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Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 16 ] January 3, 2014 |

A rundown of animals officially declared extinct in 2013 and how they reached their end.

Concern Trolling

[ 212 ] January 3, 2014 |

David Brooks is very concerned that adults might be smoking marijuana. Please make note of it. Also note that David Brooks claims to have smoked marijuana in the past. Judge for yourself whether you think that’s likely or not.

This Day in Labor History: January 1, 1892

[ 88 ] January 1, 2014 |

On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened to process the millions of immigrants entering New York. Although certainly not only entry point for immigrants, it was the primary location where the immigrants needed to labor in American factories first experienced the country. Annie Moore, an Irish immigrant, was the first person to go through processing that morning, one of over 12 million who would enter the country from this point before the facility closed in 1954.

The rapid growth of American industry during the Gilded Age required the importation of a new labor force. While some of this could be filled through in-migration, native-born English speakers not only could not fill the needed jobs, but also eschewed the brutal and dangerous labor of the steel mills, meatpacking plants, and coal mines whenever they could, moving into managerial and supervisory positions. After 1880, immigration spiked. While the west coast saw waves of immigrants from Asia and the southwest began to experience slight increases in migration from Mexico (although this would not become a major boom after 1910), most of the immigrants came from Europe, headed for the heart of American industrial production in the northeast and Great Lakes states.

The American government had no established immigration procedure and with the exception of the Irish had mostly welcomed the Protestant western Europeans who had made up most of the American immigration experience before the Civil War. But the anti-Irish sentiment that marked the antebellum period would be repeated when they new immigrants of the Gilded Age originated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Greece, and other areas of southern Europe, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Americans were highly torn between needing the labor and mortification over these weird people and their clothes, their languages, their food, and their religion.

In order to manage the enormous numbers, at the beginning of 1892, the federal government opened the processing facility at Ellis Island. Until 1890, the federal government played basically no role in immigration processing and the state of New York ran the precursor to Ellis Island. On the first day of the new facility’s opening, 700 immigrants passed through its gates; by the end of 1892, 450,000 had arrived and 1897, 1.5 million people. The peak year for Ellis Island was 1907, when slightly more than 1 million people were processed for entry at the site.

For immigrant labor, the experience of Ellis Island combined hope and dread. Here was the land of opportunity–if one could get in. Of course most did. But some did not. Immigrants, most of whom did not speak English, were often petrified at the process of medical checks and chalk marks on coats. If one member of the family received a special mark, would they be separated? Imagine the terror. About 9% of immigrants were detained for medical reasons. All unaccompanied women and children were detained until an adult male came to claim them. Ellis Island had wards for the detained, medical and otherwise. Approximately 2% of immigrants were denied entry entirely.



The inspection line

Inspections for trachoma caused great pain in immigrants, as the doctors pulled back people’s eyelids with a hook. Elda Del Bino Willits from Luca, Italy passed through Ellis Island at the age of 5, in 1916. She remembered:

When I got on the boat, I was only five and this little, this gentleman who had been back and forth several times, and well my mother took a liking to him because he was so knowledgeable about it. He spoke Italian. And so he took me on a walk one day and he said, “You know what? When you get over to Ellis Island they’re going to be examining your eyes with a hook,” and he says, “Don’t let them do it because you know what? They did it to me one eye fell in my pocket. (Paul laughs) So you can imagine how I entered this…So we get over there and everybody has to pass and I’m on the floor screaming. I passed without a physical. I passed the eye test because the other seven passed.

Others who did get in had their names changed by immigration agents who could not understand strange and long family names from Poland or Russia. The museum at Ellis Island today contains a lot of unclaimed luggage from immigrants. What happened to those people? Why did they not claim their luggage? They checked it at the entrance. Did they die inside? Did they lose their tags and thus lost their clothes and their family histories and religious materials? It’s heartbreaking.

Wonderfully, silent filmmakers in New York captured part of the arrival experience. Here is a 1906 film. I find the viewing of these films incredibly powerful and moving.

