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Brooklyn

[ 364 ] May 10, 2014 |

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

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

Gilded Age Food Poetry (II)

[ 44 ] May 10, 2014 |

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1869

[ 55 ] May 10, 2014 |

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

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

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

railroad_laborers_news

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

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

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

chinese-railroad-workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Nicest Man

[ 41 ] May 9, 2014 |

Donald Sterling:

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

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

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

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a racist.

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

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

Nothing turns someone on like racism.

The Finest Academic Leadership in Ohio

[ 73 ] May 9, 2014 |

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

Billy Frank, Jr., RIP

[ 1 ] May 9, 2014 |

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

How Long Until a Government Land Manager Dies?

[ 181 ] May 9, 2014 |

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

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

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

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

And then, New Mexico:

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

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

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

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

The Forest Service says

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

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

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

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

Well, we will see about that.

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

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

The Most Dangerous State for Workers

[ 35 ] May 8, 2014 |

North Dakota, thanks to an oil industry that continues to shirk on workplace safety.

According to the AFL-CIO, the most dangerous U.S. state for workers is North Dakota, which the report calls “an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work.” Its fatality rate — almost 18 deaths per 100,000 workers — is five times higher than the national average. It’s also double the state’s 2007 rate, when it stood at 7 deaths per 100,000 workers.

North Dakota’s spike in workplace deaths illustrates the dark side of the state’s booming energy industry, which has brought both high-paying jobs and problems such as rising crime rates and homelessness, thanks to a lack of housing. The rising rate of workplace deaths suffered in the oil and gas industry was called “unacceptable” by Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez last year.

“A particular focus is needed on the oil and gas industry,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, on a conference call with reporters. “With that industry growing and expanding, we’ve seen an expansion of fatalities not just in North Dakota, but in other states. It needs much more attention by employers, OSHA, and other state and federal agencies.”

GMOs

[ 331 ] May 8, 2014 |

I’ve long thought GMOs were the most overrated scary issue current liberals care about. But I never quite had the right words. Mark Bittman does:

Then there are G.M.O.’s: OMG (the palindrome is irresistible). Someone recently said to me, “The important issues are food policy, sustainability and G.M.O.’s.” That’s like saying, “The important issues are poverty, war and dynamite.” G.M.O.’s are cogs in industrial agriculture, the way dynamite is in war; take either away, and you have solved virtually nothing.

By themselves and in their current primitive form, G.M.O.s are probably harmless; the technology itself is not even a little bit nervous making. (Neither we nor plants would be possible without “foreign DNA” in our cells.) But to date G.M.O.’s have been used by companies like Monsanto to maximize profits and further removing the accumulated expertise of generations of farmers from agriculture; in those goals, they’ve succeeded brilliantly. They have not been successful in moving sustainable agriculture forward (which is relevant because that was their claim), nor has their deployment been harmless: It’s helped accelerate industrial agriculture and its problems and strengthened the positions of unprincipled companies.

But the technology itself has not been found to be harmful, and we should recognize the possibility that the underlying science could well be useful (as dynamite can be useful for good), particularly with greater public investment and oversight.

Let’s be clear: Biotech in agriculture has been overrated both in its benefits and in its dangers. And by overrating its dangers, the otherwise generally rational “food movement” allows itself to be framed as “anti-science.”

Right–technology is neither a miracle nor evil. GMOs are part of the larger problem with modern agribusiness but it’s not like monstrous Frankenfood is going to destroy your body or put chips in your brain so that Obama can follow your thoughts. The actual evidence that GMOs are harmful is pretty much nil and while I do think there are problems around patents and non-reproducing plants that are serious, this is one left of center issue I just can’t relate to.

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1970

[ 87 ] May 8, 2014 |

On May 8, 1970, 200 unionized construction workers attacked an anti-war march in the wake of the Kent State shooting a few days before. The so-called Hard Hat Riot placed an image in the American mind of right-wing workers opposed to social justice that sadly remains far too prevalent today.

Unfortunately, the actions of a small number of unionists are used 44 years later as evidence of why unions can’t be trusted by otherwise progressive people. Although the national AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War, the reality is that the union movement is very ideologically diverse and was so even more at that time, when there were many more unions than the present. Many union members and union leaders opposed the Vietnam War. Many had fought there and came back bitter. Others fought there and were die-hard supporters.

