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Good Job NYU

[ 9 ] March 31, 2015 |


NYU deciding to open an Abu Dhabi just gets more and more embarrassing for the school. You’d think the school would consider academic freedom and the protections of its faculty in the United Arab Emirates. But of course it didn’t. Because it was always about cashing checks.


Destroying Workers Compensation

[ 19 ] March 31, 2015 |

Orange Man Injured

Workers compensation is under attack. Although the system has never provided benefits at a level that really makes up for the suffering of an injured worker (the only fair system would be 100 percent compensation for lost wages and benefits) and although the system was designed to protect corporations from workers suing them, it still provides at least some benefits to American workers who get sick or injured on the job.

Not surprisingly, in this New Gilded Age, this system, like the rest of American labor law, is under attack. That attack is being led by corporations such as Walmart, Lowe’s and Safeway.

ARAWC’s mission is to pass laws allowing private employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation plans that almost every state requires businesses to carry. Employers that opt out would still be compelled to purchase workers’ comp plans. But they would be allowed to write their own rules governing when, for how long, and for which reasons an injured employee can access medical benefits and wages.

In recent years, companies have used that freedom to severely curtail long-standing benefits.

Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt out of state-mandated workers’ comp. In Texas, the only state that has never required employers to provide workers’ comp, Walmart has written a plan that allows the company to select the physician an employee sees and the arbitration company that hears disputes. The plan provides no coverage for asbestos exposure. And a vague section of the contract excludes any employee who was injured due to his “participation” in an assault from collecting benefits unless the assault was committed in defense of Walmart’s “business or property.” It is up to Walmart to interpret what “participation” means. But the Texas AFL-CIO has argued that an employee who defended himself from an attack would not qualify for benefits.

A 2012 survey of Texas companies with private plans found that fewer than half offered benefits to seriously injured employees or the families of workers who died in workplace accidents. (The state plan, which Texas companies can follow on a voluntary basis, covers both.) Half of employer plans capped benefits, while the state plan pays benefits throughout a worker’s recovery.

With a national right to work bill almost certainly coming the next the Republican Party controls all branches of government, we can expect a legislative gutting of workers’ comp to follow. Already the system is severely weakened from what it once was, with huge disparities between states and workers bearing the cost of being hurt. Existing workers’ comp plans cost companies very little, especially those giant corporations like Walmart. But paying anything at all is too much for corporations and we are seeing that principle reenter American life. Workers will regain the right to sue in federal court if employers opt out of workers’ comp. But how confident are you that they will win the sorts of rewards that will force corporations back into the system?

Book Review: Thomas H. Guthrie, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico

[ 23 ] March 31, 2015 |


The racial and cultural politics of northern New Mexico are tremendously complicated and fraught with conflict. This is primarily for two interconnected reasons. First, three major racial groups all compete for recognition and power–non-Spanish whites (Anglos in the local parlance), Hispanos (which is the usual term for what we might call Latinos in the rest of the country, but which also basically excludes recent immigrants), and Native Americans. Within those groups you then have divisions as well. Many people of course are mixed blood, but the politics of what it means to be mestizo are equally complex. Plus you have many different tribes who do not always agree. Second, the historical interactions of those racial groups are dominated by conquest and colonization, first of the Spanish over the Native Americans, then of the United States over both, and then of the rise of white tourist culture commodifying and fetishizing both the Native Americans and Hispano villages.

Though this is well-trodden in the scholarship of a number of fields, the anthropologist Thomas Guthrie usefully revisits the topic, exploring four different sites in northern New Mexico and the creation of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area to uncover how the official multiculturalism of New Mexico reinforces colonialism, even as both Hispanos and Native Americans buy into it in some contexts to make specific claims on the past and the present.

Guthrie examines four places for this study: the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, the portal outside the Palace where Native Americans sell goods to tourists, the mestizo city of Española, and the Hispano village of Las Trampas. The Palace of the Governors, the oldest administrative building in the United States, is today a museum. For years it was the New Mexico state history museum, but they built a new one behind it (which is OK, not great). But as Guthrie sees it, the focus on the exhibits now in the Palace tell a story that romanticizes the Spanish past while telling the story of Anglos through modernism and science in the exhibits about the building’s history, creating a (perhaps unintentional) narrative of brown people in the past, white in the present and future. Such a story is common in the tricultural mythology New Mexico that claims harmony but gives position of economic power and authority to white people, such as the famous murals in the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico, displayed above.

