The European companies seeking to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh are facing resistance from the factory owners who are heavily invested in the current system, politically powerful, and don’t care about dead workers. We might read this resistance as a sign that there’s really nothing rich world corporations can do about working conditions in nations like Bangladesh. But in fact, these contractors resisting very much helps the multinational corporations. If there’s “nothing they can do” then they can do nothing. Of course there is much they can do. They can refuse to do business with contractors who don’t live up to certain standards. They can also *gasp* run their own factories! I know, this is an unheard of idea in the history of industrial production. But in fact, clothing companies have the ability to directly run an apparel factory. Stopping the current outsourcing system is not without its challenges because the companies have empowered local elites to exploit workers as intensively as possible, but that does not in fact get them off the hook.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
On June 25, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation, while flawed as almost all progressive legislation must be to pass Congress, set the standards of labor that defined post-war America, including minimum wages, overtime pay, and the banning of most child labor.
Sweeping laws to regulate wages and hours had been bandied around for some time, including a bill sponsored by Hugo Black in 1933 to reduce the workweek to 30 hours. Black continued to push for some kind of comprehensive labor regulation bill, although against significant Congressional opposition from conservatives. Roosevelt campaigned on wage and hour legislation in 1936. In 1937, a new fight was undertaken for such a bill and it took nearly a year of contentious negotiations to make it happen. On May 24, 1937, FDR had the bill introduced through friendly congressmen. The original bill included a Fair Labor Standards Board to mediate labor issues, and a 40 cent an hour minimum wage for a 40 hour week, as well as the prohibition of “oppressive child labor” for goods shipped between states. FDR told Congress, “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling worker’s wages or stretching workers’ hours.” The administration tried to stress that this was actually a pro-business measure. Commissioner of Labor Statistic Isador Lubin told Congress that the businesses surviving the Depression were not the most efficient, but the ones who most ruthlessly exploited labor into longer hours and lower wages. Only by halting this cutthroat exploitation could a more rational and well-regulated economy result.
Organized labor was split on the FLSA. Many labor leaders believed in it wholeheartedly, including Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky. Interestingly, both AFL head William Green and CIO leader John L. Lewis supported it only for the lowest wage workers, fearing a minimum wage would become a maximum wage for better paid labor. This reflected the long-standing mistrust of government by labor, lessons hard-learned over the past half-century, but ones that could get in the way of understanding the potential of the New Deal. Of course, today’s reliance upon the state by the labor movement would confirm much of what Lewis and especially Green believed, but that’s a subject for another post.
But all this happened while FDR was also engaged in his court-packing scheme. The embarrassing failure of that idea threatened the FLSA’s passage. It was quickly moved through the Senate but the House stalled, leading to it taking over a year to make it through Congress. It was only after Claude Pepper beat off an anti-New Deal challenger in the Florida primary that enough southern Congressmen would vote for the bill for it to pass, even in somewhat weakened form. The bill FDR finally signed over covered about 25 percent of the labor force at that time. It banned the worst forms of child labor, set the labor week at 44 hours, and created the federal minimum wage, set at 25 cents an hour.
Of course, corporate leaders howled about the impact of this 25 cent minimum wage. It was a big enough threat that Roosevelt addressed it in a Fireside Chat, telling Americans, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”
The impact of this law cannot be overstated. The minimum wage had been a major project of labor reformers for decades. During the Progressive Era, reformers had made some progress, but the Supreme Court ruled a minimum wage for women unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923, killing the movement’s momentum. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 set an important precedent for federal regulation over wages and hours, but the Supreme Court overruled this in 1935, leading to the National Labor Relations Act and FDR’s attack upon the Supreme Court as an antiquated institution destroying progress.
It’s worth noting how important the child labor provisions were. Child labor had been the bane of the country for a century. Children were often expected to work through most of American history; they had always worked on farms or in the apprenticeships that defined pre-industrial labor. But in the factory systems, children were employed explicitly to undermine wages and increase profits. Organized labor and reformers had fought to end child labor for decades, with industries such as apparel and timber leading the opposition to it. This largely, although not entirely, ended with the FLSA, to the benefit of every American.
