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This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1969

[ 29 ] December 30, 2013 |

On December 30, 1969, Richard Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act into law. The first comprehensive legislation in American history to protect the lives of coal miners, it came only after tens of thousands of deaths in mine accidents and even more deaths from black lung and other breathing problems of the mines.

Through most of the period since the Civil War, the coal companies had treated Appalachia as their own little fiefdom, almost completely controlling life in these isolated places and engaging in maximum violence to eliminate union organizers, especially in particularly isolated West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The United Mine Workers of America finally broke through and unionized the mines in the 1930s under the leadership of John L. Lewis. But the conditions of work were still extremely dangerous. While workers themselves had long worried about safety on the job, the attention of union officials to these issues was not always the greatest. Coal mining always had a fatalism about it, with the assumption of the inevitability of some deaths. Between 1906 and 1970, there were 90,000 officially reported fatal accidents in the bituminous mines alone, as well as 1.5 million job related injuries between 1930 and 1969.

The companies consistently fought against any meaningful actions on workplace safety. What’s more outrageous was the indifference of the United Mine Workers leadership to the death of miners. The law only gained momentum after the Farmington Mine Disaster of 1968. Gas and dust exploded at a mine near Farmington, West Virginia with a long history of similar problems. This horrific event killed 78 miners. UMWA president Tony Boyle basically didn’t care. He was more concerned with good relations with the companies than protecting his workers. At the press conference after the disaster, Boyle told reporters, ‘As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger. This happens to be one of the better companies, as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.’’ Miners were furious. They began to organize against Boyle and his thugs who ran the union like dictators. Key to their complaints was the union stealing health and safety funds to line their own pockets. The specter of immediate death from accidents and slow death from black lung spurred grassroots organizing within the union to fight against the leadership.

Farmington Mine Disaster, 1968

With virtually no help from Boyle or top UMWA leaders, the Black Lung Associations managed to publicize the plight of workers and get Congress to push for a coal mine safety law. The BLAs, led by young miners back from Vietnam or Midwestern cities where they had exposure to the tactics of the civil rights movement, led highly public actions such as shutting down the statehouse in Charleston, all in direct defiance of Boyle. The strikers demanded that West Virginia allow for a multiplicity of ways to test for black lung, agreements to fund health and pension programs in exchange for mechanization that threw people out of work to be honored, and expanded workers compensation coverage. The protest succeeded and West Virginia passed a new law with these demands in 1969.

Black Lung Association protest, 1969

The success in Charleston led to a movement toward federal legislation. The Johnson Administration had introduced a coal mine bill in 1968, but it died along with much of the late Great Society over Vietnam and Johnson’s downfall. The Farmington disaster and worker protests led the government to act more seriously in 1969. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 389-4 in the House. Nixon did not want to sign the law. As with much of the environmental and workplace related legislation he signed, he did so quite reluctantly and only after fighting to weaken the bill. He threatened a veto over the black lung compensation program, leading to 1200 workers going on strike. But seeing the inevitability of the legislation, he signed it.

The law mandated at least two annual inspections at above ground mines and four in underground mines. Miners had the right to request federal inspections. Violators were fined and could be criminally charged if egregiously negligent. Coal miners began to receive periodic x-ray exams for black lung (a process that however has become deeply corrupted and captured by industry) and the right to demand less dangerous work when doctors detected black lung. The law also created a federally administered black lung benefits program.

The lung of a miner killed by pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was a precursor of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed the next year and providing a more comprehensive set of protection to all Americans at work. But like OSHA, the implementation of FCMHSA was limited as business began organizing against workplace safety enforcement. The mine owners challenged the constitutionality of the law and lost. But the tide would soon turn. In addition, these agencies take awhile to become effective, something the miners quickly realized when the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster in 1970 killed another 38 workers in a mine with a long history of indifference to safety. In 1978, a further expansion of the law that would have granted workers themselves the right to test the air for dust was rejected as a violation of property rights in a newly conservative and anti-union America.

