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Sentinels of Silence

[ 15 ] August 28, 2015 |

Why can’t Orson Welles be brought back from the dead to narrate documentaries?

Had to link instead of embed because of the film’s privacy settings, but it’s a cool documentary of sorts on indigenous Mexican ruins.

Workplace Violence

[ 46 ] August 28, 2015 |

The horrible killing of the Virginia TV crew has once again shown that a) gun violence is inherently political, b) that the National Rifle Association is a front organization for murderers, and c) that we need gun control, which of course won’t happen. But it’s also a reminder of how common violence at the workplace. Errol Lewis:

A more fruitful discussion worth having is about the scourge of workplace violence, which the killings of Parker and Ward certainly was. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, while workplace violence has dropped in recent years, it is still startlingly frequent. Nearly a decade ago, according to the agency, 20 workers were murdered every week. A more recent report shows the tide of violence declining, but as of 2009, 521 people were killed on the job and 572,000 non-fatal violent crimes took place, including rape, robbery and assault.

That averages out to more than 10 lives lost every week. Many of the tales are grisly: As CNN pointed out last fall, a fired UPS employee in Alabama shot two former colleagues to death before killing himself; a laid-off worker in Oklahoma went to his old plant and beheaded the first person he saw; and a traffic controller in Illinois set fire to his workplace and slit his throat.

And all those happened in a single week.

But there’s more because a sadly not surprising amount of this workplace violence is directed at women, as was the case this week. Dan Keating:

Many people work at dangerous heights, or with deadly chemicals or crushing equipment. But, as the gruesome killing of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward reminded us Wednesday, murder happens surprisingly often on the job. Out of nearly 4,600 workplace deaths in 2013, 9 percent were caused by homicides, according to the census of workplace deaths by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s a pattern that disproportionately affects women. After car accidents, homicide is the most likely way for women to die at work, representing 21 percent of workplace deaths. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to die many other ways. Murders represent 8 percent of workplace deaths for men, preceded by car accidents, falls and contact with objects and equipment.

The murder threat for women is different. Both sexes die most often at the hands of robbers, and both also murdered at about the same rate by co-workers. But more than a third of women murdered at work are killed by boyfriends, spouses, exes or other relatives. For men, that category of killer is almost zero.

“When women are at work, their exes always know where to find them, don’t they?” said security expert Chris E. McGoey in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The 2015 AFL-CIO Death on the Job Report has more about these issues as well:


Workplace violence is another way that the national epidemic of gun violence affects all of us and it gives organized labor an entry into pushing for rational gun policies. I don’t doubt of course that advocating for gun control would irritate a good number of union members for which gun identification is more meaningful than class identification, but cutting back on the opportunities for gun violence is the right thing for working Americans.

Reconstruction and the National Park Service

[ 25 ] August 28, 2015 |


Ku Klux Klan member, Tennessee, 1868

This is a good piece summarizing the one area of U.S. history that the National Park Service has done a terrible job commemorating, which is, not surprisingly, Reconstruction. The NPS does a really commendable job of remembering the American past, especially given its increasingly limited resources spread out over increasing numbers of parks. But Reconstruction is a major gap. The first reason is obvious–that for so long the popular historical interpretation of the period was one most popularly told in Birth of a Nation. But this open white supremacy was always challenged by African-Americans and in recent decades the popular memory has shifted. Except among conservative white people, which still means memory of the period is extremely charged. The NPS is moving toward some new sites that would remember the brief, aborted attempt to create something like a racial democracy in the post-Civil War period. What has to happen now that did not happen in 2003 when the last time an effort to create a Reconstruction site took place is to not allow the Confederate heritage organizations to have a seat at the table. This is the equivalent of allowing Neo-Nazi organizations to have a role in deciding on official historical remembrance of the Holocaust.

I do believe we will see, at the very least, Obama simply name a Reconstruction-era National Monument before he leaves office. A congressional bill would be preferable because it would show that there is a broader understanding of what Reconstruction is really about but given the rise of radical white supremacist Republicanism in the last decade, this feels unlikely to me. Moreover, I am concerned that the NPS is still bringing representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans into meetings. Why? They should be excluded entirely. They are never going to agree and don’t have a legitimate viewpoint to begin with.

