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Happy Triangle Day

[ 38 ] March 25, 2015 |

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104 years ago today, 146 American workers died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Combined with the Centralia mine disaster I profiled earlier today, March 25 should be known as American Workplace Disaster Day. Keith Mestrich has a few thoughts on the anniversary and its meaning in the present:

Many will remember in April 2013 when a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, which improperly stored chemicals, exploded. Fourteen men were killed and more than 300 people were injured. The facility was non-union. Stronger workplace protections perhaps could have saved those men’s lives. But since then, Rick Perry and the state of Texas have continued to beat their anti-union drum and have not managed to pass a single new law or regulation to make workplaces safer in their state.

The images of that factory in Texas exploding quickly went viral, ricocheting throughout social media. The tragic photographs from the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire should capture our attention just as much. They may look like distant history but they show a society that did nothing to protect its workers. One hundred and five years later, we cannot make the mistake of thinking the battle is won. The richest country on Earth can afford to protect its workers. And the people of this country deserve to be led by men and women who care whether Americans can get home safely to their families at the end of their shift. The young women who died on that fateful day deserve at least that much.

American Clothing Suppliers Use Gangs to Bust Unions

[ 12 ] March 25, 2015 |

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This is precisely the reason why we need to be able to hold American corporations legally accountable for the actions of the suppliers:

Textile companies that make clothing for transnational brands in El Salvador are accused of forging alliances with gang members to make death threats against workers and break up their unions, according to employees who talked to IPS and to international organisations.

Workers at maquila or maquiladora plants – which import materials and equipment duty-free for assembly or manufacturing for re-export – speaking on condition of anonymity said that since 2012 the threats have escalated, as part of the generalised climate of violence in this Central American country.

“They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker,” one worker at the LD El Salvador company in the San Marcos free trade zone, a complex of factories to the south of the Salvadoran capital, told IPS.

She has worked as a sewing machine operator since 2004 and belongs to the Sindicato de la Industria Textil Salvadoreña (SITS) textile industry union. Some 780 people work for LD El Salvador, a Korean company that produces garments for the firms Náutica and Walmart.

“They told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company,” she said.
She added that LD executives hired gang members to make sure the threats directly reached the workers who belong to SITS, on the factory premises.

The warnings have had a chilling effect, because only 60 of the 155 workers affiliated with the union are still members, she said. Many quit, scared of falling victim to the young gangs, organised crime groups known in Central America as “maras”, which are responsible for a large part of the murders every day in this impoverished country.

This is all implicitly approved of by American trade policy and of course by Walmart and the other developed world corporations contracting in El Salvador. Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership would double down on this global race to the bottom. Today is the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. That fire happened in part because the Uprising of the 20,000, 2 years earlier, failed to force sweatshop owners to improve working conditions. One reason for that was that those sweatshops hired prostitutes to start fights with striking workers, giving the police an excuse to bust the heads of the strikers. Very little has changed except that American companies have shifted the nation of production away from the U.S. None of this will change until we create a global legal system that holds these corporations accountable for the actions of their suppliers, giving workers in El Salvador and other nations legal recourse in the national home of corporate origin to fight against these horrible things. Right now, unlike in 1909 and 1911, it’s all out of our sight. That has to change if we don’t want Walmart suppliers employing murderous gangs to keep wages low.

This Day in Labor History: March 25, 1947

[ 9 ] March 25, 2015 |

On March 25, 1947, the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine in Centralia, Illinois exploded, killing 111 workers. This disaster, caused by extremely unsafe working conditions from employers utterly indifferent to the lives of their workers, helped move forward, however slowly, the nation’s push toward safer working conditions in coal mines.

