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Pete Camarata, RIP

[ 3 ] February 16, 2014 |

The Teamsters reformer who was beaten by goons at the 1976 Teamsters convention after challenging IBT president Frank Fitzsimmons and proposing a rule that any Teamster who took a bribe from an employer be kicked out of the unions has passed away.

Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 79 ] February 15, 2014 |

Are you having a good day? Well, you aren’t anymore.

A Titanic Defeat

[ 191 ] February 15, 2014 |

The United Auto Workers lost its attempt to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga after Tennessee politicians interfered to defeat the vote when VW acquiesced to unionization.

In a defeat for organized labor in the South, employees at the Volkswagen plant here voted 712 to 626 against joining the United Automobile Workers.

The loss is an especially stinging blow for U.A.W. because Volkswagen did not even oppose the unionization drive. The union’s defeat — in what was one of the most closely watched unionization votes in decades — is expected to slow, perhaps stymie, the union’s long-term plans to organize other auto plants in the South.

A retired local judge, Samuel H. Payne, announced the vote results inside VW’s sprawling plant after officials from the National Labor Relations Board had counted the ballots. In the hours before the votes were tallied, after three days of voting at the assembly plant, both sides were predicting victory.

The vote this week came in a region that is traditionally anti-union, and as a result many said the U.A.W. faced an uphill battle. The union saw the campaign as a vital first step toward expanding in the South, while Republicans and many companies in Tennessee feared that a U.A.W. triumph would hurt the state’s welcoming image for business.

It’s hard to overstate what a terrible defeat this is. Here you had the company suggesting the UAW enter their plant so they could create the American version of the German works council that would be illegal without a union election (would violate the company union provisions of the National Labor Relations Act). The UAW will never receive a more favorable opportunity in the American South and just like its failures in the 90s, it came up short. From what I have read so far, it does not seem the UAW messed up the campaign. They did agree with VW to not do home visits, since those went against German union norms. If the UAW had conducted home visits, no doubt they would have more effectively fought back Bob Corker and Grover Norquist and the outside group propaganda. But if they had pushed home visits from the beginning, they wouldn’t have had a campaign because VW wouldn’t have gone along.

So why did it fail? We can’t blame it all on the politicians and scaremongering. Yes, that probably clinched the failure, but it did not turn 712 votes. There were almost certainly several hundred no votes from the beginning. Why? First, the white South has always been very difficult to organize. A combination of ideas of self-reliance, the fact that unions are seen as something northern with Yankee ideas, the impact of evangelical religion, and a culture that united rich whites and poor whites through racial solidarity that also created other ties within communities that cut across class have all made unionization strikingly difficult. For an additional example of the last point, see how the people of West, Texas rallied around the fertilizer plant owner last year after his facility caused an explosion that wiped out half the town. They went to church with him after all. So there are long, historical struggles to unionize white workers here that go back to the textile towns of southern Appalachia in the 20s and the failure of Operation Dixie in 1946. And while I have not seen any demographics on the racial breakdown of workers in Chattanooga, pretty much all I’ve seen in interviews are white; at the very least, it seems to lean pretty heavily white. So outside groups tainting the UAW with Obama no doubt helped, but it doesn’t explain 712 votes.

There’s also the specter of capital mobility looming over the plant. Even though VW said it wasn’t moving the plant, this was a major theme of the outside groups and it does seem to have affected some workers. Despite left-leaning labor activists beating up Big Labor for a lack of union democracy, far and away the top reason for labor’s decline is the jobs disappearing to nonunion states and to foreign nations. Given what capital mobility did to Detroit and the subsequent almost mythological role Detroit has played in American culture, it becomes easy to taint the UAW with the decline of Detroit, which was a central part of the anti-union strategy. On top of that, the UAW having to agree to two-tiered contracts so the Big Three auto makers would keep jobs in Michigan and Ohio, contracts that drastically lowered wages for new workers, did not lend itself to potential new members thinking the UAW was going to make their lives better. That’s a tough spot for the UAW to be in and the blame goes to capital mobility because if the UAW doesn’t agree, those jobs are gone and Lansing and Toledo and other union towns are just dead. So long as corporations can move at a whim, it will be tremendously difficult for labor to win meaningful victories.

But I think another major reason for this loss was that it was never clear to many workers why they were joining a union. Some claim to have been UAW members in the past and had a bad experience, which is the kind of low-level complaining fairly common in all unionized workplaces, often by people who lost a grievance or who screwed up and the union didn’t take on their hopeless case, or they weren’t friends with the shop steward, or whatever. Who knows. But in any case, the usual union victory results from dissatisfied workers organizing with demands. That really wasn’t the case here. To quote a union organizer friend of mine, “If the vote becomes “Can we trust the Union?” instead of “Should we unite to solve our problems?”, the boss wins.” I think this is fundamentally what this vote was about.

