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Down Goes Davis!

[ 81 ] May 11, 2017 |


In these horrible times, one doesn’t have much to cheer. Here’s something!

Authorities removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in New Orleans early Thursday, as protesters both for and against the monument carried out tense protests nearby.

Following demonstrations and lengthy legal wrangles, the statue is one of four monuments relating to the Confederacy that’s in the process of being removed by the Louisiana city.

Demonstrators carrying Confederate flags and chanting “President Davis” argued with protesters shouting “take ’em down” — referring to the monuments they see as totems of racism and white supremacy.

Police were forced to separate the two groups and there were reports of altercations. Some public transport was disrupted.

Some of the pro-monument demonstrators chanted “Mitch for prison” — a reference to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu who is backing the monuments’ removal.

Due to the risk of repercussions, crews wearing masks and protective helmets arrived in the dead of night with no warning or announcement, and the company name on their truck had been blacked out. The monument was protected in bubble wrap, attached to a crane and lifted off its plinth.

A large cheer erupted when the statue was finally lifted into the air. The term “Jefferson Davis” was also the top-trending term across the U.S. on Thursday morning.

This is genuinely a wonderful thing. Again, these aren’t “monuments to history.” They are expressions of Jim Crow power, placed on the population of New Orleans at a moment where black voting and social rights had been repressed by force. They served, in the minds of the people who erected them, as social lessons to the black population, reminding them who was still in charge. There is no good reason to keep these statues up.


The Greatest Threat the Nation Faces

[ 183 ] May 10, 2017 |


Finally, we can stop paying attention to Trump destroying the American political system and instead turn to a truly profound threat to our democracy: college students being mean to right-wing extremists.

Betsy DeVos went to Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday, knowing her first commencement address as secretary of education could get ugly at the historically black institute of higher education.

It did — fast. Over sporadic heckling, and at some points to the backs of gown-clad graduates refusing to face her, Ms. DeVos implored: “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree. And while we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out.”

The school’s president, Edison O. Jackson, had to pause the ceremony about one minute into Ms. DeVos’s address to tell the crowd of students, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you.”

Above the jeers, Ms. DeVos delivered the standard exhortation to graduates to live a life of service, with courage and grace in the spirit of their school’s namesake.

It was a message that thousands believed Ms. DeVos — who many contend represents an administration that has shown only superficial knowledge of and support for historically black colleges and universities — was in no position to deliver to the 380 graduates of the school, which was founded by the educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

I await the inevitable New Yorker article about how college students unwilling to tolerate extremists on their campus is an existential threat to the republic. Could this be worse than the true terror of Oberlin students angry about the ethnic food in their cafeteria? Only several 8000 word articles in major publications can help us find out!

Of course, our favorite self-proclaimed Last True Leftist provides the intellectual fodder for conservative writers on these points once again.

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1837

[ 6 ] May 10, 2017 |


On May 10, 1837, New York City banks announced they were suspending specie payments. This began the Panic of 1837, the first of the nation’s many major periodic economic collapses that would culminate in the Great Depression nearly a century later.

The economic crisis of the 1830s had many factors. First and foremost was the terrible economic policy of Andrew Jackson that culminated in the veto of the Bank of the United States renewal and the subsequent Deposit and Distribution Act that placed federal money in state banks that were absolutely horribly regulated. Combined with the Specie Circular that demanded that federal lands be purchased in coin and the Jackson administration had really set the table for a disaster, policies fully approved of by the new president, Martin Van Buren. All of this forced the reduction of lending out of New York banks, which was exacerbated by British lending policies that forced higher interest rates, all of which meant that the price of cotton declined 25 percent in the first months of 1837. As the South was highly dependent on stable cotton prices, this undermined the nation’s largest economic sector. In addition, many states, taken with the canal craze that swept the nation after the success of the Erie Canal had invested heavily in expensive and profit-poor projects, creating high levels of state debt that would be increasingly hard to pay off.

Over the next five years, the economy bounced back and forth. It looked like it would recover in 1838, but then collapsed again in 1839. It was not until 1843 that the economy sufficiently recovered to be out of the depression, although some economic indicators suggest that parts of the economy had grown during these years while others contracted. That the states had largely independent, if interconnected economies, meant that the Panic of 1837 affected them differently. New Hampshire was barely impacted as it lacked permanent debt to service, while Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware were devastated. Pennsylvania’s debt grew to $40 million by 1841, with $2 million in annual interest payments, a situation made worse by the fact that New York had won out the region’s internal trade due to the Erie Canal. The Keystone State doubled its tax base by raising taxes but it was so small to being with that this did not come close to servicing the debt. It defaulted in August 1842, even after grabbing whatever assets from the now closed BUS it could. The high level of debt among southern planters threw many of them out of business, but even here it varied by state, with Georgia and Florida able to put off dealing with the consequences until about 1840.

