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This Day in Labor History: September 5, 1934

[ 9 ] September 5, 2016 |

1934 textile general strike

On September 5, 1934, the governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid mill owners in the textile strike overtaking their state and the east coast. This strike, not only mobilizing the remnant apparel workers of the northeast, but the traditionally anti-union workers of the South, was a shock to the system of the New Deal state, helping it realize the level of worker dissatisfaction and the need for meaningful union legislation.

When the New Deal began, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA was intended to eliminate the cutthroat competition that destroyed profits in many industries of this time, including textiles. Many large manufacturers supported it, hoping it would drive out low-end competition and consolidate industries. But the NIRA also included a half-thought out provision called Section 7(a) that granted workers the right to form a union free from employer interference. Although Roosevelt and his advisors didn’t really see this as an invitation for workers to organize, workers themselves saw it that way. And in 1934, they acted on it. The textile strike was the 4th major worker rebellion of this arguably most radical year of American labor history, along with the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the Auto-Lite workers in Toledo, and the longshoremen in San Francisco. The NIRA helped spawn this by establishing minimum wages, including in textiles, but not really giving workers any way to enforce this or any of their rights. The textile industry accepted the minimum wages, but sped up work to make up for their lost profits, angering workers.

The textile strike was organized by the United Textile Workers in a rapidly changing world for the apparel industry. The socialism of the Jewish apparel workers in New York and the willingness of other immigrant workers to join radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in places like Lawrence and Paterson convinced textile factory operators to start moving production to the South. They chose that area because white workers there already operated in a paternalistic relationship with local elites, because there was no tradition of socialism and a strong suspicion of outsiders, and because evangelical religion would reinforce pro-employer messages. As early as 1894, New England textile companies were convincing southern states like Alabama to repeal their child labor laws with promises they would move their operations south. By the early 1930s, 70 percent of American apparel production was located in southern factories.

By the late 1920s, as the nation’s economy contracted, the textile companies decided to make up for lost profits by stretching workers’ ability to the breaking point. They sped up production on the lines. The “stretch-out,” as it was called,” infuriated workers. Strikes, albeit mostly unorganized, sparked across the South. Larger strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929 were repressed by the police. The factory owners, the police, and politicians were determined to keep their towns union-free. As still happens today in southern organizing campaigns, unions are demonized as something northern and something foreign.

So the UTW, which had organized some plants in the northern states, was desperate for victories in the South. Like the CIO a dozen years later, it knew it could not survive or thrive if it did not organize the South because capital mobility would destroy the union. The impetus for the strike was not only years of the stretch-out but also the NRA deciding to grant southern textile owners wishes to increase worker hours without increasing wages earlier that year. So it sought to make a big statement in the southern factories that would determine the fate of the strike. At first, the UTW was hesitant to go ahead with the strike as the NRA responded to the outrage by agreeing to give it a voice. But continued anger in the Southern mills forced the leadership to reevaluate their decision. The UTW developed a list of demands that included the raising of the minimum wage from $13 to $30 a week, the end of the stretch-out, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired unionists.

The workers in North Carolina were the most important because of the size of the workforce there. The strike exploded there on Labor Day, September 3, when 65,000 workers walked off the job. The UTW was well aware how hard it would be to organize these southern factories and so they employed innovative tactics to convince the workers to come out, using their smaller numbers of committed activists to create flying squadrons that went factory to factory convincing workers to walk off the job.

The strike spread quickly. 200,000 workers from Rhode Island to Georgia were on strike by September 4. 325,000 were out by September 5. Politicians and factory owners soon cracked down. On September 5, North Carolina governor John Ehringhaus called out the National Guard. That started the crackdown. Rhode Island governor T.F. Green did the same. By September 9, South Carolina had instituted a partial state of martial law. Georgia did the same under the leadership of the reprehensible governor Eugene Talmadge. Workers were ready to fight back. They armed themselves and continued striking. But the UTW had its work cut out for it in the South. The overwhelming pressure against the union began to undermine its support in the South, which simply lacked any sympathetic institutions that would bolster tired and hungry strikers. The UTW had promised to feed strikers, but did not have the resources to follow through. At its peak, about 1/2 of workers in North Carolina and South Carolina and 3/4 in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were on strike. But they began drifting back.

The Roosevelt administration responded quickly to the strike, held a quick investigation and issued a report. It had very moderate recommendations, such as more studies on the stretch-out and urging employers not to discriminate against strikers on the job. When the report was issued, Roosevelt urged the strikers to return to work. The UTW, seeing the strike begin to collapse, declared victory and ended it. But the UTW was finished. The southern plants would go decades before serious unionization campaigns reappeared. The employers completely ignored the report and refused to hire thousands of strikers. The UTW simply did not have the resources to build on the strike, or in any case, they did not really try. They did not see this as the beginning of a longer-term organizing campaign and seek to send more organizers to the South. The ability of the textile companies to successfully blacklist thousands of workers without union challenge was the best argument they had against future unions. It worked for a very long time.

If the textile strike did little for the involved workers, it did very much add to the pressure the federal government felt to build on Section 7(a) and pass real pro-union legislation. When the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, the Roosevelt administration responded with the National Labor Relations Act, which went very far to provide what many American workers demanded.

To this day, South Carolina and North Carolina are the two least unionized states in the United States.

This is the 190th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Also, Happy Labor Day!


Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 47

[ 104 ] September 4, 2016 |

Look what this nattering nabob of negativity found.


As a proponent of amnesty, abortion, and acid, you can imagine how excited I was to stumble upon the grave of this race baiting, corrupt, horrible man. This is a man who after the assassination of Martin Luther King publicly stated to the nation’s black population, “I call on you to publicly repudiate all black racists. This, so far, you have been unwilling to do.” Nixon himself wanted Agnew, rejecting George Romney for the VP job. Still, he was popular enough with the white backlash crowd at the time to spawn this lovely product, which someone should buy for me.


In 1980, Agnew claimed that Nixon and Al Haig planned to assassinate him if he didn’t resign the vice-presidency when he did.

I could go on about this utterly loathsome human being.

Spiro Agnew is buried in Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, Timomium, Maryland.

Music Notes

[ 284 ] September 3, 2016 |

Time for one of my occasional catch-all music posts.

Pitchfork released a list of the Top 200 Songs of the 70s. To say the least, this represents a hipster’s modern taste without a real representation of the variety of 70s music. Way too much David Bowie, a few nods to country, jazz, and anything outside the English speaking world at the bottom, and then the precise songs that seem the hippest today. It’s not a bad list, but it’s way short on a lot of genres. And again, too much Bowie.

