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A Christmas Miracle

[ 38 ] December 24, 2014 |

An 80s Christmas.

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Why was the Reagan Administration soft on miscegenation?

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The Nicaragua Canal

[ 105 ] December 24, 2014 |

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Nicaragua Canal is not an environmental disaster, not to mention horrible for the people, largely indigenous, who will be displaced because of it. But the combination of China looking to check U.S. power and a Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega, who has every reason to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S., means this is finally happening after being talked about for more than a century. I confess being a bit skeptical that this is going to succeed in the end and if it does, the consequences on the environment will be pretty significant. But it’s definitely fascinating to watch.

A World War II Christmas

[ 19 ] December 24, 2014 |

In 1943, it was a high priority of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get an American Christmas tree on a plane to send to Winston Churchill.

This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1913

[ 7 ] December 24, 2014 |

On December 24, 1913, striking Italian copper workers in Calumet, Michigan were holding their Christmas party in the town’s crowded Italian Hall building. Someone shouted “fire.” Could have been company thugs, but we will never know. In the ensuing panic, people rushed the exit and 73 died, including 59 children.

The copper country of far northern Michigan was dominated by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Like mining companies around the nation, it attempted to control nearly all aspects of workers’ lives, including the use of company housing and company stores. Workers labored 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pay was poor. Workers were charged for all the equipment they needed to stay alive and see well enough to work underground. This was all too typical for miners around the nation and a major reason why it was in underground mining that so many of the era’s major labor battles took place. In fact, this event would take place at the same time that miners in southern Colorado were going on strike in what led to the infamous Ludlow Massacre. Miners were also angry about the new one-man drill that forced them to work alone in the mines. Working in teams significantly improved worker safety since someone was there for you. If something happened with the one-man drill, you were on your own until someone wandered by. Miners were scared.

Into this exploitative system entered the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM had a long history in mining in the West, having formed after the Coeur d’Alene struggle of 1892. It played a key role in the establishment of the IWW in 1905 but then backed away from that movement in the wake of an internal split. WFM organizers understood the violent methods the mine owners would take against organizing workers. The WFM had made real gains for western miners and sought to expand their reach east of the Mississippi. The WFM first arrived in Calumet in 1908 and slowly built its forces until by 1913, it had about 9000 of the 15,000 miners in the area. This was enough to strike, which began on June 23, 1913. The specific demand in the strike was for union recognition, with everything else following that.

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Copper Country strikers

The response of the business owners, police, and “respectable citizens” of northern Michigan was similar to that in other mining regions–to form a paramilitary organization called the Citizens Alliance. The CA would raid and destroy WFM offices, beat workers, and otherwise sought to intimidate the strikers. The mine owners hired the Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency to intimidate the strikers. Violence resulted. In August, the mine company guards and detectives shot and killed workers Aloiz Tijan and Louie Putrich. Early the next month, a deputy policeman shot Margaret Fazekas, a 14-year old girl, in the back of the head. She barely survived. Mass arrests and imprisonments took place, taking strikers off picket lines and intimidating others. As was common during the 1910s, the civil rights of striking workers were ignored. Scab labor was brought in as well and the mines continued to run, albeit well short of full capacity. The vast majority of these scabs, about 75%, were imported from outside the region, from as far away as North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Most were not told they were coming to scab, but rather were being recruited for well-paying work that was all too scarce.

The WFM tried to publicize this strike nationwide. WFM leader Joseph Cannon gave a well-attended speech about it in New York, an event attended by the likes of Carlos Tresca and Alexander Berkman, noted failed assassin of Henry Clay Frick. There was a lot of coverage in national newspapers about the strike as well. But such events and reporting could do little concrete for workers. United Mine Workers president John Mitchell and Mother Jones visited and gave speeches as well.

The Christmas party itself was a union function, sponsored by the WFM Ladies’ Auxiliary. Such events are always important in long strikes because the poverty, lack of food, and boredom really can suck away the momentum of strikers. People get fired up initially, but can be broken down pretty fast. There were over 400 people there. Someone shouted “Fire!” Eight witnesses later said the person had a Citizens Alliance button on. People stampeded toward the door and children especially were quickly trampled to death in the melee. The New York Times editorialized about the strike, writing in part, “The foreign miners of the district are enraged and grief-stricken over the disaster.”

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Some of the Italian Hall victims

Local officials quickly moved to cover up the situation. Many of the workers did not speak English, yet the coroner’s inquest only spoke to them in English in an attempt to silence the witnesses. The Citizens’ Alliance was furious that the WFM blamed it for the incident. After WFM president Charles Moyer accused the CA of sparking the stampede, on December 26 they attacked him in the nearby town of Hancock, assaulting and shooting him, then placing him on a train with instructions to never return. Moyer quickly returned after holding a press conference in Chicago where he showed off his wound. But the strike faded. The oppression of WFM officials undermined the union’s ability to coordinate the strike. It was also running out of money and workers were getting increasingly desperate. The strikers voted to end the strike in April 1914 and they were required to destroy their WFM cards to regain their jobs.

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Moyer in Chicago hospital after being shot.

The strikers won little. There were some small wage increases and the 8-hour day that the mine owners introduced for scabs and continued for everyone at the end of the strike. The welfare capitalism that dominated the mines before the strike eventually faded while child labor laws drove the children out of the mines. The House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining did investigate the strike, with congressmen coming to Michigan in 1914, in order to understand and hopefully prevent the conditions that led to the strike and its famous tragic incident. However, the mines remained nonunion until the 1930s.

We will never know precisely who shouted “fire.” But the suffering of these workers both in and outside Italian Hall is a sad moment in American labor history.

