For what seems like half of my life and the entire time I have written at this site, I have been talking about my logging book. Well, as of today, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests is under contract with Cambridge University Press. No official publication date yet, but it should be sometime next year and I will keep readers posted.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
It’s not just vaccinations that are outraging Republicans. It’s also government requirements for restaurant sanitation. Senator Thom Tills (R-Art Pope):
On Monday, the freshman senator ended his talk at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) with a story to illustrate his philosophy on government regulations.
“I was having this discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,” Tillis recalled. “Let an industry or business opt out as long as they indicate through proper disclosure, through advertising, through employment, literature, whatever else. There’s this level of regulations that maybe they’re on the books, but maybe you can make a market-based decision as to whether or not they should apply to you.”
Tillis said that at about that time, a Starbucks employee came out of one of the restrooms.
“Don’t you believe that this regulation that requires this gentlemen to wash his hands before he serves your food is important?” Tillis was asked by the person at his table.
“I think it’s one I can illustrate the point,” Tillis told the women. “I said, I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as the post a sign that says ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restrooms.’ The market will take care of that.”
I look forward to Republican candidates debating over just how unsanitary restaurants should be in the 2016 primary debates.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) became the latest Republican on Tuesday to speak out against vaccine mandates, saying: “We should not have an oppressive state telling us what to do.”
“I want that to be my choice as a parent,” Duffy, a father of seven, said said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “The Rundown With José Díaz-Balart.” “I know my kids best. I know what morals and values are right for my children. I think we should not have an oppressive state telling us what to do.”
Duffy’s remarks came as an outbreak of measles — a potentially fatal disease thought to be eradicated from the U.S. just 15 years ago thanks to safe and effective vaccination — had sickened more than 100 Americans. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) came under heavy criticism Monday for appearing to align themselves with the anti-vaccine movement.
The Wisconsin congressman explicitly defended vaccine critics, saying: “I think a lot of parents who are smart, well-read — they’re the ones who are choosing not to vaccinate. And oftentimes, those who may not be as well-read — they are vaccinating. So to say you just have a bunch of crackpots who are choosing not to do this to their children, I just don’t think that’s actually true.”
Will Jeb Bush have to make an anti-vaccination statement to remain relevant in 2016? Many people in bed with measles are excited to find out!
Can we change the GOP symbol from the elephant to a 10 year doubling over from a whooping cough fit?
Because Barack Obama is pro-vaccination, I guess Chris Christie feels the need to say vaccinations should be parents’ choice and used his expertise in public health to say “not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”
Wolfson, an Arizona cardiologist, refuses to vaccinate his two young sons. He said the family that didn’t vaccinate and endangered the Jacks children did nothing wrong.
“It’s not my responsibility to inject my child with chemicals in order for [a child like Maggie] to be supposedly healthy,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s very likely that her leukemia is from vaccinations in the first place.”
“I’m not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child. My child is pure,” he added. “It’s not my responsibility to be protecting their child.”
“I could live with myself easily,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate thing that people die, but people die. I’m not going to put my child at risk to save another child.”
On February 2, 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war the U.S. launched against Mexico to steal land and extend slavery. Mexico was forced to cede the northern half of the nation to the United States. That would have enormous implications of the lives and the work cultures of the Spanish-speaking people who lived there. This post considers that issue with the farmers of northern New Mexico.
The Spanish (and then the Mexicans after independence in 1821) settled the far northern lands of New Spain/Mexico through creating land grants. Some of these were given to an individual, others to a group of families to start a village. It took a good long while to get most of these going because the northern edge of New Mexico was also the land of the Comanches, who in the 18th century were the stronger nation. Those settling on these land grants were taking a big risk with their lives, and warfare, capture, slavery, and death was common until after 1779, when the defeat of Cuerno Verde mostly moved the Comanche out of the Rockies and onto the Plains.
On these land grants, the Spanish settlers created their own work culture. Living in centralized small villages, the settlers engaged in a pastoral economy. They grazed sheep and goats, raised cows, sold timber, did a bit of mining, fished, and hunted. They build acequias to irrigate their crops. Some of the land was privately owned but the vast majority of these grants were ejidos, or common lands. They were somewhat connected to larger markets through Santa Fe, but this was largely a self-sufficient life. They were certainly not getting rich off this work. This was hard labor for very little money. Periodic droughts and high elevations made life pretty precarious. But it was their work culture and their land.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the land grants. This was very important to the Mexican government. Article VIII stated:
Property of every kind, now belonging to Mexicans now established there shall be inviolably respected. The present owners, the heirs of these, and all Mexicans who may hereafter acquire said properties by contract, shall enjoy with respect to its guarantees equally ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States.