As the immigrant experience began scaring Americans and as immigrants began being tainted with the labor radicalism that resulted from the terrible conditions of their labor, the nation’s powerbrokers, at least those who did not rely on this labor for their workforce, began organizing to restrict migration. In 1903, anarchists, epileptics, polygamists, and “beggars” were officially refused entry (with the power to decide who fell into these categories residing in the immigration agents). Knowledge of English became a requirement in 1906, although this was haphazardly enforced to say the least. In 1907, unaccompanied children and those suffering from tuberculosis were banned.

It’s also important to remember that many and perhaps a majority of immigrants did not see the United States as a permanent home. The major exception to this were the Jews, looking to escape anti-Semitism and especially Russian pogroms. Relatively few Irish returned as well. But for many Christians from eastern and southern Europe, as well as the Middle East (most of these people called Syrians then would be recognized today as Lebanese Christians), the United States was a money-making venture before going back home. Around 30% of immigrants returned home during this period, with numbers much higher among Italians and Greeks. Many, like immigrants from Mexico or Central America today, went back and forth several times, as the need to earn money clashed with the desire to be around loved ones, speaking a language you understood in the village and nation of your birth.

After passing through Ellis Island, the immigrants became the labor force of the Gilded Age. Norwegians and Swedes took trains to the Dakotas to homestead. Jews went to the Lower East Side and worked in the garment trade. Many Poles went into the steel industry and Lithuanians into meatpacking. Like anything, their experiences as American laborers were mixed but they built much of the country we live in today.

Ellis Island closed on November 12, 1954. By now, it was rarely used, as between 1924 and 1965, the United States turned its back on its immigrant past, closing the nation’s door to immigrants during one of the nation’s occasional fits of extreme racism.

Hurricane Sandy nearly destroyed the facilities at Ellis Island, causing the site to be closed for over a year. It has now reopened.

This is the 87th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Shifting Blame

[ 76 ] December 31, 2013 |

Is there an industry as profoundly immoral as the apparel industry, where rich people in rich countries can create a production process where poor people in poor countries die and the fashion and apparel companies take not even the first step toward accountability?

No, there is not.

A Hero Has Passed

[ 36 ] December 31, 2013 |

I’m not too big on the idea of hero, but there is something about the person persecuted for making others’ lives better that gets to me. One of the greats passed away yesterday. Dr. Kenneth Edelin, absurdly convicted in 1975 of manslaughter for conducting an entirely legal abortion, has died. In Boston, an all-white jury convicted this black doctor on such flimsy grounds that his conviction was soon overturned. He continued in his advocacy for reproductive rights and especially for the poor. A great man.

Coal Mining Deaths, 1900-2012

[ 23 ] December 31, 2013 |

In yesterday’s post on the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, Joe B in comments pointed us out to the official MSHA statistics on mine deaths between 1900 and 2012. It’s remarkable. In 1907, 3,242 people died in coal mine accidents. That doesn’t include black lung or other occupational disease. And it is almost certainly underreported. The numbers begin falling in the 30s and collapse in the 60s and 70s. Although the job is still quite dangerous today, it’s nothing like the bad old days.

What changed? First, the success of the UMWA gave workers some voice on the job, although as we have seen in the labor history series, the leadership did not always care that much. Second was mechanization and moving people out of underground mining. Third was an activist federal government getting involved in workplace safety and working conditions.

And this gets us back to my utter contempt for those who think Rand Paul or any kind of libertarianism has anything positive to offer as a solution to our problems. If you think libertarianism is good, you either don’t care about dead coal miners or have never thought about dead coal miners (or loggers or ship workers or farm workers or whatever). The latter is forgivable ignorance at first, but once you aren’t ignorant, it isn’t forgivable. Big government is the best thing to happen to this country and if it were up to me, I’d make it a lot bigger and much more intrusive into the conditions of work.

The Rise of Irish Whiskey

[ 114 ] December 30, 2013 |

Even if we agree that Irish whiskey is not the equivalent of that made in Scotland or Kentucky, it’s still usually worth drinking and you are probably consuming more than you used to drink.

Dumb upon Dumb

[ 252 ] December 30, 2013 |

Since science is the province of hippies and queers, Republicans have decided evolution is a hoax against Jesus or something.