The impact on the nation’s growing urban working class was profound. The sailors who worked out of New York had no work as exports from the U.S. collapsed. Said Sailor’s Magazine, “The large number of ships lying at our wharves for months unemployed, have borne melancholy testimony of the complete stagnation of trade. Thousands of seamen have been cast on shore with but a few dollars in their pockets, scarce enough to pay a fortnight’s board.” Unemployment probably rose to about 8 percent. In the modern context, this doesn’t sound like it’s too bad, but understand that the sizable majority of white people were farmers during these years and unless they were bound up in high levels of debt, which was only true of a relatively small number of southern slaveholding planters, this didn’t really affect them too much, except for perhaps a decline in grain exports out of a nation that consumed most of its agricultural products locally during these years.

But in the cities such as New York and Philadelphia, the growing working class responded with low levels of protest. Probably 1/3 to 1/2 of the northern urban working class suffered at least one period of long-term unemployment between 1837 and 1842. Just before the Panic was the Loco Foco-inspired Flour Riot in response to the rapidly rising rate of flour in New York over the past year. Tammany Hall responded to this working class protest by adopting most of the anti-bank measures demanded by workingmen, even if these did not do much to solve the unemployment problem the workers faced. That prices declined by 35 percent in some areas probably helped alleviate some worker anger as their meager earnings did buy a little more.

In the long run, the Panic of 1837 itself is not that significant in the larger trajectory of American labor history. It did not lead to any large-scale movements or immediate social protest. The urban workingmen’s economy was too marginal to the rest of the nation’s workforce to create massive political upheaval. But not only was it an early moment when the poorly regulated American financial situation showed how it could create havoc in workers’ lives, but it also was an important moment in the laissez-faire ideas of government relationships with the economy that would dominate the next century. With so much of the problem caused by state investment in infrastructure, the lesson for many was that the state should stay out of economic regulation. This allowed employers to seize the rhetorical and legal playing field against their workers who would start demanding better lives and wages in the years after 1837 and provided a powerful political base to crush those workers’ movements.

However, if you extend the time frame a bit, you can see the Panic of 1837 helped spur eventual movements from below that also provoked government at all levels into the overly charged fears of revolt that would mark its response to worker political movements from Shays’ Rebellion to the Great Depression. This included the Dorr War in Rhode Island that challenged the state’s archaic and reactionary political institutions and led to the declaration of martial law by the governor, the anti-rent war in the Hudson Valley against the old Dutch patroons who still held power and which was cracked down upon in 1845 (although the landlords would finally give up the fight by 1850), and the 1844 Kensington Riot in Philadelphia, which was a battle between Irish immigrants and nativists. None of this happened directly because of the Panic of 1837, but the economic upheaval caused in cities by this started processes that led to various sorts of working-class movements in the coming years.

I borrowed from Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 in the writing of this post.

This is the 220th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Nuclear Safety

[ 15 ] May 9, 2017 |

300 Area in 1944

While no contamination was released by today’s tunnel collapse at Hanford, it’s very much worth noting that the infrastructure that is supposedly keeping our the radioactive legacy of our nuclear program safe is slowly crumbling or was never properly erected in the first place.

And if you want an incredibly sobering discussion of how similar the safety conditions between the American and Soviet plutonium programs were, I highly recommend Kate Brown’s Plutopia, one of the best histories written in the last decade.

The Worst Whiskey-Like Substance

[ 66 ] May 9, 2017 |


I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Southern Comfort has no actual whiskey in it, as it is a vile substance that makes low-grade Canadian whiskey look like high-end Scotch. Really, this is worst single major entry into the larger “whiskey” family, which we will use here only because of its usual categorization as opposed to what is actually in it.

Child Labor in Makeup

[ 8 ] May 9, 2017 |


While the world burns with new horrors daily, the old horrors continue, such as child labor for global supply chains that protect multinational corporations from responsibility by offloading all risk onto contractors. This very much includes the makeup industry, which sites its mica needs in horrible and often illegal mines in India, where the work is done by impoverished small children. India is taking a first step in doing something about it by legalizing the mica industry to bring it above board.

