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Respecting Women Means Closing Sweatshops

[ 41 ] March 10, 2015 |


Too much of the talk around women at work these days revolves around wealthy women like Sheryl Sandberg. As Janey Stephenson argues, if we want International Women’s Day to mean something, that requires the closing of sweatshops worldwide. That will only happen if we create legal regimes that force companies to acquiesce to international labor law in their factories and that grants the rights of these usually female workers to sue in corporate nations of origin for real financial damages against their employers or the companies that contract with their employers. Without closing the sweatshops, the international exploitation of women by American corporations will continue and without empowering women and ending the race to the bottom, that international exploitation will never end.


This Day in Labor History: March 10, 1925

[ 31 ] March 10, 2015 |

On March 10, 1925, the New York Times first reported the story of the so-called Radium Girls, as U.S. Radium Company employee Marguerite Carlough had sued her employer for $75,000 for the horrific health problems caused by her work with radium that would soon kill her. The story would garner national headlines and would demonstrate both the awfulness of working conditions in the early 20th century and the failures of the workers’ compensation system to deal with health problems caused by poisonous work.

The 1910s saw the development of two phenomena that would come together in horrible ways for workers. The first was the wristwatch, invented during this decade. The second was the entrance of radium into the marketplace. Because radium glowed in the dark, it became a popular method of painting watch faces, since it made the watches useful at night. For soldiers in World War I, these watches were a godsend and this made them popular nationwide.

The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation (later U.S. Radium Corporation) plant in Orange, New Jersey caused a lot of problems in the neighborhood. Residents complained the company’s emissions turned their drying clothes yellow. For the workers, the radium was as much a delight as it was to the consumers. With little health research into its effects on the workers, the young dialpainters suffered heavy exposure to it. They were taught to hold the paintbrush with their mouths as they worked, wetting it with their tongues and thus ingesting the radium that way. They also played with the radium paint. They’d paint the fingernails with it. One woman had a date with her beau. So she painted radium on her teeth so her smile would glow in the dark when they were alone that night.


Advertisement for radium watch.

As early as 1922, workers began falling sick. The dialpainters were the first industrial victims of radium poisoning. Katherine Schaub and her cousin Irene Rudolph started working in the new dialpainting studio at the Radium Luminous Materials plant in 1917. They were both 15. In 1920, both Schaub and Rudolph quit, finding nonindustrial jobs, although Schaub would briefly return to dialpainting the next year. By 1922, they were both 20 years old. That year, Rudolph had mouth pain. She had a tooth extracted. The socket never healed. Her jaw begin to fester with rotting bones. Other dialpainters began coming down with the same problems. Randolph died in July 1923 after a year and a half of suffering. Schaub started to have health problems in November 1923. By this time, other dialpainters such as Amelia Magggia, Hazel Vincent Kuser, and Marguerite Carlough had died or were dying. Schaub’s continued mouth problems began to be known as “radium jaw.”


Workers at U.S. Radium, 1922 or 1923.

Medical researchers began to pay more attention to these sick women. So did the New Jersey Consumers’ League, the largely women-led industrial reform movement of the Progressive Era. That era had ended, at least in the years as it is classically classified by historians, but the national and state level organization still existed. The sole paid employee of the New Jersey branch was Katherine Wiley, but she was effective. In 1923, she had successfully lobbied for a bill banning night work for women. After hearing the legendary industrial reformer Alice Hamilton talk about workplace health, Wiley began exploring this in her home state. She soon found the dialpainters. In 1924, Wiley went to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Dr. Andrew McBride. He was furious that these meddlesome women were getting involved in these cases and denied that the radium companies had anything to do with the women’s illnesses.

