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Lynn Williams, RIP

[ 47 ] May 12, 2014 |

The former head of the United Steelworkers of America has died. And reading his obituary,

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I am again reminded that there is really nothing organized labor could have done in the 80s to stem its decline. If you want to say that labor should have made different decisions in the 40s and 50s that might have made a difference down the road, well maybe. But the problem with organized labor in the 80s and 90s was the jobs all going overseas and there is nothing any union leader could have done about that at the time.

Football’s Decline

[ 232 ] May 11, 2014 |

I’ve said this before, but one really wonders about the end of football as we know it as parents just bail on a sport that destroys their kid’s brains.

Happy Mother’s Day

[ 92 ] May 11, 2014 |

A Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, especially my own mother and my sister.

And of course, to Mother Jones, the greatest mother of them all who is not related to me.

Unfortunately, a lot of women might want to hear someone wish them a Happy Mother’s Day, but they can’t because debt load, a jobless “recovery,” and the general economic instability in a society without long-term stable employment means that having children is not a feasible option. Erika Sánchez:

Halling feels she is worse off than her parents were at this point of their lives. According to a 2013 study by the Urban Institute’s Opportunity and Ownership Project, people under 30 are today worth only half as much as their parents were at the same age. Unemployment for people ages 16 to 24 hovers at around 16 percent, which is twice the national rate (PDF).

The Pew Research Center has also found that nearly 3 in 10 parents of adult children report that a child of theirs has moved back in with them in the past few years because of the economy. On top of that, millennial student loan debt is staggering. Two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have outstanding student loans, with an average debt of about $27,000. Two decades ago, only half of recent graduates had college debt, and the average was $15,000.

But even many of those who are better off than their parents are afraid to procreate due to bleak career prospects. I hear it again and again from other children of immigrants: “I don’t want to have to live like my parents did.” When I express my fears about having children, people often tell me that we can just “make it work,” but the truth is, I don’t want to just make it work. Like a lot of women I know, I want a substantial income before I take that plunge. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

“In theory, I should be able to afford having children,” says Patricia Valoy, 27. She graduated from Columbia University with no debt, and has a fairly high income as an engineer in New York City. But Valoy, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was a child, has what she calls a “Latina millennial problem”: She has to help support her family. Her mother makes minimum wage working for a school bus company and often needs financial help, and her two younger sisters, who are in college, often rely on Patricia to pay for fees, books and even food. She is a cosigner for her sisters’ student loans.

I know how much pundits like to blame millenials for their lack of worth ethic or lack of drive or whatever else that makes them feel superior to young people, but the economic reality that centers profits with the 1% has very real social consequences.

And yes, everything is an excuse to talk about economic inequality, even Mother’s Day.

Today in Bundyism

[ 127 ] May 11, 2014 |

There should be arrests and prosecutions:

An illegal all-terrain vehicle (ATV) ride planned this weekend through Recapture Canyon in Utah is the latest flashpoint between anti-government activists and federal land managers. The illegal ride is already drawing criticism from the Navajo Nation, putting American Indian burial sites and cultural resources at risk, and has even forced the cancellation of a traditional Navajo Warrior welcome home ceremony for veterans.

Yet San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman (R-UT) and his supporters appear determined to defy federal law by riding their ATVs through Recapture Canyon, an area of southeast Utah known as a “mini-Mesa Verde” because it contains one of the highest densities of archaeological sites in the country.

Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees he owes U.S. taxpayers, has reportedly urged his supporters -– who include armed militia members –- to join Lyman in Utah this weekend.

“We need to help the people of Blanding re-establish who is in control of the land,” said Bundy and his wife, Carol, in an email that was reported by E&E News. “This is your next stand. Will you be there to help them like you helped us?”

Utah County Commissioner Phil Lyman shares Cliven Bundy’s anti-government views. In his showdown with federal law enforcement officials last month, Bundy made clear he does not recognize the authority of the federal government. “I abide by all of Nevada state laws,” said Bundy, “But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

Like the Bundy confrontation in Nevada, the illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon is intended to challenge federal authority over public lands. Lyman, reports the Salt Lake Tribune, “says the planned ride aims to assert county jurisdiction in the face of federal ‘overreach.’”