Sturgill Simpson got very angry this week that the country music establishment is naming everything under the sun after Merle Haggard. He’s angry because the establishment eschewed Haggard for the last three decades of his life and Merle hated them. But as David Cantwell points out, this stance is really contradictory, not only because Simpson himself is to say the least not nearly the traditionalist he makes himself out to be, but also because Haggard himself frequently changed his style to stay popular and because Simpson’s rant is just another in a long tradition of authenticity police officers of the genre that don’t help:

But as I reread Simpson’s posts, I started getting a bad if-all-too-familiar taste in my mouth. There was the militant opposition between what gets played on the radio and what Simpson termed “actual country music.” There was the condescending claim that country audiences are dupes, the unwitting victims of “formulaic cannon fodder bullshit” that’s been “pumped down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years” (and this about a genre that hasn’t been primarily “rural” since before Merle Haggard started cutting records in the early 1960s). There were the studied sour grapes of complaining you haven’t been embraced by either the mainstream country industry or the mainstream radio audience even while boasting you neither need nor desire such acceptance.

And then there was that here-we-go-again sign off, which surely reminded at least few of us older Sturgill Simpson fans of a 1997 song by Robbie Fulks called “Fuck This Town.” Fulks was (and is—his new album is super) a hyper-talented singer-songwriter in his own right. But his music was also a ’90s version of what Slate music critic Carl Wilson has more recently termed “Country for People Who Don’t Like Country.” In the song, Fulks laments that Nashville’s mainstream country music industry will survive “as long as there’s a moron market/ And a faggot in a hat to sign.” “Fuck This Town,” the song, in other words, is an alt-country forebear to Simpson’s “Fuck this town,” the Facebook rant. The times they are a-changin’, but the sneer remains the same.

Or, as historian Charles Hughes (author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South) wrote to me earlier this week about Simpson’s Facebook posts, “You know what’s worse than radio’s Bro-Country? Country Bros.” The evocation of a stereotypical Bernie Bro—rigid, self-righteous, sneering at those who disagree while bro-splaining to the rest of us just what constitutes real country music—was spot on, right down to the elitist class connotations.

None of this is to say that modern country radio-friendly country music is good, or at least I don’t think most of it is. I was getting my hair cut this week and country radio was on. One song was literally a namecheck list of all the nostalgic points of the genre (pickup trucks, summer days, the lake, mom and dad, the dog, etc). It was utterly awful.

Among the musical deaths of recent weeks that I have nothing particular to say about but that some of you might are Alan Vega, Toots Thielemans, Rudy Van Gelder, and Juan Gabriel.

And now some short album reviews:

Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

I found the music of this harpist oddly compelling. It’s hard to really describe what is going on here. She traveled around the West and wrote compositions based upon her experiences and thoughts at the time. The recordings are pretty hypnotic and really just quite beautiful.


Glenn Jones, Fleeting

Glenn Jones is a fine guitarist and banjo player. He writes some nice compositions. But the problem with this, as it is often is for me with solo guitar albums, is that it turns into wallpaper very quickly. Others who are more favorable to this genre may find something here. I found it a little boring.


Richard Buckner, Surrounded

I’ve always liked Richard Buckner’s voice, finding him rather soothing. The problem with that of course is that it can extend into background music. Buckner’s 2013 album mostly avoids that problem with enough sonic diversions to keep the attention. I know this doesn’t sound all that positive, but with a singer-songwriter like Buckner, you either like it or you don’t. The songs aren’t transcendent but they are solid. I don’t like it as well as Dents and Shells, which has long been my favorite (I know the standard choice is Devotion + Doubt), but this is a fine album if you like Richard Buckner.


PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

I don’t think PJ Harvey is really capable of making a bad album. But she is capable of making a fairly mediocre album and that’s where Hope Six Demolition Project. It’s unfair to compare anything to Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, an A+ album is one exists, but the rightful comparison here is to Let England Shake. It’s the same place-based attempt at social and political commentary, but removed from her home and the World War I era to contemporary Washington, DC. But I’m not sure why. The music on this album is pretty first rate, preferable to her previous album. But the descriptions of Washington are fairly on the nose without any real insight into the city. This is a fairly enjoyable album if you don’t think too much, but Harvey wants us to think about it. And when I do, I am left a little indifferent.


Mourn, Ha, Ha, He

I fell in love with these teenagers from Barcelona on their first album. It was raw as hell with, as one review stated, lyrics that read more as a status update than a song. But the 15 year old singer someone manages to sound just like PJ Harvey, especially on “Your Brain is Made of Candy” and the other songs are short, loud punk songs. I’m not sure that the follow up is really an advancement. It’s solid. But it doesn’t particularly stand out. I’m still interested to hear where they go in the future.


Lydia Loveless, Real

Lydia Loveless’s third album is another advance. I didn’t think I would like this more than Somewhere Else, largely because that’s a really good album. But I do like this more. The songs are a little less raw and a little deeper, a little less about getting drunk and being pissed off and a little more about relationships and a more mature emotional state. The music advances too, with a bit more experimentation that the standard rock of the last album or the punky country of Indestructible Machine. Really a great talent.


And, as I also like to do, a couple of older albums that I revisited

Tom T. Hall, I Wrote a Song About It

This 1975 album shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this very skilled but very inconsistent artist. At his best, Tom T wrote these incredible songs about everyday people with an incredible amount of sympathy and understanding. Songs like “The Girl Who Read the Same Book All the Time” and “The Trees in Philadelphia” are great. But he could never resist the cheap novelty and while I like the sentiments, “I Like Beer” is a really stupid song. It’s not as utterly horrible as “I Love,” one of the worst songs ever written and, to my worry, the song Jason Isbell now has played over the sound system after he leaves the stage. But it’s bad enough. Does it counter his best songs? On this album, no. It’s a good album. On others, it does.


Willie Nelson, Country Willie: His Own Songs

In 1962, Willie Nelson, after years peddling his great songs to the biggest country music stars, finally recorded his first album. It was him recording his own songs. I don’t really know why, but in 1965, he did the same thing, with many of the same songs. That was Country Willie. The production is a little higher on this album but not so much that his signature style would be overwhelmed as would happen a few years later on his many mediocre studio albums before he left Nashville and reinvented himself (which was 99% for the better. Unfortunately, he basically stopped writing good songs once he became famous). But even if it just a somewhat different version of his debut, it’s still a good album by a voice that was just finding its way.


As always, let this serve as an open thread on all things music.

