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Dead Horses in American History (XIII)

[ 77 ] July 6, 2014 |

chicago-1893

Children playing next to a dead horse, Chicago, 1893

This is probably my favorite image for teaching in American history. There is so much going on here. The children playing next to a dead horse seemingly uninterested in its existence. The slum where they live is so obvious to the viewer. The condition of the road is so bad. And of course, once you start looking at it, you realize these kids are hanging their feet down in an open sewer.

I have occasionally seen this image cited as being taken in New York, but more often it is Chicago. It doesn’t really matter, but I wanted to mention it in case some of you who are going to spend more time hunting this kind of thing down than I am willing to do sees something suggesting the city or date is incorrect, which of course you should share.

….Our indefatigable commenter-investigators have shown that the image is indeed from New York, between 1900 and 1906.

Modern Sanitation

[ 16 ] July 6, 2014 |

In the late 19th century, Americans were still trying to figure out why they died of horrible diseases all the time. At this time, the idea of contagion was just beginning to gain acceptance, which would lead to radical changes that saved millions of lives. Still, others had different ideas. Some, despite as you will see below using the language of contagion, believed that sewer gas slipping into our homes was the reason for a number of diseases that of course have nothing to do with such a thing. Thus, here is a poem on the issue published in Modern Sanitation in 1885.

Our sanitation! Tis the art
Of filling up our homes with drains.
Ah! sewer-gas acts well its part
By conjuring up man’s aches and pains.

The beauteous scarlet fever skips
With typhoid hand in hand.
While sweet Diptheria gayly trips
O’er stationary washstand.

The cholera doth laugh to see
Its comma bacilli.
Old dysentery’s microbe
Is out upon the fly.

Malaria with its poisonous dart
Lurks ‘neath the water-trap.
Measles upon its round doth start,
Small-pox wakes from its nap.

The crafty plumber makes his bill
The sewer-gas ascends.
The doctors gives a sugar pill
‘Tis thus we lose our friends.

The undertaker says ‘tis well
The funeral corteges pass.
The letters of the tombstone spell
Hic Jacet, Sewer-Gas.

Gilded Age Americans, capitalist, anarchist, or middle class reformer, loved putting statements in rhyme. These beliefs about sewer gas would be powerful until World War I .

I found the poem in Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt, p. 70-71

Harding’s Affairs

[ 78 ] July 6, 2014 |

I was at the Warren Harding home a few years ago. My wife asked about Harding’s affairs. The woman working there was very irritated that his name continued to be besmirched with such slander. Kind of feel like going back there now.

Water

[ 327 ] July 5, 2014 |

The right to water should be a basic human right and Detroit shutting off water to people who can’t afford to pay their bills is an immoral act. The federal government should intervene to stop this from happening.

What Anti-Sweatshop Pressure Can Do

[ 26 ] July 5, 2014 |

As we talked about here earlier, the idea that the kids just aren’t doing their activism right because I’m too lazy to find out what the kids are doing today is a stupid critique of modern activism, in part because students are doing awesome things. Pressure from students at Rutgers led that university to cut off contracts from two apparel companies who refused to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Now Outdoor Cap, which made their hats, is crying about it.

This Day in Labor History: July 5, 1935

[ 17 ] July 5, 2014 |

On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation revolutionized the relationship between the federal government and organized labor and gave workers a fair shake from the government for the first time in American history.

When Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1933, the economy was in the worst state in American history. But Roosevelt wanted to help business, not hurt it. His first New Deal labor legislation was really more a pro-business measure. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) intended to bring business on the board with a reform program, and in fact parts of the act were welcomed by corporations, especially as it promoted bigness to undermine harmful competition. Somewhat unintentionally, the NIRA’s provision protecting collective bargaining for workers was interpreted by American workers as giving them approval to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor movement helped cleave corporate support from the New Deal.

In 1935, when the right-wing Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt moved for greater empowerment of workers. In fact, it was only when the NIRA was shut down that FDR moved toward this greater empowerment of workers. He was originally skeptical of the act because it did so much for workers and seemed anti-business. But the election of 1934 created an overwhelmingly liberal Congress that the political space existed for Roosevelt to take such a significant step. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) shepherded the bill through Congress (and giving it its popular name of the Wagner Act). Wagner had long been a champion of labor. He had served as chairman of the New York State Factory Inspection Commission in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire and built upon that to become a Democratic senator from the state in 1927. Wagner was the Senate’s leading liberal during the New Deal, shepherding a variety of legislation through the body, particularly around labor issues.

