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Contracts

[ 56 ] March 6, 2015 |

In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.

So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.

This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.

No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.

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Albert Maysles, RIP

[ 2 ] March 6, 2015 |

The great documentarian has died.

This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886

[ 23 ] March 6, 2015 |

On March 6, 1886, the Great Southwestern Strike began, marking the start of a year of worker revolt against the exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism. Over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike, but the failure to win helped usher in the decline of the Knights of Labor.

The widely and publicly loathed Jay Gould was one of the leading railroad capitalists and financiers in the United States and he had invested heavily in the massive expansion of railroads into the southwest after the Civil War. This rapid expansion gave workers some level of power and for awhile they achieved good wages. But Gould’s managers consistently sought to cut costs and gain power over workers they thought far too independent.

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Jay Gould

By 1885, Gould had succeeded in gaining control over many of his competitors and he started looking to cut labor costs. That year though, railroad workers had success striking against Gould-owned railroads. Management attempts to cut wages sent workers off the job and the Knights of Labor, a rising labor organization attempted to organize all workers, stepped in and helped negotiate a settlement that included rehiring strikers and paying back wages. Specifically, Terence Powderly personally sat down with Gould and convinced him to grant the workers’ demands. Defeating Gould was the biggest victory the Knights would ever achieve. Feeling hope that a national organization could fight for their demands, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined the Knights in the next few months.

Gould however was not going to take his defeat lying down. He was determined to crush the Knights. The managers’ war on independent labor continued and another strike quickly seemed likely. As these things often go, the strike itself started over an isolated incident. In Marshall, Texas, a Knights member attended a union meeting on work time. He was fired and his fellow workers walked off their job to demand he be rehired. The strike spread like wildfire among workers infuriated with Gould for the terrible wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions along his rail line. Within days, the strike had spread across Texas and into Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

This became the largest of the nation’s 1400 strikes in 1886. Eventually, 200,000 workers (out of a total of 700,000 Knights members that year) went on strike. The strikers were hurt by the lack of solidarity from other unions, as the skilled labor union The Brotherhood of Engineers continued to work. On the other hand, one of the leaders Texas Farmers’ Alliance, William Lamb, declared a boycott of the railroads in support of the strikers, although this was controversial within the Alliance. The rapid growth of the Knights also was a problem. Powderly was generally opposed to strikes and the new members didn’t understand that the Knights actually had a pretty limited vision for labor reform that did not include very much direct action. While Powderly’s role in the strike is not entirely clear, he did not approve of the second strike, certainly did not grant it very strong support and stayed mostly hands off. In any case, when he did reach out to Gould to hash this new strike out, the plutocrat refused, seeking to crush the union entirely. Perhaps apocryphally, he said about the workers, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Ultimately, the strikers had trouble maintaining the popular support necessary to overcome the overwhelming odds against organized labor in the Gilded Age. This certainly wasn’t because everyday people loved Jay Gould. He was largely considered a villain at the time as he is today. But people were so reliant on the railroad for goods and transportation that the shutdown of the system made their lives difficult. And if we know one thing about labor struggles today, it’s that for many people, their support of workers remains in the abstract and at the first moment they are personally inconvenienced, that theoretical support dries up. In popular opinion, strike leader Martin Irons began to be portrayed as Gould’s equal in oppressing the needs of the farmer, both monopolists of a sort, a sign of the limited ability for farmer-worker solidarity in these years.

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Martin Irons

Gould also worked with local politicians to crush the strike. The governor of Missouri called out the state militia, while the governor of Texas built on that by calling out the militia and the Texas Rangers. The governor of Kansas however refused, noting the lack of worker violence that Gould claimed was the reason for the troops. U.S. marshals also assisted in ensuring the trains ran. Gould also called in the Pinkertons. What did cause property destruction was the state repression, which led workers to retaliate by burning machine shops and letting train engines go cold, which delayed trains for hours until they warmed back up. In both Fort Worth, Texas and East St. Louis, Illinois, actual violence eventually took place against Gould’s hired thugs, leading to the death of at least nine workers. Shootouts began taking place between workers and trains running through the strike. But the violence caused by the Pinkertons and state forced workers back on the job. The strike was mostly over by May and accomplished little.

