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Transgender History

[ 6 ] May 19, 2015 |


The speed in which the transgender rights movement is moving is utterly remarkable and truly amazing. Here’s a useful timeline of the movement’s history.


Labor History in the Classroom

[ 11 ] May 19, 2015 |


Above: Strikers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1949

While right-wing states are freaking out about the new AP standards (never mind that this year’s AP US History DBQ was on the rise of the conservative movement), Connecticut has now passed a bill encouraging the teaching of labor history in the state’s classrooms, albeit with a caveat to also include free market economics, i.e., the destroyer of working people. Despite this, a major advance in including working people’s history in education.

Fight for $15

[ 24 ] May 19, 2015 |


The Los Angeles City Council voting 14-1 to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour is a very big deal. Doing this city by city or state by state is not ideal. But given the broken government at the federal level, it’s the best option we have now and could transform minimum wages around the state of California and beyond. A major victory for workers.

Personally, I look forward to the Fight for $20.

The TPP and Environment

[ 18 ] May 19, 2015 |


The Trans Pacific Partnership is likely to be as disastrous on environmental issues as it is for labor and intellectual freedom.

In order to avoid dangerous climate change, scientists estimate that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. But coal, natural gas, and oil left in the ground means profits left on the table for fossil fuel companies. And under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), corporations will likely be able to sue governments that interfere with their business — even if it’s by enacting carbon reduction goals and passing environmental legislation.

“Creating a corporate bill of rights to protect investors is incredibly undermining to our ability to protect the environment,” Ben Schreiber, the climate and energy program director for Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress.

Previous trade deals have, in fact, led to lawsuits over fossil fuels. An American mining company, Lone Pine Resources, sued the Canadian province of Quebec in 2013 for passing a ban on fracking. The company says the ban cost them $250 million and that under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Quebec is liable for the lost revenue. That lawsuit is ongoing.

In another lawsuit, Chevron alleged that Ecuadorian activists had defrauded the company, after it was ordered to pay $18.2 billion in damages for environmental contamination.

Life as a Fast Food Worker

[ 76 ] May 18, 2015 |


Fast food workers fighting for $15 an hour took pictures of their homes to publicize what their life is like. Powerful stuff.

Target Institutions, Not Politicians

[ 61 ] May 18, 2015 |


One thing I have discussed over and over again here is how progressives focus so strongly on politicians as part of a moral universe that must be adhered to in order to be supported. In other words, if politician X sells us out on one issue then that person is dead to me and thus Nader ’16! Part of this is related to the politics of authenticity that people so crave. Among its many problems is that ignores the fundamental rule of politics which is that it is about power and power alone. So how to leverage that power? The answer is clear–focus on institutions. That’s the theme of this really smart Jacobin essay by Michael Schwartz and Kevin Young, who show that again and again, when progressives target institutions, whether corporations or parts of government, they can win. The politicians follow the display of power.

Contrary to many analysts’ assumption that putting Democrats into office is the best way to substantially increase the minimum wage, workplace actions and protests targeting low-wage employers could be the best strategy. These actions focus public attention on low wages and help pave the way for local and state ballot referenda to raise the minimum wage.

More importantly, direct pressure — through boycotts, protests, labor strikes, or supply chain interruptions — on McDonald’s, Walmart, and other powerful firms can “adversely affect” their bottom line, especially given “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality,” as McDonald’s company documents recently warned. This pressure can simultaneously yield direct concessions: some fast-food and retail chains have reacted to recent protests by granting raises to unruly workers, and a few have promised company-wide increases.

But beyond this immediate impact, the changes wrought by direct protest can also neutralize the affected firms’ opposition to raising the minimum wage to the level they are (now) paying their workers. Some may even lobby the government for such an increase to reduce their competitive disadvantage. This logic motivated certain US businesses to support the 1891 Meat Inspection Act, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and other landmark regulatory laws, because they saw the laws as forcing their competitors to honor standards they were already being forced to meet.

Targeting corporations can even make sense when corporations aren’t the most visible enemies of reform, as in the immigrant rights struggle. In March 2011, dozens of Arizona-based corporate executives wrote a letter to state legislators asking that they refrain from passing further anti-immigrant bills like the infamous SB 1070, which was in 2010.

The problem, they explained, was that “boycotts were called against [the] state’s business community” in response to the law. The boycotts were so “harmful to [their] image” that “Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding,” and “sales outside of the state declined” (the boycotts also led many Mexican companies to stop trading with Arizona businesses).

The threat to their profits led them to insist on a change in public policy. The result? Within a week, the Republican-controlled legislature rejected five bills designed to further criminalize immigrants.