Working with Hamilton, Wiley began trying to access the medical research. At Harvard, researchers working with U.S. Radium had done initial studies on the substance’s health effects. Wiley and Hamilton sought to acquire that data. The main researcher was loyal to the company and refused to release most of the information. But Frederick Hoffman, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Labor, did find at least some connections, although he was pretty sympathetic to the company too. All of this work did lead to the state labor department closing U.S. Radium, although it just moved to New York. Katherine Schaub kept pushing, convincing Hoffman to write to U.S. Radium about her condition. The company had her visit one of their doctors, who promptly told her that none of her illnesses had anything to do with radium.

Based on this research, in 1927, Schaub joined a dialpainters’ lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Consumers’ League in the state Supreme Court. But this was a difficult task. Not only had the statue of limitations passed since all these workers had quit several years earlier, but the dialpainters needed to prove both that U.S. Radium had caused their illnesses and that the company was negligent in their actions. The lawsuits were a struggle because workers’ compensation generally did not cover health related issues. The workers’ compensation came about as a way for corporations to cut their losses and enter a rational system for dealing with workplace health and safety because after 1890, workers were increasingly suing them successfully for compensation, a slow rejection of the doctrine of workplace risk established early in the nation’s industrial period.

Similar cases were happening at the Waterbury Clock Company in Waterbury, Connecticut (I can’t drive past this factory on I-84 without thinking of dead radium workers) and at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Workers at all three plants struggled to achieve compensation. But in New Jersey, all the bad publicity convinced the company to settle with most of the workers in 1928, although it also made it very difficult for workers to prove any corporate culpability. In more conservative Connecticut, women played a much smaller role in state politics and despite a longer statue of limitations provision in the workers’ compensation law of 5 years, business controlled the state. Workers here received only relatively small settlements, even if Waterbury Clock admitted it had caused 10 deaths by 1936. In Illinois, the workers compensation system was such a mess that not a single sufferer received a cent until 1938.


Newspaper article publicizing plight of Illinois radium poisoning victims.

In the 1980s, high levels of radon were discovered in homes near the old plant in Orange. The company had long ago been purchased by Safety Light. Homeowners and the current corporate owners of the old plant sued Safety Light. In 1991, the New Jersey Supreme Court found U.S. Radium “forever” liable for the radium near its old factory. Workers laboring with radium however continued having problems, even as safety nominally improved. In the 1970s, radium workers in Ottawa, Illinois were found having radiation levels 1666 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved levels.

This post is based on Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.

This is the 136th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Florida Bans the Term “Climate Change”

[ 29 ] March 9, 2015 |


Florida banning its state employees from using the term “climate change” might be a short term political advantage for conservatives. But burying your head in the sand next to the ocean might not be a very good idea when that climate change you don’t want to admit is happening leads to rising oceans that drown you in your sandhole.

Guess Who?

[ 89 ] March 9, 2015 |

I’ve been putting together a lecture for tomorrow’s U.S. Environmental History class on atomic nature and I came across this ad, which I just could not resist sharing with you.


Good times.

This Weekend in Republican Minority Outreach

[ 26 ] March 9, 2015 |


That no one in the House Republican leadership was going to go to the Selma commemoration until people called them out on it in the Washington Post and other publications says all too much about the racial politics of the conservative movement.

I wonder how Kevin McCarthy got tasked with being the representative here. Drew the short straw?

Rename the Edward Pettus Bridge

[ 67 ] March 9, 2015 |


While I am usually in favor of keeping statues and other public monuments to horrible racists up and then interpreting them, naming major buildings or public works projects is a whole other thing. That’s certainly true of Selma’s Edward Pettus Bridge. I didn’t know who Pettus was before this weekend. Turns out that if you want something named after you in Alabama, being a powerful racist is a good way to do it.

“Everyone knows the bridge is famous for the march and Bloody Sunday, so the idea that the name of the place where all of this happened represents something so contrary to all of that really bothers us,” said Students Unite’s executive director, 25-year-old John Gainey.

The discrepancy is striking, but the life of the bridge’s namesake has never been a secret. The Washington Post reported that when the bridge was constructed 75 years ago, Pettus’ legacy was well known, and the span of the highway was named “for a man revered locally as a tenacious Southern leader.”