There were unfortunate exceptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most notably, agriculture received an exemption, part of its long-term exploitative labor methods. This was something of a compromise as southerners complained about having to pay northern wages in an area of the country long used to cheap labor; in fact, those disparities had long been used by northern and western industrialists against a minimum wage in their states since they said they couldn’t compete with southern employers as it was. Other groups still largely excluded include circus employees, babysitters, journalists, and personal companions.
The agricultural exemption is the most damaging. Farmworkers remain among the most exploited labor in the United States today. The federal government still has no child age limit on farm work and only 33 states have stepped in to create one. Most of the states that exempt farm work from child labor laws are in the South, but among the other states is Rhode Island. Those state laws are limited, as state regulation often is. Washington for instance allows children as young as 12 to pick berries, cucumbers, spinach, and other groups when school is not in session. Workers under the age of 16 are prohibited from hazardous jobs on farms, but who is checking that? Not enough inspectors, that’s for sure. Farmworkers under the age of 20 only receive $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of their work. In short, there are still huge gaps in FLSA coverage and in today’s political climate, they are more likely to grow, not shrink.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was significantly expanded over the years. Each increase in the minimum wage is an amendment to the FLSA. In 1949, Harry Truman expanded its reach to airline and cannery workers. JFK expanded it to retail and service employees. The 1963 Equal Pay Act expanded its reach to require equal pay for equal work for women and men.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was the last major piece of New Deal legislation. FDR was facing a backlash from the court-packing incident and the alliance of southern Democrats and Republicans determined to limit the power of the liberal state. After the 1938 elections, FDR’s ability to create groundbreaking programs declined significantly and then World War II came to dominate American political life.
This is the 110th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Evidently the kids these days are best behaved in recent American history, avoiding the habits and mistakes their parents used to throw their lives away. I knew I was disappointed in this generation.
I mostly reject lazy “both parties are the same” rhetoric. But if it fits on one issue, it’s education. Obama has long surrounded himself with Rheeists and now that some have moved on from government service, they are renewing the fight against their nemesis: people who we trust to take care of our children 8 hours a day and prepare them to be productive members of society but who we don’t trust to bargain their less than stellar wages.
The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended ferociously. LaBolt and another former Obama aide, Jon Jones — the first digital strategist of the 2008 campaign — will take the lead role in the public relations initiative.
The involvement of such high-profile Obama alumni highlights the sharp schism within the Democratic Party over education reform.
Teachers unions have long counted on Democrats as their most loyal allies. But in the past decade, more and more big-name Democrats have split with the unions to support charter schools, tenure reform and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for raising students’ scores on standardized tests.
The national legal campaign is being organized by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who told POLITICO that she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months to get the effort off the ground. She intends to start with a lawsuit in New York, to be filed within the next few weeks, and follow up with similar cases around the country. Her plans for the New York lawsuit were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Brown’s campaign will be modeled on the recent Vergara v. California trial, which dealt a major blow to teachers unions. In that case, a judge earlier this month struck down California’s tenure system and other job protections embedded in state law, ruling that they deprived students of their constitutional right to a quality education because they shielded even the most incompetent teachers from dismissal. Teachers unions have said they will appeal.
Campbell Brown!!! Brown really goes for the kill here:
Brown said she sees a parallel to the fight for gay marriage, noting that the legal fight around California’s Proposition 8 sparked a public conversation that she credits with changing attitudes and increasing acceptance of same-sex unions. “It entirely changed the dialog,” she said.
Really, aren’t anti-sodomy laws less evil than teachers’ unions, a monster so great that everyone cowers in fear from how 1st year teachers at the age of 23 are making $150,000 while luxuriating in mansions and using the children as slaves.
Like Jamelle Bouie, I don’t really think Hillary Clinton’s stupid statements about wealth are really going to hurt her much in 2016. Perhaps unlike Jamelle, I don’t think her continued hawkishness and that the only lesson she learned from her Iraq war vote was not to go to war in Iraq will hurt her either, especially with the lack of a credible primary challenger from the left and that foreign policy is not at the top of the national agenda right now. But she will be hawkish as a president and that’s not a good thing.
When even professional wrestling calls out the Washington Racists for their actual team name, you know that some kind of corner has been turned.