But of course once the treaty was signed, it was only the United States enforcing the agreement. And these lands were among the best in New Mexico Territory. Anglo lawyers, often working for wealthy land owners and eastern investors, began to discover ways to break the land grants. The grants had to be reviewed and confirmed by American courts through a surveying process and a then a patent filing. Of the around 1000 grants, only 48 were confirmed before 1891 and only 22 of those patented. American courts didn’t understand (and didn’t try to understand) the communal property of the grants and made little effort to do so. Every territorial appointee until 1897 was an Anglo; the land grant residents had no access to the a political system they didn’t understand, which was infused with white racism against them in any case. The Hispano farmers were poor and colonized. Legal proceedings were conducted in English and often without translators. Conditions were ripe for whites to rip them off and acquire the common lands.
Leading this charge was Thomas Catron, a wealthy lawyer who acquired (either in whole or in part) 34 New Mexico land grants and at one time owned three million acres of land, making him the largest private landowner in American history. Eighty percent of the land grants were lost to residents in the late nineteenth century. Catron and others would approach individual grantees and offer to buy their claims for a pittance; economically desperate and without knowledge of the American legal system, some began to sell for as a low as a quarter an acre. Soon entire grants were being purchased for almost nothing, often without the consent of all the people who had a stake in it. The speculators and lawyers would get farmers to sign a power of attorney agreement for the land in a language they could not understand and without being told what it meant–which was the loss of the right to use the common lands. Some lawyers even told people to sign a document they said was of no real importance, but was in fact selling their land. This land was then usually sold to mining or timber companies, used for huge grazing operations as railroads were built connecting New Mexico to east coast markets or sometimes to wealthy east coast barons for private hunting reserves.
The farmers were still there, but they lost most of the ability to survive even in the meager way their pastoral work and barter economy had allowed before. They were forced into greater dependency at the same time their land was being stripped. They tried appealing to American courts but the same white supremacist Supreme Court that had just issued Plessy routinely denied them their rights for common land. The Cañon de Chama Grant was reduced from 472,737 acres to 1,422 acres when the Court denied the grantees rights to the commons. Wage labor was the result, often for almost nothing working on the same lands they used to own. Others left to work in the fields of Colorado, picking sugar beets and other crops. The pastoral economy collapsed and so did the sustainable lives of the farmers. They became part of the rural proletariat of the American West.
The dispossession of Hispanos from their land and their work had long term implications. It just deepened the poverty of the people, forcing them into whatever wage labor they could find. Many ignored the government restrictions on the use of land and sometimes violent confrontations with forestry or grazing officials was not uncommon. During the 1960s, the desire to regain that lost land (if not necessarily the precise lost work culture) led to the Chicano movement in New Mexico being centered around the recapture of the land grants for the descendants of the owners. Many of the land grants became what are today the national forests of New Mexico, so this organizing was also against a government that had facilitated the theft of the land and now owned it outright. The 1965 raid of Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico briefly brought this issue to national attention, but it soon faded, as did the Alianza. Today, the impact of the land grant thefts on employment and culture remains strong. The former land grant communities have some of the highest heroin death rates in the country. Today, there are a few land grants still in New Mexico. Their owners are forbidden to sell their property.
For this post, I borrowed from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico and William DeBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range.
This is the 131st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Alex Tabarrok wrote a very strange article earlier this week. He decided a defense of the early twentieth century company town was necessary. Arguing that company towns and company stores were necessary extensions of capital investment in isolated places and that the isolation meant that the companies were doing workers a favor by not forcing them to tie themselves down to a place that would isolate them from a national labor market, Tabarrok ultimately wants to rehabilitate the company town as a piece of corporate beneficence that saved workers from the impact of monopoly power over their lives. Tabarrok claims our entire view of company towns and exploitation is backward.
Before going into the many problems here, let’s note where Tabarrok is closest to right. It is certainly true that most, although not all (Pullman for instance) company towns were in isolated places, especially the mountains of Appalachia, but also mining regions elsewhere, logging towns, etc. There wasn’t a lot of preexisting economic opportunity in these areas and building a town might make sense for a company in order to get out the resources more quickly than if relying on local labor or private concerns to build housing. That investment meant a quicker overall profit. And no, there certainly wasn’t going to be a variety of stores for workers to choose from that could create low costs through competition. These were usually small places that didn’t have enough people to support a lot of stores. And given that, it is certainly possible that a private store might have charged prices equally high or maybe even higher than a company store. Company towns were not monolithic. Some treated workers well, others poorly. People made community in these towns as they did everywhere. Ultimately, the cost and trouble of running these towns eventually convinced most companies to shed them by World War II, especially since most people had automobiles by this point and could drive to work and since labor law had undermined corporate control over workers in the previous decade so that the advantages of the towns had disappeared.