It’s also right there on the Federal Highway Administration’s website in its description of the structure, which was built in 1940 and carries traffic across the Alabama River: “It had been named after a Civil War General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan who served in the United States Senate from 1897 until his death in 1907. He was the last Confederate General to serve in the Senate.”

Obviously, this should be renamed the John Lewis Bridge. That’s not going to be easy to accomplish for many reasons, including because it will become a conservative cause not to change it.

Big Ag

[ 7 ] March 9, 2015 |


Big Agriculture is nothing but the Tea Party + agricultural subsidies.

A Match Made in Hipster Labor Heaven

[ 19 ] March 8, 2015 |


It does seem that bike shop workers and the modern IWW fit together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Somewhat OT, I have been perplexed by the establishment of DIY bikeshops and anarcho-leftist organizations over the last ten years. If learning how to fix your own bike is a step on the way to revolution, I may not be prepared for that new society. I know this is a different kind of bike shop and thus the need for a union.

Also, the IWW continuing to avoid contracts as it did a century ago means that even if tens or hundreds of thousands of workers joined it, it would still run into the same problems it faced at Lawrence and other places where it had initial victories, i.e, the inability to consolidate and institutionalize any gains for workers in a situation where the employer really knows how to consolidate and institutionalize its gains.

Selma and Environmental Justice

[ 3 ] March 8, 2015 |


Fifty years after Selma, it’s worth remembering that the continued exploitation of poor blacks by whites also includes their environmental exploitation, as (largely) white-owned companies use their neighborhoods for toxic dumping grounds and to site the most hazardous and polluting factories.

The South has long been a region where fossil fuel industries have pretty much had their way with mostly poor, black, brown, and Native American communities, mainly due to lax regulations and poor environmental and civil rights law enforcement. Just this week in Alabama, the environmental group Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) filed a civil rights complaint against the Jefferson County Department of Health for allowing Walter Coke, Inc. to continue emitting air pollutants over predominantly black communities (Grist wrote about this last April). A University of Alabama at Birmingham study found a correlation between low birth weight and household proximity to coke plants in Birmingham. It’s the second civil rights complaint GASP has filed on this matter in as many months.

“North Birmingham has historically served as a dumping ground for polluting facilities,” said long-time environmental justice scholar and activist Robert Bullard, who’s helping lead environmental justice activities in Selma. “The neighborhood was an environmental ‘sacrifice zone’ when I did my student teaching at a high school in the area way back in 1968.”

The latest concern, and one of the largest, for environmental justice activists in the South is a gigantic “clean coal” facility under construction in Kemper County, Miss. As Grist writer Sara Bernard recently reported, the operation is already taking an economic toll on the surrounding communities and provides no guarantees that it won’t add to pollution already saturating the state’s land, air, and water.

That plant is owned and operated by Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, which owns numerous dirty coal plants around the South, and has funded the work of recently discredited climate denier Wei-Hock Soon. Just so happens that Southern Co. is also a sponsor of the Selma 50th anniversary event this weekend. (Mississippi Power is not a sponsor, but two of Southern’s other subsidiaries, Georgia Power and Alabama Power, are sponsors.)

One would hope that sponsoring civil rights commemorations wouldn’t get these companies off the hook for hurting black people in the present. Of course, the executives of these companies almost certainly also support politicians who want to roll back black voting rights.

The Higher Ed Disruptors Are Still With Us

[ 107 ] March 8, 2015 |

We haven’t heard too much from higher education technofuturists lately, what with the complete failure of early MOOC trials to prepare students to pass courses. The San Jose State University debacle really shut them up for awhile. But they never went away and the New York Times is always happy to give them a forum. The paper decided to excerpt The New American Foundation’s Kevin Carey’s new book on how what we really need to make MOOCs acceptable is just forcing employers to accept online degrees as official, with the probable upside of eliminating many institutions of higher education.

Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.

The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.