Discussing the Puebloan peoples selling jewelry and other goods in the portal outside the Palace, Guthrie usefully notes the black hole that is arguing about authenticity, an inherently meaningless term but one with significant political and cultural power behind it. Ideas of authenticity have been used by both the museum and the indigenous people outside to exclude non-natives from selling goods there. Guthrie calls this a “staged authenticity,” but notes that those who criticize the idea of Native Americans selling goods in a commercial market at a historic site believe that real Indian “authenticity” somehow exists somewhere else rather than where actual Indians are living their lives. The “traditional” nature of the market might be a construction, but no more so than the ideas of its critics.

Española operates in an unusual space in northern New Mexico. Rather than an ancient village, it is a late nineteenth century railroad town. It is also the center of mestizo culture in northern New Mexico. Famous for its low-riding culture (you do see some crazy cars in that town) and its terrible heroin problem, the city is very New Mexican but lacks the classical physicality of the New Mexican town that draws in white tourists and their money, such as an ancient church and a plaza. To alleviate this, the city did put in a plaza in the 1990s, though this effort was opposed by many locals who preferred the city do something that would actually make a difference in their lives, like getting Wal-Mart to open a store there (which later happened anyway). The implementation of the plaza came out of the myth of triculturalism, assuming that the three cultures have lived in harmony for hundreds of years. Española also became the home of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, which is a National Park Service project to provide funding that allows regions to develop tourist infrastructure. The NPS impetus for doing this was commemorating the arrival of the Spanish in 1598, an event fraught with controversy in New Mexico even today. Finally, Juan de Oñate’s first capital in New Mexico was just north of Española, in land he stole from the Ohkay Owingeh people. When a statue of Oñate was placed north of Española, indigenous people were deeply angry because of Oñate’s mistreatment of the Puebloan peoples, most notably at Acoma, where he cut a foot off the tribe’s warriors after they resisted conquest. The Hispanos meanwhile see him as a hero. Someone cut the foot off the statue. It was replaced. Today this statue still divides New Mexico and is possibly the most egregious monument to the conquest of what became the United States in the entire nation, although I realize there is some competition for that title.

Las Trampas is a very poor Hispano village in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It has always been poor, going back to its origin as a frontier village with poor soil and under attack from the Comanches. The theft of the village’s land grant (to say the least, indigenous people are not sympathetic to this issue) and the migration of people to agricultural picking in Colorado only made it more marginal. This is a deeply poor place. But its quaintness makes it attractive to visiting whites, even though there’s really nothing there to visit. This leads to battles between white preservationists and local villagers over developing the village. In the 1960s, when the state finally paved the highway through Las Trampas, villagers were happy to have access to the outside world but white preservationists freaked out over how close the road would run to the historic church and that it would change the village character. Such issues, such as whether to use traditional adobe on the church, still roil the waters there today. Again, tourism becomes a means of colonizing in New Mexico.

Is this history complicated enough for you?

At the core of Guthrie’s argument is the need to take poverty and wealth seriously in analyzing and understanding the region. The region’s cultural narratives are heavily depoliticized in order to facilitate triculturalism and tourism. That means that the vast wealth disparities between white Los Alamos and Santa Fe on one hand and the Hispano villages, pueblos, and the mestizo city of Española on the other must be central to the politics of New Mexico. That is most certainly a conversation that the wealthy whites of northern New Mexico do not want to have. It means taking water rights and the impact of the land grant thefts seriously. It means discussing the problems of mass tourism. It means moving away from mythology and colonization as the central tenets of modern New Mexico and actually dealing with the legacy of colonialism.

The book is good. It avoids most of what bothers me about anthropology. He talks about himself a lot like most anthropologists, but given the frank hostility white anthropologists face in a place like Las Trampas, there’s actual value there. There are some “field notes” sections inserted into the chapters about the National Heritage Area meetings that I don’t think work very well because they aren’t particularly connected to the chapter at hand. A minor critique. This is a solid work with real value for helping us understand the politics of arguably the United States’ most culturally complex place.

