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GA-6: If Everyone Else Has a Take, I Guess I Should Too

[ 195 ] June 21, 2017 |

We are in the worst part of politics this morning. You see, it turns out that everyone has a compelling reason the Democrats did not win in Georgia. It’s always “If only Democrats adopt my precise political positions on every issue and campaign just as I would campaign, even though I know nothing about political elections, they would win every race from now until the end of time. Anyone who deviates from my personal positions is a hopeless neoliberal, even though I don’t know what neoliberalism actually means.”

As a Commenter of the American Scene (TM), I guess I am required to have a take. So here’s a few thoughts:

1) It’s one special election. It is not that meaningful. If there one was unfortunate aspect of this election, it’s that it was played up–by both sides but especially by Democrats–as being a referendum on Trump and the future. But in the end, it’s one special election in a very tough district.

2) I don’t think anyone is particularly to blame here. Yes, I know Ossoff is a tepid candidate. It’s also a district full of rich Georgia white Republicans. They aren’t looking for a socialist. Just because you and I are on the left does not mean that leftist candidates can win everywhere. It may well be true that centrist candidates can’t win either. But that doesn’t mean that running the American Jeremy Corbyn in the suburban South is going to work.

3) Money isn’t everything. All the money poured into the campaign seems to have made basically no difference. Everyone’s mind was made up when the first round of elections took place. The intense fundraising Ossoff engaged in was basically a gigantic waste of money. That’s not to say you can cede the airwaves. But the fact that the South Carolina race was actually closer than the Georgia race suggests that the intense focus on fundraising is probably overstated.

4) The other thing about South Carolina is that nationalizing a race like in Georgia may often serve to galvanize the opposition as much as your own supporters. It’s possible that sneaky wins happen more often than taking hard districts with tons of attention paid to them. It would not surprise me at all if in 2018, Democrats win several districts like that one in South Carolina that are shockers and then lose quite a few districts that they have poured money into.

5) One thing the left is saying that is probably accurate is that the road to Democratic success is not through winning Romney voters. I think that idea is very comforting to centrist Democrats not comfortable with a populist approach. But it’s pretty clear that while you might win a few of them, most of them are going to vote for any Republican not named Donald Trump. Actually, most of them will vote for Trump too. But I think it’s unlikely that a moderate pro-corporate approach is a ticket to success in 2018. It may be in particular districts, but the fact that despite everything that has happened in the White House since January produced a result that was almost precisely the same as three months ago is telling.

6) The one thing that most motivates Republican voters is hating Democrats. Jon Ossoff is a Democrat. Nothing else matters.

7) Georgia is a very racist state. And while suburban wealthy Georgia may wrap that in a more genteel language than rural south Georgia, many of those voters are still voting based on a white identity. There may be no way to overcome that.

8) Gerrymandering works. This is what is supposed to happen to a gerrymandered district in a wave-style election.

9) It’s funny that everyone’s hot takes, including on the left, ignores the role of voter suppression, which Handel of course supports.

10) Like everyone else commenting on this election, I am probably wrong on most points.

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This Day in Labor History: June 21, 1935

[ 12 ] June 21, 2017 |

On June 21, 1935, three members of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union were murdered at the Holmes-Eureka Mill in Eureka, California, by anti-union enforcers of the company. This violent moment was the culmination of the Great Strike of 1935 and the organizing of the Northwest’s timber industry. It also serves as a reminder of the great struggles of strikers in these years that included many lives lost, and not just in the handful of famous labor history incidents we remember today.

The Great Depression absolutely decimated the timber industry. At its best, this industry was the opposite of auto, with hundreds of operators all competing by harvesting as much timber as they could. Overproduction and cutthroat competition was a major problem. In 1923, 495,586 people were employed in logging camps and sawmills while in 1932, only 124,997. Wages fell from an average of $19.34 a week in 1929 to $8.40 in March 1933. A 1932 survey covering 2,320 camps and mills in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho showed that 35,250 workers had full-time employment, 29,263 had to make do with part-time work, and 58,235 were unemployed.