Traditional institutions, including Michigan State and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are experimenting with issuing badges. But so are organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 4-H, the Smithsonian, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Y.M.C.A. of Greater New York.

The most important thing about badges is that they aren’t limited to what people learn in college. Nor are they controlled by colleges exclusively. People learn throughout their lives, at work, at home, in church, among their communities. The fact that colleges currently have a near-monopoly on degrees that lead to jobs goes a long way toward explaining how they can continue raising prices every year.

The MOOC providers themselves are also moving in this direction. They’ve always offered credentials. In 2013, I completed a semester-long M.I.T. course in genetics through a nonprofit organization run by Harvard and M.I.T., called edX. You can see the proof of my credentials here and here.

Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform, offers sequences of courses akin to college majors, followed by a so-called capstone project in which students demonstrate their skills and receive a verified certificate, for a fee of $470. The Coursera Data Science sequence is taught by Johns Hopkins University and includes nine four-week courses like exploratory data analysis, regression models and machine learning. The capstone project requires students to build a data model and create visualizations to communicate their analysis. The certificate is officially endorsed by both Coursera and Johns Hopkins. EdX has similar programs.

Inevitably, there will be a lag between the creation of such new credentials and their widespread acceptance by employers and government regulators. H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.

Note all the dishonesty and avoidance of tricky issues here. If the point of all this is to prepare students for a job (and let’s be clear, the point of all this is to privatize a public good and profit off of it), none of this does anything to help make that happen. How are people hired today? Largely by who they know, assuming they have the basic degree. None of that will change in this new system. Carey doesn’t even begin to address the kind of skill-building people need to be successful–critical thinking, writing skills that most students really need 4 solid years of college to develop, laboratory work, individual mentoring with professors, etc., etc. None of that matters. Carey just wants to offer badges that simply replaces the college degree without replicating any of the skills students learn there. Disrupting the college means disrupting the skills college builds. If that’s a problem, we’ll just claim those skills are unnecessary or pretend like they don’t exist!

And then there’s this:

This has the effect of reinforcing class biases that are already built into college admissions. A large and relatively open-access traditional public university might graduate the same overall number of great job candidates as a small, exclusive, private university — say, 200 each. But the public 200 may graduate alongside 3,000 other students, while the private 200 may have only 300 peers. Because diplomas and transcripts provide few means of reliably distinguishing the great from the rest, employers give a leg up to private college graduates who probably had some legs up to begin with.

This is really telling. We are focusing on the excellent 200. But what about the other 2800? What do they do for the next forty years? Take more courses from Coursera? Also, the idea that class bias disappears in hiring with new technologies is laughable. Yeah, if I’m an employer and I see a student with a Harvard degree and one with some badges from Coursera that show they have the same skills, I’m totally taking the badge person! C’mon. All this is going to do is to reinforce those class biases, as employers are going to see job candidates with real education and job candidates without real education and choose between them.

And if the disruptors win and traditional college is destroyed, what jobs are these graduates going to have available to them? What will the hundreds of thousands of people who lose their jobs when traditional universities end going to do? What does this labor market look like where disruption is fetishized for disruption’s sake and the new economy does not prioritize stable, life-long work? Carey doesn’t care about any of this.

None of this is to say that higher education doesn’t have problems. But as any professor with stagnant salaries and disappearing hiring lines will tell you, it’s not like we are rolling in money. Administrative bloat and especially disappearing state funding are the real issues here (although the rapidly growing costs of private colleges who do not rely on state funding is unrelated to this core issue for public schools and something that does not receive enough attention). For Carey, this is a feature, not a bug. This is classic Shock Doctrine. Underfund the universities, make people believe that they can’t provide a proper service, replace them with private companies, and then profit.

Tennessee Funding Higher Education on the Backs of Its Workers

[ 8 ] March 8, 2015 |

Michelle Chen reports on how Tennessee has received kudos for offering a free community college program that has influenced Obama’s proposals. But how is this being funded? By cutting benefits for the workers at Tennessee universities.

