-Bacon as a racist law intended to protect white workers from black competition. Race and labor can’t be separated in this country. The racism that has divided this country since the beginning has also divided workers. Labor deserves no more but also no less blame in perpetuating this than other American institutions, including corporations who openly used race and ethnicity to divide workers, paying black workers lower wages and constructing white workers and black workers as competition against each other. Davis-Bacon intended to stop employers from undermining local standards of living, which they often did by taking advantage of the nation’s inherent racism to bring in workers of color. Today, one certainly cannot blame these black workers for taking jobs significantly better than the cotton plantations of the Jim Crow South, but I don’t think it particularly useful to condemn unionized northern workers for protecting their own jobs either, even if those protections by definition took on a racist tone. After all, feeding their families was a completely legitimate priority.

One however can shake their head at how labor used racist rhetoric to justify what could in principle have been a very reasonable bill. AFL president William Green in supporting Davis-Bacon noted in talking about why it was needed in Tennessee, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.” The debate in Congress over the bill also took on the racial overtones of American life in the early 30s. Alabama Rep. Clayton Allgood said in support, “Reference has been made to a contractor from Alabama who went to New York with bootleg labor. This is a fact. That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country. This bill has merit, and with the extensive building program now being entered into, it is very important we enact this measure.” Some wished it could be extended to protect “white” labor from immigrants as well. Fiorello LaGuardia was among those expressing these sentiments, noting “the workmanship of this cheap imported labor was of course very inferior.”

The law’s wording was pretty vague and both unions and employers have fought over its meanings ever since. For the building trades, Davis-Bacon directly benefited them and they fought for its vigorous use. For contractors, “prevailing wage” was totally undefined and frustrating. It never proved easy to determine or enforce when determined. The Department of Labor was tasked to determine just what the prevailing wage was for a region, but the formulas were increasingly complex and had to cover individual job classifications. In 1979, the General Accounting Office issued an appeal to repeal the law, citing four decades of it not working well.

In 1956, Congress extended Davis-Bacon to cover highway construction, the only controversial piece of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Southern senators like Harry Byrd sought to reduce union influence by trying to exclude Davis-Bacon from the bill. In 1964, Davis-Bacon was expanded to add fringe benefits, including medical insurance, pensions, vacations, and sick pay into the calculations. This expansion also increased the reach of the law to include the states and municipalities receiving large federal grants for capital construction projects, ranging from schools to roads.

I think the debate over the origin of the law is a separate question over its value today. There is a whole history of terrible racist laws in this country, not to mention good laws passed with racist intent. Are we going to overturn hunting and fishing regulations because they were enacted to save the nation’s game for rich white people to use and overturned hundreds of years of subsistence food traditions by Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, poor whites, and European immigrants? No. Neither should we eliminate Davis-Bacon. Is the law racist today? That’s the key question. And the answer is no.

The argument is basically concern trolling by businesses when what they really want is to avoid paying workers a living wage. Business hopes that by saying that labor law is racist, they can undermine unionism nationally. While northern African-Americans did often have very good reason to be suspicious of white labor unions in the past, today they are among the most union-friendly groups. Research consistently shows that unions have not hurt African-American employment over the years and that today they join unions to protect themselves from wage inequality (see Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp’s “Organized Labor and Racial Wage Equality in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology, March 2012) The NAACP supports the continuance of the Davis-Bacon Act. That support is a lot more important to me than the law’s overtones in 1931.

Opponents also claim Davis-Bacon openly favors union labor. Call the whaaambulance. It actually doesn’t favor union labor per se. It favors paying people the same wage rates unions have negotiated in areas where they control enough of the labor market to do so. Right-wingers use whiny arguments about taxpayers, noting that Davis-Bacon can increase public construction projects by 20 percent. Of course, usually it is less high than this, but those higher costs go back into the community through returned tax dollars, higher purchasing power, better schools, and happier citizens.

Also, high wages are needed for the building trades. Construction is seasonal labor. Without high wages during the work season, you aren’t going to convince young people to join these professions. You are going to lose skilled labor to build your house, fix your toilet, etc. These people have to live and eat and feed their families and I don’t think we should be giving any support for undoing some of the last legislation that helps provide workers with real benefits on the job. Employers should not be able to undermine local wages by importing cheap labor, just as they should not be able to decimate communities by a global race to the bottom to increase profits.