This Day in Labor History: September 3, 1991

[ 38 ] September 3, 2016 |

On September 3, 1991, a chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught of fire thanks to nonexistent safety procedures, killing 25 workers and injuring another 55. This was the largest workplace disaster in North Carolina history. This entirely avoidable accident was reminiscent of workplace disasters of the past, with open employer contempt for safety regulations and the lives of their workers.

The building where the chicken factory was located was built in the early twentieth century and had been used in various food processing operations in the past, including as an ice cream factory. In 1980, it was purchased by Imperial Foods. This was a company was a terrible safety reputation in its other plants. Its plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania was cited for managers locking exit doors. Its Cumming, Georgia plant had a fire in 1989 that caused over $1 million in damage, although no fatalities. The corporate hostility to basic safety procedures would be repeated in Hamlet. The factory had no fire alarm system. The factory was used to process chicken for fast food restaurants and pre-frozen products for grocery stores. That meant cutting, bagging, weighing, and, most importantly for this story, frying it. About three-quarters of the workers were African-Americans. Hamlet is a small town close to the South Carolina border and the worker histories reflected that. Many of these workers had grown up doing farm work in the area and for some, this was their first factory job.

Imperial’s CEO Emmett Roe had moved from Pennsylvania to the South in order to bust the unions in his plants there and move to a state with a “more favorable regulatory climate,” i.e., the kind of state that won’t inspect your factories or enforce safety violations. Among other states, he chose North Carolina. A state in bed with the agricultural industry if there ever was one, North Carolina regulators never inspected the factory because the budget for inspections was minuscule. In 11 years of operation, it received no fire inspections. The factory did undergo repeated inspections from the company’s poultry inspector. Workers complained about the terrible smell and quality of meat, with at least one telling an inspector that the meat processed into chicken nuggets was particularly awful. According to one survivor of the fire, the plant managers locked the door to stop workers from stealing chicken. This was the same excuse sweatshop managers gave to locking the doors at Triangle when that disaster killed 146 workers in 1911.

The fire began when the deep fryer caught fire after a hydraulic line to a cooking vat failed, with obvious problems with it not found because of the company’s indifferent safety culture. It spread very quickly thanks to a combination of burning cooking oil, insulation, and exploding gas lines hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t help that all of the phones inside the building were nonfunctional. The workers at the front of the plant all managed to get out. But at the back of the plant the company did not place any fire alarms. Moreover, Imperial managers not only locked all the exits but sealed the windows as well. Those workers had nowhere to go. As an old plant, it was a maze of paths inside. The smoke meant they couldn’t find their way to the front. They were doomed. Like at Triangle, which this fire reminded many of, a few workers did get out the back by breaking open a locked loading bay, but most died. On one door, near charred bodies, blackened footprints could still be seen, signs of the desperate attempt to escape. Eighteen of the dead were women. Most of the dead were African-American.

Much later, survivor Lily Davis remembered the day of the fire:

“When I woke up that morning on the day of the fire, I had said to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m going to work today,” she said. “But I knew there was a holiday coming up and if I didn’t go to work that morning I wouldn’t get paid for the holiday. I was at the plant and had changed into my white coat. Everybody was saying they didn’t want to come to work either. They wanted a longer time off, but if we hadn’t gone in, we wouldn’t have gotten paid for the holiday.”

“I went down to the line where the fire happened before it happened,” Davis said. “That was where you weigh the chicken. And my boss man came up and said, ‘I want you to lay out tenders today.’ I told him I didn’t want to go, and he walked off. But then he came back and saw I was still there, put his hands on his hips and gave me this look, so I went.”

“It was always cold in there and those tenders come right out of the refrigerator,” she said. “After a while, your legs feel like they’re not even there. Then all of a sudden the lights went out and we heard somebody yelling, ‘Y’all need to get out of here! This place is on fire!”

Davis said the next thing she knew, the lady who managed the tenders line had gotten everyone to hold hands and told them they would all go out together.

“We were down near the floor and nobody could see,” Davis said. “But we finally got there when somebody yelled, ‘The door is locked! We can’t get out!”

Davis said that’s when the hand-holding stopped. People began to panic, running into other parts of the plant in search of a way out. But it was dark, she said.

“I said, ‘Lord, what am I going to do? How can I get out of here?” Davis said. “And I heard a voice to my right that said, ‘Just sit down right here where you are.’ So I said, ‘What in the world can I do from right here? I can’t see. If only I had some light I could get out.’ And that voice said, ‘You can pray.’”

Davis said she sat down on the floor and began to pray. She doesn’t remember how long she prayed or what she was praying.

“Then a hole opened up in the ceiling,” she said. “I remember feeling so peaceful and good, and then I just fell asleep.”

Davis does not remember anything specific to the plant after that moment.

There was both a state and a federal investigation of the fire. The state passed the buck. The state labor commissioner said that his department did not have enough money (true, thanks to the notoriously anti-labor North Carolina legislature. Even today, NC has the lowest union density rate in the nation). He also blamed the federal government for not enforcing safety standards (OK, but that is indeed passing the buck).

Three men faced charges for the fire. Imperial Foods owner Emmett Roe, his son, and the plant manager. They all took plea bargains. Since Roe had personally directed the locking of the doors, he received a prison sentence of nearly 20 years, less than a year for each of the murders he committed. He served four years in prison. Imperial Foods also received an $800,000 fine. The factory was never reopened. 215 people lost their jobs. The federal government ordered North Carolina to improve its worker safety legislation or the government would do it for them. This did lead to the passage of 14 new laws, including a whistleblower law, as well as a near doubling of state workplace safety inspectors.

Memorializing the deaths also faulted along state lines. For the survivors, this was not only a labor rights issue, but a civil rights issue. They invited Jesse Jackson to the town to speak at the memorial. For Hamlet’s conservative white elite, Jackson was anathema. So there were two memorial services with two monuments next to each other.

The factory remains were bulldozed in 2001 because of the psychological damage it caused the survivors and the firefighters who saw it. Eight survivors lived within viewing distance of it.

Here is a 22 minute film from 1994 on the fire and its survivors.

The Hamlet fire also spawned this Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra song.