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Battle between workers and U.S. marshals at East St. Louis

This was the first major defeat for the Knights of Labor. Up to this point, it had seemed a growing force in American life. A few weeks after the strike’s defeat, the Knights convened a special assembly where it banned the organization from participating in strikes. This was a terrible idea as employers who had previously capitulated to the Knights immediately rolled back workers’ gains, knowing the central organization had taken away their best weapon to maintain those victories. Combined with the Haymarket incident a couple of months later (Powderly himself refused to do anything for the anarchists thrown in prison for it), the corporate-dominated media was able to paint the Knights as violent radicals and public sympathy turned against them. Moreover, workers felt betrayed by Powderly for his actions during the year. The organization would decline soon after, with a loss of 90 percent of members by 1890, and the American Federation of Labor would rise in its place as the primary union organization of American workers, or at least the ones the AFL would accept.

Martin Irons would be banned from the Knights for leading this disastrous strike and was blacklisted from the railroad. He died in poverty in 1900.

This is the 135th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“YOU’RE GONNA RESPECT ME!”

[ 24 ] March 5, 2015 |

Perhaps the fact that the people of Chicago hate him is unnerving Rahm Emanuel. Or maybe he’s just an awful human being.

Greil Marcus

[ 64 ] March 5, 2015 |

I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.

So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.

Historical Images

[ 12 ] March 5, 2015 |

After a long hiatus to finish the two books, I have begun updating my historical image blog again. I just put up a set of images on immigration. I like to collect historical images for teaching, as I always have PowerPoint presentations for my lectures that consist of nothing but an outline, key terms, and historical images. If they are useful to anyone, have at it.

Lock Out the Kids!

[ 29 ] March 4, 2015 |

The refinery giant Tesoro has decided that it can’t allow youth baseball leagues to use the fields it owns next to its Martinez, California refinery. That’s because there are pickets at the plant due to the refinery strike. Oh, and also to protect the kids from the horrors of the outside agitator.

Oil giant Tesoro is locking out 600 youth baseball players from practicing on 15 fields located next to its refinery in Martinez, California. As part of a nationwide work stoppage involving some 7,000 workers, the Martinez workers have been on strike since Feb. 2, with regular pickets from the United Steelworkers and their allies protesting health and safety conditions.

“It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines,” Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche explained to the local press. “We just don’t have to expose them to any negative interactions.”

In another interview, Deutsche specifically mentioned the threat of outside agitators from groups like Occupy, the California Nurses Association and Communities for a Better Environment, a group that works on environmental justice issues affecting low-income and minority communities.

These groups insist they pose no threat to children.

“This is a PR stunt,” said Nile Malloy, Northern California program director for Communities for a Better Environment. “It’s just really sad — like, really? … Everybody who protests is peaceful. They’re there to demonstrate solidarity with the workers, to protect the health and safety of the community, the climate.”

“Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Charles Idelson, spokesman for the CNA. “How disgraceful [for Tesoro] to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”

“There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” Scott told the Vallejo Times-Herald.

Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee told International Business Times “there have been reports of strike-related incidents deemed to be unsafe at the gates of our refinery and in the areas near the facility’s ballfields.” But when asked for more information about the “strike-related incidents,” Barbee said she did not “have additional details to share.”

That is pretty pathetic. I guess it is an attempt to turn the community against the strike, but that is lame.

The Secret Talks

[ 18 ] March 4, 2015 |

The secrecy revolving around the Trans-Pacific Partnership continues to disturb those who are interested in fair trade. Noting that this agreement isn’t really even about American exports since the world is already basically fully globalized already, Robert Reich and Richard Trumka express their concerns over the TPP’s secrecy.