Substance-Free Bush Rehabilitation

[ 170 ] May 10, 2014 |

Matt Bai couldn’t even be bothered to argue that at least the Bushites wore ties when destroying Iraq. This is about as substance-heavy as he gets in his Bush rehab piece:

The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read “Days of Fire,” the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush’s presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker’s Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.

But as is the way in modern Washington, it was never enough for Bush’s political opponents that he was miscast or misguided. He had to be something worse than that — or, more precisely, a lot of things worse. He had to be the most catastrophic president ever, in the history of ever. He had to be a messianic war criminal. Or a corporate plant looking to trade blood for oil. Or a doofus barely able to construct a sentence.

That was the way Will Ferrell portrayed Bush in a one-man Broadway show that, for a while after Bush’s departure, thrilled the enlightened set. For a lot of urban Americans, the ones who bought little books of Bush’s mangled syntax at the Barnes & Noble checkout line, Ferrell’s comic version of Bush became more real than the man himself. You know something’s wrong when the most nuanced portrayal of a political figure comes from Oliver Stone.

I mean, I’m not going to bother to offer actual evidence that any of this is inaccurate or anything. But it’s just totally unfair because Bush liked American power and so does Matt Bai. And then there’s this:

And what do you know: George W. Bush really does care deeply about the men and women he sent to war

Ha ha ha ha, oh yeah, W really cared deeply about the soldiers he sent over to Iraq. I mean, you can tell by his huge push for vast increases in the Veterans Affairs budget. Or, you know, how he didn’t send them to a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 to overthrow a leader who we made up evidence about WMDs over. But I’ll bet Bush always cheered during the 7th inning stretch when God Bless America was played.

Brooklyn

[ 364 ] May 10, 2014 |

Not to steal bspencer’s bit, but I’m not sure that the female babies of today are going to grow up thrilled to be named for the hipster paradise of Brooklyn. That West Virginia and Wyoming are the per capita leaders of this unfortunate phenomena is not that surprising I guess; at least my rather significant time spent in the former state does suggest it susceptible to questionable naming practices.

Now naming your little girls Bronx, that’s a trend we can get behind. Or perhaps Schenectady.

Gilded Age Food Poetry (II)

[ 44 ] May 10, 2014 |

A cowboy poet/singer in the early 20th century talking about the glories of evaporated milk:

Carnation milk, best in the lan’
Comes to the table in a little red can.
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch
Just punch a hole in the sonofabitch.

Carnation was founded in 1899, so I assume this was relatively soon after it. It’s quoted in David Nye’s Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies, but without a date.

Canned food was central to the cowboy diet. For that matter, canned food dominates most food narratives of the 19th century American West. The idea of living off the land was mostly a myth. Living off the land is really hard. Opening canned food is very easy. Which would you choose.

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1869

[ 55 ] May 10, 2014 |

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines met at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad itself was key to the growth of the American nation after the Civil War, but it came at a terrible cost to workers, particularly the Chinese for the Central Pacific. Examining the treatment of the Chinese shines a lot not only the conditions of labor of the most despised group of workers in the United States, but also on the limits of Republican Party free labor ideology.

While the Union Pacific relied largely on Irish labor, the Central Pacfiic hired mostly Chinese laborers to build the railroad. There were certain dangers with all railroad construction and the UP did build across the territory of still pretty powerful Native American tribes, but the land itself was slowly rising and without major physical obstacles in the way. On the other hand, the CP had to build across the Sierra Nevada and then through the difficult terrain of Nevada. It was going over the Sierra that tells the most compelling labor history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Central Pacific hired James Strobridge as its construction superintendent. It was his job to hire the men and build the road. Strobridge liked to beat his workers with a pick handle. While Charles Crocker, one of the CP top executives, objected to this treatment, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, were fine with it. In 1865, Strobridge started hiring Chinese laborers, the most easily dominated in the country at that time, even more so than the newly ex-slaves. The low wages meant that even the Irish were hard to get. CP wanted 4000 workers and had 800. By 1868, 80% of the 12,000 member CP workforce were Chinese. The Chinese presence was hated in California but was also necessary in the early years to do the work white miners did not want to do. When everyday whites left mining after not striking it rich, they saw the Chinese as competition for the white man’s republic they hoped to build in the Golden State.