This is all why it really doesn’t matter if Hillary Clinton supports the Trans Pacific Partnership or Keystone XL Pipeline. What matters is if she is scared to support it because it would cost her real political capital to do so. Ultimately putting Democrats into office makes the process of change much, much easier, but it isn’t enough and is certainly not a final point. Elections are merely the consolidation of power over the past election cycle, not the end of the game. Those were disappointed with Obama should largely be disappointed with themselves because they misunderstood how politics work in the United States. Hopefully, they learn the right lessons from that disappointment.

This Day in Labor History: May 18, 1933

[ 14 ] May 18, 2015 |

On May 18, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority as a centerpiece to his New Deal. The TVA would have both short and long-term impacts on the nation’s labor history, ultimately going far to transforming an entire region of the nation, providing the raw materials and industrial capacity necessary to become a major site of American production after World War II.

The Tennessee Valley was one of the United States’ most underdeveloped areas in 1933. Despite a long-term effort by Nebraska senator George Norris to push for public power in the region, private interests prevented a major government investment until the Roosevelt administration swept to power that year. The net farm income of the Tennessee Valley was only $639 a year compared to the national average of $1835. The Roosevelt administration saw widespread regional planning as key to raising the nation’s poorest regions out of poverty. Targeting the Tennessee River Valley, the new agency built sixteen dams to prevent erosion and limit floods, provide electricity for both farmers and industrial operations, and eventually for recreational purposes. It also attempted to establish a model community with modern urban planning for the region to follow at Norris, Tennessee, north of Knoxville.


Workers at Norris Dam

However, it should be noted that Washington planners, fearful of alienating the white South through this unprecedented government incursion into the economy, not only reinforced segregation on the job, but created new forms of it. Much physical labor on construction sites was not segregated in the 1930s, but after the TVA introduced segregation that its planners assumed already existed, it spread through the South for a lot of hard labor. Yet even here, the federal government was employing black Americans at high rates for the first time in a very long time and despite the institutionalized discrimination of TVA and the fact that the white power structure in the South were all Democrats, it helped the process of convincing blacks to leave the Republican Party which now did nothing for them and join the Democratic Party that might do a little bit for them. TVA did eventually provide better jobs for African-Americans, but only after threatened NAACP lawsuits and Fair Employment Practices Committee investigations. But all hiring of blacks was resisted. When TVA hired three black security guards in 1943, none other than John Rankin said it would “engender more bitterness among southern representatives and southern senators than anything else I could mention.” And when blacks showed up in 1942 to help work on Fontana Dam on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, white workers threatened to lynch them.

For unions, the impact of the TVA would be ambivalent. Fourteen American Federation of Labor trade unions were involved in the construction of the dams but the agency originally would not recognize them as bargaining agents on the projects until its lawyers decided that since TVA was chartered as a corporation, it could be legally liable for not doing so. In 1935, TVA created its Employee Relationship Policy, a sort of localized Wagner Act. It granted the right to organize and choose collective bargaining agents free of management. The AFL then created the Tennessee Valley Trades and Labor Council (TVTLC) as the bargaining agent for all the AFL craft unions. But while the TVA leaders in Washington were relatively open to unionism, local supervisors who lacked any interactions with unions were openly hostile. When John Turner was fired for passing out union literature during working hours, labor appealed to TVA leadership who reinstated him in part because the TVA board itself had facilitated the unionization of the workforce. In 1940, the TVA signed the first general agreement covering its blue-collar employees and then moved on to a similar agreement with seven unions covering white-collar workers. In short, the TVA provided a small bastion of unionism in a harshly anti-union part of the nation.


Building the Big Ridge Dam, Tennessee

Interestingly, the early TVA also worked with the Highlander School, the radical Myles Horton-led educational center in Tennessee that would later train Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and then be closed (it moved to a different part of the state). TVA’s first chairman was Arthur Morgan, who had socialist ties, including through his son who was an avowed socialist. Morgan had the TVA pay for a few workers to attend Highlander for industrial training and, while Morgan had to publicly keep his distance from the radical center, the Highlander-trained workers played a central role in organizing the TVA craft unions. The connection between the two institutions continued to thrive over the next few years, although Morgan ignored Horton’s pleas to integrate the workforce.

