Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

Harsher Penalties Needed

[ 90 ] May 9, 2013 |

There’s no question that one lesson from the fertilizer explosion in West, Texas is that we need much harsher fines and criminal statutes against corporations when workers die, as well as the regulatory structure to prosecute the owners of these corporations. The latest AFL-CIO Death on the Job Report, released this week, shows that according to data complied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 4,693 workers died on the job. That’s 13 workers every day. 50,000 workers died from occupational disease. Workers suffered between 7.6 and 11.4 million job injuries and illnesses.

This might just be an inconvenience for the corporations who employ these workers, but it is devastating to the workers and their families. They need real compensation for their pain and it needs to come out of corporate profits.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh, the factory collapse has now claimed the lives of at least 912 people, making it by far the greatest workplace accident in human history. And another factory fire has killed 8 people in that country, including, ironically, one of the biggest defenders of the nation’s unsafe factory system. The multinational clothing corporations responsible for this system will not suffer at all for all these deaths.

The Similarity of Chinamen

[ 93 ] May 9, 2013 |

Building off my Chinese Exclusion Act post from the other day, here is a good example of pure, unadulterated anti-Chinese racism, from the New York Times, August 26, 1885. In short, they all look the same.

Credit to the Times for making this stuff available, even when it is less than flattering to their ancestors at the paper.

More on Anarchists and Their Gun Fetish

[ 162 ] May 8, 2013 |

Oh for the love of all things holy. Of course it would be a self-proclaimed anarchist who developed the 3-D printed gun.

Further context here.

Medicare Scares

[ 7 ] May 8, 2013 |

Digby on the endless wrongness of those who project when Medicare will become insolvent.

“I’m a Suffer Yet”

[ 38 ] May 7, 2013 |



This collection of cat images used during the suffrage movement is outstanding.

Thanks to djw for sending this my way.

The Environmental President?

[ 27 ] May 7, 2013 |

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting argument for Obama as “the environmental president,” but I think it is the wrong question to ask.

Chait’s argument is that despite the failure of the 2010 cap and trade bill, the almost certain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other disappointments to environmentalists, Obama has actually done a great deal behind the scenes to fight climate change. That includes increasing mileage standards for automobiles, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions standards for power plants. These are all good things.

In some ways, Chait is right, but I think the article also reflects a larger problem of focusing too much on the legacy of presdients. First, Obama may well apply the Clean Air Act aggressively. I hope he does. It might create massive changes. But executive authority without legislative backing and court appointments to uphold challenges is a very tenuous and perhaps temporary way to create change. I think the auto industry is just waiting for the next Republican to take the Oval Office to challenge those mileage standards. I think Republican-dominated federal courts will overturn much that Obama can do.

In other words, the issue is not Obama’s legacy. It’s the national response to the greatest environmental crisis in world history. Obama is a major player here, but the nation as a whole has done so little to fight climate change and what has happened on the executive level can be reversed by another executive. At the same time, Obama should not be blamed too much for the failure of climate change legislation to pass because he can’t just wish it to be true. The real problem with the nation making the necessary improvements on climate change issues is the intransigence of the Republican Party with assists from coal state Democrats. Obama can do what he wants, but without a broad legislative commitment, I am skeptical about how much real change he or any other president can really create long term.

Similarly, there’s no question that the Keystone pipeline is a symbol since it alone is not going to make or break the climate, but it’s also a very important symbol. Here is an opportunity for the president to stand up and say that his administration will fight climate change, even at political cost. It’s clear he won’t do that, even though mining oil sands are about the worst thing we can do to the climate.

It is also worth noting that environmentalists themselves are devastated by the failure of cap and trade. Chait cites a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker piece on the bill’s failure. I haven’t read that. But I was a guest at an event at Harvard in February that Lemann moderated. Organized by Theda Skocpol, it was a general discussion about the bill’s failure that included some of the nation’s leading environmentalists. They were despondent. I felt like I was in a meeting of the labor movement about how no one listens to the AFL-CIO anymore. The entire environmentalist structure of creating legislative change–marshaling scientific expertise, professional testimony, lobbying, and funding politicians–completely failed. Environmentalists are becoming the next labor movement–easy for Democrats to ignore because they know that enviros will still write checks in the end.

So I don’t think Chait can so easily say that environmentalists are off base in their criticism of the Obama Administration to do enough on climate change, given how universal and deeply held their feelings are about the failure of that bill.

There’s also the more minor issue that Obama has been downright disappointing to those who prioritize public land management, energy production, and other environmental issues. Although he has created a few wilderness areas, his administration has also approved a lot of new oil and gas drilling on public lands. His selection of Ken Salazar as his first Secretary of Interior was predictably bad. Basically, I just don’t think Obama much cares about public lands. Of course, presidents do tend to cement their public lands legacies in the last years of their administration. So while we might say that Obama has been good on climate change, he hasn’t been particularly good on most other environmental issues.