This is the 189th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

ISDS Courts

[ 18 ] September 2, 2016 |
No TTIP train to Brussels. Lobbying the European Commission. Belgium. © Jess Hurd/NoTTIP

No TTIP train to Brussels. Lobbying the European Commission. Belgium.
© Jess Hurd/NoTTIP

I have written a lot about the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts that make up a central tenet of the Trans Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements. These extra-national courts effectively give corporations a new legal system to protect their interests that has no accountability to nations or peoples, no access for those peoples to defend themselves, and no system so that citizens can even know what is going on in them. Corporations can use them to protect their profits so that if a nation passes a law that could affect future profits, the companies can use the ISDS courts to sue for future profits lost. That could mean that minimum wage laws, anti-mining regulations, protections for forests, pollution regulations, etc., could be effectively overturned. And given the power dynamics involved in the world, it’s going to be western companies going after developing world nation laws more often than not. These courts have been around for a long time, but they are growing more powerful today. There are two recent pieces of journalism exploring the many problems with the ISDS courts.

First from Chris Hamby:

The series starts today with perhaps the least known and most jarring revelation: Companies and executives accused or even convicted of crimes have escaped punishment by turning to this special forum. Based on exclusive reporting from the Middle East, Central America, and Asia, BuzzFeed News has found the following:

A Dubai real estate mogul and former business partner of Donald Trump was sentenced to prison for collaborating on a deal that would swindle the Egyptian people out of millions of dollars — but then he turned to ISDS and got his prison sentence wiped away.

In El Salvador, a court found that a factory had poisoned a village — including dozens of children — with lead, failing for years to take government-ordered steps to prevent the toxic metal from seeping out. But the factory owners’ lawyers used ISDS to help the company dodge a criminal conviction and the responsibility for cleaning up the area and providing needed medical care.

Two financiers convicted of embezzling more than $300 million from an Indonesian bank used an ISDS finding to fend off Interpol, shield their assets, and effectively nullify their punishment.

Driving this expansion are the lawyers themselves. They have devised new and creative ways to deploy ISDS, and in the process bill millions to both the businesses and the governments they represent. At posh locales around the globe, members of The Club meet to swap strategies and drum up potential clients, some of which are household names, such as ExxonMobil or Eli Lilly, but many more of which are much lower profile. In specialty publications, the lawyers suggest novel ways to use ISDS as leverage against governments. It’s a sort of sophisticated, international version of the plaintiff’s attorney TV ad or billboard: Has your business been harmed by an increase in mining royalties in Mali? Our experienced team of lawyers may be able to help.

A few of their ideas: Sue Libya for failing to protect an oil facility during a civil war. Sue Spain for reducing solar energy incentives as a severe recession forced the government to make budget cuts. Sue India for allowing a generic drug company to make a cheaper version of a cancer drug.

In a little-noticed 2014 dissent, US Chief Justice John Roberts warned that ISDS arbitration panels hold the alarming power to review a nation’s laws and “effectively annul the authoritative acts of its legislature, executive, and judiciary.” ISDS arbitrators, he continued, “can meet literally anywhere in the world” and “sit in judgment” on a nation’s “sovereign acts.”

Reviewing publicly available information for about 300 claims filed during the past five years, BuzzFeed News found more than 35 cases in which the company or executive seeking protection in ISDS was accused of criminal activity, including money laundering, embezzlement, stock manipulation, bribery, war profiteering, and fraud.

Among them: a bank in Cyprus that the US government accused of financing terrorism and organized crime, an oil company executive accused of embezzling millions from the impoverished African nation of Burundi, and the Russian oligarch known as “the Kremlin’s banker.”

Some are at the center of notorious scandals, from the billionaire accused of orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme in Mauritius to multiple telecommunications tycoons charged in the ever-widening “2G scam” in India, which made it into Time magazine’s top 10 abuses of power, alongside Watergate. The companies or executives involved in these cases either denied wrongdoing or did not respond to requests for comment.

Most of the 35-plus cases are still ongoing. But in at least eight of the cases, bringing an ISDS claim got results for the accused wrongdoers, including a multimillion-dollar award, a dropped criminal investigation, and dropped criminal charges. In another, the tribunal has directed the government to halt a criminal case while the arbitration is pending.

To say the least, this should alarm you greatly.
Then from David Dayen, on how financiers are figuring out ways to make money of the ISDS courts:

Here’s how it works: Wealthy financiers with idle cash have purchased companies that are well placed to bring an ISDS claim, seemingly for the sole purpose of using that claim to make a buck. Sometimes, they set up shell corporations to create the plaintiffs to bring ISDS cases. And some hedge funds and private equity firms bankroll ISDS cases as third parties — just like billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan in his lawsuit against Gawker Media.

It’s the same playbook that hedge funds were following when they bought up Argentine, Puerto Rican and other U.S. housing debt for pennies on the dollar. As The Huffington Post reported in May, the financiers were betting they could use lawsuits and lobbying to influence the political system in favor of the creditors like them and reap huge rewards.

Indeed, the damage of ISDS goes far beyond the money that investors manage to extract from public coffers and extends to the corruption of a political system by investors who buy off scholars, economists and politicians in pursuit of whatever policy outcome leads to a payoff. And there’s nothing stopping plutocrats with agendas that go beyond profit-making from getting involved ― again the way Thiel did with Gawker. That alone changes the power dynamic: If you’re the government of Thailand, the billionaire you’re negotiating with has one extra threat at his disposal.

If these investors are able to cement ISDS as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the opportunities for hedge funds to do what they’ve already done to Argentina will be endless ― possibly even in cities and states under financial pressure in the U.S., like Detroit and Illinois.

So-called third-party funding of “international arbitration against foreign sovereigns” has been expanding quickly, according to Selvyn Seidel, a pioneer in the litigation finance industry and now CEO of the advisory firm Fulbrook Capital Management.

“You can get an award for billions of dollars when that award would never come out in domestic law,” said Gus van Harten, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. “It’s just a jackpot for speculators.”

Here’s an example. In 2008, the Spanish government, under pressure from the eurozone to cut its budget during the financial crisis, began to reverse generous subsidies for solar energy. Spain reduced support for solar in stages. It changed the definition of its main solar incentive program in 2008, reduced the subsidies through two measures in 2010, placed a moratorium on subsidies for new solar plants in 2011, and added further restrictions in 2013.

Renewable energy activists could only shout into the air. But a group of investors hatched a plan.

Between November 2011 and December 2013, 22 different companies sued Spain in seven different cases over the subsidy changes – not in Spanish courts, but using ISDS.

As Dayen points out, the expansion of the ISDS courts under the TPP is extremely alarming. But on the other hand, you can have trade courts that actually work.