No American could be sad about new economic opportunities for the Southern working class. But would those jobs be union jobs? In fact, for the most part, outside of the TVA itself, they would not. It was an intentional move on the part of the Roosevelt administration to reshape the geography of American industrial production in the New Deal and especially in World War II. There were many good reasons to do that. But TVA-produced power also provided the infrastructure necessary for corporations to move production from union jobs in New England and the Great Lakes states to anti-union southern states. As early as the late 1930s, textile manufacturers escaping unions in the northeast found the newly electrified areas of the TVA appealing places to move production. The CIO knew this was a problem and understood that the ability to organize these jobs would go a long ways to defining the postwar labor movement. So it initiated Operation Dixie in 1946 to begin organizing the South. And while not all those campaigns were related specifically around TVA-created jobs, its planners knew that TVA-provided power would open up the region to massive capital mobility as manufacturers saw the potential for a non-union workforce again within American borders. But Operation Dixie largely failed for complex reasons and those jobs largely, although not entirely, remained non-union for the existence of the workplace.

In the end, the TVA transformed the South and provided a great deal of new opportunity for Southern workers. It did however contribute, indirectly at least, to the decline of American unionism in postwar America.


TVA sites as of 2005

The material on segregation comes from Nancy Grant, TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo. Other material comes from F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South and Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.

This is the 143rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Mad Men Series Finale Open Thread

[ 53 ] May 17, 2015 |


Well, this is it. I have to say that after Season 6, I was really down on the show, but both halves of Season 7 have been excellent. My prediction, which no doubt will be proven wrong shortly, is that the final episode consists of nothing but Don. Maybe Sally or Betty. But all other story lines in the advertising agency have been finished. Given that Roger Sterling is one of the greatest supporting characters in TV history, it’s kind of too bad.

…I was fantastically wrong! Also, cocaine! Mad Men has reached the 70s!

Dying Republicans

[ 74 ] May 17, 2015 |


I am really hesitant to believe too strongly in demographic factors as the key issue in an election, largely because there are so many variables and because it creates a sense of inevitably that does not actually exist. But Republican voters are super old and it certainly isn’t going to help them in 2016.

Book Review: Karen Piper, The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos

[ 30 ] May 17, 2015 |


Karen Piper has written a powerful book about how water privatization threatens people around the world. Connecting the subject to the world’s colonial past, she demonstrates how a handful of multinational corporations working with global financial organizations like the World Bank have ridden roughshod over the world’s people in order to turn a profit off the substance of life. Piper visited nations around the world where water privatization and access connect to larger issues that threaten the globe, including Egypt and Iraq to connect water access with Islamic extremism and Chile to understand how the issues going on with privatization in that country are connected to climate change. Ultimately, she makes a convincing case for taking water privatization more seriously in conceptualizing the world’s biggest problems.

Of course water privatization isn’t something that most activists are completely unaware of. Most significantly was the Bechtel attempt to privatize the water of Coachabamba, Bolivia in 2000 and the grassroots protests against this that paved the way for the rise of Evo Morales. But by and large, it’s not an issue most of think about much. Yet we should.

Central to Piper’s argument is the relationship between water privatization on one hand and colonialism and imperialism on the other. She begins her book by profiling a visit to the World Water Forum, a big international event that brings the UN together with international development specialists, the IMF and World Bank, and water companies to promote water development. But really the extraordinarily elite event does little than promote the interests of the big water companies such as Suez, Veolia, and Agbar. In fact, 5 companies controlled 73 percent of the world’s privatized water in 2001. Of course grassroots activists are not allowed to participate in these big wig discussions of global water, even though (and really, because) they are the ones who will suffer in the attempt to turn water into a commodity.

These companies originated in the history of European colonialism. Veolia is a French company that evolved out of an 1853 Napoleon III decree that opened up water as a profit-making enterprise for many of Europe’s wealthiest men. Suez, another French company, was founded by an imperialist who was later involved in the failed French attempt to build the Panama Canal and the Belgian conquest of the Congo. The company was long run by colonial officials in North Africa and continues to see Africa as a prime place for Europeans to profit off of water. Today these companies are the world’s prime pushers of water privatization.

Water privatization in Chile began with the tight relationship between Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys with Augusto Pinochet during the economic plundering of Chile after the 1973 coup. The privatization regime of Pinochet largely remains in place today, while the conflation of indigenous rights with “terrorism” pioneered by that coup also retains power. The Pehuenche and Mapuche are resisting Chile’s attempts to dam the Bío-Bío River and Baker River and they face significant harassment from the government for doing so. In South Africa, she argues for integrating traditional understandings of water to push against the capitalist practices of both the apartheid and post-Mandela governments that have had widespread ecological damage for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, where water supplies are already sensitive, water privatization can cause significant instability, including Islamic extremism. Piper notes how the 1991 American bombings of the Iraqi infrastructure permanently undermined what was once a very good water infrastructure. In Egypt, water privatization in 2005 doubled the price of water in some parts of Cairo and led to public protests that never really went away. She argues this led directly into the movement against Hosni Mubarak, whose family was heavily involved in water profiteering in the country. Meanwhile, Egypt’s elite classes had more water than they knew what to do with, with water inequality mirroring other forms of inequality. Briefly analyzing the post-revolutionary period, Piper notes that while the nationalization of water supplies would have benefited Egypt’s people, the water companies saw the nation as a future gold mine. The World Bank and IMF offered Morsi $4.5 billion in loans for recovery, but of course that came with the strings of continuing the privatization regime. When Morsi began cancelling some of the corrupt deals over water and other sectors of Egypt’s society, the foreign corporations began to panic and she argues this led to Morsi’s being forced to resign as the economy collapsed. I do however think the decline of Morsi is a lot more complicated than this given Piper ignores the religious tensions within Egyptian society entirely. But at the very least, it’s worth thinking of water as a central player in such events.

