Hamiton Nolan continues his excellent labor reporting at Gawker by following up his Wal-Mart stories piece with Amazon stories, collecting stories of what it is like to work at the company. These are valuable oral histories of the 21st century American economy.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
I love Eugene, in spite of it being America’s top city for hippies. That’s a big “in spite of” though and it’s probably easier to deal with now that I don’t live here anymore.
Once again, we see illegal marijuana farmers in California causing a huge toll on the local ecology, including the death of threatened species. The only way to deal with this is to legalize marijuana production, submit it to a strong regulatory system that includes forfeiture for using pesticides that kill important mammals, and move law enforcement toward that regulatory system. Otherwise, more rare animals will die.
So I had my evening in San Francisco tonight (thanks for the suggestions by the way, had a good time in the Mission! Even got some authentic San Francisco prices at a bar, which was a joy.) Anyway, when I got off at the 16th St. station, a woman was handing out some material about the BART workers, who are going back out on strike next week after an impasse in negotiations. I figured it was a member of the union and grabbed it just to read later. Oh no. It was someone handing out pro-BART, anti-union propaganda. BART workers are currently working without a contract and have not received a pay raise in 4 years. The BART message seems to be that since all workers are getting screwed, their workers should get screwed too. Specifically, the agency is making a huge deal out of the fact that its workers are ONLY paying $92 a month for the health coverage, as if they are fleecing the taxpayers by this. Instead, it wants workers to pay 10% of healthcare costs. This is a classic 21st century corporate negotiating plan, turning everyone who has seen their economic stability fall apart against those who have managed to hold on to a standard late 20th century union contract package. The anti-union flyer also seems to think that people will be outraged that BART workers want more safety lighting and more restrooms in underground stations, which both seem like great ideas to me.
I did think it was a bit less than classy for a state agency to be handing out anti-union flyers outside a station. It’s clear that any BART strike will annoy commuters so it is operating from a position of strength. But just because they are annoying commuters (and I’m not underestimating how much a strike would suck if I was a commuter, but what are you going to do other than offer solidarity to people still holding onto a middle-class life) doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve our support.
On August 1, 1917, Frank Little, a veteran IWW organizer, was dragged out of his hotel in Butte, Montana by company thugs and lynched. His murder, one of the most famous killings of a labor organizer in American history, demonstrated the lengths to which mining companies were willing to go to keep their company towns under control.
Frank Little was born in 1879, a mixed race son of a white father and Cherokee mother. We know little about his early life, hardly an uncommon situation for a poor person. Little joined the IWW in 1906. He traveled the nation organizing workers in many of the IWW’s key actions. He was deeply involved in the IWW free speech campaigns in Missoula, Spokane, and Fresno. He organized the lumberjacks of the Pacific Northwest, the miners of Minnesota, fruit pickers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and the oil field workers of Oklahoma. Little rose fast in the IWW. In 1916, he was named to the IWW Executive Board, having gained the trust of IWW leader Big Bill Haywood.
Butte was controlled by the Anaconda Mining Company. One of the most powerful corporations in American history, Anaconda basically controlled Montana by 1917. It produced 10% of the world’s copper. It also hated unions. In the late 19th century, Butte was arguably the nation’s strongest union town, known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism” for its closed shop. But in 1903, Anaconda completely crushed the union and ran Butte with an iron hand from then on. After 1912, no one could work in the Butte mines without the rustling card, effectively a permit granted to individual workers by Anaconda. It used this card to drive out anyone suspected of union organizing.
While Butte miners were strong AFL members during their heyday, the post-1903 situation was precisely the kind of thing the Industrial Workers of the World looked for: desperate yet proud workers who could be roused toward radical action. And by 1917, Butte workers were ready to strike. In June, a fire in the Speculator Mine, actually not owned by Anaconda, killed 164 miners, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history. Workers walked out in a spontaneous strike. They formed the Metal Mine Workers Union, demanding the end of the rustling card, collective bargaining rights, observance of state mining laws, free speech rights, discharge of the state mine inspector, and a wage increase. This soon expanded into new demands for safety instruction for miners and construction of manholes in the mines. By June 29, 15,000 men were off the job. The companies responded by blaming the IWW (which was not involved as an organization at this point, although there were maybe 500 Wobbly members in town at the time) and indicted the workers for radicalism and pro-German sympathies during World War I.
On July 18, Frank Little arrived. He was on crutches, after having hurt himself in an accident organizing miners in Bisbee, just before the famed the Bisbee Deportation, where mining companies rounded up over 1100 other workers up and dropped them in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Not yet recovered, he boarded a train for Butte, his final destination. Little’s arrival and especially his outspoken opposition to World War I threw the mining companies into a frothy fury. They reprinted his anti-war speeches and accused him of promoting revolutionary and pro-German beliefs in the middle of an industry necessary for wartime production. Labor spies reported Little calling for revolution during union meetings. The truth of this is impossible to ascertain given that the spies had incentive to report things like this, but given Little’s fervor, it’s possible. In any case, the companies were inclined to believe the most incendiary reports about Little.
On August 1, six masked men came to his hotel room. They tied him up, took him to the edge of town, beat him, and hanged him from a railroad trestle. On his chest they pinned a note that read “3-7-77,” a code used by the local vigilante committee to take credit for the murder. A few days after Little’s lynching, Montana declared martial law against war opponents, rounded up radicals of all stripes, and engaged in a massive state-sponsored violation of civil liberties.
