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Media Appearances

[ 19 ] May 1, 2013 |

Because of the writing I’ve done on Bangladesh and Texas, I’ve had a number of media appearances lately. First, I was on the David Shuster show last weekend, with Daniel Marans hosting. The interview is cut into 3 bite-sized clips for your viewing pleasure. And yes, I need to get a better picture of me on the internet.

You can subscribe to Shuster’s show, Take Action News TV, here.

I was also on a HuffPo Live panel on workplace safety and applying universal workplace standards here. Watch me lose my train of thought halfway through! TV is hard. Although my friends said I was good, they are biased.

A couple of other May Day related things as well. I penned a piece at RIFuture on the Haymarket violence and May Day, reworking a This Day in Labor History post a bit.

I also did an interview with Sean Kitchen at Raging Chicken Press on Haymarket, Memorial Day, and connecting the first and second Gilded Ages.

Finally, here’s a nice site for Workers Memorial Day that some of you might be interested in.


[ 38 ] April 30, 2013 |

This is one way environmental racism works. Cleaning up the Gowanus Canal in New York? A good thing. Taking the nasty stuff from one wealthy white area of Brooklyn and moving it to a poor area of Brooklyn dominated by African-Americans and Latinos? Deeply problematic.

Even if there really isn’t a bad guy here–the EPA wants to clean up the canal, everyone thinks it should be cleaned up, etc., as is so common, toxicity gets displaced from the rich to the poor. Those with the least power end up closest to the poisons.

Hello Walls

[ 38 ] April 30, 2013 |

Happy 80th to Willie Nelson!!

“Hello Walls” is an early classic which Faron Young made a hit long before Willie had his own commercial success. The album from where this comes And Then I Wrote is a good example of the singles vs. albums format in country music that Scott was talking about yesterday. It’s a really phenomenal album but it’s also clear that it is basically a bunch of singles stuck together on an album without much conceptual framework.

Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs

[ 38 ] April 29, 2013 |

I don’t usually link to crazy right-wing stuff, but watching Twitchy try to pivot from Jason Collins coming out as gay to Obama’s actions around Benghazi is a beautiful example of complete and utter desperation and undiluted wingnuttery.

HuffPo Live Panel on Workplace Safety

[ 4 ] April 29, 2013 |

If anyone is interested, I am participating in a panel at HuffPo Live at 9:30 on workplace safety. In part at least, it will deal with the piece I wrote last week on applying workplace safety law internationally and holding corporations accountable for deaths caused by their subcontractors. Among the other panelists is Shikha Dalmia from Reason, so that could get interesting.

Workers Memorial Day

[ 12 ] April 29, 2013 |

President Obama proclaimed yesterday “Workers Memorial Day.” That would have been a much better thing if the president had mentioned anything about the recent deaths in West, Texas or even in Bangladesh, something that would provide real meaning to the proclamation. Alas, no. His most recent reference to something concrete was 1970.


[ 30 ] April 29, 2013 |

As Ezra Klein and others have said, there’s no question that the Republicans have totally defeated the Democrats on all issues sequester. Caving on the FAA was politically almost inevitable and will probably set the stage for Republicans to roll back other parts of the sequester that affect rich people, but what’s so depressing (other than the defeat itself) is how little the Democratic Party was willing to fight for the poor on the sequester or leverage the FAA at all. Theda Skocpol:

Just an observation. I am so often disappointed by Congress, including Democrats, that you would not think the sequester exception for the FAA would matter — but this one is still bothering me days later, even though I fly a lot (too much given how miserable it is nowdays) and the exception personally benefits me.

It just so brazenly pro-elite and upper middle class an exception, unaimous from Senate Democrats who go on and on about caring for ordinary Americans and ask for votes and money in the name of “fairness.”

I teach an undergraduate seminar about Inequality and American Democracy and we go over all the new resarch — especially from Martin Gilens — showing definitively, statistically that government responds to the preferences of the privileged and pretty much ignores everyone else, including the middle-income citizenry as well as the poor. I know all this abstractly, but this particular Senate vote makes it concrete in a hit-you-in-the-gut way. Given the chance to, say, propose exceptions for BOTH Head Start kids and elite travelers, to use one to leverage the other, they just said to hell with it an went for the elites, instantly and unanimously, leaving all others to rot. Elizabeth Warren, too.

Hard to take.

Hard to take indeed. In fact, it is one of those things that make this left-leaning Democrat really shake his head at the future of the nation.