Scabbing in the New Gilded Age

[ 106 ] August 28, 2015 |


Probably the most underreported story in American labor right now is what’s going on steel. There are more unionized steel jobs in the U.S. than you’d think and a lot of those union contracts are expiring on September 1. That means a lot of labor strife, with companies seeking to destroy their unions. One of the most egregious cases of union-busting right now is Allegheny Technologies Inc (ATI), which has locked out its workers in order to force enormous contract concessions for the workers to keep their jobs.*

ATI still wants to run. They just want to bring American labor down to Bangladeshi working levels. No, seriously. ATI is actually advertising on Craig’s List for scabs. What would the working conditions be like?

Must be able to lift up to 50 lbs. and work in a standing position for entire shift (12 hours/day) in a high heat/temperature manufacturing environment. Workweek is 84 hours/week.

Previous experience in a metal manufacturing or processing facility is required. All positions require working for unknown duration and are temporary. THIS IS A LABOR DISPUTE SITUATION – EMPLOYEES WILL BE TRANSPORTED ACROSS A PICKET LINE.

They are paying a lot of money for this, which would last precisely as long as the lockout goes on. But 84 hour work weeks? That’s 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, of hard hard work. And given this is Pittsburgh with its still powerful union culture, I’d guess that if they do get workers, and they probably will given the wages and poor choices for working-class people, they will be coming from outside the region by and large.

There are 2000 USW members out of work right now thanks to a company that wants to repeal decades of union victories. There is going to be a large rally in Pittsburgh to support the workers on September 1 at noon. There will rallies the same day for locked out steelworkers in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I plan on being in Pittsburgh for this. Hope you can support these workers if you are near one of the four locations.

*Let’s face it–the reason this is so underreported is that while the United Steelworkers is a really good union, their communications strategy with the general public is significantly behind a lot of other large internationals. Get with the social media USW! I should be knowing about this stuff as it is happening. I found out about it on Tuesday and only because I was with labor people in Pittsburgh. Even in the labor media, there’s been very little coverage.

This Day in Labor History: August 28, 1963

[ 15 ] August 28, 2015 |

On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, DC. This famous event is of course most often remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or more specifically the 3 lines of it that conservatives have decided justify their own positions. But even among liberals and civil rights activists what is often forgotten or downplayed in the memory of this event is the central role economic issues played in it. Most of the economic agenda of the 1960s civil rights movement in fact is barely remembered. That’s a huge problem because not only were African-Americans fighting for the opportunity for economic advancement as well as to end segregation and for the vote but also because it presents an incomplete history which takes away part of the reason this movement so challenged American life.

First, it’s worth noting that the original idea for the March on Washington came from a union. In 1941, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to protest hiring discrimination in defense plants as the nation was gearing up for World War II. Like most issues concerning minorities, FDR didn’t really care but he didn’t want the bad publicity so he caved and ordered the end of hiring discrimination on government defense contracts. This opened up a lot of jobs to African-Americans during World War II and helped build the black middle class that would do much to push forward the freedom struggle after the war.

Randolph was still active in the movement in 1963, although more as a senior figure than a major player. But he, Bayard Rustin, and others revived the idea of the march to push John F. Kennedy to do something on civil rights, which he had been frustratingly reluctant to do. Rustin was hired to organize the event. Rustin had been a communist in the past and that greatly worried anti-communists like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (who did not even want to make a statement about the death of W.E.B. DuBois at the March because he hated him for his communism but who did when he realized Randolph would do it and it would be favorable), but he had played a role in the planning for the 1941 march and he had Randolph’s trust. Of course Strom Thurmond used Rustin’s role to paint the entire march as a communist front and J. Edgar Hoover rejected a report showing no significant communist infiltration into the civil rights movement, but this was just standard fare from the white supremacist American power structure.

The NAACP and most importantly Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference agreed to the idea while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were happy to use the opportunity to take on Kennedy publicly and directly for his inaction. The civil rights movement was a diverse movement with a lot of different groups and aims. That meant some careful alliance building was needed. But the different groups did come up with specific goals to fight for which included not only the passage of civil rights legislation, but a $2 minimum wage ($15.60 today), federal employment law banning discrimination in public or private hiring, and the expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include agricultural workers, domestic workers, and the rest of the workers excluded when the law passed in 1938.


During the March itself, Bayard Rustin read all these demands on live television, which may be the only time a list of labor demands has received that kind of coverage. A. Philip Randolph led off the speeches by saying, “We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom” and that “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality” in arguing for housing reform.