3000 people marched at Little’s funeral. The funeral was filmed and showed around the country. Other strike leaders tried to rally labor around Little’s lynching. But in the end, Anaconda won the struggle. On August 10, U.S. troops arrived to “protect” the mine from radical agitation, but in fact they were used as a strikebreaking force. The strike itself was never all that strong. The unions outside the mines that had walked off were offered better contracts and quickly accepted them, leaving the miners isolated even before Little’s murder. The strike collapsed, although the IWW remained active in Butte until 1920. Two weeks after his murder, governors of northwestern states met in Portland to discuss a coordinated response to IWW agitation, which was strong in timber, agriculture, and mining and would lead to massive violations of civil liberties and murders of unionists over the next three years, including at Everett and Centralia.
No one was prosecuted for Little’s murder. Even today, we aren’t sure who precisely did it, although there’s no question it was interests close to Anaconda. He was buried in Butte.
You can see the physical impact of Anaconda’s operations in Butte:
Anaconda opened the famous pit in 1955. It closed in 1982, immediately began filling with water, and today is one of the nation’s most toxic and dangerous Superfund sites.
This is the 69th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.
Black lung is returning with force to the miners of Appalachia. Coal companies have fought against meaningful reforms (or even recognizing it exists) for over a century, and longer if you go back to the coal mines of 19th century England.* The only time workers have ever managed a major breakthrough was with the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, which coincided with a larger move toward meaningful workplace safety reform at a time when social tumult (including grassroots activism against an unresponsive union leadership) combined with economic prosperity to create a new set of demands for working people. The Mine Safety and Health Administration made real progress against black lung. But new technologies have increased exposure to the increasingly few workers in the mines and black lung rates are rising again. The MSHA hasn’t done anything to stop it because the coal industry cares far more about stopping meaningful reform than any equally powerful consistency does about pushing it through.
*Read Alan Derickson’s Black Lung, if you are interested in this issue. Which you should be.
In Carson, California, Shell Oil used to have an oil tank farm. Then, thanks to America’s lax environmental regulatory state, a housing development was built on top of it when Shell no longer needed it. Shell claims the land is safe and they have no responsibility for it. Residents say their soil is poisonous. Soil tests taken five years ago show elevated levels of benzene and petroleum. Residents claim an array of health problems The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board has ordered Shell to clean up the soil, but there is significant debate over whether to clean it up right now as an emergency or do the necessary testing that would delay the cleanup for a year. Shell is unhappy.
A dark side of southern California’s landscape is the legacy of nearly a century of oil production. You don’t always see that legacy, but it’s there. It became famous during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that spawned an array of environmental legislation, but the roots go back to the early 20th century, as does local resistance to it. Too often, corporations get away with improper cleanup, leaving a legacy of pollution for residents, often the poor who can afford to buy houses in a ecologically degraded neighborhood.
Conservatives in Kentucky are very angry. After all, the state might adopt scientific standards that teach actual science instead of Christian mythology. The responses are quite rational:
Matt Singleton, a Baptist minister, is one of the opponents who spoke to the board about why the standards should not be adopted, according to The Courier-Journal. “Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship almighty God,” Singleton said. “Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.”
Another opponent, Dena Stewart-Gore, suggested that the standards will make religious students feel ostracized. “The way socialism works is it takes anybody that doesn’t fit the mold and discards them,” she said, per the The Courier-Journal. “We are even talking genocide and murder here, folks.”
What killed the Jews in the Holocaust was the Nazis teaching them that the Earth was not 6000 years old. They all dropped dead of heart attacks or something.
In just about the only good thing for progressives in this year’s horror film of state legislation, all 11 ag-gag bills were defeated. Attempts by agribusiness to criminalize anyone taking footage of their operations went down to defeat. However, I am extremely pessimistic that we will repeat such a record in 2014. After all, North Carolina will continue on its road to become America’s worst state and I have no confidence that lovely state legislature would reject such a bill twice.
The above chart measures percentage growth in employment from U.S. multinational corporations both in the U.S. and abroad.
Worldwide employment by U.S. multinational companies (MNCs) increased 1.5 percent in 2011 to 34.5 million workers, with the increase primarily reflecting increases abroad. In the United States, employment by U.S. parent companies increased 0.1 percent to 22.9 million workers, compared with a 1.8 percent increase in total private industry employment in the United States. The total employment by U.S. parents accounted for roughly one-fifth of total U.S. employment in private industries. Abroad, employment by majority-owned foreign affiliates of U.S. MNCs increased 4.4 percent to 11.7 million workers.
U.S. multinationals accounted for 20.9% of U.S. private sector payrolls in 2011, 21.8% in 1989. Yet from 1989 to 2011, U.S. MNCs decreased their employment in the United States by 3.3 million workers while expanding employment abroad by 6,5 million employees. The share of employment by MNCs in the United States went from 79% of their total employees in 1989 to 66.3% by 2011. Multinational corporations are clearly doing their hiring abroad.
This is why I don’t understand why so many people still think the current economic doldrums is just a product of the banking/housing crisis and a poor government response to it. These are permanent changes in the economy. There simply are not stable jobs for Americans anymore. Extreme capital mobility has shifted more and more jobs overseas. At first this was just manufacturing, now it is lower level law positions and middle management. What jobs that haven’t been moved are in the process of being mechanized to the point that the jobs won’t exist any longer (such as professors and MOOCs). People’s blind faith in capitalism’s ultimate beneficence to the American people have blinded themselves to the reality of 21st century America–a land increasingly without steady work or meaningful job creation, unless you are in the corporate elite.