This is the 95th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Doesn’t Make Up for Crash, But Still….

[ 138 ] March 3, 2014 |

Although I probably like Her better overall, 12 Years a Slave is an excellent choice for Best Picture.

It’s also worth noting that it the first major Hollywood production to deal with slavery in a serious way came out in 2013. And no, Amistad was not a serious depiction of slavery. Can we aim for 2 major Hollywood productions dealing with slavery in the second century of film? Even a meh biopic of Frederick Douglass?

Alain Resnais, RIP

[ 23 ] March 2, 2014 |

Night and Fog has a claim as the best documentary of all time.

The Worst Best Picture Winner

[ 462 ] March 2, 2014 |

There are a lot of bad Best Picture winners. And I really dislike Slumdog Millionaire, although the other Best Picture nominees that year are no great shakes. I’d like to give it my vote. And it’s a crime against humanity than Dances with Wolves, off all the dreck out there, won over Goodfellas. But there is not only no worst Best Picture winner than Crash, there is barely a more loathsome movie. OK, that’s a slight overstatement, what with your The Idiots over here and Soldier Blue over there. But my god is Crash a terrible movie. And it was so obviously terrible at the time. I was watching the Oscars with friends the year it won and I remember annoying them with a good bit of angry swearing after it won. And for Christ’s sake, it beat Brokeback Mountain, a film 100 times superior. It also beat Capote, a film 20 times superior. I do have to give Crash credit though–by showing the hellish problem America faces with Iranian on Mexican crime, not to mention the mean the black woman who just doesn’t treat Matt Dillon very nicely which is bad even though Dillon sexually assaulted Thandie Newton and why can’t we all get along and of course Ludarcis carjacking that rich white dude at the beginning of the film after talking about how he hates being stereotyped as a criminal–it demonstrates that all of us are affected by racial prejudice equally and thus we can all equally forget about power structures and come to a nice liberal consensus that racism sucks.

About a year later, I was in Malaysia. There were some Europeans watching the film on a TV at the hotel where I was staying. They were watching it and talking about how messed up the United States well. I felt very smashy.

I think it’s time to turn this over to a better writer than I. Ta-Nehisi Coates, from 2009:

Before we go any further, I need to admit that several people who I love and respect actually like Crash. I need let them know that I don’t hold this against them, and I still love and respect them–though, with Crash in mind, more the former than the latter.

With that said, I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness. (“Hey look, I’m a black carjacker who resents being stereotyped.”) But more than a bad film, Crash, which won an Oscar (!), is the apotheosis of a kind of unthinking, incurious, nihilistic, multiculturalism. To be blunt, nothing tempers my extremism more than watching a fellow liberal exhort the virtues of Crash.

If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash. If you’re black and believe in the curative qualities of yet another “dialogue around race,” you probably liked Crash. If you’re white and voted for Barack Obama strictly because he was black, you probably liked Crash. If you’ve ever used the term “post-racial” or “post-black” in a serious conversation, without a hint of irony, you probably liked Crash.

The English language does not contain the words needed to express how much I hate Crash.

Douthat Has The Sadz

[ 222 ] March 2, 2014 |

Poor Ross. He reads liberals comparing the recent spate of anti-gay bills to segregation and he can’t understand it. After all, he already considered the ability for an individual to discriminate against someone in their place of business conservatives’ “surrender.” Which terrifies one to think about the victory. Anyway, this is just great:

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage.

Right–so the people who declare that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage are the wrong ones. I mean, even if you actually think that, and Douthat may be the only person under the age of 40 in the United States to believe marriage is primarily about procreation, shouldn’t you at least change the phrasing to avoid looking so dismissive of basic respect for one’s partner?

Once again, can we fire all of the Times columnists except Krugman and start over? They range from embarrassing to providing no value over replacement columnist.

Lee Lorch, RIP

[ 32 ] March 1, 2014 |

The thing about being a historian is that you think you know a lot about the past and then you read the obituary of a truly amazing fighter for social justice that you’ve never heard of.

The Near Future of Union-Busting

[ 23 ] March 1, 2014 |

This Tennessee politician who wants to ban union picketing as a “preemptive measure” against the growth of organized labor in his state will probably be representing mainstream Republican doctrine by 2017 or so.

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