The same grassroots outrage that forced Boyle and the UMWA to support the legislation did not abate, leading to the challenge of Jock Yablonski to Boyle’s leadership. Yablonski ran for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, announcing, “Today I am announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America. I do so out of a deep awareness of the insufferable gap between the union leadership and the working miners that has bred neglect of miners’ needs and aspirations and generated a climate of fear and inhibition.” He ran on a platform of health and safety, including a greater emphasis on fighting against black lung.

Yablonski was “defeated,” in the sense that Boyle committed massive fraud to keep himself in office. A mere week after the legislation passed, Boyle had Yablonski murdered in his home by thugs. Miners for Democracy came out of these acts, demanding the overthrow of Boyle, which succeeded with federal supervisions for elections and Boyle’s arrest for the Yablonski murder.

As of 2007, over 600,000 miners and widows had received several billion dollars in benefits from the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

Much of the information for this post came from Daniel Fox and Judith Stone, “Black Lung: Miners Militancy and Medical Uncertainty, 1968-1972,” in Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers, Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, Revised 3rd Edition, 1997.

This is the 86th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

NFL Week 17 Open Thread

[ 147 ] December 29, 2013 |

Chip Kelly is pretty much my favorite coach in football history. This is his essence in 5 seconds.

Incidentally, 5 seconds was also the average time of possession in an Oregon scoring drive during his time with the Ducks.

Let this be your Week 17 open thread. Go Seahawks, Go Eagles. I also really want to see Jon Kitna play tonight. Evidently, Rick Mirer was busy when Dallas called.

Wounded Knee Anniversary

[ 46 ] December 29, 2013 |

123 years ago today, on December 29, 1890, the United States Army massacred between 150 and 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, effectively ending the active military engagements of the wars of American conquest. We might not even call Wounded Knee a military engagement given that this was Lakota (and other Plains tribes) resistance as apocalyptic religious movement rather than warfare. But some Lakota did have guns and about 25 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Of course, that was hardly the last violence committed against Native Americans, including the allotment of their land, corruption at the BIA, Indian schools and the suppression of native religions and languages, the stealing of natural resources, and termination in the 1950s. Take a moment to remember how our nation was built on the wanton murder of indigenous peoples.

Spotted Elk, one of the Lakota murdered by the United States Army:

And here’s the mass grave where the military tossed the dead bodies:

The New Gilded Age in One Christmas Card

[ 90 ] December 29, 2013 |

Jamie Dimon’s Christmas card basically sums up the New Gilded Age.

You’d also think for all that money Dimon could at least afford the proper number of buttons on his shirt.

And is Pure Beer Good for Me?

[ 48 ] December 28, 2013 |

Can this be part of the Obamacare fix?

Pull Those Bootstraps You Lazy Slackers

[ 166 ] December 28, 2013 |

Finally we are getting our lazy welfare recipients away from their t-bones and out of their Cadillacs. This will teach them:

An emergency federal program that acts as a lifeline for 1.3 million jobless workers will end on Saturday, drastically curtailing government support for the long-term unemployed and setting the stage for a major political fight in the new year.

The program, in place since the recession started in 2008, provides up to 47 weeks of supplemental unemployment insurance payments to jobless people looking for work. Its expiration is expected to have far-reaching ramifications for the economy, cutting job growth by about 300,000 positions next year and pushing hundreds of thousands of households below the poverty line.

Hurting the economy is a small price to pay to reinstate morals among the unemployed. And what does America’s Greatest Defender of Civil Liberties think?

“I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for,” said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on Fox News. “If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers. When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”

Oh definitely. I never understood why I didn’t quit my job just so I could have those luxurious unemployment checks.

Here in Rhode Island, 5000 slackers will be forced to fend for themselves. Oh, like you can make an argument that these people aren’t leeches:

Ellen Donlevy has worked more than 30 years in customer service and retail jobs.

She describes herself as a “people person” who likes the camaraderie of working with others, both colleagues and customers. At her last job, with Cox Communications, she says she was often the go-to employee who would be tapped to deal with an irate customer.

But it has been nearly a year since Donlevy has worked.

Her 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits — $411 a week before taxes — have expired, and she joins thousands of Rhode Islanders, considered the “long-term unemployed,” for whom additional, federal unemployment benefits end on Saturday.

“And yes, I’m scared,” says Donlevy.