Now, upcoming trade agreements would dramatically expand this system. Public Citizen estimates that 9,000 new companies would gain ISDS rights to sue the United States under TPP alone. That’s 9,000 new opportunities for financiers to reach down into state and local coffers, in addition to the federal government, to grab cash. TPP would also expand the “minimum standard of treatment” clause, which sets up the most flexible type of ISDS claim, to cover financial services companies, meaning almost any change in the expected future profits of a bank could be challenged. “TPP was a win for the banks on ISDS,” said van Harten, the law professor.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Investors could be forced to prove discrimination in national courts first before proceeding to arbitration. Or national courts could exercise judicial review over ISDS awards. The largest ISDS award in history, $50 billion to a web of companies all owned by Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorovsky, was actually set aside by a Dutch court in April, the first time that has happened in a treaty-based ISDS case. Arbitrators — who generally come from a very small group of international corporate lawyers — could be made independent of the process, with set salaries, security of tenure and no financial ties to litigants. The definition of investor could be tightened, giving only companies that contribute to economic development the right to access ISDS.

But the easiest way to fix ISDS is to throw it out. Several countries, including India, Indonesia and Ecuador, have told their trade partners they’re considering terminating bilateral treaties because of ISDS. Some experts question whether the system is necessary even in the situations it was originally designed for.

I understand the need for some sort of trade courts in the age of globalization. The fundamental problem with the ISDS courts though is that they lack any accountability at all. If you bring a case up to one, the lawyers and judges might be neutral. Or they might not be. But no one can really say (and I’ve had conversations with experts on this who have said that it is basically a crap shoot with one of these cases). These courts need to allow access to citizens as well. If companies have access to extra-national courts, regular citizens also need access to those courts. They need to enforce labor law, minimum wages, working conditions, pollution standards, mining and forest protection, etc. Without that ability, we have simply created a legal system that ensures the vast majority of the world’s citizens are not represented and that the desires of those citizens to pass various laws can be undemocratically overturned. That is simply unacceptable. On this point alone, not to mention the many other problems, we should reject the Trans Pacific Partnership.

“American Workers Can Do Everything Right and Still Lose”

[ 51 ] September 2, 2016 |


Now that it is beyond the paywall, you really need to read Gabriel Winant’s essay on the state of the union movement. It’s one of the smartest takes on unionism you will have read in a very long time. He takes me to task a bit for opposing unions seeking exemptions to the higher minimum wage in Los Angeles–and we still very much disagree about that point. But outside of that, I endorse this completely, particularly two critical points. First, the fundamental problem with unions in this country and the fundamental problem going back a long time is not that they don’t organize enough, not that they are bureaucratic, not that they are sexist or racist or slow to respond. It’s that employers in the United States remain fanatically anti-union and that is extremely difficult to contend with, especially if the government is not on the side of workers. For all that the left and the union reformer crowd loves to talk about corruption and bureaucracy and not organizing, this is the key issue.

Second, the union bureaucracy that the left loves to decry is actually an objectively good thing, as worker movements may spring up here and there but if they aren’t fostered, shaped, given resources and organizers, etc., they will fade. If those movements succeed and actually win a union election and then a contract, those dues need to be used not only at the workplace but to lobby the government that is so crucial for the success of unionism. As the quote that titles this post suggests, there is no magic bullet for unionism. As Winant says, you just have to keep trying and eventually hope that all the pieces are there when the historical moment comes for a great advancement. I will close with just one excerpt about the potential of municipal strategy, but please read the whole article.

The members themselves are the most underused resource. America once had factories where thousands toiled together. Though divided by race, ethnicity, and skill, the great plants and mills were hothouses of proletarian consciousness. While such work sites are now extremely rare, their lesson should be remembered. The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.

Such institutions tend to have major footprints in their local labor markets. In New York City, the Department of Education is the largest single employer of all agencies of the city government, itself the largest overall employer; health-care providers and universities make up eight of the top ten in the private sector. What’s more, the students, families, and patients who are served by the institution often have interests that can be aligned with those of workers: Do you want enough nurses on the hospital floor? What is all this debt for if the money’s not going to the professors? Do you want your children tested to death and jammed into overcrowded classrooms? Here the classic case is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has successfully positioned itself at the head of a popular majority against mayor Rahm Emanuel.

These institutions are also susceptible to public pressure. Hospitals, school systems, and universities all depend on the public — its opinion, its dollars. If a significant number of people who work at these institutions can be mustered to volunteer in local elections, that group can persuade an even larger group of workers, students, and patients to vote for the same candidates. Then you have a shot at building real, substantive unity between different sections of the working class. This is, essentially, the model of the Working Families Party in New York, as well as my union’s coalition in New Haven.

In New York, the result is visible in the de Blasio administration’s most progressive moves: policies like mandatory paid sick leave, opposition to charter schools, and free pre-K represent points of common interest across the working-class coalition that put the mayor in office. In New Haven, a coalition of Yale employees and community activists, after a string of local electoral victories, extracted an agreement from Yale in December 2015 to hire 1,000 New Haven residents over three years. (I was part of this campaign.)

These successes, along with the astonishing momentum of the $15 campaigns, hint at the possibilities of the city as the unit of strategy. With enough political power at the local level, workers’ organizations may be able to develop forms of leverage that can counteract the growing hostility of the federal legal regime. Imagine if the Chicago Teachers Union won control of the city government (far from an impossible prospect) and used that power to rein in police violence; the union might also reopen schools and clinics closed by Emanuel and staff them, creating huge numbers of unionized jobs. Enough victories like these, and the public image of organized labor might finally change from racist white men to the dominant group across many sectors for decades now — progressive people of color. More significantly, the wide range of working-class people whose long-term interests can align would take a step toward unity.

Silicon Valley Lobbying

[ 27 ] September 2, 2016 |


Dayen warns us about the influence of Silicon Valley over the Clinton campaign, a lobbying campaign with a real impact on the American people. I assume there’s nothing in here that could also not be applied to its lobbying effort with Republicans, although I suppose there is a comfort among some parts of Silicon Valley with a Hillary Clinton that there’s not for some Republicans.

Clinton lined up over 100 industry advisors to help design a tech and telecommunications policy “that echoes many of Silicon Valley’s top priorities.” This collaboration between government and business at the highest echelons, precisely what has so many Americans angered by corporate-written trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is nothing new; Obama’s administration is fully tied up with Google, for example. And some of the policy ideas, like ending the predominance of “patent trolls” that use the legal system to make money off other’s inventions, are first-rate. But others are clearly meant to benefit Silicon Valley at the expense of the nation.

For example, there’s the section on “setting rules of the road to promote innovation.” This prioritizes reducing regulatory barriers, whatever they may be, to bringing new products to market. To the extent this tears down incumbency protection and opens markets, that’s a good thing; to the extent it simply transfers old incumbent power to new incumbents who will throw up the drawbridge once they acquire power, it’s very dangerous.