railroad_laborers_news

Image from Harper’s of Chinese railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad

Few would object than if Strobridge turned his legendary labor methods on the Chinese. And turn on them he did. He only brought the Chinese on when the Irish began demanding higher wages. The CP explicitly divided workers by race, forcing the remaining Irish to take lower wages. They wanted about $50 a month. The Chinese were paid $30 and the Irish $35. The Irish had their food and board provided, but the Chinese had to pay for theirs. The Irish of course blamed the Chinese for keeping wages down.

The conditions of work were extremely difficult. Building through the Sierra meant cold, rain, and lots of snow. The Chinese labored on blasting 16 tunnels through the Sierra, an extremely dangerous proposition at any time, and especially during an era when employers had no legal responsibility for workplace safety. It is impossible to know how many Chinese workers died building the railroad, from avalanches, explosions in tunnel building, and other causes. No one kept track because the CP didn’t care. A 1870 newspaper story in a Sacramento paper reported that a train carrying the bones of 1200 dead Chinese workers to San Francisco had passed through town. We can probably see that as a bare minimum of the dead and the number was almost certainly much higher.

chinese-railroad-workers

As word of the horrible conditions got back to San Francisco, fewer Chinese signed up. Strobridge raised the wage rates for the Chinese to $35, but this was not enough. In late June 1867, thousands of Chinese went on a short strike. They had concrete demands. They wanted $40 a month, a 10-hour day for above-ground work and an 8-hour for tunneling work instead of the 12-hour day they faced, and end to beatings, and the right to quit without harassment from the company.

Strobridge’s response was to stop feeding the workers. Crocker looked into hiring newly freed slaves (at the same time that southern planters were exploring hiring Chinese) to replace them but this was unrealistic. So simply refusing to send supply trains carrying food was the best answer. The Chinese were high in the mountains, far away from home, and with no means of survival. They were at the mercy of the Central Pacific. After a week, the strike ended and they returned to their brutal, deadly work.

Once they crossed the Sierra and started building in the baking hot and dry alkali flats of the Great Basin, the Chinese had enough. Hundreds of workers fled back along the railroad lines to California. Strobridge sent horsemen to round them up just like they would round up cattle. Free labor this was not.

This story suggests the very strong limitations of Republican labor policy and I want to once again push back on the idea that the Republican Party was a revolutionary political party. The vast majority of these railroad executives were Republicans. Many Republicans were perfectly fine with coerced labor so long as it wasn’t the actual conditions of slavery in the American South. That’s because for them, the problem with slavery was not the treatment of blacks, but the effect on whites, making them lazy, violent, and unconcerned with industrial progress. The abolitionists had different views and at least some of them were not horrible toward the Chinese, but they were always a pretty stark minority in the Republican Party. There was a revolutionary element in the Republican Party, yes, but their views of labor with the mainstream were more an alliance of convenience than a broad set of commonly held views. Far more common and growing ever more powerful in the years after the war were people like the Central Pacific executives, who would happily drive labor to the point of death for profit.

The Chinese would go on to build many western railroads, facing discrimination and violence wherever they went. Hatred of the Chinese eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislative victory for organized labor in American history. Violence however continued and it was only with the rise of Japanese immigration and declining Chinese populations due to the immigration restriction that the violence subsided.

I based part of this post on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, which is not primarily a labor history, but which contains detail of these issues in its railroad chapter and which is worth you reading for more on the importance of nature for understanding key events in American history.

This is the 106th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

America’s Nicest Man

[ 41 ] May 9, 2014 |

Donald Sterling:

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling reportedly claims he made his now-infamous racist comments to his personal assistant V. Stiviano because he was jealous that she was being courted by black men.

“The girl is black. I like her,” Sterling said in an audio recording, which was obtained by Radar Online and published Friday. “I’m jealous that she’s with other black guys. I want her. So what the hell. Can I in private tell her, ‘I don’t want you to be with anybody?’ Am I a person? Do I have freedom of speech?”