In the end, as Chait points out, the nation may have seen greenhouse gas emission reductions since Obama took power, but they are almost all for reasons outside of his climate agenda–the bad economy, low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom, young people driving less and living in cities. This might tell us more about how change is created than focusing on presidential power.

The Terrorism Bogeyman and Regulating Hazardous Materials

[ 18 ] May 7, 2013 |

Remember the West, Texas factory explosion. It’s been 2 weeks and the story has almost completely disappeared from the media while CNN continued its 24-hour coverage of the latest details in the Boston Marathon bombings at least until late last week. The lack of follow-up coverage is a huge boon to capitalists who prefer that nothing change in the lax regulatory culture that plagues this nation and especially Texas.

That said, the Texas legislature did hold hearings last week on the explosion in West, showing the utter lack of regulation that not only would allow a fertilizer plant to be next to a middle school and nursing home in West, but also a lack of knowledge about where fertilizer plants are actually located. This shoddy regulation says so much about the United States in 2013:

But since ammonium nitrate isn’t considered an “extremely hazardous” chemical by state and federal agencies, plants only have to report to authorities if they have more than 10,000 pounds of it on hand. The state could have stricter reporting requirements if it chose to, according to David Lakey, Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The maximum amount the West Fertilizer plant reported to the state was 270 tons.

And the burden for communities to know where these chemicals are stored, and how to respond to emergencies at facilities that store them, falls on local officials. There are over 14,000 facilities in Texas that self-report having “extremely hazardous substances” on site, according to Lakey of DSHS. Representatives from that agency testified that chlorine and battery acid are the most common hazardous substances near communities, but that they only oversee reporting, not safety.

“Have we done anything to survey the 41 [fertilizer plants] because of what happened in West?” Pickett asked.

W. Nim Kidd, Assistant Director of DPS and Chief of Emergency Management, answered that his agency doesn’t do surveys, but local fire chiefs have the authority to go in and inspect those facilities.

“Could you suggest that to them?” Pickett asked, wondering if the agency could do more to encourage local fire officials to conduct inspections and prepare emergency response plans.

Last week, I talked to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about how industry and pro-industry politicians use terrorist threats as an excuse to hide the location of hazardous materials from the public. (Part of my interview with Jonsson was also used in this piece). The Dallas Morning News tried to find out where fertilizer plants are located in Texas:

After the state, in response to media requests for more information about other fertilizer plant sites, invoked a little-known “confidential information” law that gives wide secrecy discretion to government officials, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote that avoiding tipping off potential terrorists is understandable, “[b]ut in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, [the state] denied the right [of West residents] to make informed choices and protect themselves from imminent danger.”

Industry uses terrorism as a bogeyman. Corporations have opposed right-to-know laws for decades. Terrorism is just a convenient excuse. If terrorists want to attack a chemical facility, there are thousands of poorly secured plants in the open they can target. Moreover, I am going to say this really slow and in bold letters to make this extra easy to understand,

If fertilizer plants are too dangerous to let people know where they are located, they are too dangerous to place next to middle schools and nursing homes.

If there is a real terrorist threat against fertilizer plants, then we need to regulate them like nuclear power plants. Place them away from neighborhoods and under the highest level of security with maximum regulation.

But of course, that’s not what corporations want and it’s extremely unlikely to happen because the terrorism threat is just fear-mongering and excuse-making.

One source of good Texas workers news at least–the United Auto Workers has won an election to represent workers at an Arlington auto parts factory.

The Greatest Beard in American History

[ 34 ] May 6, 2013 |

The title for greatest beard in American history goes to one Peter Cooper, 1876 Greenback Party candidate for president.

I don’t see how the competition for this title even comes close.

Not sure when the picture was taken but Cooper died in 1883.

Radio

[ 1 ] May 6, 2013 |

I was on the Alternet Radio Hour with Joshua Holland on Saturday, talking Texas, Bangladesh, and my joyous past with right-wingers trying to get me fired. Turns out the more I do this kind of thing, the less I sound like a bumbling idiot. Was on in good company too, with Dave Zirin and Lee Fang the other guests.

This Day in Labor History: May 6, 1882

[ 67 ] May 6, 2013 |

On May 6, 1882, President Chester Alan Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although not often seen by the general public as part of our labor history, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory for organized labor in this country. It generated out of the discontent of white labor in the American West toward Chinese competition in general and specifically out of the Workingmen’s Party, a political organization of California’s white working class that threatened to overthrow the state’s two-party system if its major concern was not addressed.