The UAW is considering filing to have the election thrown out because of Bob Corker’s intimidation and there is a real chance he crossed the line. But this is probably a dead campaign. And it’s hard to see how the UAW or any union comes into southern factories and wins major victories at this point. Incredibly dispiriting.

This Day in Labor History: February 15, 1907

[ 25 ] February 15, 2014 |

On February 15, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Japanese government signed the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” to stop the migration of Japanese to the United States. This came about after the organizing of whites on the west coast against Japanese immigration, as whites steadfastly maintained their states were for the white man alone. Not only had the Japanese entered the labor market in a number of low-wage areas after the end of Chinese immigration in 1882, but they also managed to make a legitimate go of it on farms that whites had failed to make work. The outrage over Japanese labor competition was but one episode in a long history of west coast labor opposing people of color.

West Coast employers wanted cheap labor. The region received very little immigration from southern and eastern Europe like the east, so they had to be creative. Originally, western employers hired the Chinese to do menial work, but the angry response from west coast labor that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislative victory for organized labor in the nation’s history, ended that supply in 1882. So employers turned to Japan. Japan in the 1880s was modernizing rapidly, but was still poor. Encouraging migration was a useful way to undermine internal social problems. Almost immediately after 1882, Japanese migration to the United States soared. Much of this was to the sugar plantations of the American soon-to-be colony in Hawaii, but large numbers came to California, Oregon, and Washington as well. There they would serve as a key part of the low-wage labor force for the next sixty years.

Japanese workers entered the growing agricultural industry of California, especially sugar beets. By 1902, 9 contractors supplied Japanese labor to farmers. Wages were originally high but when slashed in 1902, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican workers organized the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association in 1903, winning some important early victories in raising wages in the fields. Others worked on railroads. Many Japanese women worked in domestic service for whites, often in very difficult conditions.



Japanese celery harvesters, California, circa 1920

Many Japanese went into the timber industry as well. Japanese mill workers on Washington’s Bainbridge Island lived in “Jap Town,” which consisted of several hundred people. This large community had a Baptist church and Buddhist temple, a baseball diamond, and multiple shops that served both Japanese and white customers. Kihachi Hirakawa, a Christian minister in a Washington logging town, remembered all the Japanese laborers living together and the long nights of gambling that kept him up. He fretted about the all-male aspect of these communities, recalling three hundred or more Japanese workers, but only eight or nine families. Whites resisted even these relatively small numbers. In 1904, the Panel and Folding Box Company of Hoquiam, Washington “put on a night crew of Japs” because they “have been unable to secure a sufficient number of girls.” The mill’s manager, a man named Finlayson, defended himself from accusations that he had tried to undermine white labor and simply claimed that “if forced to employ Japs, it will only be to supply that cannot otherwise be filled.”



Tsukamoto and Nakamura Laundry, Salem, Oregon, 1919

Whites became even more angry when Japanese began leasing land (California had laws against Asians owning land) and starting families, seeking permanency in their new home and offending the white Californians who had defined their state as a place of free white men from the time of the gold rush. They were growing fruits and vegetables and would pretty quickly become important and successful small producers within the California agricultural economy. Of course, interracial sex happened too. One farmer wrote to the California legislature:

Near my home is an eighty-acre tract of as fine land as there is in California. On that tract lives a Japanese. With that Japanese lives a white woman. In that woman’s arms is a baby. What is that baby? It isn’t Japanese. It isn’t white. I’ll tell you what that baby is. It is a germ of the mightiest problem that ever faced this state; a problem that will make the black problem of the South look white. All about us the Asiatics are gaining a foothold.

Like in the 1870s and 1880s in California, anti-Japanese fervor began dominating west coast politics in the 1900s. San Francisco passed a law to segregate Asians out of public schools while west coast politicians wanted Washington to end this yellow peril. Organized labor lent its support to the effort. White workers believed any job held by a Japanese was a job stolen from a white man. In 1905, 67 labor unions met in San Francisco to found the Asiatic Exclusion League to eliminate the perceived Japanese and Korean threat to their jobs, much as they had so successfully done in 1882 against the Chinese. Such organizations would continue until World War II. In 1908, the Laundry Workers and Laundry Drivers Union began the Anti-Jap Laundry League, urging whites to boycott doing business with Japanese laundries. Attacks on Japanese immigrants grew. A laundry operator said, “The persecutions became intolerable. My drivers were constantly attacked on the highway, my place of business defiled by rotten eggs and fruit; windows were smashed several times.”