The NLRA guaranteed “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The law applied to all workers involved in interstate commerce except those working for government, railroads, airlines, and agriculture. The agriculture exception, as in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, continues to lead to the exploitation of agricultural workers today and is one of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Deal, although arguably including agricultural workers might have dampened support for these laws enough that they wouldn’t have passed.

The most important part of the NLRA was the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, creating a government agency with real authority to oversee the nation’s labor relations. The government had now officially declared its neutrality in labor relations, seeing its role as mediating them rather than openly siding with employers to crush unions. This was a remarkable turnaround in a nation where unionbusting was a good political move for the ambitious pol. After all, Calvin Coolidge, out of office only 4 years before Roosevelt took over, made his name by busting the 1919 Boston police strike.

Business went ballistic after the NLRA passed. Business Week ran an editorial titled “NO OBEDIENCE!” It read: “Although the Wagner Labor Relations Act has been passed by Congress and signed by the President, it is not yet law. For nothing is law that is not constitutional.”

Conservatives immediately challenged the constitutionality of the NLRA. But Roosevelt’s war on the Supreme Court, while damaging his prestige and ability to get new legislation passed, did have an effect. The pressure of a changing nation by the time the case came to them had an effect. In the 1937 decision in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the government and the act’s future was ensured. Within a year of the decision, three justices retired and Roosevelt ensured the future of his programs.

It’s also important to remember what life for workers was life before the National Labor Relations Act. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t form strong unions and thus were poor, although that was a piece of it. It’s that companies could do basically anything they wanted to in order to stop or bust a union. They could hire spies. They could hire a police force. They could kill union organizers. They could fire you for joining a union. Corporations had all the power and workers had none because in the end, the government was willing to back up the companies through legislation or even through military intervention to bust unions. The NLRA ended that, perhaps not entirely, but largely. Leveling the playing field meant workers now had the right to a decent life, a right they were happy to grasp and fight for. And fight for they did, as union membership skyrocketed after the NLRA was upheld by the Court.

In other words, social movements require accessing the levers of power, even if that means compromising on key principles, in order to codify change.

As is the case with most legislation, it proved susceptible to conservative regulatory capture and today the NLRB is a shell of its former robust self thanks to Republican attacks on it as one of the few agencies dedicated to giving workers a fair voice on the job, a principle to which the Republican Party opposed in 1935 and opposes in 2014.

This is the 113th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Scaife

[ 59 ] July 4, 2014 |

Hope you all aren’t too torn up by the demise of Richard Mellon Scaife. Hard to lose such a good and kindly citizen.

Also:

Harris Aftermath

[ 19 ] July 4, 2014 |

Mostly, this is a good rundown of reactions to the Harris decision. In particular the piece by Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein and the Joshua Freeman essay get at one key issue–that the work of women and especially poor women is consistently undervalued in our society.

From Boris and Klein:

So why do the Court’s conservatives advance an argument that is out of step with historical, economic and social reality? Part of the reason certainly lies with the nature of the work: domestic tasks done by women in the location of the home, unrecognized as a place of waged labor. Additionally, the labor has been devalued and dismissed because of the stigmatization attached to the work of poor women of color, the legacy of slavery and discrimination. In this context, Harris v. Quinn becomes a direct assault on the livelihood of some of the nation’s lowest paid workers. It is part of the right’s war on women, its demonization of public employees and battle against the union idea.

And from Freeman:

Instead, Harris is an extension of a different tradition in American labor law, the denial of rights to workers in industries dominated by female and non-white workers. Far from universal, the major New Deal labor laws—the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act—explicitly excluded particular occupations, including farm work and domestic labor, which had large numbers of female, African-American and Mexican-American workers. While some racially and sexually biased exclusions were later eliminated, Harris effectively extends this history of discrimination.

I do have to take exception to Jane McAlevey’s article because unlike the historians quoted above, it pushes ideology over analysis as to the real problem at hand in the decision. For McAlevey the problem is not enough internal democracy in modern unions. While I don’t dispute this is a weakness of the American labor movement (although aren’t European unions even more bureaucratic and top-down than American unions? European unions are certainly far larger and more integrated into corporate decision-making than in the US), I fail to see what it has to do with the Harris decision or how pushing more internal democracy unions will to do to influence the Supreme Court. Unfortunately this sort of ideologically charged critique is far more common in left-labor circles than it should be, not because those making it are wrong exactly but because it gets in the way of understanding the real reasons labor is in trouble that are far more persuasive than blaming it on Big Labor. But it’s at lot easier to whip your enemies in the labor movement than deal with the major structural problems causing labor’s decline like capital mobility, the organized conservative movement, and the growth of the business lobby after the Powell Memo.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor

[ 104 ] July 4, 2014 |

The whites of Murrieta, California sure know how to celebrate July 4. They kick it old school, through expressions of white supremacy.