But the building trades have long been bastions of conservatism in the labor movement, whether the United Brotherhood of Carpenters not endorsing a Democratic candidate for president until 1964 (and mostly not endorsing Dems today) or the Laborers supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline. There are exceptions to this–the Painters tend to be quite a bit more liberal. But the building traders generally supported the war. That was especially true of Peter Brennan, president of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice-president of the state AFL-CIO. Brennan was moving significantly to the right in these years, around Vietnam and other issues. Hating hippies was pretty easy for Brennan.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed 4 students at Kent State University, leading to the largest protests of the war. Protests continued after the Kent State massacre. New York mayor John Lindsey ordered flags to be flown at half mast to honor the 4 dead. On the morning of May 8, hundreds of young people gathered at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan for a protest. Brennan coordinated construction workers to attack them. The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.

Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway. The construction workers, carrying American flags and patriotic slogans, singled out the men with the longest hair and beat them. They began tearing up nearby buildings as well as the attacks verged nearly out of control. One of the first things the construction workers did was to raise the flags back to full mast, a direct rebuke to Lindsay, who many saw as unmanly and cowardly for kowtowing to antiwar protestors and hippies. About 70 people were sent to the hospital, mostly students but including 4 policemen. Brennan claimed it was a spontaneous demonstration by workers sick of hippies desecrating the American flag. This was an obvious lie.

The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway.

hardhat

Throughout the rest of May, building trades workers continued to rally. On May 20, the rallies became officially sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, with 100,000 people festooned with flags and signs reading “God Bless the Establishment” and “We Support Nixon and Agnew.” Construction workers in St. Louis held similar rallies. Very quickly, the hippies began distrusting labor unions as part of the corrupted establishment. In the 1971 hippie dystopian film Punishment Park, about a world where the hippies are rounded up, tried in kangaroo courts, and then given the option of fleeing from the army for their freedom in the eponymous park, one of the key figures on the courts is a unionist, masking his evil in vague language of workers’ interests but in fact just being a tool of the man. Such images of labor unions became all too common on the American left, sometimes not without reason, as we see in this post.

But again, it’s important that we today push back against “labor” being pro-Vietnam. Polls showed that manual laborers were more opposed to the war than the college-educated. These were not public sector unionists or industrial unionists or even all building trades unionists. This was a small sector of labor. Moreover, what galled many of the working-class people at the protest was not the lack of support for the war itself, but rather the privilege of the anti-war protestors who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam. There were lots of tensions at work here, but they were more complex than presented at the time. And they are basically irrelevant today. People talking about this today with any relevance to the present might as well pull any event from the American movement 44 years ago. It would be relevant if American labor unionists began beating Occupy protestors or environmentalists rallying against Keystone. But even if such a horrible thing happened, it would be one very labor union acting very badly, not all of organized labor. We need to recognize this and place it in context of who is the problem here. In 1970, it was the New York building trades and their ambitious hippie-hating leader, not the United Auto Workers or United Steel Workers of America.

Of course Richard Nixon thought of all this was great. All his talk about “law and order” did not apply at all to rioting construction workers. Nixon repaid Brennan for his actions by naming him Secretary of Labor. Brennan continued in the job into the Ford Administration. Ford replaced him in 1975 whereupon he returned to his old post in the Building Trades Council. Brennan died in 1996. Congressmen Peter King, a man wrapped up in the politics that drove Brennan nearly a half-century ago, saluted him for “standing up to the antiwar protesters who tried to take over our streets.”

Bits of this are taken from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the American Working Class, although he doesn’t talk about this event much. Joshua Freeman’s “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations” from the Summer 1993 issue of Journal of Social History was also used. I understand that Penny Lewis’ recent book is quite good on this history, but I have not read it.

This is the 105th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Rootless Cosmopolitans

[ 24 ] May 8, 2014 |

This song by the great Jewish guitarist Marc Ribot

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(who I saw play in New York in January and oh my god) goes out to scumbag anti-Semitic blog trolls who would be better off gagging themselves everywhere. It comes off his Rootless Cosmopolitans album which is really great.

….Also, Ribot’s Yo! I Killed Your God is the greatest album title of all time.

Johnny Cash as John Brown

[ 45 ] May 7, 2014 |

For the 1985 miniseries North and South, the producers hired the greatest actor of his generation to play John Brown. His name? Mr. John R. Cash.

Via

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