Last Ditch Confederate Efforts

[ 161 ] March 29, 2015 |


150 years ago, the Confederacy was in its death spiral. Yet the fireeating newspaper editorialists were continuing to call for resistance to Yankee oppression, i.e., crushing treason to defend slavery:

But the most powerful motive of all is to be found in the terms which the enemy offer us. Nothing less than absolute submission will answer their terms. We must lay down our arms, disband our armies, and submit to such terms as they choose to prescribe.–What those terms will be, we are not left to conjecture. They have already passed a law abolishing slavery. They have already passed a law confiscating the entire territory covered by the Confederate States. They have already declared that the States shall, in future, be entitled to no rights greater than those possessed by the counties.

They have, in a word, inaugurated for our benefit one of the most stupendous systems of centralized despotism the world ever beheld, and it is to be inaugurated with the proper accompaniments of a general confiscation and an universal spoliation. A Confederate is to own nothing that he can call his own. He is to be judged by Yankee judges and tried by Yankee juries. He is to be the slave of his own negroes and of their Yankee associates. Such a let is offered him as even Katherine or Nicholas never thought of entailing upon the Poles, and such as makes that of the Irish people blessed in the comparison. If these are not motives for fighting on, then there can be none.

How’d that work out for you?

Siting the Nixon Library

[ 26 ] March 29, 2015 |


As I’ve mentioned before, the Nixon Library is Disneyland for cynical left-wing historians. It’s located in boring ol’Yorba Linda, Nixon’s birthplace. Turns out this was very disappointing for Nixon, who had incredibly grand ideas about what his library should look like. And that included stripping the western part of Camp Pendleton for it.

Obsessed with his place in history, Nixon needed to acquire a location that, in and of itself, would command respect – awe, even. He had the exact spot picked out, and it was spectacular: vast, open, California wilderness, miles of stunning beaches, and magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. Its setting alone would trump all past, and likely future, presidential libraries. The only thing preventing Nixon from realizing his vision was something that, in so many other parts of his political life, he never let stop him: it would not be legal.

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 prohibits the use of federal land for a presidential library, and that presented a problem: Nixon’s perfect site just happened to be on federal property. Worse, the exclusive parcel was, inconveniently for Nixon, in the western part of Camp Pendleton, one of the country’s largest Marine Corps bases.

Occupying eighteen miles along the Southern California coast and more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand acres between Los Angeles and San Diego, the camp was – and is – the main training base for all West Coast Marines. Vital to the mission and readiness of the Corps – particularly those then training to go to southeast Asia – the Marines did not want to give up a single acre or a foot of shoreline. The Department of Defense (DoD) protested that Nixon’s plan would “severely handicap” military functions at Camp Pendleton, pointing out that during 1970 alone, more than 77,000 Marines trained in the specific area of the base that he wanted.

To say the least, Nixon did not get his wish. But he and his henchmen sure tried:

When Congress got word that the president desired to transfer the land – but not that he wanted it for his library, only for a state park, the cover story – it prohibited the sale, lease, or transfer of Camp Pendleton without further congressional authorization.

Nixon, along with All the President’s Library Men – which included H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Nixon Library Foundation’s board of executive trustees), Donald Rumsfeld, Fred Fielding, and John Dean – went ahead anyway. They wrested thousands of acres and miles of beach away from the Corps, enlisting the National Archives and Records Service, the General Services Administration, and even the United States Secret Service in hiding the fact that he planned to build his library on the stolen land.

Like many of Nixon’s plans to circumvent the law, this one included a cover-up. Unlike many of his plans, though, the cover-up had been part of the strategy from the start. While Nixon’s plan wasn’t fully successful, the cover-up lasted for more than forty-five years – until I discovered hundreds of pages of evidence in what was then known as the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.

The whole story is pretty amazing. The actual library is insane enough. What this would have looked on a spread like Nixon envisioned, I can only imagine. I almost wish it happened, just so I could make fun of it.