[ 150 ] April 29, 2013 |

Finally, the active Big 4 sports professional athlete barrier is broken, as Wizards center Jason Collins comes out as gay. Let’s hope it’s the first of many. It’d be nice if by, say, 2018 this wasn’t even notable anymore.

[SEK] How long will it take for a conservative to claim that teams that don’t offer him a contract or cut him after 10 days will be attacked by the ACLU? Also, I was secretly hoping it’d be LeBron. That way anyone who refused to play with him would be forced into acknowledging that they really don’t play to win because Jesus loves them more. (And Jesus would rather you lose than accept or love someone who’s different, because that’s the sort of hate Jesus was all about.)

This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971

[ 22 ] April 28, 2013 |

On April 28, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its doors. The creation of OSHA proved to be one the greatest victory in American history for workplace health. Unfortunately, OSHA could never live up to its potential to revolutionize the workplace due to the organized resistance of corporations, the conservative movement that would transform American politics beginning in the late 1970s, and regulatory capture that limited the agency’s effectiveness. That said, OSHA has done a tremendous amount to improve workers’ lives.

Unsafe and unhealthy working conditions had long plagued American workers. The Gilded Age theory of workplace risk, encapsulated in the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation, placed workplace responsibility onto workers rather than employers, saying they assumed the risk when they agreed to work. By the 1890s, this had begun to break down after workers successfully sued corporations for injury and death. Employer supported worker compensation plans began passing at the state level in the 1910s, allowing corporations to avoid lawsuits and rationalize losses for workplace injuries, while also giving quite little to workers. Industrial reformers like Alice Hamilton continued drawing connections between worker health and exposure on the job, leading to very slow reforms. By the Great Society, keeping workers safe became increasingly important to policy makers. Workers were increasingly unsatisfied with the exposures they faced on the job, the rising environmental movement provided an ecological language to workplace environments, and liberals within the Johnson Administration sought to center broader quality of life issues to the Democratic Party. Even when Vietnam blew up LBJ’s career, the momentum for a federal workplace safety program, like much else of the Great Society, carried over into the Nixon Administration.

On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating an agency to oversee workplace safety and health that would begin operation on April 28, 1971. The act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a part of OSHA to spearhead research programs on these issues.

Organized labor by and large supported OSHA’s creation, but only a few unions really took advantage of the agency to bring workplace safety and health to the front of union politics. The AFL-CIO pushed for full implementation of the act as one of many legislative goals, but did not seek to empower workers on the shop floor by fighting for safer workplaces. A few individual unions however did do this–the International Association of Machinists, the International Woodworkers of America, and most famously the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. These were also the most reformist oriented unions in the AFL-CIO during the 1970s, seeking to channel the broader disgruntlement of the working-class away from racial politics and toward something useful. They were also the unions who often chafed against the conservative leadership of George Meany and the culture of staid bureaucracy that dominated many unions during these years. The labor leader most associated with OSHA and workplace health is Tony Mazzochi of the OCAW. Sometimes called “The Rachel Carson of the American Workplace,” Mazzochi had pressed through the 1960s for vigorous workplace safety programs in union contracts, empowered union members to become activists on the shop floor for workplace health, and built bridges between the labor and environmental movements to make the workplace environment an important agenda item for both. After OSHA’s founding, Mazzochi became the national leader in pressing the agency to issue stronger asbestos standards to protect both workers and consumers.

The turning point in OSHA history was the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1981, Reagan gutted the OSHA budget in 1982. Reagan’s OSHA director, Thorne Auchter, a Florida real estate developer, signaled a switch in OSHA policies when he reversed a regulation that allowed construction workers to view their own medical records for information on toxic exposure. You can read more about the Auchter years here,.

Given the time that an agency needs to establish itself, create programs, and conduct research, in many ways OSHA was just reaching its stride when Reagan slashed the budgets. For the International Woodworkers of America, the decline in OSHA funding was devastating. The IWA was a bit slower than OCAW in engaging OSHA seriously. The election of a new generation of union leadership in 1976 catapulted the union into one of most aggressive for using OSHA as a tool to empower workers on the shop floor. The IWA trained workers in OSHA policies, then sent them back to the shop floor to demand problems be cleaned up. It even suggested to OSHA that the agency send a staffer to work directly with the IWA, which was denied because it was outside the purview of the agency, but also got the attention of the agency as a union serious about workplace health. Basil Whiting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, told the IWA Convention in 1977, “You have been one of the few unions in the United States that has grasped the nettle here, has begun to move forward in terms of developing your own internal capacity to take action in relation to the serious problems of health and safety that are killing off your members.”