But that is far from the full story of company towns, as much as Tabarrok would like to make that story strictly quantitative. What Tabarrok doesn’t seem to understand (or perhaps he approves of this) is that a very important advantage for employers in company towns is that they increased their control over the workforce. That meant everything from implementing aesthetic preferences in housing to threatening to kicking workers out of housing during labor disputes. In a documentary on the company town of Valsetz, Oregon, one man remembered that the company store only sold one kind of beer because it was the owner’s favorite beer. Tabarrok doesn’t even mention company scrip in his defense of these towns. Whether the prices at these company stores were higher than other stores or not becomes irrelevant when you can’t buy at those stores because you are not paid in cash money. The entire purpose of scrip is to control workers’ spending, whether you charge unreasonable rates or not. Again, not every company town used scrip, but some did and that has to be discussed in any defense of company towns. And from having read internal industry debates on logging camps in the 1910s (essentially temporary company towns), I can tell you that at least in that industry, the majority of the employers openly wanted to make profit off the camp cookhouses, in part because they wanted to take back some of the wages they paid to workers and in part because they believed that without the profit motive there was no way to create an efficient cooking operation. These employers were not doing workers any favors through the company towns. They were doing themselves favors that perhaps sometimes also benefited workers.
And what about company housing? Notice how Tabarrok glides by the issue that companies could kick workers out of housing if they went on strike.
On the one hand, this did mean that during a lengthy strike the firm could evict the workers from their housing. On the other hand, would you want to buy a house in an isolated town dependent on a single industry?
First, most of these workers weren’t buying houses in the type of housing market that exists today or had the money to anyway, but let’s just leave that. You can’t just say “oh one the one hand sure the company could toss you on the street at their own whim while…” That’s a big deal! Yeah, you could be kicked out of your homes. Like at Ludlow, when Colorado Fuel & Iron tossed the miners out of their homes when they struck, forcing them onto a tent town just off the mountains during a Colorado winter (imagine the wind!) and then burning the tent town and killing a bunch of people. And if the Ludlow Massacre was not necessarily a common event, the eviction was common. If you didn’t live in company housing, at least you could try to do something to make ends meet if you lost your job or went on strike. Thus company housing provided companies an enormous amount of control over their workers’ lives because they could threaten them with eviction. Given the poverty of coal miners and the isolation of the miners, it’s not like most had good options to just go find another job. The same isolation that Tabarrok says made companies do the right thing by workers through these towns also vastly increased employer power over the workforce.
Tabarrok also compares these company towns to oil rigs today, writing
Oil rigs are similarly isolated today and once on board the workers have nowhere to go but the company restaurant, the company theater and the company gym but that hardly means that the workers are exploited.
Do we know that? What are the prices charged in these stores? How does it compare to workers’ wages? And in fact, workers are exploited on the oil rigs, which I guess serves as something close to a company town. That is an extraordinarily dangerous job and workers have few rights on the rigs. Guestworkers from India working on the rigs after Hurricane Katrina were openly exploited. The job pays fairly well for blue collar labor in the 21st century, but conditions are very dangerous. As the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, with noted Wobbly organizer and former Florida senator Bob Graham as co-chair, reported to President Obama, the conditions of work on these offshore oil rigs need a massive overhaul to prevent the deaths of these workers.
Finally, Tabarrok trivializes the popular memory of these towns as irrelevant and wrong, which exposes problems with his entire way of viewing the world. Tabarrok of course doesn’t much care about things like memory as he wants the quantitative data he believes answers all major questions. But for as much as he might dismiss “Sixteen Tons” with its classic line “I owe my soul to the company store,” the song became a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford (written by Merle Travis and recorded on his groundbreaking 1947 album Folk Songs of the Hills), it is how the people who listened to country music in the mid-20th century, many of whom had personal memories of company towns or even still lived in one, remembered these towns. I argue that the lyrics of country music, even the bad country music of Nashville today, does in fact provide an honest window into the popular thought of the audience for this music, whether the people of the mountains in the 1930s, southern migrants living in Detroit in the 1950s, the white working class angry over Vietnam protests in 1970, or the suburban women who make up the core of the music’s fans in the present. You can’t just dismiss how popular culture talks about these issues. There is a reason that many workers hated these company towns and that there is so much Appalachian popular culture, including country music lyrics, that remembers this situation so unfavorably. That can’t be ignored or dismissed. Rather, it’s a sign that workers (who Tabarrok claims aren’t stupid but who he doesn’t show much respect for) hated the exploitation they faced in these towns and flocked to the United Mine Workers of America as soon as they could.