Loggers had a long tradition of organizing and radicalism, most notably with the IWW in the 1910s. But state repression during and after World War I, including the Everett Massacre in 1916 and the Centralia Massacre in 1919, effectively ended the IWW in the Northwest. An industry-wide company union called the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen was created during World War I and continued on a voluntary basis after the war. But company unionism never satisfied workers’ desire for a real voice on the job. With companies fleeing the Four-L in the early years of the depression, a new round of organizing began. The American Federation of Labor created the Sawmill and Timber Workers Union to coordinate this organizing. While it operated on the AFL’s conservative principles, the rank and file and much of the local leadership contained thousands of radicals, including avowed communists, sowing the seeds of later internal union conflicts.

On April 26, the strike began with workers at the Bloedel-Donovan mill in Bellingham, Washington. They had many demands, but the most important was union recognition. They also wanted a 6-hour day, paid holidays, a seniority system, and a 75 cent an hour minimum wage ($13.40 in 2017 dollars). The STWU announced a regionwide strike on May 6 if these demands weren’t granted, but workers started leaving early. They quickly followed in Portland and Olympia. By the May 6 deadline, 10,000 workers were on strike.

June 21 was the 43rd day of the Great Strike. As strikers converged on the Holmes-Eureka Mill, they began to argue with the scabs and the mill’s hired guards. People reported the police chief pull a gun and fire into the crowd, but no one is sure who fired first. In any case, someone fired on the strikers. William Kaarte, a logging camp cook was shot in the throat and immediately killed. Tree faller Harold Edlund was shot in the chest and survived until June 24. A third man, Paul Lampella, had his eye shot out and he lingered on until August 7. Another man named Ole Johnson had his leg amputated. This massacre would have been much worse but the police’s machine gun jammed. Sometime during this event, people broadly associated with the FBI turned up. J. Edgar Hoover denied they were FBI agents, but it’s a good chance they were. They helped round up as many strikers as they could find. They arrested 166 workers that day. But they could not convict them, as no jury in the area would find them guilty. The prosecutor gave up by September 25. Three days after the murders, on June 24, a mass march for the funeral of Kaarte brought 2000 people out, with representatives from all the area unions. That might not sound like a huge funeral by the standards of the dead from strikes in cities like Detroit and Chicago, but Eureka only had 16,000 residents. That same day, when 2000 strikers were blocking scabs at a Tacoma mill, the National Guard attacked them, leading to more violence. The growing violence of June led to both sides seeking mediation from the Roosevelt administration.

The strike had mixed success. Most employers agreed to a shorter workday and small wage increases, but refused to recognize the union. Workers returned to work in July. But they had also tasted their first victory and would continue to organize, often with radical leaders. A general rule of thumb for this industry is that the closer you were to Canada, the more likely you were to have a communist leader. From Portland south, they tended to be more politically conservative. The AFL had granted the United Brotherhood of Carpenters jurisdiction over the timber industry. But the Carpenters were distinctly uncomfortable with industrial unionism in the first place. Having up to 100,000 loggers overwhelm their regular members was alarming, even as they wanted the dues. That the Northwest forests were full of radicals, including communists and ex-Wobblies was even more unacceptable. So the Carpenters only granted the timber workers second rate status in the union. For thousands of workers, this was completely unacceptable. With the development of the CIO, first within the AFL in 1935 and then on its own by 1937, loggers sought to create a true industrial union in the forests. This led to the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). The Carpenters and IWA would go through a five-year war in the forests over who would represent the workers and in the end, the answer would be both, with about 2/3 of the workers with the IWA and 1/3 with the Carpenters, although the area around Eureka would be a Carpenters stronghold and remained so for the next half-century. The IWA would win most the gains the workers in 1935 wanted, with Carpenters contracts generally following what the IWA won.

This post borrowed from Richard Widick, Trouble in the Forest: California’s Redwood Timber Wars. Parts of it also come from my own book, Empire of Timber, which you should buy so I can fund more research into our labor and environmental history.