In the Centralia No. 5 mine, workers labored up to 3 miles underground. In the late afternoon of March 25, coal dust exploded. Fire flashed through the tunnels. Poison gas that builds up after a mine explosion, known as afterdamp, began accumulating in the mine, severely threatening the lives of those not killed in the explosion and fire. 142 men were in the mine. 65 died from burns and 45 by afterdamp. An additional individual died of afterdamp in the hospital. Only 31 miners survived. As the surviving workers began succumbing to the gas, they scratched final goodbyes to loved ones on the mine walls. One scribbled “”Dear wife, Goodbye. Forgive me. Take care of all the children.” Sad stuff.

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Bringing out the dead in Centralia

In the six months prior to the explosion, the Centralia mine had undergone two inspections by federal mine inspectors and both had found serious violations of the Federal Mine Safety Code. The second investigation took place a mere five days before the explosion. But the enforcement power of the government was weak and nothing was done. Centralia did have to pay small fines, but the company decided it was a good value to just pay the fines rather than fix the safety in the mines. A year before the explosion, UMWA Local 52 recording secretary William Rowenkampf wrote to Illinois governor Dwight Green, asking him to get involved in the unsafe conditions at the Centralia mine. He wrote:

This is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the department of mines and minerals enforce the laws at the No. 5 of the Centralia Coal Co. before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Green ignored the request.

United Mine Workers of America president John Lewis made workplace health and safety a major issue for his union as World War II concluded. In 1946, Lewis led over 300,000 workers on strike in demand for an employer-paid health plan. President Harry Truman responded by seizing the mines and Lewis began negotiating with Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug (Interior has regulatory responsibility for most mines) instead of the employers. The Krug-Lewis Accord was signed in May 1946 and established a jointly operated health plan between the UMWA and the government funded by a five cent tax per ton of coal. However, the operators resented both federal intervention and the entire agreement and Krug did little to enforce it either. The miners continued to seethe over the lack of safety and health on the job.

Lewis announced a six-day national walkout after the mine disaster, using the union’s right to call memorial days to remember dead comrades. Lewis was furious. He attacked Krug for failing to enforce existing mine safety legislation. He stated, “The killing must stop. Coal is heavily saturated with the blood of too many brave men and the tears of too many widows and orphans.” Lewis demanded that President Truman fire Krug. Truman refused (and it’s not like Lewis had that many friends in the highest reaches of the Democratic Party in 1947 anyway). Rather, Truman and his advisers believed that Lewis called the walkout as a way around an injunction against a previously planned strike to begin April 1. However, this did elicit a response from the Truman administration. Krug ordered 518 mines to remain closed for federal inspection even after the UMWA walkout ended.

Unlike the many mine disasters of the past, this one got the attention of Congress. Both the House and Senate conducted hearings on mine safety. Lewis furiously attacked Krug for failing to enforce the heath plan of the previous year. He testified:

If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die.

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John L. Lewis testifying before Congress, 1947

Congress began to move toward a more permanent regime of federal mine inspection, which was extremely weak in 1947. The House and Senate passed a joint resolution urging the Bureau of Mines to continue inspecting mines for safety and passing along any found violations to the respective state regulatory agencies. But of course state regulations are almost always extremely pro-business and the reporting to the states provision demonstrates just how weak the federal presence was in workplace safety as late as 1947. Congress also passed Public Law 328, which asked the states to comply with federal mining regulations. Yes, asked them. There was no enforcement. Of the 26 coal mining states, 17 reported fully, 2 partially, and 7 not at all. Even Congress wasn’t really that serious here; the Senate’s appropriation for the investigation of the disaster was all of $5000. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Mine Safety admitted that only 2 mines in the entire nation actually were safe for workers.

Eventually, in 1952, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act passed which for the first time gave federal mine inspectors the ability to shut down mines in extremely dangerous conditions. Yet this still remained a relatively weak law and it would not be until 1969 and miners’ own activism against the indifference of their union leadership at that time before a strong act would pass to protect them on the job. Even today, the health and safety of coal miners is treated with contempt by companies and indifference by the regulatory agencies of the government.

To remember the Centralia mine victims, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Dying Miner.”