Over the last four years, the percentage of Democrats who said they believe in evolution has risen by three points, from 64 percent to 67 percent. But the percentage of Republicans who believe in the theory has dropped 11 points, from 54 percent to 43 percent.

So while there was a 10-point gap in 2009, there is now a 24-point gap.

Pew says similar shifts have not occurred for any other demographics, either racial or religious.

At the very least the growth of the Tea Party might make us rethink the connection between “evolution” and “progress.”

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 7 ] December 30, 2013 |

The plastisphere, a new ecological regime of the oceans defined by humans dumping plastic into the oceans, has the potential to dramatically remake water life.

About 245 million tons of plastic is produced annually around the world, according to industry estimates. That represents 70 pounds of plastic annually for each of the 7.1 billion people on the planet, scientists say.

The waste gathers in vast oval-shaped ocean “garbage patches” formed by converging currents and winds. Once trapped in these cyclonic dead zones, plastic particles may persist for centuries.

The physiological effects of plastic debris on the fish, birds, turtles and marine mammals that ingest it are well-documented: clogged intestines, restricted movement, suffocation, loss of vital nutrients, starvation.

The effects of the plastisphere are only beginning to be understood.

Edward Carpenter, a professor of microbial ecology at San Francisco State University, first reported that microbes could attach themselves to plastic particles adrift at sea in 1972. He observed that these particles enabled the growth of algae and probably bacteria and speculated that hazardous chemicals showing up in ocean animals may have leached out of bits of plastic.

Carpenter’s discovery went largely unnoticed for decades. But now, the scientific effort to understand how the plastisphere influences the ocean environment has become a vibrant and growing field of study. From Woods Hole to the University of Hawaii, scientists are collecting seawater and marine life so they can analyze the types, sizes and chemical compositions of the plastic fragments they contain. Their findings are shedding new light on the ramifications of humanity’s addiction to plastic.

“We’re changing the basic rhythms of life in the world’s oceans, and we need to understand the consequences of that,” said marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who earned her doctorate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography by studying plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California.

This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1969

[ 28 ] December 30, 2013 |

On December 30, 1969, Richard Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act into law. The first comprehensive legislation in American history to protect the lives of coal miners, it came only after tens of thousands of deaths in mine accidents and even more deaths from black lung and other breathing problems of the mines.

Through most of the period since the Civil War, the coal companies had treated Appalachia as their own little fiefdom, almost completely controlling life in these isolated places and engaging in maximum violence to eliminate union organizers, especially in particularly isolated West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The United Mine Workers of America finally broke through and unionized the mines in the 1930s under the leadership of John L. Lewis. But the conditions of work were still extremely dangerous. While workers themselves had long worried about safety on the job, the attention of union officials to these issues was not always the greatest. Coal mining always had a fatalism about it, with the assumption of the inevitability of some deaths. Between 1906 and 1970, there were 90,000 officially reported fatal accidents in the bituminous mines alone, as well as 1.5 million job related injuries between 1930 and 1969.

The companies consistently fought against any meaningful actions on workplace safety. What’s more outrageous was the indifference of the United Mine Workers leadership to the death of miners. The law only gained momentum after the Farmington Mine Disaster of 1968. Gas and dust exploded at a mine near Farmington, West Virginia with a long history of similar problems. This horrific event killed 78 miners. UMWA president Tony Boyle basically didn’t care. He was more concerned with good relations with the companies than protecting his workers. At the press conference after the disaster, Boyle told reporters, ‘As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger. This happens to be one of the better companies, as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.’’ Miners were furious. They began to organize against Boyle and his thugs who ran the union like dictators. Key to their complaints was the union stealing health and safety funds to line their own pockets. The specter of immediate death from accidents and slow death from black lung spurred grassroots organizing within the union to fight against the leadership.

Farmington Mine Disaster, 1968

With virtually no help from Boyle or top UMWA leaders, the Black Lung Associations managed to publicize the plight of workers and get Congress to push for a coal mine safety law. The BLAs, led by young miners back from Vietnam or Midwestern cities where they had exposure to the tactics of the civil rights movement, led highly public actions such as shutting down the statehouse in Charleston, all in direct defiance of Boyle. The strikers demanded that West Virginia allow for a multiplicity of ways to test for black lung, agreements to fund health and pension programs in exchange for mechanization that threw people out of work to be honored, and expanded workers compensation coverage. The protest succeeded and West Virginia passed a new law with these demands in 1969.