The Reagan budgets, combined with the decline in timber employment due to outside factors and thus a smaller membership, put a stop to these workplace safety programs. NIOSH grants to fund the effects of ash from the Mt. St. Helens explosion were ended, as was a federal grant to the University of Washington to study chemical exposure among plywood mill workers. Other plans to develop compensation programs for physical aliments suffered by loggers were shelved entirely.

Despite Reagan’s defunding of OSHA programs, overall workplace safety has improved significantly in the United States since 1971. A good bit of this has to do with industry outsourcing industrial risk to Latin America and Asia, but there have also been real changes in workplace culture. In 1970, there were 18 workplace fatalities for every 100,000 workers. By 2006, that fell to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. Occupational injury and illness rates fell by 40% over the same years.

As we have seen in recent weeks, OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels. Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment.

This is the 57th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and Entrenched Inequality Between Nations

[ 20 ] April 27, 2013 |

During the discussion around my piece calling for international safety standards at the workplace with real enforcement teeth that could implicate American corporations subcontracting with unscrupulous employers, a reader suggested I read Augustine Sedgwick’s March 2012 article in International Labor and Working-Class History. Entitled “‘The Spice of the Department Store’: ‘The “Consumers’ Republic,’ Imported Knock-Offs from Latin America, and the Invention of International Development, 1936–1941,” Sedgwick gets at how U.S. labor law has entrenched unequal standards between nations.

The Roosevelt Administration made sure the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 would not cover foreign manufacturers importing goods to the United States. There was a fight over which version of the FLSA would pass. The Roosevelt Administration’s bill, originally sponsored by Senator Hugo Black before his Supreme Court appointment, applied it domestically only, but a House bill introduced by William Connery of Massachusetts eliminated the word “state” from the bill, which would have opened the door to international standards on any product imported into the United States.

Roosevelt pushed hard to squelch Connery’s bill because his administration saw a Latin America developing under U.S. corporate leadership as a good long-term strategy to rebuilding the American economy coming out of the Great Depression. The administration saw inequality as an inherent part of the international economy necessary for profit and thus had no problem writing legislation that encouraged the production of consumer goods for the American market overseas, even if they were produced in conditions that could lead to violent worker revolts. In fact, the exporting of violent worker revolt was a central administration strategy of the FLSA.

Black’s bill won out. The FLSA did a lot of good for workers in the United States, establishing a national minimum wage, overtime pay, and eliminating most child labor. Current minimum wage hikes are essentially revisions to the original FLSA.

The effect of all this on Latin American nations and their workers was highly mixed. It did start the process of industrialization for many nations that wanted to move away from agricultural economies. In order to manage the newly industrialized labor force, governments created social welfare programs that provided benefits to working-class people. On the other hand, it led to increased inequality and significant social dissent that fueled the rise of the Latin American left in the 1950s. Moreover, Sedgwick argues that the American creation of its consumers’ republic was intricately tied with American imperialism in Latin America, at first during the so-called Good Neighbor Policy years and especially in the Cold War.

Sedgwick doesn’t get into working conditions per se or the specifics of how this plays out in individual nations, but we see how the U.S. built significant pieces of the modern globalized economy during the late 1930s. The FLSA intentionally codified differences in labor in order to promote American corporate investment overseas and inexpensive consumer products for Americans. At the time, this was at least predicated on the idea of the American working class growing in consumer power and wealth. So for Americans at least, this program worked pretty well for forty years or so. But by the 1970s, that half of the equation seemed dispensable and instead American corporations simply moved all production to nations with cheap labor under an unequal system long promoted by the American government.

This helps elucidate the present, with downward pressure on wages and working conditions in the United States and dying workers in Bangladesh. I recommend reading Sedgwick’s article if you can, which you should be able to do if you have access to most any university library system. If you don’t, sorry. The academic journal system is somewhat less than ideal for disseminating relevant knowledge to the general population. And we know what happens to those who undermine that system.

Outrage Where Outrage Is Due

[ 38 ] April 26, 2013 |

Rick Perry, relatively indifferent to the West, Texas fertilizer explosion, outraged at Jack Ohman editorial cartoon that would blame Texas’ lax regulatory climate for it.

Go Jets

[ 88 ] April 26, 2013 |

If there’s one thing the Jets needed, it was another high-profile, questionable-talent quarterback like Geno Smith to go along with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Since both of the latter are miraculously still on the team, that’s going to be a great locker room.

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