Japanese-American railroad workers

By 1907, the Japanese government was happy to keep their citizens in Japan, as the nation’s rising imperial ambitions meant holding onto potential industrial workers and soldiers. President Theodore Roosevelt, having just negotiated the end to the Russo-Japanese War, did not want to anger the increasingly powerful Japanese who were concerned about the treatment of their citizens abroad. So Roosevelt and the Japanese government came to an informal agreement. The U.S. would not pass a bill to exclude the Japanese and would force California to repeal its school segregation bill. In return, the Japanese government would take steps to halt immigration.

This effectively ended large-scale immigration from Japan to the United States, although the agreement did not apply to Hawaii and thus migrants could go to Hawaii and then to the mainland, although relatively few did. Japanese men in the U.S. could also send back to Japan for wives, leading to the thousands of picture brides coming to the U.S. in the next couple decades. By the time Japanese immigration ended, about 400,000 had migrated to the United States. West Coast employers, still seeking cheap foreign labor, turned their attention to the new American colony of the Philippines. Since the Philippines was actually American, stopping the importation of that labor would prove much more difficult for white labor, although they would eventually accomplish it in 1932, at which point employers began bringing in Mexicans (or did so after the Great Depression anyway).

White resentment remained strong and the anti-Japanese scare after Pearl Harbor was also an excuse to expropriate Japanese property and again turn the west coast into a white man’s haven.

There is a very large literature on Japanese immigration and the backlash to it. I took much of this, including the good quotes, from Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Store. On the experiences of Japanese women, see Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Issei, Nisei, War Bride. The material on logging in the Northwest comes from my dissertation.

This is the 93rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Remember Your Wait Staff Tonight

[ 118 ] February 14, 2014 |

A 14th century image of the beheading of St. Valentine

If you, like me, are forced to go out to dinner on this corporate created holiday of love expressed through consumerism, remember your wait staff and don’t contribute to their exploitation by being a cheap tipper. Plus poor tipping contributes to the poverty of women.

And a sexist one. Seventy percent of restaurant servers are women, so effectively when you enforce a policy that says “It’s O.K. to pay tipped workers less than ‘regular’ workers,” you’re discriminating against a job largely done by women and reinforcing the age-old notion that women’s work is worth less than men’s.

It’s almost as if servers have to interview with the people paying the majority of their wages — customers — every time a new person sits down; their income is dependent on our judgment and largesse (and, we hope, our sense of fairness). And when you listen to Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC-United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and a woman who hears workers’ stories daily, you realize even more what an unjust situation this is: “The level of sexual harassment is four times higher in restaurants than in the average of other sectors, and there are endless stories of women being sent home to dress more sexually — to show more cleavage, for example.”

On Thursday, ROC-United had its annual “2/13” day of action, calling on us, and Congress, to “love your server” and raise the tipped minimum wage. Valentine’s Day is the second busiest restaurant day of the year, after Mother’s Day. Thank that server — who is not going out to dinner with her loved one, she’s waiting on you — and think about this: For 23 years the federal tipped minimum wage has stood at $2.13. Isn’t it time to change that?

Yes. Yes it is. To the federal minimum wage. Which will hopefully soon surpass $10.

Eugenics Will Never Die

[ 72 ] February 14, 2014 |

Better keep the underclass from reproducing. Will destroy the race or something.

A prison doctor investigated by the California medical board after ordering tubal ligations without state approval is responsible for hundreds of other inmate sterilizations, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Dr. James Heinrich also has a history of medical controversies and malpractice settlements both inside and outside prison walls. Female patients have accused him of trying to dictate their reproductive decisions, unsanitary habits and medical malpractice.

Despite that history, Heinrich was not only hired by the prison system, but also kept on once a federal judge appointed a receiver to clean up the prison’s medical system.

Heinrich, 69, retired from Valley State Prison for Women in 2011 after six years. Federal authorities rehired Heinrich as a contract physician, and he continued treating inmates at Valley State though December 2012.

An earlier CIR investigation, published in July, found that more than 100 tubal ligation surgeries took place without the required state approval from 2006 to 2010. At the time, prison documents indicated there were 148 of those surgeries. Analysis of subsequent data and documentation provided under the state Public Records Act shows there were 132 because some were double counted.

The women were signed up for the surgery while pregnant at the two women’s prisons that house pregnant inmates, the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. Valley State became a men’s prison in 2013.