India is to legalise the mining of mica, a sparkly mineral used in eyeshadows and car paint, in a bid to cut the number of children who labour – and often die – to produce it.

The announcement comes nearly a year after a series of Guardian investigations into mica found that crippling poverty forces many families and their children to mine the highly prized mineral, with as many as 20,000 children believed to be working in the mines, about 90% of which are illegal.

A later investigation by Thomson Reuters Foundation found that at least seven children had died in just two months as they scavenged for the mineral in illegal mines.

Activists lauded the decision to legalise mica mining, but warned that high poverty levels meant the move was unlikely to stop child labour.

Two states in eastern India, Jharkhand and Bihar, account for roughly 25% of the global production of mica, which is used by the cosmetics, building and automotive industries in various products. Household and luxury brands including L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Rimmel, Merck, BMW, Vauxhall and Audi have all been linked to India’s mica mines.

Jharkhand’s mines commissioner, Aboobacker Siddique, told Reuters that the authorities would first tackle the disused mines and dumps of scrap mica, where children scavenge alongside their families for the mineral. The government would then auction off the disused mines and other reserves, with the intention of keeping out children and their families.

“People were taking up these scraps illegally and accumulating and selling it,” said Siddique. “To stop this, we decided to remove the waste dumps of mica by selling it in auctions.”

I doubt this will make much difference, but it’s something. What would make a difference is holding the companies legally responsible for their supply chains by banning the use of products sourced by child labor and forcing companies to verify that they aren’t violating that, with severe penalties if they are. Holding the big MNCs accountable; that’s the only real way to solve the global exploitation at the core of the supply chains.

West Virginia: Past, Present, and Future

[ 213 ] May 9, 2017 |


Hamilton Nolan’s tour of West Virginia’s labor history and dying labor movement is well worth reading. If you believe that Bernie Sanders’ vision of America can revive a leftist populist movement, you might be inspired, at least by the possibilities. I’ve discussed the major events in West Virginia’s labor history several times, including the Matewan Massacre, the Battle of Blair Mountain, and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act that occurred only after direct action protests in West Virginia over mine safety and black lung. I’ve also chronicled the horrible long-term effects of coal upon West Virginia, such as the 1972 Buffalo Creek slurry dam disaster. And if you want to be inspired by the potential of working-class organizing in the face of horrible repression, you can do so by reading this history. That’s one of the benefits of labor history.

But I also know southern West Virginia pretty well. And I was just down in the coal region for a few days in March. It’s just screwed beyond belief. There is no hope for this area’s economy, with or without a populist movement. And it’s really hard to move beyond this. The problem with an one-industry economy, especially if that’s an extractive industry, is not that different if it it’s West Virginia or if it’s Venezuela. If that industry dies or if the prices for the product collapse, there is no answer. West Virginia has other problems as well, which is that it is filled with a lot of people who live in a place where the geography allows for no other options than coal. Southern West Virginia is extremely rugged. This whole area should be, in an ideal world, national forest land managed like the mountains of the West. The possibilities for tourism here are, in a vacuum, quite large. And in some areas, especially the area around Fayetteville, they have been developed to some extent. But farming is not really possible and what jobs are going to go into this area? In addition, the tourist possibilities are limited by the incredible damage to the land by coal, by the hostility of local residents, and of 150 years of everyday people trashing the land, which include massive mounds of garbage between the roads and the creeks they follow.

In 2001, I was in a courthouse in West Virginia. I picked up the tiny local newspaper. It talked of the need for mountaintop removal so that the state could have “flat, developable land.” This is of course absurd, but it also is a pretty realistic assessment of how the geography of West Virginia makes widescale economic prosperity almost impossible. If you combine this with the insular and politically conservative (which the state always was on many issues) culture, why would a business move there that wanted to attract top talent? They won’t. The schools are absolutely abysmal, the state has no money, and the racism is naked and grotesque. The Confederate flags per square mile measurement must far surpass anywhere else in the country.

And while Nolan squints to mention how during the Battle of Blair Mountain, the miners were fighting racism too, for most of West Virginia’s history, white supremacy has been central to the white population. Not only were African-Americans brought into West Virginia as scabs precisely to sow racial division during strikes and ensure that the miners of different races would not work together, but that racial ideology stayed strong long after the strike ended. Moreover, there was never some glory period of the Appalachian white working class being anti-racist. Not at all. More significant than some possibly exaggerated tales of miners fighting racism in 1921 is how the Appalachian migrants, who largely came from West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and southeast Ohio fueled the hate strike at Packard in 1943 and then contributed to the race riots in that city later that year.

