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This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1924

[ 32 ] May 26, 2014 |

On May 26, 1924, the doors of the United States closed to most immigrants as President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924. The law set the yearly quota for a nation’s population to immigrate to the U.S. at 2% of its U.S. population in the 1890 census. Beginning in 1927, immigration would then decline even further, to 150,000 total. This law put an end to the immigrant flows to the U.S. that had provided the labor force for the nation’s stupendous industrial growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also demonstrates the great discomfort many Americans had with the diversity that became a byproduct of the need for such an expanding labor force.

Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe seemed to threaten American values for reasons outside their funny religions, peasant clothing, and garlic-eating ways. Most people came to the U.S. for the precise reason they do today: to make money for their families back home. Like Mexicans and Guatemalans today, many hoped to make money and then return and maybe buy some land and build a little house in their home village. And many did that–for groups like the Italians and Greeks there was significant out-migration.

But some of these immigrants, even if they just wanted to work, also believed in the need for a better world. That was especially true among the immigrant group least likely to return to Europe–Jews. They, and to a lesser extent other groups such as the Italians, Greeks, and Finns, had been introduced to socialist ideas in Europe and brought them to the United States. The Jewish women leading the Uprising of the 20,000 against apparel company exploitation in 1909 and after the Triangle Fire in 1911 were the cheap labor the department stores and clothing designers wanted but they had radical tendencies of standing up for their rights that was definitely not what the capitalists wanted. The corporations intentionally brought in different and competing ethnic groups to undermine workplace solidarity (not to mention basic communication). This could be successful but as companies found out at Lawrence, Paterson, and Ludlow, diverse workforces could unite for decent wages and living conditions. And individual acts like Russian Jewish immigrant Alexander Berkman trying (and failing in spectacular fashion) to assassinate plutocrat Henry Clay Frick after Homestead or the native-born but son of immigrants Leon Czoglosz killing President William McKinley was a sign of the very real violence that some would commit in the cause of punishing capitalists.

While unions like the Industrial Workers of the World embraced these new workers, mainstream organized labor considered them competition for jobs already poorly paid and thus disdained them, a choice that was as much cultural and racial as it was about principles of labor. The American Federation of Labor strongly supported all anti-immigration legislation despite being headed by an English immigrant by the name of Samuel Gompers. But of course Gompers and others came out of an older Protestant immigration that had caused little tension in American history, outside of some anti-German sentiment around the time of the American Revolution. Gompers would have no patience for these southern and eastern Europeans and especially those with ideas about labor movements more radical than he.

Despite the strikes many of these new immigrants engaged in, for most corporate leaders, the need for cheap labor won out over concerns about radicals. The plutocrats buying the Republican Party managed to keep the door open long after nativists wanted it shut. But the events of World War I changed the equation. The unfair equation of the IWW with pro-Kaiser sentiment (absurd on the face of it and the IWW in the U.S. only opposed the war in theory, allowing their members to take whatever position they felt right) meant that immigrants were more suspect than ever and that everything about them needed watching. This is also how the 18th Amendment also finally gathered the necessary support to pass since even beer drinking was now German. The Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Bisbee Deportation, the Centralia Massacre, the Palmer Raids and Red Scare, and the deporting of 566 radicals including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman all helped influence a more comprehensive solution to the fears middle class Protestants had of what this nation was becoming, which was just ending immigration almost entirely.

This trend had been coming for some time and the 1924 act, properly known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was only the final straw. The Immigration Act of 1917, passed over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, barred “undesirables” from entering the U.S., a category which included criminals, the insane, and alcoholics, and imposed a literacy test which led to 1400 immigrants being denied entry in 1920 and 1921.

Perhaps the most notable feature about the Immigration Act was setting the racial quotas to 1890 level. The quotas of immigrants from each country would be based upon their numbers in the United States according to the 1890 census. It meant that Germans, Irish, and English could still come over in relatively undiminished numbers. It meant basically no Asians, which eliminated the rather sizable immigrant stream of “Syrians” (what we would call today Lebanese Christians).

There was one core exception to the Immigration Act, which was Mexicans crossing into the U.S. to provide cheap farm labor in the Southwest. This would begin a long history of American labor law making exceptions for farmworkers, eventually creating long-term inequality in the sector that continues today.