Why, it’s almost like this nation still oppresses women, people of color, and the poor.

Colonialist Labor Relations with Every Cup of Tetley

[ 48 ] February 14, 2014 |

The tea industry, as exploitative as most of the rest of the food industry. Turns out Tetley likes its labor extra exploited, as if the British still colonized India. Must add to the flavor.

The abusive conditions for APPL workers are consistent with conditions in the sector as a whole. They are rooted in the colonial origins of plantation life which continue to define the extremely hierarchical social structure, the compensation scheme, and the excessive power exercised by management.

The tea workers of Assam and the adjacent area of West Bengal come from two marginalized communities — Adivasis (indigenous people) and Dalits (the so-called “untouchable” caste) – whose ancestors were brought from central India by British planters. They remain trapped in the lowest employment positions on the plantation, where they are routinely treated as social inferiors. …

Workers live in cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs. The failure to maintain latrines has turned some living areas into a network of cesspools. APPL is failing to provide adequate health care, both in respect of quality and access. Medical staff are poorly-trained and frequently absent. …

At one plantation, while the manager lauded the old and new mechanisms in place to ensure that pesticide spraying happened safely, and stressed the absence of any gaps, the research team watched a group of sprayers walk past his window with chemical tanks on their backs and no protective gear at all on their bodies.

Chroncling the One Percent

[ 72 ] February 14, 2014 |

If the New York Times wasn’t there to chronicle the 1% and their real estate choices at least 2-3 times a week, who would remember this oppressed class?

Dead Horses in American History (VI)

[ 33 ] February 14, 2014 |

Victims of the San Francisco earthquake, 1906.

Wal-Mart’s New BFF: Itself

[ 101 ] February 13, 2014 |

Hey, at least one entity thinks Wal-Mart is awesome. The private research firm Wal-Mart paid to say it:

Last year Walmart commissioned a study on itself, and now its findings can be revealed: Walmart is the greatest thing since penicillin. More specifically, the study sees the chain-store titan’s widening footprint on America’s retail landscape as a gift for the communities lucky enough to have a Supercenter land on them.

The research, conducted by the Hatamiya Group, a Davis-based firm owned by Lon Hatamiya, is predicated on a comparative analysis of taxable retail sales and retail business permits, and reaches two conclusions: “On average,” California communities with Walmart Supercenters in them have fared better economically than those without them.

Of course, while it may be difficult to name a community that doesn’t have a Walmart in it, California is a very large state and has places where even Walmart won’t tread – economic no-go zones that have been especially hard-hit by the recent recession and slow recovery. (One community the study uses to represent a non-Walmart town is the bankrupt city of Vallejo.) Hatamiya’s comparisons are a little like saying towns with Neiman Marcus stores in them fare better than those without them – you wouldn’t attribute Beverly Hills’ affluence to the presence of Neiman Marcus, just as you wouldn’t blame Bombay Beach’s lack of prosperity on the absence of a Neiman’s.

Corporate propaganda really is the funniest propaganda.

The New Gilded Age Indeed!

[ 107 ] February 13, 2014 |

I know we are reentering the New Gilded Age, what with the economic inequality and union busting and facial hair. But I’m not sure we need to go this far. I was certainly interested in the old-school high waisted pants Joaquin Phoenix wore in Her, but I didn’t suspect this:

The trousers are inspired by styles from yesteryear, but are intended to portent a futuristic vision of geeky Silicon Valley meets East Village menswear. “The first thing [people] want to know is if all guys are going to be wearing extreme high-waisted pants in the next few years,” said Storm of his involvement with Her.

He added, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “It’s one of the last frontiers of men’s fashion to come back. But it does look weird when you first see it.” He admitted Phoenix himself had said: “I don’t get it, but I trust you guys,” when first told his character Theodore Twombly would be wearing the trousers.

“Theodore [is] sort of an average guy, and we wanted his style to reflect somebody that’s comfortable and not uptight, but also a little disassembled and just going through the world,” Storm told the Opening Ceremony blog last month. “I don’t know exactly how we arrived at the high-waisted pants, but I think when Spike wrote the character, he had Theodore Roosevelt in mind. Joaquin’s pants throughout the film also have a really tapered leg, based on late 1800s pants for riding horses. The vintage pants I found [as inspiration] were from a costume house, and when I tried them on Joaquin, it just looked right. It looked interesting and weird, but it felt comfortable and casual and a little sloppy.”

If this catches on, there’s only one step left I guess in our full return to Gilded Age fashion. Ladies, get out your corsets and gigantic hats. Crushing your internal organs and slaughtering songbirds for fashion goes well with adulterated food, desperate poverty, and extreme wealth.