In the first three decades after World War II, “free trade” meant other countries opening their borders to American-made products, and the U.S. opening its borders to their goods. The United States chose free trade, and it worked. Living standards rose here and abroad. Jobs were created to take the place of jobs that were lost. Worldwide demand for products made by American workers grew and helped push up U.S. wages.

But American corporations have gone global, and in recent decades the payoffs from trade agreements have mainly gone to those at the top. Now they make many of their products overseas and ship them back to the United States. Recent trade agreements have protected their intellectual property abroad — patents, trademarks and copyrights — along with their overseas factories, equipment and financial assets.

But those deals haven’t protected the incomes of most Americans, whose jobs have been outsourced abroad and whose wages have gone nowhere.

As for the problems with the TPP? What’s been leaked about its proposals reveals, for example, that the pharmaceutical industry would get stronger patent protections, delaying cheaper generic versions of drugs.

Also, in Out of Sight, I argue for international trade law that empowers workers to sue employers in the country of corporate origin. I fully expect some to say that is a ridiculous and unworkable idea. But the TPP would guarantee something similar to this, except strictly to benefit corporations:

The deal also gives global corporations an international tribunal of private attorneys, outside any nation’s legal system, that can order compensation for lost expected profits resulting from a nation’s regulations, including our own. These extraordinary rights for corporations put governments on the defensive over legitimate public health or environmental rules.

The TPP would go far to override international law. Now, I doubt the Vietnamese could realistically attack the U.S. for its environmental legislation. After all, these trade deals do not leave all nations on an equal playing field. More likely is that American corporations go after the environmental and labor laws of the poorer nations. Either way, this is a horrible principle that continues what international trade law has done for a half-century–allow corporations to evade regulatory statues and laws that allow people to live a dignified life.

At the very least, shouldn’t Congress have the right to debate this treaty as it moves forward? I believe Obama is, frankly, completely deluded when he thinks the TPP will counter Chinese influence in the Pacific and it certainly isn’t worth risking American environmental and labor law over. There is no reason to give him fast track authority. This needs to be a public process. Right now, the TPP is as opaque as any corporate executive could desire. That is a very bad thing.

Previewing Two Years of Journalistic Excellence in Election Coverage

[ 38 ] March 4, 2015 |

Did Rand Paul clap loudly enough for Netanyahu’s speech? That’s what Jen Rubin wants to know at the beginning of an election cycle that is sure sure to be filled with hard-hitting two years of journalistic excellence. The Republican primaries are sure to be filled with such important points as who can scream loudest at Democrats and who can genuflect enough to Likud. But it’s not like coverage of the Democrats is going to be any better, as the e-mail “scandal,” which no doubt contains Hillary’s admission of personally murdering Vince Foster, shows.

Rising Oceans

[ 48 ] March 1, 2015 |

Welcome to the future:

Sea levels across the Northeast coast of the United States rose nearly 3.9 inches between 2009 and 2010, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The waters near Portland, Maine, saw an even greater rise — 5 inches — over the two-year period.

While scientists have been observing higher sea levels across the globe in recent decades, the study found a much more extreme rise than previous averages. Such an event is “unprecedented” in the history of the tide gauge record, according to the researchers, and represents a 1-in-850 year event.

“Unlike storm surge, this event caused persistent and widespread coastal flooding even without apparent weather processes,” the study’s authors wrote. “In terms of beach erosion, the impact of the 2009-2010 [sea level rise] event is almost as significant as some hurricane events.”

At least we are taking climate change seriously and are ready to do what it takes to save our coastlines…

Memorializing Slavery

[ 108 ] March 1, 2015 |

The fact that a wealthy white man would buy an antebellum Louisiana sugar plantation and turn it into a no punches pulled museum on slavery, the first museum dedicated wholly to slavery in the United States (the U.S. has the Holocaust Museum despite no appropriate museum dealing with its own genocidal projects) is remarkable and an obvious must visit the next time I am in the area.

This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1936

[ 16 ] March 1, 2015 |

On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.

The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.

The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.

The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.

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Building Hoover Dam

Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.

But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”

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The 1931 strike

The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.

The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.

This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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