Then there’s the fact that local regulations often are in place for a good reason. Allowing Airbnb to violate laws against effectively running hotels without paying the transient occupancy tax does no city any good. Allowing Uber and Lyft to acquire a monopoly in not just taxicabs, but the public provision of transit services only courts disaster once prices rise and costs shift to the individual or municipality. The libertarian streak of the tech sector is replicated in Clinton’s “disruptive economy working group,” coming up with policies benefiting companies like Uber that are battling local regulators.

Even policies like the Obama administration’s order ending the cable industry’s monopoly on set-top boxes, noble as it looks at first glance, creates a clear winner in Google. Clinton may sound welcoming in preserving high-skill immigration through the H1-B visa program, but that’s almost entirely a priority of Silicon Valley. And an agenda to crack down on banks through competition may bear fruit; the financial technology (or fintech) companies circling the sector certainly hope so.

The root of this tech policy advisory team is to carry out that now-mocked slogan of making the world a better place. As spokesman Tyrone Gayle told Politico, Clinton “will reach out to the tech community to partner with them, and bring the best of their ideas to Washington to help develop public policy that will lead to broad-based growth, reduce social and economic inequality, and secure American leadership on the global stage.”

The problem is that Clinton cannot just be a partner with an entire business sector. As head of the executive branch she also directs their regulators. She must protect consumers and small businesses and the broadly diverse economy. When you treat private enterprise like a working partner, and begin to rely on it, trouble can ensue. Almost imperceptibly, governments can get lenient on their partners when they engage in questionable practices.

It’s a concern, no doubt, as it has been with the Obama administration.

The Tenuous Nature of Online Archives

[ 66 ] September 1, 2016 |


If historians are going to keep writing awesome political histories and other histories, we are going to need access to primary sources. Increasingly those primary sources are online. But as we know, anything online can disappear in a blink. There was that moment early in Google’s history when it hoped to digitize everything. But then it decided it had no interest in providing great public services it couldn’t monetize. So that died. In the case of the newspaper in Milwaukee, its newspaper archives simply became so expensive that the public library couldn’t afford the service.

Where had Milwaukee’s history gone?

The archive had initially been made available on Google around 2008 as part of the company’s effort to digitize historical newspapers. That project ended in 2011, but not before Google had scanned more than 60 million pages covering 250 years of history’s first drafts. Those newspapers have remained publicly accessible, and serve both professional historians and home genealogists.

When the Milwaukee project began, Google used microfilms from the papers that had already been uploaded to the ProQuest research database. Because some things were missing from ProQuest, the Journal-Sentinel asked the Milwaukee Public Library to help out. The library let the company digitize decades of microfilms to bulk out the digital archives.

But as Google discontinued support for the project, the paper decided to construct its own archive. “It takes a long time to scan and get the archives up,” said James Conigliaro, the paper’s vice-president of digital strategy. “So we’ve been working on that.”

The paper had an existing relationship with Newsbank, a digitization and archiving company based in Florida. In 2014, Newsbank approach the Milwaukee Public Library about buying the rights to the Journal-Sentinel archives. The MPL already subscribed to two Newsbank services—an obituary archive and a modern database of the Journal-Sentinel–and regularly purchases proprietary databases whose subscription fees are in the low five figures. But it couldn’t afford the Journal-Sentinel archives.

In May, Newsbank came to the MPL again, offering a menu of purchase options. The most expansive offer was almost $1.5 million, with an annual hosting fee. That nearly amounted to the library’s entire $1.7 million annual materials budget. “To be asked to purchase outright something for a million dollars is just out of our scope of possibility,” said Paula Kiely, the library director.

Then, in August, Newsbank let the other shoe drop: According to Urban Milwaukee, Gannett—which purchased the paper in April—asked the Journal-Sentinel to ask Google to remove the paper’s digital archives, which the company did. It’s harder to sell a product when it’s being given away for free, after all.

Someone figured it could make money on history. It can only do that by charging an absolutely exorbitant amount of money. Many cities can’t pay. So the historical sources disappear. If it is going to be a requirement that someone profit in order to make primary sources public, the future of the historical profession is grim indeed.

Hey, White People Have Appropriated Black Culture Again!

[ 252 ] September 1, 2016 |


Nashville hot chicken has become a thing. A recent write up of this phenomenon of a dish long eaten by the area’s African-American population credited white people for making it happen. Um, no.

George Embiricos at Food Republic has written a hot mess of an article on Hattie B’s hot chicken that gives credit for the popularity of the dish to the white guys who took a piece of black culinary culture and made it cool. This is not me paraphrasing. This is literally what Embiricos says:

Today, Hattie B’s has two Nashville locations, in addition to one in Birmingham, Alabama, with plans to expand throughout the Southeast. Lengthy lines — packed with locals, tourists and celebrities alike — regularly stretch down the block during peak times. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack may have created hot chicken in the 1930s, and institutions like Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish may have helped preserve the tradition over the years, but Hattie B’s has made hot chicken cool.

Before Hattie B’s opened, there was plenty of hot chicken in Nashville, but the emphasis was always on the “hot” part. Lasater put more focus on the chicken, using high-quality birds. That, combined with a central location, an outdoor patio, pairing the chicken with sweet options like waffles and offering local beers on tap, changed the hot-chicken experience. All have proved vital to Hattie B’s sustained success, cementing its place among the city’s staples.

Let me remind you, it’s 2016. We’ve lived through white people “inventing” rock & roll so they could sell it to white people and then half a century of people — black and white — pointing out that it’s an older art form than that. We’ve lived through a century of “vulgar” “exotic” “indecent” dances done by black kids becoming “fun” and “energetic” and “cool” when white kids do it — see everything from the hop straight through breakdancing through whatever kids are doing today. Graffiti, when black kids were doing it, was criminal and fed into gang culture. Banksy does it and now it’s worth preserving and spending money to collect it. There’s not a black art form, food included, that by this point hasn’t been popularized by white people and then the popularized version celebrated by white media like white people invented it, or at least, perfected it.

If, at this point, you’re still writing articles where black people have been doing shit for years, going mostly unnoticed by white people, and it’s only when the white people come in and decide to monetize it that you declare it cool, then you are the problem with America.

Indeed. Racism has many forms. Among them is ignoring long histories of African-American food culture to appropriate it for whites using fancy hipster words.