Black Lung Association protest, 1969

The success in Charleston led to a movement toward federal legislation. The Johnson Administration had introduced a coal mine bill in 1968, but it died along with much of the late Great Society over Vietnam and Johnson’s downfall. The Farmington disaster and worker protests led the government to act more seriously in 1969. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 389-4 in the House. Nixon did not want to sign the law. As with much of the environmental and workplace related legislation he signed, he did so quite reluctantly and only after fighting to weaken the bill. He threatened a veto over the black lung compensation program, leading to 1200 workers going on strike. But seeing the inevitability of the legislation, he signed it.

The law mandated at least two annual inspections at above ground mines and four in underground mines. Miners had the right to request federal inspections. Violators were fined and could be criminally charged if egregiously negligent. Coal miners began to receive periodic x-ray exams for black lung (a process that however has become deeply corrupted and captured by industry) and the right to demand less dangerous work when doctors detected black lung. The law also created a federally administered black lung benefits program.

The lung of a miner killed by pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was a precursor of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed the next year and providing a more comprehensive set of protection to all Americans at work. But like OSHA, the implementation of FCMHSA was limited as business began organizing against workplace safety enforcement. The mine owners challenged the constitutionality of the law and lost. But the tide would soon turn. In addition, these agencies take awhile to become effective, something the miners quickly realized when the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster in 1970 killed another 38 workers in a mine with a long history of indifference to safety. In 1978, a further expansion of the law that would have granted workers themselves the right to test the air for dust was rejected as a violation of property rights in a newly conservative and anti-union America.

The same grassroots outrage that forced Boyle and the UMWA to support the legislation did not abate, leading to the challenge of Jock Yablonski to Boyle’s leadership. Yablonski ran for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, announcing, “Today I am announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America. I do so out of a deep awareness of the insufferable gap between the union leadership and the working miners that has bred neglect of miners’ needs and aspirations and generated a climate of fear and inhibition.” He ran on a platform of health and safety, including a greater emphasis on fighting against black lung.

Yablonski was “defeated,” in the sense that Boyle committed massive fraud to keep himself in office. A mere week after the legislation passed, Boyle had Yablonski murdered in his home by thugs. Miners for Democracy came out of these acts, demanding the overthrow of Boyle, which succeeded with federal supervisions for elections and Boyle’s arrest for the Yablonski murder.

As of 2007, over 600,000 miners and widows had received several billion dollars in benefits from the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

Much of the information for this post came from Daniel Fox and Judith Stone, “Black Lung: Miners Militancy and Medical Uncertainty, 1968-1972,” in Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers, Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, Revised 3rd Edition, 1997.

This is the 86th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

NFL Week 17 Open Thread

[ 147 ] December 29, 2013 |

Chip Kelly is pretty much my favorite coach in football history. This is his essence in 5 seconds.

Incidentally, 5 seconds was also the average time of possession in an Oregon scoring drive during his time with the Ducks.

Let this be your Week 17 open thread. Go Seahawks, Go Eagles. I also really want to see Jon Kitna play tonight. Evidently, Rick Mirer was busy when Dallas called.

Wounded Knee Anniversary

[ 46 ] December 29, 2013 |

123 years ago today, on December 29, 1890, the United States Army massacred between 150 and 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, effectively ending the active military engagements of the wars of American conquest. We might not even call Wounded Knee a military engagement given that this was Lakota (and other Plains tribes) resistance as apocalyptic religious movement rather than warfare. But some Lakota did have guns and about 25 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Of course, that was hardly the last violence committed against Native Americans, including the allotment of their land, corruption at the BIA, Indian schools and the suppression of native religions and languages, the stealing of natural resources, and termination in the 1950s. Take a moment to remember how our nation was built on the wanton murder of indigenous peoples.

Spotted Elk, one of the Lakota murdered by the United States Army:

And here’s the mass grave where the military tossed the dead bodies:

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