Playing a key role in the March on Washington was United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Organized labor often has a bad reputation on civil rights during this era, mostly for a good reason. Reuther is an important exception. This doesn’t mean he could instantly turn UAW locals into beacons of racial harmony. Turns out that racial solidarity has a lot more power with a lot more people than class solidarity and UAW officials found that out the hard way when they tried to push civil rights on the shop floor. But that’s an issue for another entry in this series. Reuther provided key labor support for the event. The AFL-CIO paid for a lot of the infrastructure of making this event happen, including the buses to get people to Washington and the UAW paid for the sound system that would blast King’s speech into history. This all happened over the opposition of George Meany, who did not care much about civil rights before this and who opposed an official federation endorsement of the march. But the AFL-CIO did officially support the Kennedy civil rights bill. It is said that Meany however was so moved by Randolph’s speech at the March that he created the A. Philip Randolph Institute to promote African-Americans in the labor movement.


Reuther stated in his speech, “And the job question is crucial because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” Reuther knew that he had a friend in King because even as a lot of internationals and locals resisted the civil rights movement, King consistently supported the progressive causes of labor and frequently spoke to labor audiences. And of course as King went on, he became more and more focused on economic justice as a centerpiece of the larger freedom struggle, to the point of dying while supporting the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968.

While it’s difficult to measure the precise impact of the march on the political process so soon before Kennedy’s death, we can pretty clearly say it led to the inclusion of the Fair Employment Practices clause into what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also please notice how little a role Martin Luther King has played in this post. The March on Washington was not all about MLK, although that in no ways diminishes his importance to the movement or the “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was a lot more than one man giving one speech.

This is the 156th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

How to Save New Orleans

[ 33 ] August 27, 2015 |


This is kind of disturbing. A decade after Hurricane Katrina, three separate engineering teams have concluded that the only way to save New Orleans from future hurricane damage by building up the Mississippi Delta around the city is to let the end of the Delta die. And maybe that’s true. The declining sediment load thanks to agriculture combining with the engineering choices already made on the river plus rising sea levels probably does mean that hard choices are going to have to be made. Of course even if scientists, engineers, and urban planners had consensus that this was the best answer, it doesn’t mean the politics would allow it to happen, with the status quo having an endless amount of money behind it.

The Union Edge

[ 29 ] August 27, 2015 |


Above: Pittsburgh, 1940

I was on The Union Edge on Tuesday, the great labor radio program out of Pittsburgh, talking about Out of Sight and other labor-related matters. You can listen to it here.

My Pittsburgh visit was also highlighted by not only meeting wjts, but not getting into fisticuffs with him over condiment choices. I was proud of myself.

Joint Employers

[ 26 ] August 27, 2015 |


In a major victory against the obscuring of employers in order to disempower workers, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that corporations who use contractors and franchises are the joint employers of those workers. This is an enormously important decision because employers like the fast food industry (the case is actually about a waste management company but fast food is the most famous user of this method) argue that if workers were to join unions, they would have to negotiate with each individual restaurant instead of with McDonald’s. The big companies control almost everything about the work, but used these obscuring methods as a way to shield themselves from liability. The NLRB just stripped a lot of that way and undermined some of the reasons for subcontracting and franchising.

In the case, the N.L.R.B. held that a company called Browning-Ferris Industries of California was a joint employer of workers hired by a contractor to help staff the company’s recycling center. But the ruling could apply well beyond companies that rely on contractors and staffing agencies, extending to companies with large numbers of franchisees.

“The decision today could be one of the more significant by the N.L.R.B. in the last 35 years,” said Marshall Babson, a lawyer who helped write the brief for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the case and who was a Democratic appointee to the labor board in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “ Depending on how the board applies its new ‘indirect test,’ it will likely ensnare an ever-widening circle of employers and bargaining relationships.”

Beyond Browning-Ferris, the ruling may have a significant immediate effect on a case the labor board is litigating against McDonald’s and several of its franchisees. In that case, the N.L.R.B.’s general counsel, who essentially acts as a prosecutor, asserts that the company is a joint employer along with a number of franchisees, making it potentially liable for numerous reported violations of workers’ rights, like retaliating against those who have tried to organize unions.

Thursday’s N.L.R.B. ruling, by enshrining a broader joint-employer definition into doctrine, makes it more likely to apply in the McDonald’s case as well, though experts point out that joint employer designations are typically very dependent on the circumstances of each case.