There’s nothing about a leftist populism that really deals with the problems West Virginia faces. Sure, it’s possible that a candidate like Bernie Sanders fares much better in that state than Hillary Clinton did, although it’s unlikely he would have done well enough to win. But let’s say he does win. What then? Does coal come back? Of course not. Is there a major government investment in the West Virginia economy? Even assuming some stimulus package for Appalachia passed Congress, it’s entirely unclear what brings the state’s economy back to anything approaching not horrible. What is the economic engine that changes this? What fights the racism at the center of the Appalachian working class regardless of the president? None of this is remotely clear.

That isn’t of course to say that a Sanders (or Clinton) presidency wouldn’t be better for the material needs of West Virginia than Trump. The impact of decimating the ACA (which I now see as pretty likely) is going to be pretty rough on people who already have a low life expectancy. But even a leftist vision of the future doesn’t have an articulated place for West Virginia in it. I suppose a robust clean energy economy and tourist economy is a piece of what that would like, but even if that is implemented, that’s hardly going to bring the region economic prosperity. I don’t think there’s a single leftist vision, whether Sandernistas wanting a broad based economic populism or the anti-racist centric politics of other parts of the left that have any real answer for West Virginia or a real way to bring West Virginia into their visualized world. I don’t blame them for that because there isn’t a good answer to the West Virginia problem. For the same reason though, I do wish it’s problems wouldn’t be held up as emblematic of the greater problems of the Democratic Party or liberalism or whatever. Because that state’s problems are much, much greater.

The Continued Legal Stylings of the Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III DOJ

[ 18 ] May 9, 2017 |


Ladies and gentlemen, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III:

In a brief defending its ban on citizens from six Muslim-majority countries, President Donald Trump’s Justice Department approvingly cited a segregation-era Supreme Court decision that allowed Jackson, Mississippi, to close public pools rather than integrate them.

In the early 1960s, courts ordered Jackson to desegregate its public parks, which included five swimming pools. Instead, the city decided to close the pools. Black residents of Jackson sued. But in 1971, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided that closing the pools rather than integrating them was just fine.

The dissents, even at the time, were furious. “May a State in order to avoid integration of the races abolish all of its public schools?” Justice William O. Douglas asked in his dissent.

“I had thought official policies forbidding or discouraging joint use of public facilities by Negroes and whites were at war with the Equal Protection Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment, Justice Byron White wrote in another dissent. “Our cases make it unquestionably clear, as all of us agree, that a city or State may not enforce such a policy by maintaining officially separate facilities for the two races. It is also my view, but apparently not that of the majority, that a State may not have an official stance against desegregating public facilities and implement it by closing those facilities in response to a desegregation order.”

The Trump administration emphasizes this in its citation of the case, arguing that looking into “governmental purpose outside the operative terms of governmental action and official pronouncements” is “fraught with practical ‘pitfalls’ and ‘hazards’ that would make courts’ task ‘extremely difficult.’”

But in some cases, such as the closure of the Jackson pools, officials’ motivations are clear, said Paul Brest, the director of Stanford University’s Law and Policy Lab.

“When it is absolutely clear that an official acted for unconstitutional purposes … [the courts] should be willing to strike down that decision because, even though the decision might have been reached legitimately, a public official violates the constitution when he or she acts for unconstitutional reasons,” Brest said. “It’s as simple as that. … Race discrimination is the best example of where courts are quite willing to take people’s motivations into account — or religious discrimination.”

Palmer is one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever handed down in regards to race, said Michele Goodwin, the chancellor’s professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.

“Citing Palmer is like citing Buck v. Bell for a premise of equal protection,” Goodwin says. (Buck v. Bell legalized eugenics.) She added that a case like Palmer also doesn’t hold up over time.

Oh, like Buck v. Bell isn’t going to be cited approvingly in the next 4 years.

New Highs in Republican Governance

[ 32 ] May 8, 2017 |


Lord knows there’s plenty of terrible Republicanness to talk about today from the Yates hearing. Evidently there is no one too dumb for Louisiana to send to the Senate. But I always like to pay attention to the states. Such lovely laboratories of democracy. And nowhere more so than Texas.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has said he supports the Americans with Disabilities Act, has tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state.

In a series of legal cases in his three terms, Abbott’s office has fought a blind pharmacy professor in Amarillo who wanted reflective tape on the stairs to her office; two deaf defendants in Laredo who asked for a qualified sign language interpreter in their courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg. In that case, the state argued she was not disabled because she had a prosthetic limb.

Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since a tree fell on him while he was jogging and crushed his spine almost 30 years ago, applauds the 1990 federal law. It has helped provide the ramps, wide doors and access that allow him to give speeches and meet with constituents.

While Abbott, the leading Republican contender for governor, benefits from the ADA mandates that guide businesses, builders and cities, he believes it is unconstitutional to force the state to comply. He has argued that his duty is to protect the state’s autonomy and its taxpayers by using all legal tools available to him — including the argument that the state is immune from disability lawsuits brought under the ADA.

“It’s the attorney general’s duty to zealously represent the interests of the state of Texas, and in these cases that meant raising all applicable legal arguments in litigation where Texas was sued in court,” said Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland.

Abbott’s office has been aggressive on the issue. The state has frequently lost, even before conservative courts such as the Texas Supreme Court. And yet when there has been a trial, it has won several of the cases, with arguments that beat back the charges of discrimination.

Advocates for the disabled say Abbott’s office has worked to deny ADA protections by repeatedly and falsely claiming that impaired Texans don’t have the right to sue the state for discrimination. Abbott declined several requests from The Dallas Morning News to discuss the matter.

At least in the age of Bob Dole, a Republican would be humane on an issue that actually affects said Republican. But not anymore. Nope. Now an actual disabled Republican actively seeks to oppress other disabled people. That’s the Republican Party in a nutshell.


[ 50 ] May 8, 2017 |


Every time you think the Flint water crisis and the response of the state of Michigan couldn’t get any worse, you find out that it can always get worse.

Melissa Mays and her family have been through a lot. They’ve been living in their four bedroom house with a big backyard in Flint, Michigan since 2009; they were there in early 2014, when the city’s water source changed and officials failed to use the right chemicals to protect the water from lead and other contaminants.

Since late 2015, the city’s residents have had to rely on either filters or bottled water to drink or cook to avoid lead poisoning. Three years in, they still can’t drink the water that comes out of their taps.

For Mays’ family, that has meant grappling with a number of serious health problems — including autoimmune disorders, kidney stones, and seizures — as well as financial costs such as buying three $500 hot water heaters when each one broke thanks to the chemicals and sediment in their pipes.

Now, it also means she might lose the house that her family loves so dearly.

In the wake of the lead crisis, Mays and many other city residents refused to pay their water bills — which, at the time of the lead crisis, were the highest in the country — given that the water they were paying for was poisoned. The state had been subsidizing some people’s bills, but in March that financial support disappeared.

Then, the city started sending out shutoff notices, warning residents who weren’t paying their bills they would have their water cut off. Mays was one of the people who got such a letter last month, but she wasn’t deterred.

“I was like, ‘You know what, we’ll live off of bottled water, we’ll make this work,’” she said. She and her family were considering getting a cistern or rain barrel for their yard to get through. “Because nobody should pay for poison.”

On Friday, everything changed. She received a different letter from the city informing her that the state may soon put a tax lien on her house. If she doesn’t pay $819 of her water bill by May 19th, Michigan will begin the process of foreclosing on her.

This is effectively Republican governance in a nutshell, as we are seeing on a national scale with health care.

Get Ready to Puke

[ 146 ] May 8, 2017 |


Ron Fournier and Matthew Dowd are very excited by electing a performative centrist third party candidate.

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1959

[ 6 ] May 8, 2017 |


On May 8, 1959, Local 1199, the union of New York hospital workers, went on strike. This action, while not really successful, played a critical role in not only organizing hospital workers and expanding collective bargaining rights, but also in pioneering multi-racial organizing coalitions among service workers who were becoming an increasingly sizable part of the American workforce.

Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as the Pharmacists Union of Greater New York after merging several smaller unons. From its beginning, it both took on segregation and used industrial tactics to organize the hundreds of pharmacies in the city. 1199 was led by Leon Davis, a Russian-born drugstore clerk and ex-communist, taking on the name in 1936 when it received that number within the Retail Clerks International Association. It bolted the AFL for the CIO in 1937, one of many tiny unions to do so. It’s leftist leadership and anti-racist politics meant was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s but largely escaped unscathed, in part because it was so small. It found a home in the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union in the late 1940s, previously known for very little except being the union that Montgomery Ward resisted so stringently in World War II that the Roosevelt administration nationalized the store’s headquarters. 1199 also pioneered a union-led health care plan for its members in 1945 that provided employer paid hospital, disability, and life insurance. This was later expanded to be union-administered in 1948 and to include prescription drug benefits in 1951.