This is the 230th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 91

[ 42 ] June 21, 2017 |

This is the grave of George Hoar.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1826 to a politically prominent family, Hoar graduated from Harvard in 1846, moved to Worcester, and started a law practice. He quickly became involved in politics, first joining the Free Soil Party and then the Republicans. He was elected to the Massachusetts House in 1852 and then the state senate in 1857. He was elected to Congress in 1869 and the Senate in 1877. He aligned himself against the corruption of the Gilded Age and in favor of treating Native Americans like human beings. He opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act and argued in favor of women’s suffrage. He was an anti-imperialist and met with native Hawaiians resisting annexation in 1898. He did not support the Spanish-American War, resisting the media-driven jingoism of the time (Judy Miller would have been a hell of a yellow journalist). He strongly opposed the U.S. war on imperial conquest against the Philippines, where acts of rape, torture, and mass murder by American soldiers were a daily occurrence as we brought them “liberation.” In his opposition to imperialism, he could not have disagreed more with his fellow Republican senator from the Bay State, Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1902, he said this in a Senate speech:

You have sacrificed nearly ten thousand American lives—the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established reconcentration camps. Your generals are coming home from their harvest bringing sheaves with them, in the shape of other thousands of sick and wounded and insane to drag out miserable lives, wrecked in body and mind. You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture. Your practical statesmanship which disdains to take George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or the soldiers of the Revolution or of the Civil War as models, has looked in some cases to Spain for your example. I believe—nay, I know—that in general our officers and soldiers are humane. But in some cases they have carried on your warfare with a mixture of American ingenuity and Castilian cruelty. Your practical statesmanship has succeeded in converting a people who three years ago were ready to kiss the hem of the garment of the American and to welcome him as a liberator, who thronged after your men when they landed on those islands with benediction and gratitude, into sullen and irreconcilable enemies, possessed of a hatred which centuries can not eradicate.

He did have one bad position–he did not believe the Portuguese or Italian immigrants starting to enter the nation were fit for citizenship. He was also pretty naive, having been massively played by Senator J.Z. George of Mississippi in a debate over Mississippi’s literacy test, when the southerner got Hoar to admit that if his state applied a literacy test, it would be OK if it applied to both races. Hoar thought that was a great argument since he didn’t think that Mississippi would ever apply it to whites, when of course they would with pleasure when it suited them and would simply use it as an excuse to let illiterate whites vote and literate blacks not vote based upon the decision of the person applying the test and the mob violence behind him.

Hoar was a major player in establishing the historical profession, serving as president of the American Historical Association in 1895, as well as the American Antiquarian Society. He died in 1904 in Worcester.

Hoar also had excellent Gilded Age beard action.

George Hoar is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.

Optimism or Pessimism about America

[ 241 ] June 20, 2017 |

I thought this Yglesias piece on the differences between Sanders and Clinton voters was pretty good. Basically they more or less believe the same things, with strikingly few meaningful differences. The difference is that Clinton voters are basically happy with the direction of the country and Sanders voters aren’t. Clinton voters want tweaks to the system, Sanders voters want a “revolution.” I put that in scare quotes because most either don’t really know what that word means or are romanticizing a process that can go very, very wrong. Much of this goes back to Obama, who tapped into people’s desires for a new America with soaring rhetoric that papered over a very establishment figure who governed that way. The problem with a figure, whether Trump or Bernie or whoever, who wants to “shake things up” is that they aren’t really going to be able to do that effectively, leaving their voters permanently unsatisfied. There’s no easy answer for Democrats on this. We need a candidate who inspires and who has good policy, but who is also realistic about what can get done. That’s a tough needle to thread. Hillary Clinton really didn’t do it very well, or not as well as she needed to anyway.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 90

[ 18 ] June 20, 2017 |

This is the grave of Charles McNary.