On June 23, 1855, a 19 year old slave woman named Celia murdered her master rather than allow him to rape her. She then attempted to burn his body, nearly succeeding in erasing all traces of the crime. She was arrested, convicted, and executed. This story gets at both the inhumanity of slavery and the sexual labor forced upon millions of African and African-American women during two centuries of chattel slavery in the United States.
Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer in Callaway County, Missouri, purchased Celia in 1850. She was 14. In the 1850 census, Newsom owned 800 acres and five male slaves. Celia was the first female slave he purchased and it seems that he did so in order to use her for sex, as well as to serve as the house cook. His wife had died in 1849 and he decided on a sex slave rather than a new wife. He first raped Celia before they returned to his plantation. She eventually had two children by him.
In 1855, Celia took a slave named George as her lover. George pressured Celia to end Newsom’s rapes. Of course, he could do nothing about it himself, a subject that has gone far in defining the history of black masculinities in this country (there is a large literature on this topic). Celia did everything she could. She asked Newsom’s daughters to intervene. She pleaded to Newsom. Nothing helped. The rape continued.
On June 23, Newsom told Celia he was coming to her cabin that night, which he did at around 10 p.m. When he made his advances, she picked up a stick and beat him over the head. The first blow knocked him down and the second ended his life.
She hadn’t really intended to murder him. She just wanted him to not rape her. Not knowing what to do, she thought for about an hour. And then decided to burn him in her fireplace. Her house, an actual brick house built for her status as Newsom’s concubine, was a good distance from the main house so she had some ability to conceal her activities. She did a pretty complete job, smashing bone fragments and throwing them back into the fire, then spreading some of the ashes outside. The next morning she even got Newsom’s young grandson to hide the ashes, meaning he likely literally inhaled his own grandfather.
Because Newsom was so brazen about raping Celia, everyone knew that’s where he went the night before. So the blame immediately focused on her when he could not be found the next day. She went to work as normal and when confronted, denied everything. The police threatened to take away her children, but of course she knew that being caught meant death for her, so this was unsuccessful. She did admit Newsom had come to her cabin for rape. And finally she confessed after hours of continued questioning. After an official inquest the next day, Celia was hauled off to jail in the county seat of Fulton.
This all took place within the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and growing violence on the western frontier over the expansion of slavery, a labor system that increasing numbers of northerners either found abhorrent or at least a threat to their own status as free white workers. The Republican Party, founded the previous year, held the threat of slavery to white labor as central to its ideology. Three days before Celia’s trial began, on October 9, a man named John Brown arrived in Kansas for the first time, soon to become infamous for his use of violence to free people from slavery. Celia’s trial therefore was not just about punishing a crime, rare and salacious as it was. It was also about defending a system of labor that increasingly seemed to masters as threatened on all fronts, even as it was more profitable than ever. On top of all this was the constant fear slaveowners had that their bonded labor would rise up and kill them. Haiti was always on their minds, especially after the Nat Turner revolt. At the heart of this fear was the knowing injustice of the slave system that no amount of mental gymnastics and philosophical musings could erase.
Celia of course had no chance of an acquittal. The judge was William Hall, later a staunch Unionist in the Civil War, But in his instructions to the jury, he explicitly told them that if they believed she killed him to stop her own rape, this was not enough to be found not guilty. Hall really had no choice as he was ambitious and judges were elected positions in Missouri. Yet the defense pushed a radical line that slaves had the right to defend themselves from rape. Given that slave owners could legally do anything they wanted to their slaves without punishment, setting a legal precedent that there were limits to masters’ behavior would have overturned the entire moral basis of slavery. There is not a single known case in the American South of a slaveowner facing criminal charges for raping a slave, even though it happened every day all over the region. Giving slave women the right to resist would have been a major blow for slavery, yet in a slave state, that’s exactly the argument made by the defense attorneys, who seem to indeed have believed Celia was morally innocent. The attorneys were part of a small group of southerners who wanted to use the law to reform slavery’s worst abuses, saving the system while rejecting the attacks of abolitionists by undermining their ability to tell what seemed like sensationalized (regardless of their actual truth) stories about the horrors of slavery. But such reforms were impossible without granting slaves something like human rights.