MURRIETA, Calif. — Suddenly, this city in the desert has become the place that turned away the immigrants.

When the three busloads of immigrant mothers and children rolled into town for processing at a Border Patrol station this week, they were met by protesters carrying American flags and signs proclaiming “return to sender” as they screamed “go home” and chanted “U.S.A.” Fearing for the safety of the migrants and federal officers, immigration officials decided to reroute the buses to San Diego, an hour south.

And a day after many here celebrated what they saw as a temporary victory, more than a thousand residents packed a high school auditorium on Wednesday night for a town-hall-style meeting that lasted more than four hours, voicing fears about an influx of migrants.

“What happens when they come here with diseases and can overrun our schools? How much is this costing us?” one resident, Jodie Howard, asked the mayor.

“How do you know they are really families and aren’t some kind of gang or drug cartel?” another person asked federal officials.

What about when they violate our white women creating mongrelized children and undermining the white race? Who will protect our young women from committing race suicide with these savages? And what about their foreign ideologies they bring up with them from the jungles? Only a campaign of 100% Americanism will save us from this foreign threat.

Patriotic Tetanus

[ 20 ] July 4, 2014 |

This July 4, remember the true cost of freedom:

These wild, towering conflagrations garnered support at the beginning of the twentieth century from an unlikely quarter: the national movement for a Safe and Sane Fourth of July. In 1903, the year that the Journal of the American Medical Association first compiled statistics, celebrations of the Glorious Fourth left more than 400 dead and nearly 4,000 injured. Blank cartridges, fired off by children with toy guns, were the leading cause of injury. “Patriotic tetanus” often ensued; the bacillus claimed most of its annual victims in that first week of July. Parents, one reformer wrote, “each hoped that the Angel of Death might pass by our own child and that it might be only a strange little toddler whose eyesight would be destroyed or whose pretty baby fingers would be torn and mutilated.”

In comparison, the deadliest single battle of the American Revolution was the Battle of Oriskany, during the Saratoga campaign, where about 400-450 died.

And before meaningless rhetoric about how this nation is the greatest in history, perhaps reading Frederick Douglass’ 1852 July 4 address is in order. In part:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

…..Also, if you feel like making your own fireworks, here’s some instructions from the 1920s on how to do it.

Hardware Wars

[ 155 ] July 3, 2014 |

I mostly hate the whole Star Wars series and am generally disinterested in science fiction. But as a man of a certain generation, I have of course seen all the original Star Wars movies, for better and worse. So Hardware Wars, which I don’t doubt many of you have seen, was of moderate interest. I can’t exactly say this is good or even near the level of Spaceballs, which is a bad movie. But it might be the first Star Wars parody, which is something. Right?

Organizing Reality TV Writers

[ 46 ] July 2, 2014 |

Life for a reality TV writer is pretty tough since they have been classified as independent contractors or overtime-exempt and thus can be exploited heavily. The Writers’ Guild is trying to step into the void and organize them.

Tricky bosses, faked timecards, excruciating hours, dangerous scrapes… It sounds like fodder for a reality TV show, perhaps “America’s Next Worst Job.”

But workers say these are the conditions in reality TV itself, known more formally as the nonfiction television industry.

“We are told to be loyal, that this is normal,” said Lauren Veloski of the long unpaid hours she worked for several production companies. “You should anticipate that your workday will be 12 hours long,” one employer informed her.

Veloski said she and her co-workers were required to fake timecards saying they worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In fact, she said, she often worked past midnight, even until dawn.

The companies didn’t pay a penny of overtime. Indeed, the extra work was entirely unpaid in most cases.

Employees also said the companies, in turn, have no loyalty to their workers, sometimes putting them in dangerous situations.

“They don’t care about safety at all. People climb mountains, do things that are unsafe. If they get hurt they [the employers] don’t answer their phone calls or hire them again,” said 30-year industry veteran Helen Smith, who asked me not to use her real name for fear of retaliation.

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