Some of this material is borrowed from James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry. See also Daniel Curran, Dead Laws for Dead Men: The Politics of Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Legislation. The letter from the UMWA to the Illinois governor is found in Joe Allen, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.

This is the 139th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

Racial Thursdays

[ 36 ] March 24, 2015 |

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Look, the Army boys just need a little time to blow off some stress by indulging in open racism….

The Development of White Collar Work

[ 5 ] March 24, 2015 |

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Longreads.com was not messing around when it chose that name. Sometimes, things are now long reads primarily because the internet makes it possible, as opposed to using the most effective length to get a point across. That’s the case with this extraordinarily long excerpt of Nikil Saval’s new book on the development of white collar labor in the 19th century. Despite (or maybe because of) this, if you want to know about how explicitly white collar labor developed, with a sort of class consciousness of its own, this is a really good place to start. Given how culturally valued white collar labor is over blue collar in 2015 America and how this was very much the opposite before the Civil War, it’s worth exploring this history.

“The Liberal Benghazi”

[ 91 ] March 24, 2015 |

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Richard Cohen, America’s least favorite racist uncle, just can’t help himself, calling outrage over cops murdering black people in places like Ferguson, “the liberal Benghazi.” Fred Hiatt of course is fine with this.

Hillary Clinton and Education

[ 26 ] March 24, 2015 |

Since she lacks a credible primary challenger, it might be awhile before we know whether Hillary Clinton is as in the pocket of the wealthy education privatizers and Rheeists as Barack Obama. Given her close relations with the teachers’ unions and the Wall Street Democrats, she is definitely being pulled in different directions. Where she does eventually fall may tell us much about what her presidency might be like for progressives.

I confess that I am not confident.

Dead Bid Walking

[ 158 ] March 23, 2015 |

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The ridiculous attempt to put the Olympics in Boston in 2024 is dying on the vine. Hosting the Olympics is a terrible idea for any city. For a old, cramped, expensive city like Boston with no room to grow and huge traffic problems, it’s pretty much the worst idea imaginable.

Grassroots History

[ 8 ] March 23, 2015 |

This is an incredible story of inmates at an Indiana prison doing grassroots research on the history of their own prison with assistance from a historian-volunteer. Not surprising, the findings suggest terrible violence against prisoners and rank hypocrisy by the “reformers” who founded the prison. There’s really no way to excerpt this article effectively. But it is truly incredible and inspiring research.

This research is also very difficult to accomplish because the prisoners have almost no resources thanks to the state of Indiana defunding all non-vocational education. If you are a historian and have time to help these people, you can contact the lead historian on the project here.

Finally, I will at least note the most fun, if one of many disturbing, parts of the history, which tells of one of the prison doctor’s experiments on the inmates, this time on one masturbating too often. The solution:

“We applied muriate of cocaine to the clitoris, and I can assure you the effect was wonderful, the vagina at once behaved as well as the most virtuous vagina in the United States.”

So there’s that.

Greed Upon Greed

[ 35 ] March 23, 2015 |

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Above: Roger Goodell

The NFL is so horrible. This multi-gazillion dollar organization decided to hold a veterans’ NFL combine for those players trying to hold on to their dreams of making it in the league. But being the NFL, of course it not only made players pay their own travel costs to attend, but also forced them to pay a $400 registration fee.

A Misogynist Feast

[ 186 ] March 23, 2015 |

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MRAs are trying to free themselves from women by learning how to cook. The results are as pathetic as you can imagine as Amanda Marcotte shows. Of course these people can’t press a button on a microwave without ranting against evil women. Amanda provides some helpful kitchen tips for these guys:

Frozen Burritos Of Online Dating

Buy a pack of frozen burritos. Take a couple, unwrap them and put them in the microwave for 3 minutes. While you are waiting, message someone 20 years younger on OK Cupid, telling her she’s beautiful and you want to worship the ground she walks on. When she doesn’t reply before your microwave beeps, get angry. Who does this bitch think she is? Send another message explaining to her that she’s an ungrateful cunt and she really shouldn’t be on this service if she’s not going to reply immediately when you put yourself out there like that.