$411 a week! I’m outraged by the government paying these people enough to pay their rent or mortgage. I for one can’t wait for the increase in the homeless population, foreclosures, domestic violence, suicides, and other social problems that result from lost income and poverty. True freedom of the New Gilded Age comes one step closer.

Wall Street Lackeys in the Academy

[ 37 ] December 28, 2013 |

As a historian, I don’t really have an opportunity to sell out by using my professional positions to provide expert testimony for Wall Street. But I wonder what that would be like. Evidently, it buys you a really nice home. And there are plenty of academics willing to become complete hacks.

And in a squat glass building on the University of Houston campus, a measure of the industry’s pre-eminence can also be found in the person of Craig Pirrong, a professor of finance, who sits at the nexus of commerce and academia.

As energy companies and traders have reaped fortunes by buying and selling oil and other commodities during the recent boom in the commodity markets, Mr. Pirrong has positioned himself as the hard-nosed defender of financial speculators — the combative, occasionally acerbic academic authority to call upon when difficult questions arise in Congress and elsewhere about the multitrillion-dollar global commodities trade.

Do financial speculators and commodity index funds drive up prices of oil and other essentials, ultimately costing consumers? Since 2006, Mr. Pirrong has written a flurry of influential letters to federal agencies arguing that the answer to that question is an emphatic no. He has testified before Congress to that effect, hosted seminars with traders and government regulators, and given countless interviews for financial publications absolving Wall Street speculation of any appreciable role in the price spikes.

What Mr. Pirrong has routinely left out of most of his public pronouncements in favor of speculation is that he has reaped financial benefits from speculators and some of the largest players in the commodities business, The New York Times has found.

While his university’s financial ties to speculators have been the subject of scrutiny by the news media and others, it was not until last month, after repeated requests by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, that the University of Houston, a public institution, insisted that Mr. Pirrong submit disclosure forms that shed some light on those financial ties.

There are lots of examples of academics becoming lackeys of industry. I recently discussed the Johns Hopkins black lung program almost completely controlled by one faculty member who denied nearly every single black lung claim, forcing thousands of people to spend their last days in miserable poverty.

Of course, one doesn’t have to support progressive positions. But taking corporate money in exchange for your expertise and not disclosing it is about as immoral as it gets.

Kudos to the Times for taking on this subject.

If You Don’t Love It, Leave It

[ 110 ] December 28, 2013 |

If evangelical grifter John Hagee doesn’t love our country and its freedom of religion, he should leave it and find a country that would deport atheists. I recommend Afghanistan circa 1999.

The Lives of Fast Food Workers

[ 157 ] December 28, 2013 |

Sasha Abramsky with a valuable look into the life of one fast food striker demanding a $15 an hour wage. You know what she wants that she can’t have? Fruit.

Roberts, who is now thirty-eight years old and working at a K.F.C. in Oakland, is slightly stout, with hair done up in braids. She is quick to smile, and she has a matter-of-fact attitude about her circumstances. Tacked to the wall above her stove is a Bob Marley poster with the quote “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Around mid-morning, after Thomas, now fifteen, has headed off to school, Roberts walks to the K.F.C. on Telegraph Avenue. She earns eight dollars an hour as a cashier, and she typically works five- or six-hour shifts.

“I pack orders, take orders. I clean, take out the garbage. I deal with belligerent people, disrespectful people, I deal with a lot of people who do drugs—so I’m basically a security guard, too,” she told me. During a ten-minute lunch break, she wolfs down free fried chicken. In the early evening she walks home to her apartment, where, when she has food in her small refrigerator, she prepares dinner.

I visited Roberts a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, and she still had leftover turkey in an tinfoil baking tray. She usually cooks a lot of beans and ramen noodles. The night before, she said, she had sautéed some vegetables and made a sandwich.

Often, though, she can’t afford vegetables. She is paid little enough that she qualifies for a hundred and ninety-five dollars’ worth of food food stamps, but they run out after a couple of weeks, and by end of the month the fridge shelves are virtually bare, and Roberts starts skipping meals so that Thomas can eat more. “I’d love to eat fruit,” she told me. “Fruit is my favorite. Peaches. Nectarines. Cantaloupe. Bananas. I like Fuji apples. Can’t afford to eat it.”