Prioritizing Property Rights

[ 76 ] March 29, 2015 |


In America, property rights are king. The right to property is part of the national mythology. And I get that. But I am constantly curious as to how competing rights to property play out. In other words, like all rights, if conceived broadly enough anyway, they inevitably conflict with others who think their own, quite similar, rights take precedence. While we are most famously seeing this right now in the discriminatory bills passed by Indiana and soon probably by other states, this also plays out in the realm of property rights. If one wants to develop their property and it affects other people’s property, almost inevitably in the United States, the wealthy win. This goes back to the early 19th century, when upstream and downstream property owners were suing early corporations over the damage their dams, logging runs, and other industrial water uses were causing the property of farmers, fishers, and other water users. The courts consistently found for the capitalists. And while the rise of the government regulatory state eventually created the principle of the collective rights of Americans having some occasional precedence over private property rights (such as in the national forests), when multiple property owners battle, little has changed.

I thought of this when reading this story about fracking in Nebraska
. A drilling company wants to truck polluted water to land near some ranches. The likelihood of this water polluting the water supplies of nearby ranches is high. That led to a farmer challenging the board members of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation committee to drink the water. Of course they wouldn’t. Why should the rights of a drilling company negatively affect the property rights of entire communities.

I ask the same question about outsourcing. Why should the property rights of a corporation be allowed to destroy the property values of thousands of people by moving to a new location? What about their property rights? Allow me to quote from the manuscript version of Out of Sight on this issue:

In the mid-twentieth century, GE was the prime economic engine for its hometown of Schenectady, New York and the surrounding region. It made Schenectady a home of good jobs for researchers and scientists, mechanics and assembly line workers. GE located its electrical capacitor plant in Fort Edward, New York, about forty miles northeast of Schenectady. For decades, the plant used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to make the capacitors safe and reliable. Unfortunately, PCBs also cause cancer, fetal disorders, and cognitive dysfunctions. Industry knew of the effects of PCB exposure after workers in a New York factory died of liver failure after exposure in 1936, but for decades GE dumped the PCBs into the Hudson River watershed. By the time the federal government banned PCBs in 1976, 1.3 million pounds polluted the Hudson River and 7 million pounds poisoned local landfills. PCBs entered the bodies of fish and birds, and then the bodies of the people who defied the ban on Hudson River fishing to feed their families. In 1983, the EPA declared 200 miles of the Hudson a Superfund site. Workers in Fort Edward and people throughout the Hudson watershed had to live with the consequences of PCB exposure. They also needed jobs in a place with limited potential for new economic development thanks to GE poisoning the land.

In 2013, GE announced it was moving capacitor production to the now ironically named Clearwater, Florida, where it can enjoy a non-union workforce, a favorable regulatory climate, and, because of this, higher profits. The United Electrical Workers (UE) represents the Fort Edward workers. UE political director Chris Townsend said, “It shouldn’t be easy to close a plant. The General Electric corporation has been shown every imaginable consideration. Our members have worked with the company to keep this plant profitable. Now the company decides to walk off, leave hundreds of people stranded with no jobs, no income.” You might argue, “This is America and corporations have property rights to move their operations wherever someone agrees to host them.” But what happens to the property values of Fort Edward homeowners, left with no hope for jobs and a polluted landscape? What happened to the homeowners of Detroit, Cleveland, and Scranton as jobs disappeared? Why do we allow corporate property rights to trump the rights of everyday citizens to jobs, good schools, safe neighborhoods, and the investment in their homes and communities? Why should a corporation be able move anywhere it wants for any reason it chooses? We do not really ask these questions but we should. We might bemoan corporate mobility but we rarely challenge the fundamental right of corporations to move.

Why do we never use the idea of property rights to protect the collective property of individual property owners against the wealthy? It’s not even a question we ask ourselves. But we should, whether against polluters lowering the property values of their workers through their actions or against the same corporations decided to decimate a community by moving all the jobs away.

A Third Reconstruction

[ 165 ] March 29, 2015 |


Eric Foner on why the Reconstruction era is still vitally important today. He gives us the short history we need for the most basic understanding of the issues at play and why historians changed their views on the period over time, from lauding the racist white Democrats to noting the horrors they committed against African-Americans. For many readers here, this is a history they know well enough, even if it never hurts to become reacquainted with the argument. But I think the real key is just this single paragraph.

Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.

Indeed, given how Republicans are seeking to strip voting rights from African-Americans and how the Supreme Court has overturned the most important part of the Voting Rights Act, that key legislative victory of the Second Reconstruction, and how Republicans are seeking to move power away from the federal government and give it to the states so that corporations, homophobes, and white supremacists can dominate American life rather than a national state that protects the rights of all.

Civil rights leaders and writers have long called for a Third Reconstruction
that would help solve the problems the first two did not. Unfortunately, that Third Reconstruction may be necessary simply to restore the rights stripped during this dark era of American history.

Onward to Revolution!

[ 143 ] March 28, 2015 |


I’m never quite sure why the New York Times writes about real estate and the lives of the rich in the way it does. Is it about sucking up to the 1 percent? Or are these writers actually secret Marxists seeking to spur class warfare against the rich by writing these articles? I know it’s the former but it sure seems like the latter sometimes.

I first read this article because it’s summary described how the wealthy buying houses in the Hamptons was a sign of an improving economy. Well OK then. But it is really so, so much worse than that. An excerpt:

It was that word “special” that doubled the project’s time for one room in his 8,000-square-foot home, taking more time to finish than the spa with the Turkish marble floors or the wine cellar.

“What most people call screening rooms are glorified dens, with a big television and leather chairs, maybe some stadium seating,” he said. “I wanted mine to have a vision. I feel it’s one of the most impressive screening rooms in the country.”

The screening room, which is oval, has a hand-painted ceiling that mixes silver and gold leaf with Swarovski crystals.


“It’s very hard for someone who is not trained to get all the subtle nuances of the houses right,” said Campion Platt, an architect and interior designer, who worked with Mr. Seltzer on his home. “It’s about scale and proportion. Until they see it all assembled, they can be surprised.”

The toughest spaces are not screening rooms, he said, but great rooms, those vast open spaces meant to be the convening spot of a home. “It has to do with the scale and placement of the furniture,” he said.

But people make seemingly smaller mistakes that have larger ramifications. They skimp on lighting and tile, said Shane Inman, an interior designer who specializes in kitchens and baths.

And just as bad as having too much furniture in the great room, people don’t allow enough space for a kitchen to be functional. “They don’t know how many inches they need to walk past something,” Mr. Inman said.

To minimize those gaffes that detract from a dream home, many people with means hire a team to help them, such as architects, contractors, craftsmen and landscapers. Finding them is not easy. One option is the famous architect route, picking a Richard Meier or Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. But that is out of reach of all but the wealthiest people, and even those who can afford them need to want a house that matches the architect’s style. Another option is to seek referrals from friends.

It’s so declasse not have Rem Koolhaas or Richard Rogers design your home. Really, if you don’t hire a Pritzker Prize winner, you end up with Swarovski crystals in your ceiling. And who wants that? Nouveau money, that’s who.

Seriously, Upton Sinclair or Leon Trotsky could not write a more effective tract to convert people to socialism.

The Stupidity of Pre-Draft Quarterback Analysis

[ 59 ] March 28, 2015 |

Washington Oregon Football

Following the NFL before the draft is always an exercise in stupidity, but never more so than when discussing quarterbacks. I admit I have a rooting interest this year since Marcus Mariota is the greatest Oregon player of my lifetime. And I have no idea how he will translate to the NFL. He’s an incredible athlete and very smart but he does miss some open receivers at times and fumbles a bit. I personally don’t think that he’s never huddled is a real issue. But you know what, it probably depends on the team who drafts him. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the coverage of quarterbacks every year is really stupid. Last year, it was Teddy Bridgewater for all sorts of really stupid reasons. And it turns out he looks like a very solid quarterback. This year it is Mariota for many of the same stupid reasons. What’s crazy is how much so many coaches want their QBs to be “leaders” of a very particular type, which is mostly yelling a lot. They want Brett Favre. And if a QB reminds them of him, they’ll raise him in the draft.