Let’s Chat About the Olympics Coverage

[ 123 ] September 1, 2016 |
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes in the Men's 100 meter semifinal on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 14: Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes in the Men’s 100 meter semifinal on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

God, NBC’s coverage of the Olympics was horrible. Not surprisingly, NBC’s ratings plummeted from previous games. NBC is of course blaming it on the damn kids and their desire to watch events live. Well, isn’t that shocking! Actually being connected to the world and wanting to see action as it happens instead of having it spoonfed to you by Bob Costas and commercial after commercial after commercial. Who wouldn’t want to see that! That stuff might work for my parents’ generation, but not only is it disastrous for those crazy millennials but really for any demographic under the age of 50 who has adopted modern technology to shape their entertainment choices.

Maybe NBC should quit whining and figure out to present a decent product.

Chill Out. Political History has Never Been Better.

[ 24 ] September 1, 2016 |


Above: Gerda Lerner, Badass Political Historian

This is a guest post by Gabriel Rosenberg and Ariel Ron. Gabriel N. Rosenberg is assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist Studies at Duke University and the author of The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America. Ariel Ron is assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University and working on a book tentatively titled, Grassroots Leviathan: Northern Agrarian Nationalism in the Slaveholding Republic.

If you hang around history professors, you’ll inevitably hear some carping: They sure don’t write history like they used to! Plumbers and insurance agents probably do something similar when they get together. But it’s weird for a profession premised on historical context to indulge such a naively nostalgic narrative of its own development. The latest entry is a New York Times Op-Ed by Frederik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood titled, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”

Trick question! We never stopped. Political history is fine. In fact, it’s never been better. (It’s American politics that stinks.)

The Logevall and Osgood editorial pushes a narrative of decline for political history. Once upon a time, American historians foregrounded “the doings of governing elites” and, thus, fostered general civic literacy and understanding of the political process. Some political historians, they contend, even wielded influence over policy makers. But historians in the 1970s turned their attention to charting the influence of social movements—laborers, women, non-whites, and gays—and to “recovering the lost experiences of these groups.” As a result, “the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” Universities neglected history concerned with the hows and whys of governance, and now they fail to educate students adequately on “the importance that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give-and-take in the democratic process.”

Indeed, Logevall and Osgood claim political history as a “field of study has cratered.” The anchor for this claim? The purported paucity of job ads dedicated to “political history.”

It’s true that US historians were once (overly) focused on political elites. But what about the rest of the story?

Let’s start with the evidence cited. Logevall and Osgood say that only fifteen jobs in the last decade advertised for “political history.” The AHA’s Executive Director, Jim Grossman, says that number is off by a factor of seven. There were 107 political history jobs in the last decade by his count. Regardless, Logevall and Osgood don’t report the total number of the jobs advertised, how those numbers compare to other fields of specialization, or how the current number of political history jobs compares to the halcyon days of yore. Touting the size of a numerator as meaningful without offering the denominator is a terrible use of numbers, and we would need significantly more historical context to make “fifteen” meaningful.

However, we do have some reliable data to draw conclusions about trends. The AHA published a study of trends in specialization in December of 2015. That study found that fields such as intellectual and social history had seen sharp declines since the 1970s. But, contrary to Logevall and Osgood, the study found that the percentage of historians studying political history had increased slightly since 1975. In fact, there has been seen a noticeable uptick since 2010 (probably coincident with the “new political history” discussed later).

Logevall and Osgood seem to have been looking in the wrong places, and where they should have been looking tells another story. Job advertisements, as every recently minted PhD knows, are a poor guide to the state of the scholarship or of teaching. History departments’ hiring committees tend to advertise for chronological periods because they know whoever gets the job, regardless of their specialty, will teach courses covering political history. A better measure of political history’s health would be scholarly output, which has been robust to say the least. Just look at the catalogs of top-notch university presses such as Princeton’s, Penn’s, Cornell’s, Yale’s, and so on. Or witness the burgeoning field of policy history, which boasts its own journal and steadily growing biannual conference. Similarly, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations has been doing very well in recent years, as has the Legal History Society. There is also the small matter of cognate fields such as political science and sociology, each of which generate an impressive amount of writing and teaching on political history.

The core flaw of Logevall and Osgood’s argument, however, is its narrow definition of politics as “the doings of governing elites.” This definition effectively writes the most significant contributions to political history of the last few decades out of political history. Logevall and Osgood nod to the “long overdue diversification of the academy” and “the recover[y] of lost experiences” that have “enriched the national story.” Talk about damning with faint praise! Enriching the national story is a lovely compliment, but what about enriching our understanding of how political processes actually work? Historians who study gender, race, laborers, sexuality, capitalism, and the environment have been doing just that and it’s led to remarkable insights.

The examples are so numerous it’s hard to keep track even in just the field of twentieth century US history. Start with Erik’s book, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests. He argues you can’t understand the political influence of organized labor in the Northwest without understanding the ecological, social, and cultural context of logging. Or Gabe’s book, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America. It contends that you can’t understand the trajectory of early twentieth century US state building, the New Deal state, or postwar international development without grappling with cultural norms of gender and sexuality. Or take Michelle Nickerson’s dissection of the relationship between maternalist activism and the rise of the New Right. Or Timothy Stewart-Winter’s examination of how gay activists shaped Chicago’s postwar politics. Or Nathan Connolly’s work on the politics of property ownership in African American communities during Jim Crow. Or Adrienne Petty’s study of small farmers, race, and the cross-racial appeals of populism. Or Daniel Immerwahr’s exploration of the boomerang trajectory of community development programs at-home and abroad. Or Ruben Flores’s account of the relationship between Mexican social reformers and the US Civil Rights Movement.

All of these books make a case for studying more than just national political elites if you want to understand political outcomes. They all make a strong case for the fundamental inadequacy of such an elite-centered approach.

More broadly, big-ticket, field-defining works of political history in the past two decades have included Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Kevin Kruse’s White Flight, Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects. Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Michael Willrich’s City of Courts, Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart, Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy, Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally, Cindy Hahamovitch’s No Man’s Land, Meg Jacobs’ Pocketbook Politics, Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale, Margot Canaday’s The Straight State, Robert Self’s American Babylon, and Regina Kunzel’s Criminal Intimacy.

And there have been several important edited volumes charting the contours of the “new political history.” These include the influential 2003 volume The Democratic Experiment, a volume edited by Julian Zelizer, Meg Jacobs, and William Novak. Since then Julian Zelizer and Kim Phillips-Fein edited a volume synthesizing new political history with the emergent “histories of capitalism,” while William Novak, Jim Sparrow, and Stephen Sawyer edited a volume foregrounding anti-foundationalist histories of the American state.