Rotate your burritos and put on another 2 minutes. Return to find that she has not replied yet. Get absolutely furious. Drop your pants and start jerking off until your cock is nice and hard. Pull out your iPhone and take a picture of it, to show her what she is missing. Send it to her. Ignore your microwave beeping, because you are too busy scrolling through her pictures of her laughing with friends and convincing yourself she’s just playing a game with you. Suddenly she messages back. “Jesus, dude, WTF,” it reads. Pen a 4 page manifesto explaining how women like her are the ruin of the world and they will be sorry one day when they’re alone with cats and frozen burritos. Send. Wait a few more minutes. She blocks you.

Eat your burritos, now cold, while drinking a Bud Light. Watch some porn, and laugh at all those women who are sorry now that you’ve found an alternative to dating them.

Banana Companies Continue Exploiting Latin American Workers

[ 42 ] March 22, 2015 |

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You may well be familiar with the history of the banana companies in Latin America, with their rank exploitation of workers, imperialist treatment of nations, and ability to get the U.S. military to intervene on their behalf. But that story usually ends in our remembered historical narrative with the Guatemalan coup in 1953. Our stories about U.S. imperialism in Latin America after 1959 revolve much more around Cuba, guerrilla movements, and Reagan’s intervention in Central America. But the banana companies have never went away and they are still exploiting workers as much as ever. Diego Arguedas Ortiz reports on a banana strike in Costa Rica:

A strike that has brought activity to a halt since January on three major banana plantations on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, along the border with Panama, has highlighted the abuses in a sector in the hands of transnational corporations and has forced the governments of both countries to intervene.

More than 300 labourers, almost all of them indigenous Panamanians working on plantations for a branch of the U.S. corporation Fresh Del Monte, have been on strike since Jan. 16 to protest harassment of trade unionists, changes in schedules and working conditions, delayed payment of wages and dismissals considered illegal.

“The company laid us off on Dec. 31 and when it rehired us on Jan. 3 it said we were new workers and that any modification of the work applied to us. But according to legal precedent, to be considered a new worker at least a month has to go by,” Federico Abrego, one of the striking workers from Panama, told Tierramérica by phone from the area.

Abrego and most of the more than 300 workers on strike on the Sixaola plantations 1, 2 and 3 belong to the Ngöbe and Bugle indigenous groups, who live in a self-governed indigenous county in Panama across the border from Costa Rica, where many go to find work.

The plantations in Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastal region are the scenario of frequent conflicts between workers and the big banana companies, and the current strike on the Sixaola plantations is just one example. In 2013, Sitepp held a strike to protest poor working conditions and the complaints are piling up in the Ministry of Labour.

In May 2014, an inspection by the ministry revealed a number of violations of the country’s labour laws and ordered the companies to redress them.

For example, according to the report by the national inspection office, “on occasion, company officials use different forms of intimidation against the workers, either through verbal abuse or shouting or practices of labour harassment.”

“After these denunciations were made, they set up a union, tailored to the needs of the company,” the president of Sitepp, Luis Serrano, told Tierramérica. “Through that union they were trying to take over the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement that expired in December. They launched a campaign against us and started to give benefits to the union in alliance with the company, which they created.”

The union leaders complain that despite the binational agreement, they have not yet received food support from the institutions, although the 64 workers covered by the accord were rehired.

A large proportion of the banana industry is in the hands of transnational corporations. Besides Fresh Del Monte, there are branches of other U.S. firms like Chiquita Brands, which controls 24 percent of the country’s banana exports, or the Dole Food Company.

As I continue to say, these workers should have access to U.S. courts to demand redress from these companies. Unless companies can be held responsible in both the nation of corporate origin and the nation of production, the grotesque exploitation of the world’s poor will continue.

By the way, I took that picture of the old United Fruit building in New Orleans. I was very excited.

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