“Just because a guy doesn’t yell and scream at a guy when he doesn’t run the right route, ask any of those guys if they’d take Eli Manning. I don’t see Eli Manning screaming and yelling at anybody,” said Chip Kelly, Mariota’s coach at Oregon before Kelly went to the Eagles. “But you talk about a stone-cold killer in the fourth quarter, look how many fourth-quarter comebacks Eli’s had.

“It’s the silly season. I’ve said it before. The NFL draft hype is the craziest thing in the world. Guys are going to go up, guys are going to go down. Cam Newton couldn’t play. There’s no reason to draft him in the first round. All of a sudden, he goes No. 1. It’s crazy.”

Zimmer, who had been known as a smart and cocky defensive coordinator before getting his shot with the Vikings, admitted he was one of those guys that wanted to see some swagger out of his quarterback. Zimmer might not have been as adamant about it as other coaches, but he certainly considered that factor a plus.

Bridgewater has made him a believer.

“Well, I did learn a lot about that, to be honest with you,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy that leads by how hard he works, by the improvement that he makes in practice every day, the way he wanted to learn how to annunciate the plays, just all the extra effort that they guy put in. … He’s not one of those guys that is going to get in your face, this or that, but the players all gravitate towards this guy. He’s always got a smile, he’s confident but not cocky. It’s never about him, so it’s always about, How can I help this guy do this better or the team.

“Maybe it’s not your leadership style that everybody is thinking about, but it was really effective this year. So I learned quite a bit.”

So nice of an NFL head coach to learn that, hey, maybe a QB doesn’t have to be brash to be effective. I’m glad that basic logic has entered the NFL finally, at least in places. See also Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. Jameis Winston might be a great NFL QB. I don’t know. I do know that he throws A LOT of interceptions. A 25:18 TD:INT ratio is not going to fly in the NFL. Not to mention that it’s not like FSU had terrible receivers or played great defenses all year. Again, I don’t know. But Winston’s brashness and cockiness is serving him well with the troglodytes who staff so much of the NFL. And some of this is a combination of the NFL’s toxic masculinity and racism. If the QB doesn’t play those super manly games, then he’s not their man. And if he is a quiet Hawaiian dude (and Mariota is nothing if not a quiet Hawaiian dude) then there’s a problem with him. Forget what you’ve seen on the field and what you’ve seen in the interviews. How did he do in his pro day and at the combine and how loud is he? That’s true leadership!

Of course, none of this matches the all-time stupidest pre-draft fall of a QB, which was Aaron Rodgers, who fell partially because previous QBs coached in college by Jeff Tedford like Kyle Boller and Akili Smith had not done well in the NFL. I’m glad the science behind that proved so solid!

…I will also note that a) of all the Oregon uniforms, those are the best by far and b) this was the game when Oregon beat Washington for merely the 11th consecutive year.

Useful Idiots

[ 381 ] March 28, 2015 |

Welp, I’m glad the National Review finds our old friend Freddie DeBoer useful in making arguments about how the real McCarthyism is on the college campus today. Because Freddie is the real leftist after all. Perhaps we should take odds on when he will show up here to accuse me of being part of this McCarthyist mob silencing dissent.

This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1977

[ 11 ] March 28, 2015 |

On March 28, 1977, AFSCME Local 1644, a union primarily made of African-American sanitation workers, went on strike in Atlanta, hoping to force mayor Maynard Jackson to grant them a much needed pay raise. Jackson’s anti-union positions would deeply disappoint organized labor who believed that labor rights were civil rights. It would also demonstrated the willingness of many civil rights leaders to turn their backs on the needs of the poorest workers when they reached positions of authority. Finally, the failure of this strike showed that just electing supposedly progressive people to positions for power would not be a panacea for working class people.

The background for the AFSCME action in Atlanta goes back to its successful 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike that served as the background for the assassination of Martin Luther King. Building on that, AFSCME continued trying to organize black workers in southern cities. Labor rights were civil rights and the martyrdom of King while supporting their cause was proof enough of this to black public workers around the South. The union became heavily involved in southern urban politics, seeking to elect blacks to power that would, presumably, use that power to increase the wages and working conditions of black workers.