A very similar story could be told about the scholarship on the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Historical understanding of these periods has been completely reshaped by books that take Indians, African-Americans and women seriously as political actors and that have thereby generated much fresh insight on such well-studied political figures as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Ariel’s work even reframes the Civil War era by examining the politics of a “marginal” group Logevall and Osgood might even approve of studying more: white northern farmers.

All of these works are vital contributions to US political history that speak to the vibrancy and health of the field. (The nation’s most prolific political historian, Julian Zelizer, even wrote a book called Governing America: The Revival of Political History!) They evince a field that is broadly inclusive in analytic approach and topic and hungry for conversation with other specializations. None of these works are narrowly preoccupied with the doings of national political elites. But nor are they indifferent to them. Instead they are unified by an effort to show how laws and policy, political institutions, and political actors (elite, middling, and marginal) are embedded within social differences such as race, sex, class, sexuality, and nationality that actually produce political outcomes. These works also emphasize that actors and outcomes are shaped by the decentered, layered, and diffuse structure of the American state, as well as the permeable boundaries between private and public power. The “big” traditional political histories Logevall and Osgood celebrate often failed to appreciate precisely those complexities and, thus, elided the role of seemingly marginal actors in shaping policies, institutions, and outcomes.

In other words, it wasn’t just that older political histories were normatively suspect because they excluded women, workers, blacks, migrants, gays, grassroots activists, middle-managers and petty elites, etc. from the narrative. Those exclusions also made for implausible and limited accounts of how and why political events occurred as they did. The problem wasn’t (just) that they were ethically suspect histories that “lost the voices” of non-elites. They were also bad history in the boring, dour empiricist sense of the term: they don’t provide adequate explanations of what happened.

Logevall and Osgood’s invocation of the current election cycle, then, is a particularly ironic coda. Trumpism has many fathers, no doubt. But it represents a moment when party outsiders and seemingly marginal actors wrested control of the Republican party from the ‘big players” Logevall and Osgood suggest we should study. Explaining Trumpism without taking into account the role of race, class, and gender in American politics would be nonsense. Likewise it would be impossible to explain Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly successful movement-style campaign without reference to the history of American social movements outside of the usual elite channels. It would also be a mistake in either case to ignore the labyrinthine structure of American political institutions that govern elections. Indeed, we agree with Logevall and Osgood that current political discussions would benefit from greater contextualization drawn from American political history. A good way to start that would be to read—and then appreciate—the excellent works of political history already being written.

Bad Stories About Marijuana Legalization

[ 86 ] August 31, 2016 |


I’ve long maintained that the biggest argument against marijuana legalization is that stoner culture is really irritating. Throwing hippies in prison? Well, there’s an argument for it! Anyway, the idea that marijuana culture is somehow this wonderful thing operating under the capitalist radar and is going to be destroyed by legalization and operating the industry something like alcohol is very annoying, especially when coming from supposedly respectable publications like Politico, who decided to run this hack piece about the future horrors of legalized and regulated weed in California.

In Sacramento, he insisted that growers be treated like farmers of any other crop. Most important, he won the removal of a limit on the number of growing licenses for small farms. But the price of that legitimacy has been steep and it is about to redefine the nature of the marijuana industry in ways that make many of its most committed supporters deeply uncomfortable. California’s iconic counter-culture drug is about to be treated just like a six-pack of beer.

Treated just like a 6 pack? The horrors! You mean, you can go to the store and buy it? And that there’s a system regulating that economy that might not just be a bunch of hippies getting back to the land, a description of the marijuana industry last accurate sometime around 1982? I have never heard such a horrible tale.

Under the new regulations, licensed distributors were given control over measurement, taxing and testing for all medical marijuana before it can move to the retailer. The rules are modeled on the system that emerged at the end of Prohibition to wrest control from mobsters and their illegal liquor empires. States required wholesalers to bring alcohol from the manufacturer to the retailer, a system that has proven fantastically lucrative for distribution companies. Some of those players are now poised to make millions of dollars as the middlemen in California’s burgeoning medical marijuana market.

Again, I am mortified. For some reason. Because this sounds totally rational to me.

But the transformation is causing discomfort within California’s community of renegade pot growers, many of whom worry that their long wished for legitimacy may end with them being coopted by the implacable force of corporate America.

Smoke another joint dude and let’s talk about The Man keeping us down!

“But it’s complicated,” she continues. “A lot of growers are thinking only about law enforcement and getting Water Quality enforcement off their backs. What they don’t realize is by January 1, 2018, if you’re operating a commercial grow and you don’t have a cultivation license and aren’t in the process of getting one—it’s just a cease and desist order. That can be thousands of dollars a day. And it could be ugly when the IRS comes in in a few years and businesses get audited. We do want to keep all our small farmers. They hold the culture. They hold the innovation. If we lose the small farmers we’re going to lose a lot.”

Oh noes! Licensing! Regulation! Not being able to dump a metric ton of rat poison in the forests!

Because, some say, groups with deep pockets to spend on political lobbying wanted it that way. Groups like the Teamsters.

“We concluded it was the best model for us and we proceeded to forge an alliance with law enforcement and local government because we thought that it fit their needs as well,” says Barry Broad, legislative director of the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council.

Broad acknowledges the potential gain to the Teamsters’ organization.

“I’m not hiding our self interest. This is a growing industry and we’d like it to grow unionized,” he says. “To have local government, organized labor and law enforcement all together is a pretty potent alliance. What’s on the other side? A couple marijuana people with illusions of grandeur?”


Seriously, this is embarrassing. When was the last time dropping the IBT as some sort of symbol of Big Evil Organization was remotely legitimate? 1977? Ever? But no, if the Teamsters benefit–if the weed farms are unionized–evidently the entire culture of weed growing is destroying and replaced by the evils of regulated capitalism. I didn’t know that Politico was the resurrection of the Whole Earth Catalog, but maybe it is.

It goes on from there. It’s not that the regulation of tobacco or alcohol is perfect. But the idea that marijuana is somehow this special industry that is anti-capitalist or down with the earth and the people or whatever is complete and utter hogwash. The unregulated marijuana industry is a labor and environmental disaster, with dangerous and poorly paid labor dominating the workforce and the wanton use of pesticides and chemicals, the diversion of water, the bulldozing of mountaintops, the construction of illegal roads, and turning the forests into trash dumps. Marijuana needs to be legal. It also needs to be regulated. It needs to be regulated similar to other legal drugs in distribution and sales. And it needs to be regulated like any other agricultural product in the production. Otherwise, the problems that result are immense.

But at the very least, let’s stop pretending that hippie capitalism is somehow more pure and down to earth than regular capitalism. It’s still a bunch of people looking to do anything to make a buck.

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