Book Review: Eric Thomas Chester, The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era
Eric Thomas Chester’s new book on the rise and fall of the Industrial Workers of the World before and during World War I provides several key new insights about this union that plays such a large role in the American radical imagination. In particular, Chester makes four key points I think deserve further delineation–that the IWW’s overly masculine rhetoric hurt them significantly, that the IWW vacillating on World War I was a terrible decision that did nothing to protect it from repression, that the IWW was on the verge of transforming the American working class at the point the war began, and that the response to IWW effectiveness is what led to its complete crushing by the combined forces of business, the states, and the federal government during and after the war. Three of these I agree with, one I find problematic.
The IWW started in 1905 and struggled to hold together for several years. The strikes in Lawrence in 1912 and Paterson in 1913 brought the organization to national attention, but the IWW could not gain a significant foothold in eastern states. In the West, however, the IWW had more success, organizing miners, farmworkers, and loggers. These industries had largely male workforces and between the masculine cultural the union developed and the ideological attraction of violent resistance to a lot of desperate men, the use of sabotage became an important principle for the IWW. Wobblies held that industrial sabotage was key to worker power and to punishing corporations for their actions. They talked about it in their publications all the time.
But the IWW rarely if ever actually used sabotage. There were probably isolated incidents—but I say probably because it’s almost impossible to prove, even though industries and government wanted to. The far greater problem was that the violent rhetoric opened the door for criticism and attack of the IWW writ large, which would come back to bite them during World War I.
IWW involvement in the Bisbee copper strike in 1917 plays a pivotal role in Chester’s story because when the Bisbee Deportation happened, it showed that a) business was ready for violent responses to the IWW when the government didn’t step in and when they were threatened by IWW organizing and b) that those businesses would use it an excuse to crush all organizing, including the AFL. This was not palatable to Wilson, who wanted the AFL as a wartime partner. In Butte, when Frank Little arrived from Bisbee, he found a left-leaning miners’ movement united but fractious. Little did not help soothe over those factions. Little’s militancy and his focus on class war prisoners, attempting to tie the Butte strike with the Bisbee Deportation and keep all workers out until the Bisbee workers were freed certainly did not make all factions in the diverse left of Butte comfortable and added to internal divisiveness. But Little was a powerful organizer and his presence frightened the copper magnates and local leaders, who responded by lynching Little in one of the most famous acts of labor violence in American history. Eventually, the Butte and Bisbee strikes both failed but more importantly to the story of the IWW, the violence used against the IWW by employers would demonstrate to the federal government both the threat of the IWW and the threat of employers taking violence into their own hands.
Although Wilson’s record on organized labor was stronger than any previous president, that certainly did not extend to the Wobblies, who Wilson, along with the AFL, held in contempt. Wilson had to walk a fine line here. He wanted the support of Samuel Gompers and other mainstream labor leaders, so despite the desire of many corporate leaders to use the war to crush all labor, Wilson decided to clearly demarcate between the respectable organized labor he valued as a partner and the traitorous organized labor that struck instead of working to defeat Germany. It was easy enough for Gompers to go along. Gompers always held that the AFL was the only true representative of American workers and saw all competitors as enemies to be crushed, even if those unions organized workers the AFL did not bother with. And since the Bisbee Deportation rounded up AFL workers too, Gompers wanted a clear separation between his membership and the IWW so this did not happen again. So with Gompers’ support, Wilson decided to crush the IWW. And crush it he did, with a multifaceted attack that included new laws, rigged courts, and the military. It was brutal and it was effective.
Probably there was nothing the IWW could have done to resist this onslaught. But Chester is right that the Wobblies waffling on the war did not help. The die was already cast with its long history of statements opposing war and supporting sabotage. His claim that it was the IWW’s effectiveness in Bisbee and Butte that caused such a harsh government crackdown is interesting and may be overstated, but the IWW proved enough of a threat in western industries to provoke that response. Had Haywood openly opposed the war instead of realizing, quite correctly, that opposition would be an excuse to repress the IWW, maybe it would have created a broader resistance that would have pushed back against repression. Probably not. But in any case, even without the absurd statements about the IWW being an arm of the Kaiser, the IWW had provided plenty of ammunition against itself with its statements over sabotage to convince enough of the public that it was a real threat that needed violent suppression.