Piper also notes the dangers of calling water a “human right.” It’s not bad per se to do this but it opens space for corporations to co-opt this relatively meaningless language to say that they are privatizing the world’s water because they believe in human rights. Companies like Suez and Veolia have embraced the language of water as a human rights because now they could demand international funding to promote this human right so beneficially provided through them. Corporations could now sue foreign governments to make water payments using such language as a justification.

The coming chaos of water is real enough with or without privatization. Pollution, overextraction and depletion of ground water, salinization, and climate change all threaten the world’s fresh water supplies. If nothing is done to ensure the ability of all citizens to have access to some water in order to survive, global disasters will result. But for corporations, this is all a chance to profit, which means that those who can pay will access water and those can’t won’t. That will exacerbate global inequality, could create wars, and will likely lead to the increased marginalization and oppression of indigenous peoples and racial minorities. None of this bothers corporations of course.

In the end, Piper hopes to “help return cultural diversity to the management of the world’s water supplies,” aiming for an anti-colonial view of water that pushes back against the post-colonial multinational corporations. Mostly she succeeds in her arguments. One can argue that the challenges of finding clean water for billions of people is something that can’t really rely on romanticized notions of local control. On the other hand, the current system of privatization and profit isn’t working either for the world’s poor. We in the U.S. might see the water system as fundamentally successful, although if you live in Detroit you probably don’t. Unfortunately, Detroit more represents what corporate water has done to most of the world. Piper effectively challenges this system and should make us think harder about the relationship between water and colonialism at the very least.

The Civil War in the West

[ 16 ] May 16, 2015 |

Adam Arenson and Virginia Scharff, who was my dissertation advisor, on the end of the Civil War in the West:

But looking at the war from the West is an important perspective. From the West, the Civil War appeared as merely the greatest in a series of conflicts that shaped the United States in the 19th century, conflicts over how to square liberty and slavery, empire and democracy — crises of authority that tested what the proper limits of the United States would be. The Civil War caused brawls among American miners in Victoria, British Columbia, and it launched multiple schemes for Americans — black and white, Union and Confederate — to colonize Mexico, or Central America, or islands in the Caribbean. The Civil War contributed to the rise and then the fall of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, as well as the Confederation of Canada from disparate provinces.

As Reconstruction moved forward in the South, it encountered questions of race and citizenship, occupation and voting rights that were familiar from the states and territories of the West. Republicans in California twisted themselves into knots to explain why African African-Americans should receive citizenship and voting rights, but Chinese immigrants should not; the Wyoming Territory granted woman’s suffrage in 1869 as part of a strategy to resist perceived equality among races.

Put simply, one cannot understand the Civil War without addressing the significance of the West in American history before, during, and after the traditional chronology of the war. And likewise you cannot understand the West without taking into account changes wrought by the nation’s cataclysmic Civil War. Though often held apart, the histories of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the American West compose a larger, unified history of conflict over land, labor, rights, citizenship and the limits of governmental authority in the United States.

The nation’s defining debates and battles over freedom, race, land, and the rights of individuals, took place amid, and because of, the territorial expansion of the United States, at the hands of men and women who welcomed an American empire. This was nothing new in 1848: Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholding son of a westering slaveholder, embraced territorial expansion as the engine of an “empire for liberty” — though Jefferson’s fellow slaveholders more often envisioned an empire for slavery. In the West as much as in the slave South, elites demonstrated how little regard they had for the life, liberty or pursuit of happiness of the American Indian nations they encountered, or of the Spanish-speaking peoples who had for generations lived in the newly American West.

This is really where I think Civil War scholarship is going. There’s been a major uptick in books on the Civil War in the West (see here and here) and its long-term impacts and I think integrating these perspectives into the North-South narratives that dominate the historiography of the War is going to significantly expand our understanding of the period.

Punk Rock Bernie

[ 2 ] May 15, 2015 |

We could use a president who has fostered local punk scenes.

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