Business representatives said the ruling could make it much harder to operate franchises in the future, undermining a popular path for many entrepreneurs.

“This will clearly jeopardize small employers and the future viability of the franchise model,” said Steve Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association, an industry group. “If I’m an existing and/or aspiring franchisee, why would I want to expand my business and/or get into franchising if I don’t have the ability to run the day-to-day operations of the business?”

The industry pretending that the franchisee controls the business is hilarious given how much control the company holds over the entire operation.

Some credit goes to the Teamsters here who brought the case before the NLRB and this demonstrates how important it could be to unionization efforts:

The Browning Ferris case grew out of an organizing effort by the Teamsters. The union sought to have the waste management company named as a joint employer for workers employed by the staffing firm Leadpoint Business Services, a subcontractor for Browning Ferris. If Browning Ferris were deemed a joint employer, it would have to join Leadpoint in bargaining with the Teamsters. Such a determination could also make it easier for the Teamsters to organize workers at other staffing agencies that do work for Browning Ferris.

A regional director for the NLRB ruled that Browning Ferris did not exert enough control over Leadpoint workers to be considered a joint employer under current standards, but the Teamsters appealed that ruling to the federal board. Thursday’s ruling will change those standards for future cases.

The Confederacy and Communism

[ 19 ] August 25, 2015 |


Good article by Andre Fleche on the connection between the Confederacy and an early version of anti-communism, which in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions in Europe was very much on the minds of the southern planter elite, particularly since a lot of refugees from those wars came to the U.S. and supported the Union during the war.

Immigration Reform for the 1 Percent

[ 10 ] August 25, 2015 |


I don’t have any particular problem with increased immigration for wealthy people necessarily, just like I support immigration generally. But reforming the EB-5 Visa alone so that wealthy investors can move here without doing anything for the vast majority of potential immigrants in other categories is a bad policy move and is in fact immigration reform for the 1%, as unions claim.

Keeping Rana Plaza Out of Sight

[ 17 ] August 25, 2015 |


A Bangladeshi court banned the making of a film about one of the survivors of Rana Plaza for fear that the international attention might cause Bangladesh to lose its apparel industry.

I’m skeptical that a film would garner more attention than the actual death of over 1100 people, but I think more importantly is that the sweatshop owners in Bangladesh are also the governing class. I don’t know about the individual judges in this case of course, but many apparel contractors are in the Bangladeshi Parliament. They are protecting their own economic investments here, just like they do so by forcing workers to labor in unsafe factories, killing union organizers, keeping wages as low as possible.

This just reinforces why we need global labor standards that hold the western companies accountable. If Walmart didn’t pull out of Bangladesh because workers died making their clothes, they aren’t going to over a film, unless it led to a real international movement against the company. Or they will pull out because Bangladeshi workers make too much money for the billionaire owners of the company. But if we hold the apparel companies legally accountable for the conditions of production, then there is no incentive to pull out at all. The incentive is to improve the factories so that workers aren’t dying. Otherwise, workers will just die in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, or wherever else. That needs to be the focus here. That’s how you build solidarity with the Bangladeshi workers while actually doing something to ensure that Rana Plaza doesn’t happen again.

Book Review: Neil Foley, Mexicans in the Making of America

[ 6 ] August 24, 2015 |

Border Showdown

U.S. border agents stop Mexican immigrants crossing into United States, 1948

Neil Foley has written what I believe to be the first comprehensive history of Mexicans in U.S. history. It seems ridiculous that no one has written something like this before but I’m pretty sure it is true. Mexicans have played a very important role in much of American history but in a nation where race in the public mind means black and white (Black Lives Matter interrupting an event at Netroots Nation primarily about Mexican immigration and the oppression of those migrants seemingly without blinking an eye to the irony of it was a classic example of this; that so few people talking about it even mentioned this point even more classic) and in a nation where until the last few decades they have primarily lived in states faraway from eastern centers of power means that for the most part we don’t think of Mexicans playing a big role in American history generally. That’s a mistake.

Some of this history are stories you know. The Bracero Program. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the theft of land and power from Mexican communities when they were unwillingly citizens of a new nation. The United Farm Workers and the rise of the Chicano movement with leaders as diverse as Reíes Lopez Tijerina, Corky Gonzales, and Cesar Chavez. These are the stories you expect to hear and any good overview will cover them.