I for one will not be wearing these pants.

This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1845

[ 27 ] February 13, 2014 |

On February 13, 1845, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association forced the state of Massachusetts to hold hearings on reducing the work day in the state’s textile mills to 10 hours a day. The LFLRA had collected 2000 signatures to put pressure on the textile mill owners and state to improve the conditions in the factories. While the ability to interest state politicians in the conditions of workers was a success of sorts, not only did the workers fail to win, but this is a transitional moment in an industry that would soon replace these women with workers who had access to far less power to protest the conditions of their work, something that continues apparel companies have aimed for ever since.

Samuel Slater brought the first modern factories into the United States in the 1790s. These were largely lauded by most commentators, but they also worried Americans who feared the nation’s nice towns would become the pestilent hellholes of English cities since the Industrial Revolution began there earlier in the 18th century. Some owners were conscious enough about these problems that they created the model town of Lowell, Massachusetts to prove that one could operate a factory using respectable labor. Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectable fashion. The closely watched “Lowell Mill Girls” lived in dormitories under the watchful eyes of older women and attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other early 19th century intellectuals. They produced their own magazines, took classes, and in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves nicely for marriage while producing profit for their employer.

The Lowell Offering, December 1845

These women also labored in very unpleasant conditions. The factories were hot and humid, necessary to keep the cotton fibers workable and reduce fires. Enormous glass windows allowed sun to pour in on the hottest days of the year. The machines were shockingly loud in a way that’s difficult to imagine for most modern Americans who do not work in factories. They worked 12 or 14 hour days, six days a week. These were young farm women used to work, so it wasn’t the strenuous nature of the labor that bothered them, but being locked up in that factory tending those machines minute after minute, day after day, month and month. Historians have timed the beginning of working-class Americans seeing the environment as something romantic to these early textile factory workers, for whom nature became something to escape to rather than tame.

Rather quickly, the young women moved from intellectual pursuits during their (limited) free time to political organizing. The women began demanding better conditions in the factories and since they came from respectable families, ignoring them was a challenge for the owners. To make it worse, the companies began reducing wages. In 1836, they went on strike, one of the nation’s first organized walkouts. One of the strikers was Harriet Hanson Robinson. She remembered,

Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty—five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on “I won’t be a nun. ”

“Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-

Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?

Oh ! I cannot be a slave,

I will not be a slave,

For I’m so fond of liberty

That I cannot be a slave.”

My own recollection of this first strike (or “turn out” as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at “oppression” on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, “Would you? ” or “Shall we turn out?” and not one of them 1laving the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, “I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not;‘’ and I marched out, and was followed by the others.

As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage.

Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association, 1836

They lost but continued fighting. In 1835, Sarah Bagley, age 28, began work in the mills. She quickly became politically aware and started working to reform the conditions. She helped found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 and led the campaign for the hearings, gathering many of the signatures and organizing her fellow workers. When the hearings were held, Bagley testified, “The chief evil, so far as health is concerned, is the shortness of time allowed for meals. The next evil is the length of time employed.” Basically, the owners were trying to turn the women into machines. But in 1846, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject the workers’ demands, part of a larger move in early 19th century New England to create a pro-corporate legal agenda smoothing the way for the growth of business over the concerns of workers and citizens. However, the owners did agree to reduce the hours to 11 a day in 1853 as pressure continued.

The response of the factory owners to this agitation was to switch the labor force. The potato famine in Ireland meant 780,000 new immigrants to the U.S. from that island in the 1840s alone, with another 914, 000 following in the 1850s. These workers were in no condition to turn down hard industrial labor; the opportunity for that was what was many hope awaited them in the United States. It’s possible that the Lowell experiment never really had much chance of working, given the lack of government-mandated employment standards and an ever more competitive market with factories seeking to undercut each other. But eliminating what we can call a privileged labor class–workers with options and access to political levers–proved incredibly profitable for the textile industry.



Mill complex of the Merrimack Company, Lowell, circa 1850

Thus began the history of the textile industry looking for the most vulnerable and impoverished labor to exploit. Eventually, the Irish too would demand better lives. Jews and Italians would be next, then corporations would discover the glories of capital mobility. They moved their factories to southern Appalachia beginning in the early 20th century, then to Mexico in the 1960s, and then to Taiwan, China, and Bangladesh in a never ending global search for workers desperate enough to accept the risk of dying in fires or having their factories collapse on top of them.

In 1846, Sarah Bagley quit her job in the mill and became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.

This is the 92nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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