Born on a farm north of Salem, Oregon in 1874, Charles McNary grew up relatively poor after his father died when he was 9, but he moved up quickly in Oregon society due to an older brother who had gained some prosperity, plus getting to know Herbert Hoover, the only president to have spent significant time in Oregon. McNary took some courses as Willamette University and then went to Stanford in 1896, making him a relatively old student for the time. He only stayed there for a year before returning home and deciding to make a career in the law. He passed the bar in 1898 and along with his brothers, became part of the leading law firm in the state’s capital. He taught law at Willamette and then became dean.

McNary entered Oregon politics in the 1890s, becoming Marion County’s deputy recorder from 1892-96. He rose after returning to Oregon, becoming a relative Progressive who stayed within the Republican Party. He supported most of Oregon’s Progressive Era reforms around political campaigns and issues, including the initiative, referendum, recall, and direct election of senators. For this and being a loyal Republican in a time of reform, he was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1913, at the age of 38. But this was an elected office and he lost his campaign in 1914. He became chairman of the state Republican Party. After the death of Harry Lane, McNary was selected to fill his term in the Senate in 1917. He remained there until his death in 1944.

In the Senate, McNary quickly proved his mettle and became a protege of Henry Cabot Lodge. This gained him favorable committee assignments and soon he became arguably the most powerful politician in Oregon history (a low bar at this time, to be sure). Warren Harding asked him to take over as Secretary of the Interior after the Albert Fall scandal at Teapot Dome, but not being an idiot, McNary refused. He was selected as Minority Leader in 1933, where he actually supported a good bit of the New Deal and especially Roosevelt’s preparations for World War II. He also became a major proponent of government investment in hydroelectric dams, which would eventually help develop eastern Oregon by damming the Columbia River. McNary Dam on the Columbia is named for him. His name was on the Clarke-McNary Act, one of the most important bills in the history of forestry, which provided federal aid for fire protection, among many other things. He also pushed through the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, which while vetoed by the vile Calvin Coolidge, was also an important precedent for the Agricultural Adjustment Act by wanting to set price floors for farm products.

McNary became the Republican candidate for Vice-President in 1940, despite having little in common with presidential nominee Wendell Willkie. Of course, FDR wiped the floor with them. He remained in the Senate but was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1943 and died the next year. With Willkie dying shortly after, this is the only time in U.S. history that both members of a party ticket died during the period in which they would have served.

Charles McNary is buried in Belcrest Memorial Park, Salem, Oregon.

Throw Sand in the Gears

[ 98 ] June 19, 2017 |

Chuck Schumer is finally slowing the Senate to a halt in response to the TrumpCare bill.

“If Republicans won’t relent and debate their healthcare bill in the open for the American people to see, then they shouldn’t expect business as usual in the Senate,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Schumer said Republicans are “drafting this bill in secret because they’re ashamed of it, plain and simple.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide said that starting on Monday evening, Democrats will object to “all unanimous consent requests in the Senate,” though there could be a narrow exception for honorary resolutions.”

If Democrats stick to the tactics, they will be able to block any committees from meeting after the Senate has been in session for more than two hours.

Will be very interesting to see what happens here. Will it continue if the bill is forced through? How far will Democrats go? At what point will they start fretting about the norms of the Senate, as if they exist anymore?

Still, a good and necessary move.

Another Media Win

[ 73 ] June 19, 2017 |

NBC investing ungodly sums to hire Megyn Kelly so she can interview and legitimize lunatics is really working out well for the network.

According to early Nielsen data, the first 30 minutes NBC’s “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” was easily beaten by Fox’s U.S. Open Golf Championship coverage and CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which is in summer repeats.

The second half-hour of Kelly’s news magazine, after the Jones interview aired, fared even worse, finishing fourth in total viewers while tying ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos” for third in the key 18-49 demographic networks covet most.