On October 10, the jury found Celia guilty of first-degree murder. While in prison, Celia delivered a stillborn child. She was not allowed to testify, but that wasn’t only because she was a slave, but because the accused could not testify on their own behalf in Missouri at this time. She was scheduled for execution on November 16, but five days prior, she was moved out of jail to an unknown location and not returned until after her original date. Probably the defense attorneys were involved in this, although it’s unclear. They wanted to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which was not going to happen before the 16th. A new execution date of December 21 was scheduled. On December 14, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution. Celia was executed by hanging on December 21.
Other than the quite exceptional act of murdering her master, Celia’s story is the story of millions of black women, forced into sexual labor for their masters.
There is an excellent book on this case that I recommend for your own reading and for assigning to students, Melton McLaurin’s Celia, a Slave: A True Story.
This is the 109th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
With the Civil War sesquicentennial and the World War I centennial beginning, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s major victories has not received the attention I’d like to see. Of course some of those anniversaries are for the many horrible tragedies of the freedom struggle. Such was yesterday, which marked 50 years since James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer.
Of course, as we’ve seen since the Supreme Court’s rejection of the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act, these issues are long behind us and southern states like Mississippi have completely accepted African-American equality.
Scott has said much of what needs to be said about Jennifer Roesch’s Jacobin article calling for the “radical left” to break with the Democratic Party. The problems with this article are numerous, for it blithely avoids providing useful historical context or examples of how third parties work in the United States, what the constituency for a left third party would look like, how such a third party would actually succeed (or indeed, what the goals would be other than punishing Democrats), or really, an understanding of the incredibly complex society of the United States in 2014.
The third party has long has been how the American left has sought to punish Democrats for their various crimes. From Henry Wallace to Ralph Nader to really great lesser known activists like former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers executive and so-called “Rachel Carson of the Workplace” Tony Mazziocchi, when activists get frustrated with the corporate domination of the Democratic Party, they have sought to create a left alternative. It never goes anywhere. When your benchmark of success in the modern Green Party, you know this is a strategy to irrelevance. Putting together political parties takes a huge amount of work, labor better spent actually helping people live better lives. The problem all of these people have also faced is that, frankly, most Americans don’t like their policy ideas. Whether that’s because they are racist or have false consciousness or are tools of capitalist media propaganda or whatever, it doesn’t much matter here. The point is that the organizing on the ground hasn’t happened to make a third party viable. For people who talk so much about bottom-up change and organizing the masses, it’s quite interesting that the solution they fall to for their lack of success is presidential third party runs, as if one daddy from the top will finally bring success.
To be fair, Roesch doesn’t quite come out and call for a leftist third party candidate in 2016, although I strongly doubt she would opposed it. Instead, she mostly focuses on local races. Where can “third parties” work? There are situations where something outside of the Democratic/Republican box can develop. Roesch mentions two, but in fact, they aren’t very useful for her project. The labor ticket in Lorain County, Ohio was a local insurgency against a terrible Democratic Party that used unions for their money and GOTV efforts while pursuing politics actively hostile to them. Nationally, labor doesn’t have the power to fight back against this reality. In Lorain County, it does and it did and it should have. If organized labor was strong enough in this country to challenge and defeat bad Democrats without electing Republicans, I would support that 100%. It is not and it knows it.
Sawant’s victory in Seattle was not a third party victory. It was a second party in a one-party district. In situations where one party is so completely dominant that the primary is all that matters for a victory, then insurgent challengers that present voters with a real option can make sense. Such was this Seattle city council seat. But that’s hugely different than a national campaign. Another Nader or whoever building a national political party of the left might present voters with more choices, but the effect of those choices is going to be electing Republicans, overturning Roe v. Wade, repressing black voting, Sam Alito-style Supreme Court judges, eviscerating environmental and workplace safety restrictions, etc., etc. Those calling for a national third party cannot ignore this. They have to take responsibility for what such the implications of such a party would be on the nation. The only exception is if the leftist party can actually win elections, which would only happen by essentially replacing the Democratic Party in our two-party system. And good luck with that.