But much of the book you will not know. I thought the best chapter was on World War II. Foley discusses the braceros in some detail, calling the program Mexico’s biggest contribution to defeating the Axis in World War II while detailing the enormous exploitation these workers faced. But there was a lot more going on in the Mexican-American community. A lot of Mexican-Americans were caught between two nations when it came to the war. Some wanted to fight, others didn’t. Some Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. with the express intent of joining the Army. Some tried to go back to Mexico and join the Mexican military so they wouldn’t die. Mexicans in the U.S. were subject to the draft whether or not they were American citizens and many of those drafted could not speak English and were sent to units without any other Spanish speakers, where they faced discrimination and punishment for not following orders they couldn’t understand. This all led to a pretty sticky diplomatic situation between the U.S. and Mexico, with the question of whether Mexicans should be classified as white or Indian central to it.

This question of how to classify Mexicans in a nation that saw race as black and white (with indigenous people a minor third category) also became important in issues around the segregation of Mexicans in schools, which contributed to the larger post-war move against school segregation. Desegregation cases against Mexican discrimination went back to the 1930s and a lower court decision in the 1946 Mendez v. Winchester case paved the way for the Brown decision in 1954, with a district court ruling school segregation unconstitutional and the Ninth Circuit backing it up, but only on the grounds that California didn’t actually have a law allowing for the segregation of Mexicans. But the language used by Earl Warren in Brown was quite similar to that original district court decision.

I also loved how Foley discussed the fantasy Spanish heritage in New Mexico. I witnessed this first hand during my time in the state. Essentially, after the Mexican War, with the arrival of white elites to New Mexico, racial hierarchies changed and the old Spanish-Mexican elite found their racial status severely threatened. Part of the response was to claim that in fact they were not Mexican or mestizo at all but rather pure-blooded Spanish, which in almost every case was (and is) certainly not true. This attempt to claim whiteness was only partially successful at the time and the Anglo elite certainly wasn’t going to give up their newfound power. But this fantasy Spanish heritage has incredible legs, with families still insisting upon it today, partially to delineate them from both recent Mexican migrants and the many poor Latinos in the state, as well as from the state’s sizable Native American population. I didn’t have any tolerance for this at all and would openly state it was a myth when I taught History of New Mexico in graduate school. I had students drop my class for this. It’s understandable, the need to claim whiteness in a new nation where that matters so much. But it’s also pretty racist and classist, especially given how it is deployed today.

Naturally, since the Mexican-American population has risen so quickly in recent decades, much of the book focuses on the last fifty years. Foley frames this as the “Decade of the Hispanic” in the 1980s giving away to what he calls “Fortress America” of the 1990s and into the 21st century. He comes across as a bit more pessimistic about the present than I am, but then again he makes a pretty good case. He follows the political arguments around immigration in the 1980s and how that shifted toward the more partisan politics of the present, including the labor movement turning from its traditional anti-immigration stance to a strongly pro-immigrant movement. But the 1986 amnesty and rapid growth of Mexican migration led to the 1990s backlash personified by Proposition 187 in California, which placed the issue front and center in the national debate and destroyed the Republican Party in California, as well as the militarization of the border, construction of the border wall, and all the other attempts to keep Mexicans out, which ended up just driving many of them to their deaths crossing the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Not knowing too much about the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to those in the country undocumented, I was interested to understand why Reagan bucked his conservative allies to push this, which was about his close ties to the California agricultural interests who had always demanded cheap and disposable labor of color, as well as his desire to build a free trade zone that eventually became NAFTA.

Certainly in the present, with Donald Trump leading a national freakout about “anchor babies” and the future of the white race “the nation,” it’s hard to feel confident. Most of my confidence comes from demographic changes and the age of the xenophobes, along with what happened in California when a growing Mexican-American reacted to racist white politics by making the Republican Party toxic and moving the state significantly to the left. But demographics are no guarantee of the future and with a potential rise in violence against Mexican-Americans in the short-term, along with no solution in sight to our broken immigration system that deports good hard-working people who want to be Americans, it’s a bit hard to retain much optimism. Either way, Mexicans aren’t going anywhere. They are now a permanent part of the American landscape and centering their experiences in American history is going to become more central in understanding this nation, as well as Mexico.

This is a good book that you should read if you are at all interested in integrating the history of Mexicans into the broader national debate. Readable and recommended.

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