The new budget would impose major “reforms” to the healthcare benefits of career civil servants. The cutbacks for retired workers and the newest hires, according to Commercial Appeal, include “ending eligibility for pre-age-65 retiree health insurance to state employees and school-district employees hired after July 1, 2015; ending eligibility, after July 1, for state health insurance for part-time state employees.”

The budget also proposes so-called “flexibility” for the state to offer current workers a more limited defined-contribution retirement health plan, instead of the traditional, typically more stable, defined-benefit scheme. The state may also seek authority to tweak the healthcare subsidy formulas for active employees.

And lest you think this is just taking some retirement money from well off professors, think again. As the United Campus Workers state, this is going to hurt the poorest workers–the housekeepers, the janitors, etc–more than the professors.

The United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 3865 union (UCW) is galled that the cutbacks have been proposed amid the governor’s boasts of making higher education affordable for all. Will their kids get free tuition while parents pay more for basic healthcare? Doubling the irony is that the target population of the new expansion of Tennessee Promise—the new funds are aimed at adult learners with a few college credits already—are perhaps the type of folks who might work a campus custodial job and take classes on the side at night: will they see the new tuition boost offset by shrinking benefits, or have to forgo community college courses to take on a second job?

The students campaigning in solidarity with the UCW recognize the fact that the tuition break is just one piece of the promise—one that the state seems to have bargained for on the backs of public servants. Student organizer Lindsey Smith tells The Nation via e-mail:

we are struggling to understand how Gov. Haslam can put money into such a plan, but completely ignore the campus workers’ pleas for better working conditions and higher wages. His plan is to supposedly help traditionally marginalized, working class students to get a higher education degree…but what happens to those students when they graduate? Not to mention, what about the people that are already in the workforce?

Like so many plans around higher education today, this is about short-sighted political gain that ignores the structural issues around employment in this country. Cutting tuition by cutting benefits makes about as much sense as provosts promoting international studies programs while cutting positions for language professors. Or worrying about the children up to the age of 6 and then underfunding their schools and throwing them in prison for smoking pot at age 15. Education without good jobs is just education. If this is supposed to be about giving people the skills they need to get good jobs, good jobs have to exist. Cutting benefits for those jobs to fund the education does not make sense.

This issue has a bit more meaning for me than most labor issues because I was on the ground floor of organizing what became the UCW at the University of Tennessee back in 1999 and 2000. I had just finished a master’s degree at the school and was involved with a group of students working on economic justice issues. We had a lot of connections with local labor unions and, probably most importantly, with the Highlander Center, which has served as a center of left-leaning southern activism for eighty years now. We held a labor teach-in and through our connections we were able to get Richard Trumka, Bill Fletcher, Elaine Bernard and other great speakers. We put up flyers around campus to see if we could get workers to come out. We received a call from some of the housekeepers. I went to speak to them. What I didn’t expect was to walk into a room full of angry, passionate workers ready to go to the mat after employers who had treated them like garbage for years. They were ready to walk off the job at that moment. It was all pretty incredible.

From that came the UCW, which is now affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. By that time, I had moved to Albuquerque to start my PhD program. But I maintained connections with the union for years, sometimes editing newsletters and the like. Technically, I’m still a sort of honorary member and I pay them monthly union dues. Public workers in Tennessee still don’t have collective bargaining rights and no contract is ever going to come out of that union. But it serves as a voice for the workers of the Tennessee higher education system, from cooks and janitors to library workers and full professors, lobbies in Nashville, and provides power to workers. That this truly grassroots union has survived and flourished for 15 years in the face of the anti-union wave dominating the country is quite remarkable and the implications of it for the modern labor movement is something I should write more about, but I’ll stop reminiscing for now.

Today in the Permanent Crisis of Masculinity

[ 197 ] March 8, 2015 |

No matter what period, what social class, or what issues are at stake, men always think masculinity in permanently in crisis and must be protected against all its threats. In this case, almond milk and body grooming.

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