In some ways, the greatest tragedy was the collapse of the IWW over the prison release issue in 1924. With the fanaticism of the war behind the nation, freeing the period’s political prisoners became a popular cause. While Warren Harding maintained a case by case basis for release, Calvin Coolidge wanted the issue behind him entirely. Chester sees this issue as the final government victory for having divided the IWW beyond repair. I am a bit less convinced here. I wonder what would have happened if Big Bill Haywood had remained in the country rather than fleeing to the Soviet Union to avoid prison time. Early in the Wobblies’ existence, there was a great deal of resistance to centralized leadership, but by 1913, Haywood was the clear leader of the union. His departure both demoralized fellow Wobblies and radicals and created a leadership vacuum at a time of crisis. No one could really fill this, especially with major leaders in prison.
My major critique of Chester’s book that is he occasionally projects a radical past he thinks was on the verge of coming into existence. He calls World War I “intensely unpopular in the western states” but that’s far from clear. Moreover, he claims that millions of Americans were looking for IWW leadership on the war and that the union failed them. I’m really unconvinced of that claim. Chester states that workers joined the union fully aware that it demanded revolutionary changes. That is no doubt sometimes true, but there were lots of reasons people joined the IWW, reasons that could be as non-revolutionary as that the IWW controlled some trains that people needed to ride to get a job. Its membership was in constant flux and was never very large. So I don’t buy his claims for a huge section of the American working class ready for forceful resistance against the state and that IWW leadership against the war might have sparked it. You never know, but it feels more like wish than reality.
Still, the major points of this book are spot on. The discussion of the violent rhetoric and its disadvantages is particularly useful in a world where the same kind of sabotage the IWW fantasized about is looked upon as an outright positive by certain, albeit small, sections of the left. Knowing more about the overwhelming state repression of the IWW also reminds us of how the state can be mobilized to crush resistance. Overall, this is a really good book that I strongly recommend.
In 1918 and 1919, the Ford Motor Company produced a bunch of cartoons to support World War I and the Red Scare. This piece of radical eliminationism is from 1919.
Here’s a link with sound, which is better because the rat is singing The Internationale. But I can’t embed it.
If Germany wants Greece to pay its debts, maybe Germany should pay Greece the reparations for World War II it owes the country.
Can a leftist have a rooting interest in the Super Bowl? Dave Zirin on why the Seahawks are so awesome from a political perspective:
But to make this a social-media story, or a narrative about the more relaxed nature at the top of the Seahawks organization, takes too much credit away from the courage of the players themselves. To have Seahawks linebacker Michael Bennett use the Super Bowl media scrum to slam the NCAA and say, “I think the NCAA is one of the biggest scams in America” and “I think there are very few schools that actually care about the players. Guys break their legs and they get the worst surgery they could possibly get by the worst doctors with the worst treatment” is more than someone sounding off. It’s an act of solidarity.
To have their always-outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman follow that up by saying, “I tell you from experience that one time I had negative forty bucks in my account. It was in the negative more times than positive. You have to make a decision whether you put gas in your car or get a meal” turns it into a national story.
To have Marshawn Lynch consciously try to control his own labor and by doing so, dredge up the worst impulses in the sports media aristocracy was, intentionally or not, a national service. Thanks to Lynch, we have seen a layer of sports writers regurgitate all of their suppressed bile against young black athletes—tweeting things like their desire for an “English to Marshawn dictionary”—and exposing the long-standing resentments older and mostly whiter sportswriters have towards the people they cover. When Lynch looked at the media and said, “Shout out to all my real Africans out there,” you could almost hear the ventricles in the room constricting.
Plus who does not want to see Roger Goodell squirm if he has to give the MVP trophy to Marshawn Lynch? Now that would be Must See TV! The idiot sports journalist community would also freak out. It’d be great.
Speaking of the NFL, Jeb Lund published a harsh but true attack on Goodell’s NFL in Rolling Stone today. The magazine then pulled it for unspecified reasons. Maybe Goodell is able to persuade mainstream media outlets to kill anything that criticizes him to an extent that even I don’t realize, who knows. You can read the essay at Jeb’s personal website. You should and then publicize Rolling Stone’s cowardice.
It is my birthday. I am now 41 with the personality of an 80 year old and the back of a 60 year old (as the snow has reminded me). Speaking of old things, my birthday present to the rest of you is A Corner in Wheat, the D.W. Griffith film from 1909. It has everything you want in a political film from the time. Horrible poverty. Grotesque wealth. Bread riots. And capitalists being killed in grain elevators. One of the best movies representing the Gilded Age.
I had my students watch it out of class for my film course that meets tonight. I also had them read Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. In class, we are watching Modern Times. That’s right, it is early 20th century labor week.