7:00 p.m.
ABC – “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (R): 2.2 rating/ 5 share (#4)
CBS – “60 Minutes” (R): 4.0 rating/ 9 share (#2)
NBC – “Megyn Kelly on Sunday”: 2.7/ 6 share (#3)
Fox – 2017 U.S. Open Golf Championship: 5.2/12 share (#1)

7:30 p.m.
ABC – “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (R): 2.5 rating/ 5 share (#3)
CBS – “60 Minutes” (R): 4.4 rating/ 9 share (#2)
NBC – “Megyn Kelly on Sunday”: 2.4 rating/ 5 share (#4)
Fox – 2017 U.S. Open Golf Championship: 5.2 rating/12 share (#1)

Kelly’s program averaged 3.5 million viewers and had a 0.5 rating among adults 18-49. The program produced the same numbers last week, which were down 42 percent since her debut three weeks ago featuring an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That’s most impressive bad performance since Joe Lieberman’s brag about his 3-way tie for 3rd in New Hampshire.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 89

[ 48 ] June 19, 2017 |

This is the grave of Alexander Hamilton.

I see little reason to rehash Hamilton’s biography, which is well known. So let me just make a few points.

1) Hamilton was a visionary when it came to developing capitalism and was obviously much more influential than Jefferson in the creation of the American economy, even if Jefferson was more influential in developing its mythology.

2) Hamilton became a horrible authoritarian and was one of the scariest people in American history by the mid-1790s. His fear of the people is to be shunned and damned. Down this path lies very bad things.

3) The Hamilton play was very good in terms of the music and production. It is nowhere close to the truth of Hamilton. Moreover, it is part of a desire to reclaim the Founders from conservatives, but creates more myth instead of a clear-headed understanding of the past. Ron Chernow is very much responsible for this, for his book is deeply flawed and he is not a real historian.

4) Hamilton was not nearly as anti-slavery as the play suggests and married into a slaveholding family, showing little regret over that. He’s hardly John C. Calhoun of course, but the idea of Hamilton as some sort of antislavery icon simply is ridiculous. He never did a damn thing about slavery.

5) There is no Leftist Hamilton we should hang our hat on.

6) Hamilton died at the right time. His anti-democratic impulses were rejected more by the year. Had he lived another 30 years, he would be seen today as a right-wing crank.

7) If you are going into a duel, shoot to kill.

Alexander Hamilton is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan New York.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 88

[ 70 ] June 18, 2017 |

This is the grave of Roscoe Conkling.

Born in 1829 in Albany, New York, Roscoe Conkling became the prototypical politician of the Gilded Age. He was born into an elite political family. His father was in the House and was a federal judge and his mother was a cousin of British Lord Chief Justice Alexander Cockburn. He knew Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams as a child. He skipped college and went straight into the law and also became involved in Whig politics. He worked locally in Utica for the election of Winfield Scott in 1852 and John C. Frémont in 1856, switching easily from the Whigs to the Republicans by that time. He was elected mayor of Utica in 1858 and to Congress that fall. He served two terms, losing in 1862. He then worked for the War Department for two years before regaining his seat in the 1864 elections. In 1867, he was elected to the Senate.

As a senator he became a leading ally of Ulysses S. Grant. He also became a notorious purveyor of patronage politics, with all the corruption that involved. He was pretty good on Reconstruction issues and shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1875 through the Senate. Grant offered Conkling a position of the Supreme Court, but he refused, believing his powers more important in the Senate. He hated the reform element of the party that led to the Liberal Republican movement of 1872 and their alliance with the Democrats to run Horace Greeley (of all people, what a ridiculous nominee not that any living American knows anything about that) against Grant in 1872. Those Republican reformists were both anti-corruption and wanted the Republican Party to stop caring about black people. Conkling didn’t really like them for the latter reason, but it was his love of patronage that really made him hate them. When the Hayes Administration tried to clean up some of the grotesque corruption of the Gilded Age, Conkling turned on it. When Hayes tried to dump Chester Arthur, a close Conkling ally, from his position as collector of the New York Customs House, a massive source of patronage power, Conkling held up the replacement nominees for 2 years and it wasn’t until 1879 that new people were confirmed, over Conkling’s objections even then.