Was the end of immigration the boon for organized labor that its proponents claimed it would be? Not really. The same conservative movement that ended immigration also crushed organized labor. The powerful union movement flexing its muscles in 1919 was at a low point a mere decade later. And that was before the Great Depression created 25 percent unemployment and another 25 percent underemployment.

In 1927, Albert Johnson said of the act he sponsored that it protected America from “a stream of alien blood, with all its inherent misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed.” Or in other words, people who would challenge capitalism.

The nation would finally revise its racist immigration policy with the Immigration Act of 1965.

This is the 107th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A Drop in the Bucket

[ 22 ] May 25, 2014 |

Like the absurdly low OSHA violation fines that give employers no incentive to fix safety problems on the job, the low fines for corporate polluters are just a drop in the bucket for gigantic companies. That’s especially true in the oil industry:

Citgo was convicted of criminal charges under the Clean Air Act in 2007 for operating two large tanks at its Corpus Christi East Plant without emissions controls from 1994 to 2003. The lack of controls, prosecutors say, exposed nearby residents to the carcinogen benzene and other compounds.

But seven years after the conviction, the case is still a focus of attention in this industrial port city on the Gulf Coast of Texas, where refineries abut largely poor and minority neighborhoods. Victims are continuing to press their case for restitution payments from Citgo for hundreds of people.

Citgo was hit with a $2 million fine when sentencing for the 2007 conviction occurred in February, but more recently a federal judge ruled against providing what the Justice Department and victims say should be far more to address future medical costs and more.

Melissa Jarrell, an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M University (Corpus Christi), said the $2 million fine imposed against Citgo early this year sends the wrong signal.

“There is no deterrent value, really, in our sentencing guidelines for corporations, because we know that $2 million is not a deterrent for a major, multibillion-dollar corporation,” Jarrell, who works with activists here, said in an interview in early May. “I’m certain other corporations saw that.”

The penalty that district court Judge John Rainey imposed is indeed relatively little money for the major refiner, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA.

$2 million is nothing for Citgo. $20 million would probably barely get its attention. There’s no incentive for oil companies to not keep right on violating pollution standards.

Climate Change is Boring

[ 41 ] May 25, 2014 |

I understand that CNN is a business and thus decides to provide Americans a month of wall-to-wall coverage of the Malaysian Air flight. So I suppose I also understand that CNN won’t talk about climate change because viewers find it boring. On the other hand, I’m sure the network will be very into detailing each and

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every climate-change related disaster in this country with 10 reporters because watching California burn or New York be hit with a hurricane is fun. Talking about the impacts of these disasters in Bangladesh or Tuvalu though, boring again.

What 13th Amendment?

[ 50 ] May 25, 2014 |

Outstanding Ian Urbina story on the exploitation of people held in immigrant detention centers. The immigration detention system serves as a nearly unpaid labor force thanks to the privatized prison companies controlling the prisons:

As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.

This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed here.

Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.

Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”

Who is responsible?

Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton J. Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, control most of the immigrant detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.

The Corrections Corporation of America’s revenue, for example, rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and the GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.

Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.

Ah, nothing like privatization to find new ways of exploiting labor.

Is this even legal?

“This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said she believed the program violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” she said.

Immigration officials underestimate the number of immigrants involved and the hours they work, Professor Stevens added. Based on extrapolations from ICE contracts she has reviewed, she said, more than 135,000 immigrants a year may be involved, and private prison companies and the government may be avoiding paying more than $200 million in wages that outside employers would collect.

It should not be legal in any case. Everyone deserves the minimum wage and no one should be forced to work for $1 a day, regardless of their immigration status. This is just rank exploitation.

…I haven’t read it but a former colleague of mine strongly suggests this book as a history of prisons undermining the 13th Amendment.

Wal-Mart’s War on Pregnant Workers

[ 34 ] May 24, 2014 |

Given that Wal-Mart’s business model is borrowed heavily from the supply chain management system pioneered by the same textile industry that brought you the Triangle Fire and Rana Plaza collapse, it’s hardly surprising that the company would then import the intimidation of pregnant women so common in Mexican maquiladoras and south Asian apparel factories. Wal-Mart could treat women with respect. But then it only does that with a group of workers it if makes for good PR:

After all, pregnant women are at the final analysis socially valuable and morally distinct as a category of person. They ensure the ongoing life of society, and do so at personal cost: sometimes great, sometimes minor. If Wal-Mart is willing to recognize the moral significance of veterans in those terms, why not pregnant women? The answer in that case would be to simply recognize pregnancy as a discrete category worthy of its own set of special labor protections not because pregnant workers offer any extra utility, but simply because pregnancy is a morally significant vocation.