Should any person in this country be denied apples and bananas, employed or unemployed? No and I don’t think I have to explain why.

Meanwhile, Yum, which is not only the stupidest name of any corporation in the history of the United States but which also owns KFC, has paid its CEO David Novak $81.5 million over the past five years.

One Big Win in 2013

[ 13 ] December 27, 2013 |

The defeat of the ag-gag bills in every state where agribusiness had them introduced was a major victory in 2013. Even if you don’t care about animal rights, where animals are abused, usually so are workers. Many of these big agribusiness operations have long sought out the most exploitable labor, even using undocumented workers and then reporting themselves for immigration violations to avoid unionization. There’s little no doubt that agribusiness and their state legislature lackeys will continue to try and make knowledge about what happens in their factories illegal, but in a world where the Koch Brothers and ALEC dominate state legislatures and horrible laws have passed across the nation, it’s good to give a shout-out to one of the few places where they’ve been turned back.

The Walker Economy

[ 217 ] December 26, 2013 |

While I am concerned about Scott Walker being one Republican who can actually win the lunatic Republican primary and win the general election, he’s going to have to run against the fact that his state’s economy has collapsed under his leadership. More evidence of that:

How’s this for a 2016 presidential campaign theme?

“Under Scott Walker, Wisconsin led the nation in first-time unemployment claims.”

That’s not the narrative Walker wants as he plots his run for the Republican presidential nomination.

But it’s the one that has developed.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 4,420 Wisconsinites filed initial unemployment claims in the final week of November. The next two highest states combined — Ohio with 2,597 and Kentucky with 1,538 — couldn’t match Wisconsin’s total. And what’s particularly notable is that these numbers come at a point when states such as California, Texas, Florida and Michigan are seeing significant declines in jobless claims.

Wisconsin sticks out like a sore thumb.

Why? Walker would like people to believe that it has something to do with deer hunting season. Nice try. But they hunt deer in states that are adding jobs. The truth is that Wisconsinites are out of work because Walker’s economic strategies aren’t working.

The Year in Labor

[ 34 ] December 26, 2013 |

Pretty depressing write up unless you believe the fast food and Wal-Mart campaigns are going to add up to something concrete, a point which I think is maybe for fast food and very unlikely for Wal-Mart. As for the big political picture:

Union strategists once really hoped that Obama would usher in a transformed labor law regime, passing laws to make the state aggressively avert or avenge firings like those at Wal-Mart. (Such firings’ comparative scarcity in fast food could be explained by community escorts used to back up employees returning to work; by the greater difficulty of coordinating union-busting under a franchisee model; or by a collective action problem among the top fast food chains targeted, with no one corporation wanting to become the campaign’s primary target.) Instead, organized labor has spent the Obama era largely playing defense. In politics, this year brought unions some real victories — from an audacious $15 an hour minimum wage passed in tiny Seatac, Washington, to a long-awaited Labor Department regulation covering the growing ranks of home care workers, to a labor-backed blow against the filibuster in Congress. But it dealt its share of indignities and defeats. The Obama Administration kept elevating leaders from union-busting companies to cabinet posts, pushing NAFTA-style trade provisions and dangerous poultry rules, and palling around with Wal-Mart, while rebuffing union pleas to ease Obamacare woes, raise contracting standards or cease deportations. In the space of hours, Illinois Democrats and Republicans came together to cut union members’ pensions, while a federal judge ruled that Detroit workers’ weren’t as sacrosanct as they’d appeared.

There’s plenty of links within the original article on all these issues, but as has been the norm of his presidency, Obama’s record on labor is mixed but leaning toward the poor side.

In general then, the most positive thing that’s happened for labor is growing momentum for an increased minimum wage. But more typical for labor has been pension cuts, workplace safety problems such as we saw at West, Texas, and the increasingly visible impact of American corporate strategies to outsource production to death traps in Bangladesh. Less visible but important in people’s daily lives is long-term unemployment or underemployment, increased income inequality, and the continued decline of the American middle class, conditions openly supported by one political party and half of the other political party.

I am skeptical 2014 will be any better. I also hope I am wrong.

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