In 1880, Conkling fought for a third term for Grant and hated the other two possible nominees, James Blaine and John Sherman. When that was impossible, he was unhappy with James Garfield, who was a compromise candidate settled upon by the Blaine and Sherman factions to defeat the Grant faction. His good friend Chester Arthur was named VP, basically at Conkling’s choosing for losing the presidential slot. Garfield then sought to isolate Conkling, naming his enemies to many slots, including the New York patronage positions. Furious at being denied the “right” for senators to control patronage in their own states, he resigned from the Senate in 1882, sure he would be reinstated by the New York Senate. Whoops, didn’t happen. This was all part of a break between Conkling and Arthur over civil service reform, which Arthur supported to Conkling’s outrage. Arthur actually then nominated Conkling to the Supreme Court later that year. He was confirmed by the Senate and then decided he wouldn’t do it. So he went home to New York and practice law.

Conkling also loved him the ladies. He was married to utter scumbag 1868 Democratic presidential nominee Horatio Seymour’s sister but carried on several affairs fairly openly, most notably with the daughter of Salmon Chase, causing her divorce. Supposedly her husband chased Conkling around their Rhode Island estate with a shotgun. He was pretty famous and many relatively famous people of the next generation were named after him. Supposedly, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of them but his father hated Conkling and named him that because he didn’t think the child was his and as Conkling was a known philanderer, it was a shot at Fatty’s mother. This sounds too pat a story of a comedian’s birth origins to be true, but who knows.

Unlike most wealthy Gilded Age men, Conkling was very into physical fitness and an aggressive masculinity that would later be picked up on by a new generation of men such as Theodore Roosevelt. This had its downside though. When the Great Blizzard of 1888 struck New York, Conkling was downtown. He tried to take a coach home but it got stuck in the snow. So Conkling, impatient and wanting to prove himself, decided he would walk home in the blizzard. He made it as far as Union Square. He collapsed, got pneumonia, and died a month later.

Roscoe Conkling is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, New York.

This post begins Graveapaoolza. In other words, I have such an enormous backlog of these things that I am going to do a grave a day over the next week in order to chip into this before I myself die and have like a thousand grave posts sadly unwritten.

This Day in Labor History: June 17, 1864

[ 14 ] June 17, 2017 |

On June 17, 1864, the Washington Arsenal exploded in Washington, D.C, killing around 20 workers. This tragic event highlighted the growing dangers of the American workplace and the indifference to workplace safety that proved deadly again and again in Civil War munitions factories.

Even before the Civil War, workplace safety in the American workplace was shockingly nonexistent. In a society where untimely death was pretty common, the nation largely gave a collective shrug to workplace deaths. This is how courts could rule that employers had no responsibility for workplace safety or over 1000 workers could die building the Erie Canal without causing a crisis of any kind.

During the Civil War, the industrialization of the United States grew rapidly, setting the stage for the coming Gilded Age and preparing for the growth in the American economy over the next several decades. But the Civil War certainly did not lead to any special preparations for workplace safety. In fact, the Civil War was pretty bad for northern workers. They faced rapidly rising inflation far outpacing wages, long workdays, and military intervention against early attempts to strike, particularly in factories involved in production for the war. The tiny American union movement would grow significantly during war, laying the groundwork for the resistance to capitalism that would become so striking during the 1870s.

For obvious reasons, a big growth area in the economy during the Civil War was in weapons production. With the growing wartime economy, new opportunities for women’s work arose, but these were not really opportunities so much as they were desperate choices made for sheer survival. Many of these women were working a hard, dangerous job because their husbands were among the Civil War wounded or dead. The wages were OK for average women’s wages at the time–$50-60 a month–but with inflation skyrocketing, the real wages declined over time. Those wages were also only half as much as men made. The combined average costs of rent and food was about $50 a month, forcing women to live together to save money. Young girls made up a large percentage of the workforce at armories, often Irish girls without other options except prostitution.