The AFSCME-affiliated sanitation workers in Atlanta worked hard to elect who they thought was one of their own to the mayor. The Maynard Jackson campaign was an extension of the labor rights as civil rights theme. Jackson became a force in Atlanta politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jackson was the first black attorney to work for the National Labor Relations Board office in Atlanta. As vice-mayor Jackson supported organized labor, breaking with mayor Sam Massell over a 1970 sanitation strike. In 1973, Jackson was elected mayor and it was a moment of rejoicing for African-Americans across the United States, as the rise of black political power seemed a confirmation of the civil rights movement, especially in the South. At first, Jackson did work to fight for the rights of the black poor, firing the racist white police chief in 1974. But the racial tensions this built and Jackson’s desire to be reelected in difficult economic times began to win out over racial and class equality concerns.

To say the least, Jackson did not repay the sanitation workers for their help. In his first three years as mayor, the workers received no raises and salaries remained stuck at an average of $7500 a year ($29,000 today). This placed a full-time worker supporting a family of four below the poverty line. Worker anger began to grow. Jackson would not give any ground. Instead, he embraced the city’s powerful white business community. They were concerned about the growing inflation of the 1970s and so Jackson decided to alleviate their concerns and drive workers deeper into poverty without raises to match that inflation. The workers demanded a 50-cent an hour raise. He refused to negotiate with AFSCME on the pay raises. Instead, Jackson became an austerity politician, stating “There will no deficit while I am mayor.” Jackson wouldn’t even return AFSCME’s phone calls by 1975. Over the next two years, smaller labor actions began popping up such as a one day strike in July 1976 and a wildcat strike in February 1977.

Finally, on March 28, 1977, the workers marched to City Hall to demand a meeting with Jackson. While Jackson did come out, he completely dismissed them. They were shocked that their own man, a hero of the civil rights movement, would treat them so shabbily. Basically there was no meaningful difference between Jackson and the white mayors of the past when it came to their work. At this point, the workers decided to strike. The next morning, 1300 workers went on strike.

Jackson quickly moved to isolate the workers by claiming AFSCME was attacking black political power. AFSCME president Jerry Wurf, the man who brought Martin Luther King into Memphis, was called a “racist manipulator” for for wanting to see black political power in Atlanta die, which really meant siding with the black workers over the black mayor. This is particularly ironic since the 1977 strike started without Wurf’s knowledge. It came completely from the rank and file and local staffers angry over Jackson’s betrayal. Jackson accused AFSCME of seeking to eliminate black political leadership throughout the South, saying “I see myself as only the first domino in [labor’s] Southern domino theory. If organized labor makes the move on black political leadership, I think it’s going to have severe consequences for labor Southwise, particularly AFSCME.” This was a cynical attempt to undermine community support for the strikers, an open race-baiting move by Jackson.


Meeting between Maynard Jackson and striking workers

Jackson then fired all the striking workers on April 2. The black middle class fully supported this move. Sadly, so did the civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Sr. said Jackson should “fire the hell” out of the sanitation workers. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also came out against the strikers. James Farmer was an important exception to this, appearing at rallies with AFSCME. The union also took out advertisements in the New York Times to highlight Jackson’s betrayal.

It didn’t work. Jackson simply crushed the union. By the end of April, half of the strikers had already given up and applied to get their old jobs back. Leamon Hood, the AFSCME staffer in charge of the strike, recommended on April 26 that workers end the strike. AFSCME itself cut off funding for the strike on April 29. Over the next year, the workers who wanted their jobs back did eventually return to work. Somewhat ironically, the most militant workers accused Hood and Wurf of selling out but there was simply no way to win this strike in the face of overwhelming opposition from the heroes of the civil rights movement.

In the end, the strike showed that electing supposedly progressive leadership was not a panacea for worker power. Electing the right politicians is a necessary part of what unions have to do to get their members’ better lives, but it is often difficult to hold them to their promises, even when they come out of something as transformative as the civil rights movement.

I relied on Joseph McCartin, “Managing Discontent: The Life and Career of Leamon Hood, Black Public Employee Union Activist,” in Eric Arnesen, ed., The Black Worker: A Reader and Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America to write this post.

This is the 140th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Sweet Dreams

[ 4 ] March 28, 2015 |


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