And it won’t happen. Not because it couldn’t, but because Wal-Mart won’t sacrifice potential profit for the social value or moral import of a person unless it can be turned into a P.R. stunt. There is a reason that when Pope Francis speaks of a culture of death he also often speaks of economies of exclusion; the preference for profit over people and material objects over human life is a symptom of the melding of the two impulses, which are joined by a similar extreme undervaluing of life. Firms and the economy as a whole are here to serve humanity, not to be served by it; to reverse that order is to invite incredible harm, and Wal-Mart is in many senses the very manifestation of that injurious reversal.

And let’s face it, women workers will never offer the PR that a company like Wal-Mart wants because they are not valued highly enough in the broader society. Instead, Wal-Mart continues the exploitation of women workers that has marked low-wage industrial and now post-industrial work for two centuries.

White Privilege

[ 93 ] May 24, 2014 |

White privilege exists even for poor whites. The House plan to fund rural child hunger while eliminating funding for urban child hunger is a great example of this.

Meteors

[ 28 ] May 24, 2014 |

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Anyone have any meteor stories to share from last night?

Friday Night

[ 48 ] May 23, 2014 |

Someone had better be delivering one of these 1947 ice masks to cure a hangover to my front door by the morning.

BoXCYblIAAAxb0s

Also, Monk.

The First Ever Baseball Strike

[ 65 ] May 23, 2014 |

Some of you might be familiar with the first ever baseball strike, but this is the first I’ve ever heard of it, started when Ty Cobb went into the stands to beat a heckler. When Cobb was suspended, the Tigers went on strike.

But as he ducked into the dugout before batting in the fourth, Cobb hurled an insult at the man, according to Cobb’s biographer Charles Alexander. The man, a Tammany Hall page named Claude Lucker (or Lueker, in some accounts), who had lost all but two of his fingers while operating a printing press, continued taunting Cobb.

The Tigers’ Sam Crawford asked Cobb what he intended to do. And with that, Cobb suddenly vaulted into the stands toward Lucker, seated about 12 rows up in the grandstand. Knocking Lucker down, Cobb began kicking and stamping him.

“Cobb,” someone cried, “that man has no hands!”

“I don’t care if he has no feet!” he yelled, continuing the attack with his cleats. Some fans tried to intervene, but several teammates who had followed Cobb into the grandstand held them off with bats. An umpire and a police officer finally pulled Cobb away.

He was ejected from the game, which the Tigers eventually won, 8-4. Johnson, in the midst of touring A.L. parks, witnessed the incident and suspended Cobb indefinitely. Cobb’s teammates rallied to his defense two days later in Philadelphia, sending Johnson a message that they would strike in protest.

“If the players cannot have protection, we must protect ourselves,” the Tigers wrote.

That put Detroit Manager Hughie Jennings in a quandary. The Tigers would incur a $5,000 fine if they forfeited their May 18 game against the Athletics, so the team owner, Frank Navin, ordered Jennings to field a team. With the help of Joe Nolan, a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Bulletin, Jennings quickly cobbled together a roster of semipros and amateurs.

The scab Tigers lost 24-2 and the strike ended the next day. Cobb was suspended 10 games.

The Last Civil War Debt

[ 21 ] May 23, 2014 |

In 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early invaded Maryland. He threatened to burn the city of Frederick to the ground unless they paid him $200,000. Frederick city leaders agreed. They took out loans to make the payment.

Frederick paid off those loans in 1951
.

The End of History Education

[ 237 ] May 23, 2014 |

The Boston public school system is eliminating history and social science departments, merging them with other departments that don’t matter because they aren’t on the standardized tests.

No doubt this is paving the way for the same thing to happen on the university level to the non-STEM departments.

Burrito Thursday

[ 42 ] May 22, 2014 |

I know there is such a thing as Taco Tuesday, but how about we celebrate a late night Burrito Thursday by considering the 10 most important burritos in history.

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