Woody Guthrie wrote one of his best labor songs about the incident. I personally prefer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s version. I’m not sure he really holds to Guthrie’s politics, but his voice can really bring out the suffering of Guthrie’s subjects.

This is the 128th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Pal

[ 38 ] December 23, 2014 |

I know how much some of you love shaving.

Discuss.

Your Official Candidate of the 2016 Beltway Punditry

[ 178 ] December 23, 2014 |

Get ready for the Jim Webb wave! The Fred Thompson of 2016 has arrived!

Toy Guns

[ 56 ] December 23, 2014 |

The decline of toy guns seems like it would be an absolute positive. The decline of toy guns so cops don’t mistake them for real and shoot kids means it isn’t. But I’ll go ahead and fool myself into thinking that maybe this, over time, will lead to less of a passion for real guns. I can dream, can’t I?

On Police Unions

[ 151 ] December 23, 2014 |

While I have linked many times to incidents of police violence, I have very little to say about the actions of police unions, largely because I don’t care about them since they do not show solidarity with other workers, or any other cause I believe in. I will say this–the leaders of police unions may be horrible human beings. But a) they should have the right to collectively bargain and I categorically reject the idea that the police should not be unionized, b) getting rid of police unions will do nothing to reduce police violence nor will it preclude other police officers’ organizations from presenting the same positions, and c) there is no evidence I have seen suggesting that non-unionized police are less effective in promoting these positions than unionized police forces. So criticize the actions of police unions all you want to–I certainly won’t say anything against that. But I don’t think articulating the position of anti-unionists will help.

A New Gilded Age Christmas

[ 21 ] December 23, 2014 |

A company called Gilded Age Greetings is creating Christmas cards for the New Gilded Age:

Just when you thought Christmas couldn’t get any more expensive… a card company has started making greeting cards decorated with pricey jewels.

The luxury company are producing bespoke Christmas cards which take over a month to create, are decorated with rubies and cost up to $10,000 (£6,395).

Card company Gilded Age Greetings, based in Florida and New Jersey, USA pride themselves on their luxury cards, which are handmade with designs painted on calfskin vellum- a type of medieval parchment.

A spokesperson from Gilded Age Greetings said: ‘Our most expensive cards have been custom commissions, which are original works of art and one of a kinds.

‘We use gemstone accents and real gold leaf or platinum gilding.’

I know we don’t want to believe this, but the company is real enough. And it has been promoted by the website of New Gilded Age taste purveyor Martha Stewart.

American Companies and Cuban Claims

[ 56 ] December 22, 2014 |

It goes without saying, to me at least, that American companies should have no right to receive compensation for their Cuban property seized in 1959. Making corporate claims a major bargaining chip in dealing with Cuba is a very bad idea for a number of reasons, including the imperialistic origins of those properties that will just remind Cubans of their historical status vis-a-vis the U.S., the potential to derail legitimate negotiations over a sideshow, and the fact that it will give Americans a chance to remember how awful specific corporations have been in their history. Seems to me it is the best interests of the corporations to let it go.

However, if companies like Chiquita, formerly United Fruit, wants to make these claims, it will give bloggers like myself a lot of good material.

Lynch and the Media

[ 101 ] December 22, 2014 |

This is a good piece on Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to talk to the NFL media. The journalists are furious at him for this. And the piece gets it right–it’s not because they expect to hear anything interesting from Lynch. It’s that they want canned cliched quotes to make their jobs easier and fill word counts. Lynch rightfully doesn’t care about this–nor does he care about the NFL business model–and does what he wants up the point of incurring fines for his behavior. Note that this is not bad behavior. He just doesn’t want to talk and wants to be left alone. There’s nothing wrong with this except that it’s not what the billionaire bosses want.

It’s an entirely reasonable frustration. Reporters have to play this game, even if they realize how dumb it is, and they rely on athletes to play their roles in the ecosystem. Sure, no one’s life would be better this morning if they knew that Marshawn Lynch understood the importance of giving 110 percent, or that the Seahawks were taking things one game at a time. But the writers’ lives would have been easier, their stories 50 words closer to their word counts.

It’s an institutional failure. In other sports, there are long histories of reporters traveling with teams, entering open clubhouses, actually getting to know players. In football, there isn’t really such a thing as a beat reporter, at least not to the same extent as in an everyday sport; every writer is a war correspondent parachuting into a strange country where they’re not particularly welcome. Blame it on the weekly schedule, or the centralized league control, or the fact that every game is national, but the only interactions most writers have with star players come in these unfruitful group scrums, where the best they can hope for is a quote so good that it’ll wind up in every single story.

This isn’t an insurmountable condition. There are good reporters, and there are sometimes great quotes and great insights waiting to be mined. In the “yeah” presser, one asked Lynch a specific, tactical question about the Seahawks’ blocking schemes. That reporter was genuinely curious, and if Lynch had answered, it might have helped readers better understand the game. That ought to be the platonic ideal of an interview question.

Instead, Lynch receives a string of lazy “talk about”s and “tell me about”s, and after dealing with that multiple times per week, every week, for the entirety of his adult life, his frustration is every bit as visible and as justified as reporters’. Neither the writers nor players have easy jobs, but I’ll always have more respect for Lynch’s reaction in this spat. After all, he’s the only one who’s not just going through the motions.

Besides, doesn’t Richard Sherman talk enough for the whole Seahawks’ team. Just get him to talk about how Patrick Peterson is a bad cornerback. How many more quotes do they need?

Transgender Worker Protections

[ 14 ] December 22, 2014 |

I neglected to mention this last week, but let me say a quick word lauding the Obama Administration for extending workplace protection rights to transgender people, at least in the public sphere. This is a move toward applying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to this category of people who have long faced discrimination. An important advance.

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