The tape of Sterling explaining the context behind his remarks is the second recording of the Clippers owner that Radar has released in as many days. In audio released Thursday, Sterling pushed back against the idea of selling his team, even though he is banned for life from the NBA, and denied that he was

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a racist.

In the latest recording, Sterling also expressed surprise that Stiviano would tape their private conversation.

“I’m trying to have sex with her. I’m trying to play with her,” he says. “You know, if you’re trying to have sex with a girl and you’re talking to her privately, you don’t think anybody’s there. You may say anything in the world, what difference does it make?”

Nothing turns someone on like racism.

The Finest Academic Leadership in Ohio

[ 73 ] May 9, 2014 |

I’m not sure if I’m dismayed that Youngstown State has offered its presidency to Jim Tressel because it’s such a joke that a freaking football coach with a master’s degree in education and no actual background in the field except coaching a minor league football team would even be considered for such a position or whether I’m amused because it shows just how low standards in higher education have become in the 21st century.

Billy Frank, Jr., RIP

[ 1 ] May 9, 2014 |

Billy Frank, Jr., the Nisqually fishing rights advocate, has died at the age of 83. Frank was a key figure in pressing Native American fishing claims in Washington during the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time with plummeting salmon runs thanks to industrialization, stream bed and water degradation, and massive overfishing. Of course, the region’s native peoples had absolutely no responsibility for any of this. But as has often happened in American history, hunting laws punished the poor and people of color for subsistence hunting off a population in decline because of white overharvesting. By the 1970s, increased white liberal support for Native American rights led to a lot of real gains, including fishing rights in the Northwest. Frank was a central figure in this history and deserves to be remembered.

How Long Until a Government Land Manager Dies?

[ 181 ] May 9, 2014 |

The government using kid gloves with Cliven Bundy has just encouraged others in the West to step up their aggression against government land managers. First, Utah:

After two armed men threatened a Bureau of Land Management wrangler on Tuesday in western Utah, workers are removing BLM logos from their vehicles to help avoid additional incidents, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on Thursday.

The wrangler was driving on a highway near Mills, Utah when two people in a pick-up truck pulled up along side the vehicle. The occupants “told him he was No. 1 with that certain gesture,” Eric Reid, the wrangler’s supervisor at the BLM Fillmore Field Office, told the Tribune.

The men then reappeared in the pick-up truck a few minutes later wearing hoods and holding up a sign that read, “You need to die.” One of the men pointed a Glock handgun at the wrangler.

And then, New Mexico:

The water is drying up, making every stream worth a fight.

Ranchers in Otero County are wrangling with the Forest Service over a patch of land where a creek called Agua Chiquita runs.

The Forest Service says it built a new, sturdy fence to keep cattle away from a recovering river habitat, but cattlemen say the new fence and locked gates infringe on long-standing water rights.

The battle goes beyond a single stream and the single ranching family directly affected, say ranchers and county officials, and rests on the principle that even on federal land, ranchers holding water rights dating to before 1907 – as often happens in Otero County – should have access to the water, including the portion downstream of the fenced-in area.

The Forest Service says

it has a right to manage the land, including where water flows.

After the Forest Service refused to open the gates, the Otero County commissioners this week demanded the sheriff cut the locks, potentially igniting a confrontation on the order of Nevada’s Cliven Bundy, the rancher who has rallied armed supporters in a fight against federal land managers. So far cooler heads have prevailed in New Mexico.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed to mediate the conflict next week, according to Otero County attorney Blair Dunn and a spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

“I really, truly believe the U.S. Attorney is going to be able to facilitate this in a fashion that prevents it from escalating to what happened in Nevada,” Dunn said. “That is where things feel like they are headed.”

Well, we will see about that.

The increased aggression of these angry white men in the rural West is quite worrisome. I know no one wants another Ruby Ridge or Waco but at the same time, government land managers are going to start getting injured or killed if it

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becomes clear to rural westerners that they can intimidate without consequence. Some sort of these people are just jokers and bullies, but a continued escalation of aggression will probably not end well.