By 1957, it had organized about 90 percent of New York’s drugstores. It then set out to organize the city’s hospitals, wanting to extend its excellent benefits to other workers in the city’s rapidly growing but poorly paid health care industry. Nationally, there were 2.5 million workers in health care by the late 1950s, more than steel and railroads combined. But like today’s emphasis on industrial and coal mining work as the real union jobs as opposed to the vastly more numerous service sector jobs, there was little attempt to organize these workers. The hospital workers were a highly racially diverse lot with large numbers of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, but this fit 1199’s long anti-racist politics. It won an early success in 1958, organizing Montefiore Hospital after it cut a long-standing benefit that allowed workers to eat in the cafeteria for very low cost that would be deduced from their paychecks. That hospital already had good conditions for organizing because it housed a lot of the workers onsite and thus the black and Puerto Rican workers already knew each other. They built a culture of standing up for each other even before 1199 started organizing. Organizers reported that the African-American workers were easier to organize than the Puerto Ricans but by the summer of 1958, a majority of both groups carried union cards. Montefiore settled in December 1958, granting a $30 a month increase in pay, overtime pay, grievance procedures, sick leave, and vacation time.

The organizing quickly spread because the wins unionized hospital workers had accomplished created a huge gap in conditions with non-union hospitals. A unionized 1199 pharmacist made $120 for a 40-hour week with benefits where as Beth Israel dietary workers made $29 a week for a 48-hour week and an orderly at Mount Sinai reported making $17 after taxes. Many non-union hospital workers were on welfare to make ends meet. 1199 announced it would organize the city’s 35,000 workers in hospitals and nursing homes. After a bit of a hiccup when it got overstretched, it focused on six hospitals where it had high support, largely Jewish hospitals such as Beth Israel, Beth David, and Mount Sinai. The vote in those six hospitals to strike was 2258 to 95. Hospital officials obtained a restraining order but could not serve it to Davis or the other union leaders as they went into hiding to avoid it. The strike started on May 8 at 6 am and nearly all of the 3500 workers went on strike. They received great support from New York’s other unions, who told their members that they needed to support the strikers regardless of race. Said one local to its members, “These strikes are human beings, no matter what their color or country of origin.” 175 union locals provided active support for these workers, with donations pouring in that allowed these impoverished people to maintain their strike.

On March 19, New York mayor Robert Wagner tried to negotiate a settlement, but details are vague today about his offer, the workers overwhelmingly voted to reject it, and 9 more hospitals saw their workers join the strike. The hospitals won injunctions against Davis and other leaders, who were put in jail. It did not matter. In fact, this only increased the contributions from Democratic political clubs around the city. The president of the New York NAACP sent out a press release on May 17 calling on those “who are of Latin-American descent or African descent to rise up in protest and demonstrate your objections to this type of injustice that is now being imposed on our brothers and sisters.” Black and Latino leaders around the city, including Adam Clayton Powell, organized a march on the hospitals on May 24 to demand union recognition for the workers. People such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bayard Rustin, and Reinhold Niebuhr then endorsed the strike.

On June 22, after 46 days on strike, Wagner again intervened. He sat both sides down and hashed out an agreement that was only a very partial victory for 1199. It did not grant them union recognition and instead created a committee that would arbitrate future disagreements. But the organizing continued internally and a year later, 3000 hospital workers would be represented by collective bargaining agreements. 1199 constantly submitted demands to this committee while realizing that true victory would not be achieved until New York granted workers collective bargaining rights.

1199 continued its aggressive organizing and soon spread beyond New York City. In 1962, Davis was imprisoned for 30 days during a strike to organize El-Beth Hospital, which led not only to a union victory but to New York extended collective bargaining rights to non-profit hospitals, necessary because the National Labor Relations Act had excluded hospital workers because those were largely black workers and it required southern support to pass. That was won in no small part because A. Philip Randolph played a crucial role in organizing the strike and his stature was so great that he commanded enormous respect. By 1964, it expanded to New Jersey and eventually throughout the region, although an attempt to organize hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina in 1969 ran into a freight train of anti-unionism combined with hatred of the civil rights movement.

In 1984, 1199 left the Retail Union and remained independent for awhile. In 1998, 1199 merged with the Service Employees International Union, helping to make SEIU the nation’s most powerful and important union in the twenty-first century.

I borrowed from Frederick Douglass Opie’s Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office, in the writing of this post.

This is the 219th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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