It is a situation like Sawant’s victory that explains the closest thing we’ve ever had in this nation to a third party success story, which is the Populists. Rural anger over capitalist exploitation (not that most farmers were anti-capitalist, but they were increasingly opposed to the system of Gilded Age capitalism that openly took advantage of them and doomed them to poverty) led to a number of rural organizations becoming the Farmers Alliance in the 1880s and running a presidential candidate as the People’s Party in 1892. The Democrats co-opted part of their platform in 1896 after nominating William Jennings Bryan and the Populists disappeared. But even here, as the historian Jeffrey Ostler discovered in his book on state-level Populism, the success of this so-called third party depended on whether there was a functioning second party. In states like Iowa where an already functioning two-party system existed, the Populists could not gain ground because farmers found a responsive political outlet in one of the parties. It was only in states like Texas without a Republican Party or like Kansas without a Democratic Party that the Populists succeeded as a state-wide organization. In other words, they were filling the role of the second party.
More problematic is Roesch’s seeming contempt for how politics actually operate, whether in the U.S. or anywhere:
In most cases, independent campaigns are unlikely to actually win. Therefore, in the majority of situations, the primary goals are to raise the need for a political break with the Democrats, to amplify and strengthen existing movements and to engage a wider audience in left-wing ideas. Even in cases where independent candidates are able to win, like in Seattle, success can’t be measured on the usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation or building alliances with other legislators.
The usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation. You mean, how change actually happens? There is not a single social movement in American history that has not needed the usual terms of bourgeois politics to win change. Not one. The labor movement required the National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and much additional legislation. The environmental movement needed the Wilderness Act, various Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, etc. The civil rights movement needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The gay rights movement is succeeding because of its brilliant legal strategy. I guess this is all just bourgeois politics since deals had to be made and legislation was weakened through those deals that allowed them to get the necessary votes to codify change. All of this isn’t the pure politics of working class solidarity (which is disconnected from most of the actual American working class but what does that matter to ideology) and, well, what exactly? What the goal of such a party is if not to pass legislation goes totally unmentioned It’s just purity and punishment.
And then there’s this:
Once in office, left-wing activists who try to carry on their struggle while representing the Democratic Party ultimately end up having to choose between making deals with and accommodations to the existing power structure, or becoming marginalized and unable to accomplish their goals.
I’m sorry, has there ever been a state with functioning democratic structures, capitalist or socialist, where making deals with existing power structures has not happened? No. This is called governance. If socialists do get elected and they can’t govern because they refuse to, they will be quickly and rightfully swept from office.
So where does this lead us? Rosech identifies places where left alternatives to Democrats make sense and I don’t disagree with most of them. It’s possible that a socialist run against Andrew Cuomo could be a good idea. Certainly a left candidate for mayor of Oakland has logic behind it. Rhode Island in 2014 is a state, like Texas or Kansas in the late 19th century, that is an effective one-party state where the only thing tying the party’s elected officials together is the need to be in the party to have personal power. Without a functioning Republican Party, Rhode Island could be an interesting place to experiment with a state level left alternative to the Democrats. But ultimately, this again would just be filling the role of the 2nd party. And whatever form it takes, it will have to make compromises and won’t pass anyone’s purity tests. Because that’s the real world.
But a national third party alternative is a disastrous idea that would a) elect Republicans nationwide and b) take up so much energy and resources that leftists would have to ignore actual community organizing in order to focus on this. Is this is the best use of left energy? I’d argue not. Instead, I’d look to our past to see how people on the streets moved political parties through protest, lobbying, and organizing.
Instead, like how radical conservatives took over the Republican Party from within beginning in the 1950s, leftists would have much better success turning the Democratic Party into a more left-leaning organization. I don’t think this necessarily should be the focus of left organizing efforts, but people who want to put the energy into creating a third party would find it much better spent here. I mean, they’d have to deal with the Laborers union willing to sell out potential allies for years over a few jobs, business owners, anti-abortion Irish Catholics who vote Democratic for economic issues, and all the other complexities of modern America. But the United States is not a nation of people who go to socialist meetings. It’s a nation of people who watch football. The American kind of football. No left political movement can succeed without recognizing the complexity of the American populace and make compromises with those groups with which they are uncomfortable. Otherwise, they will win nothing.
What is germane to the conversation? What is semantics? That is debatable. The fact remains that to many Native Americans, the term “redskin” has long meant the act of our ancestor’s scalps being collected for bounty.