It is useful to think of Chinese exclusion in the context of Gilded Age capital and labor. With capital so overwhelming labor and the free labor ideology of whites controlling their own future through hard work, white labor looked for any solution to the crisis. Generally, they hoped for a single, simple solution that they could grasp onto. That might be Henry George’s Single Tax, the monetaization of silver, the ideas of Edward Bellamy, the 8-hour day, or Chinese exclusion. Workers might swing from one idea to the next, looking for a panacea to industrial capitalism that allowed them to retake control over their own lives. Why Chinese exclusion? The idea of a white man’s republic seemed under threat from racialized labor who would seem to take any job at any price, driving down wages for white men, channeling profits into the capitalists’ arms, and undermining the ability of white men to control their own lives. Eliminate the Chinese and you go a long ways to resetting the balance of power between labor and capital.

When whites moved to California in the late 1840s, most saw it is as a white man’s country. This meant that any job done by a non-white was stealing a job from a white person. When they flowed across the nation during the Gold Rush, they assumed the gold was there for the taking, without competition. Lo and behold, news of the gold had traveled around the world. Native Americans were already there. Miners streamed northward from Mexico, Peru, and Chile. They came from France and Germany. They traveled across the Pacific from Hawaii, Australia, and especially China. While the Australians and Germans and most other Europeans were acceptable to the miners, the non-whites and the French were not. Mexicans and Chinese found their claims stolen, the French (who were seen on the same level as Mexicans) were made unwelcome. Most of the competitors went back home by the early 1850s in the face of American white supremacy.

There was one caveat for this. California was a nearly all-male space. Miners were totally out of sorts because there were no women to clean and cook for them. It really affected them profoundly, as one can see if you read their diaries. Mostly, they lived in filth. But over time, the Chinese were feminized to take over the jobs the whites did not want. This is the origin of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese laundry. Although gender ratios slowly equalized, the Chinese had developed strong communities in California cities. The Chinese also became the cheap labor of choice for industrialists looking to build railroad with inhumane working conditions that most whites would not accept.



Chinese-American children, late 19th century

So-called “anticoolie clubs” became common among whites resentful of Chinese labor. For example, in 1867, a group of white San Franciscans in an anticoolie club drove a gang of Chinese laborers from their railroad work. These ethnic-based clubs were not so different from the Protestant-supremacist riots of pre-Civil War New England against the Irish. These clubs engaged in a boycott of Chinese-made goods beginning in 1859. They also became connected to the burgeoning trade union movement in California. But unionism had a very difficult time getting established in California and the anti-coolie organizations helped fill that working-class vacuum.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Chinese question came to dominate California politics. Into this debate came the Workingmen’s Party. Began among German immigrants in the east in 1876 as a sort of socialist big tent party, in California, the leadership of Denis Kearney turned it into a 1-platform political movement: kick out the Chinese. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1873 and immediately became involved in politics. Combining fervent anti-Chinese hate with violent threats against his political opponents, Kearney took over the Workingmen’s Party to unite white working-class and anti-Chinese politics. At the 1879 California Constitutional Convention, Kearney and his supporters inserted a variety of anti-Chinese laws into the document. The most important of the clauses in the new constitution banned the employment of the Chinese. But business leaders opposed all of this and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these provisions.

Anti-Chinese image

For Kearney and his followers, eliminating the Chinese was just the first step in retaking control of the republic for the working man. Once the Chinese question was settled, Kearney wanted to go after the capitalists. Said Kearney,

”When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 mean ready to go out. . . and if ‘John’ [the Chinese] don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts [sic] into the sea… We are ready to do it… If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.”

Although primarily a California movement, by the late 1870s, the anti-Chinese fears began to spread among whites throughout the nation, despite the fact that outside of New York City and western mining towns, the Chinese population was near zero. In 1876, both parties adapted anti-Chinese planks to their party platforms. Kearney took an eastern tour in 1878, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Boston and campaigning with future Greenback Party presidential candidate Benjamin Butler, although his national star faded quickly, in part because of his anti-capitalist views, and he returned to San Francisco without the national popularity he craved. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among its provisions was to bar the Chinese from citizenship and required each Chinese to acquire a certificate of residence or face deportation. In 1902, the Geary Act made the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent, as opposed to the 10-year extensions mandated in the original law.

Workingmen’s Party poster

Organized labor strongly supported most laws to end Chinese immigration. The Knights of Labor were strongly anti-Chinese and banned Asians from the organization. A group of Knights in Tacoma, Washington spearheaded anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma, Washington in 1885. The American Federation of Labor began in 1886, after Chinese Exclusion, but AFL head Samuel Gompers supported the extension of the law, as well as other anti-immigration legislation through the 1920s.