At the Washington Arsenal, which is now Fort McNair, near Nationals Park in Washington, dozens of women labored filling cartridges with gunpowder in what was called the choking room. They were not allowed to talk so they could focus on placing precisely 50 grams of gunpowder in each cartridge. This was dangerous labor. In 1862, an explosion at a Pittsburgh arsenal killed 78 workers. It was June in Washington so it was hot and crowded, the women wearing the heavy clothing of the era. Unbelievably, these very workers at the Washington Arsenal had just sent a $170 contribution to raise a monument for the victims in Pittsburgh just before they would die themselves.

June 17 was a particularly hot day. The arsenal made a variety of ammunition for heavy artillery, muskets, carbines, handguns, and other weaponry. It also made fireworks. With July 4 coming up, the arsenal was preparing its supply of fireworks. The superintendent, Thomas Brown, was known as a “pyrotechnist” with 20 years of experience making fireworks. He laid out some star flares to dry near the workers. They had a practical use too, as they could be used to illuminate Confederate positions, but these were to be used for the Independence Day celebrations. This was a bad idea. There were a lot of stars and he set them very close together. Around noon, something set off the flares. Probably it was because the intense heat and the sun shining on them sparked them. They started to explode near the gunpowder.

The Arsenal actually had written safety regulations. It said that there should not be more gunpowder in the choking room than necessary. As per usual in these years, no one paid attention to this. The choking room exploded thanks to all the gunpowder laying around. Some workers escaped. Those on the opposite side of the building jumped out of a second floor window and survived. But somewhere around 20 workers died that day. It was never clear given how poorly employers even kept track of their employees during these years. A few died immediately, some survived for a short time. Eight were burned beyond recognition. About twelve were sent to the hospital on site that was already filled with the wounded from the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Yet this could have been far worse. Had the fire spread to the magazines, the explosion and death toll would have been epic. As it was, it took an hour to put out the fire, which was helped by being right on the Potomac River.

That these women had to wear hoop skirts on the job in order to ensure the modesty of the women workers made the disaster worse. Not only were they heavy and made it hard to move but because the fabric was held in place, it made them quite flammable. The youngest girl who died was a 12-year old girl named Sally McElfresh. The event touched many who felt these women sacrificed for the nation. Abraham Lincoln attended the funeral. So did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. There was a long funeral procession attended by thousands.

Typical of the period, Superintendent Brown faced no consequences. There was a coroner’s jury that rebuked him for his carelessness, but that was about it. After all, it was not against the law to commit extreme negligence when it came to workers’ lives. Workers died all the time from employers’ indifference, whether accidental or not. They faced no legal consequence. The surviving families received small amounts of compensation. A statue was erected to honor the dead.

Another explosion took place at the Washington Arsenal in 1865. At least eight men died that day. Nothing seems to have changed after that event either. The Confederacy also suffered arsenal explosions in Richmond and Augusta, killing a number of women and children in both.

The image at the top of this post is a picture of the women working at the Arsenal. Many of them died that day.

This is the 229th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

…. I happen to be in Washington for a conference. So I wandered out to the Arsenal explosion monument to pay my respects.

To the Fainting Couch

[ 116 ] June 16, 2017 |

A police officer gets away with murdering a black person even though the murder is recorded? I just can’t believe it!

Minnesota police officer, whose fatal shooting of a black motorist transfixed the nation when his girlfriend livestreamed the aftermath, was acquitted of all charges on Friday.

The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, had been charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangering safety by discharging a firearm in the shooting of Philando Castile.

After the verdict, jurors and Mr. Yanez were quickly led out of the courtroom, and Mr. Castile’s family left immediately. When a deputy tried to stop his mother, Valerie, she yelled “Let me go.”

Later, she said: “My son loved this city, and this city killed my son. And a murderer gets away. Are you kidding me right now?”

No, sadly.

Trump and Labor

[ 83 ] June 15, 2017 |

Not that you didn’t already know the general direction this was going, but Charlotte Garden has a great overview of where the Trump administration is going on labor issues. I will just quote one sentence to sum up and you can read the rest.

The writing is on the wall: during Trump’s presidency, we are likely to see DOL demand more disclosure from unions and other worker-aligned groups, while giving employers a freer hand to fight union drives.

Yep, pretty much bog standard Republicanism.

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