The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was hardly the end of violence against Chinese labor, as the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming would find out in 1885. But it was the effective end of the Workingman’s Party and the end of anti-Chinese groups threatening the established political system.

Kearney’s star faded rapidly after the Chinese Exclusion Act. He died in obscurity in 1907.

Legal Chinese immigration effectively stopped until 1943, when the nation’s wartime alliance with China made exclusion politically untenable and when anti-Japanese sentiment put the Chinese in a new light for many Americans. However, with exclusion, the Chinese began to migrate to northern Mexico and British Columbia and crossing into the United States, forcing the U.S. to create the Border Patrol.

This is the 59th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Postwar Consumers’ Republic

[ 148 ] May 5, 2013 |

I recently rewatched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I was confirmed in my opinion that this is the greatest American film about work and class. The early scenes in the factory are the most famous, with the amazingly awesome food service designed to give workers lunch without them leaving the production line, the muscle memory forcing Chaplin to twist his hands like he was holding his wrench involuntarily even when a woman is coming with buttons on suggestive parts of her coat, the panopticon style surveillance system that catches him taking a smoke break in the bathroom, and of course his getting caught in the gears of the machine. Then there’s the scene where Chaplin wants to remain in prison because he gets fed there.

It’s all brilliant. But I think it is not the most important part of the film. Because I think, like the wonderful work of Preston Sturges, the later part of the film goes a long ways to explain the failure of class-based politics in American history and the supremacy of consumerism over radicalism. The real key to the film is the appearance of Paulette Goddard* as the youthful waif. She will do anything to feed her sisters or survive on the street. But it’s not a political action. It’s sheer survival, disconnected from politics, even if her father is killed in a protest of the unemployed.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, do so. If you have, think about the scene when Chaplin gets a job as a security guard and lets his young friend in for the night. She luxuriates in the consumer goods, wearing firs and laying in a soft bed. This is what she wants.

And all Charlie does is want to give them to her. When he ends up in leading the march of the unemployed, it’s by accident. He goes on strike when the shop goes on strike. But class politics isn’t Chaplin (even if Charlie himself was a socialist). It’s the sheer desire to work and provide your loved ones the goods that capitalism was denying workers in the 30s and not denying them in the 50s. When Chaplin and Goddard walk down the road at the end, it’s not to radicalism. They are walking to a life where someday, maybe, they can have the furs, or at least a home of their own.

This brings me back to Preston Sturges. In Sullivan’s Travels and in his other great films of the period, the working class is noble and brave and also loves to buy things and have a good laugh. But they know that for as horrible as poverty is, engaging in American consumer culture is way more fun than lame, boring, and dreary revolutionary politics. All people want is a home and maybe a few furs if they get really lucky. And however they get lucky doesn’t matter, so long as they aren’t poor.

I think these films are really profound about class in America. If you are a working-class person in the 1930s, much about your life is probably terrible. But if you can tap into prosperity in the 50s, why would you reject that for communism, especially when that communism is as puritanical and unpleasant as that of CPUSA or Stalin himself or the lovely nations of eastern Europe during the Cold War?

This doesn’t mean I don’t think the greatest mistake the CIO ever made was evicting the communists from the labor movement in the late 40s. In fact, that was a terrible idea. But the great working-class films of the Great Depression understood the American working class in a way that communists never did. As Lizabeth Cohen shows in her excellent history of consumerism and the postwar working class, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the working-class openly embraced consumer goods over radical class-based politics after World War II. And that’s OK. Let’s face it, as both Chaplin and Sturges knew, revolutionary politics are not fun for most people. Hard struggle stinks. Taking dangerous risks or watching television, which would you rather do?

For all as many of us might wish for a history of working-class politics that was more militant and created more power in the present, it is really very easy to understand why that didn’t happen.

Also I swear I’m not stealing SEK’s bit. Despite the heavy use of stills from the film!

* Paulette Goddard is really fascinating. She was married to Chaplin from 1936-42. Her last two husbands: Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque, of all people. She died extremely rich in 1990, leaving $20 million to NYU.

D-I-V-O-R-C-E

[ 10 ] May 4, 2013 |

For all the talk we’ve been giving the late great George Jones here, we shouldn’t forget the nearly equally talented Tammy Wynette. I think overall Tammy’s potential was not quite as fulfilled as George because of a general sameness to much of her work, as well as the lack of a late career comeback because of the painkillers and early death. That said, when she was great, especially early in her career, she was truly great. Here’s an example, from the 1968 Country Music Awards. Note as well classically terrible awards show intro bit by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

  • Switch to our mobile site