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Truck Production Returning to Ohio

[ 17 ] March 9, 2014 |

While I’m pretty skeptical of UAW president Bob King’s love affair with employee-management cooperation as the keystone of his union’s approach, at least one point in his favor is Ford moving the production of two truck lines from Mexico back to Ohio, supposedly because of the good relationship the company has with the union. Of course, I assume that this good relationship means terrible two-tiered contracts. But still, American manufacturing jobs are all too rare these days, so this is good news for the UAW. It’s also a slap in the face to Bob Corker and Tennessee Republicans, or it would be if they weren’t all about ideology and actually cared about jobs.

Might as well also note the death of William Clay Ford, Henry Ford’s last living grandson and the owner of the Detroit Lions, a man who brought the same quality leadership and innovation to running a professional football team as he and his family did to producing fine automobiles in the 1970s and 1980s.

Drill Baby Drill

[ 53 ] March 9, 2014 |

Decimating the American environment in order to challenge Putin by drilling for fossil fuels is now a Republican thing. Lover of freedom and the only progressive candidate in 2016, Rand Paul:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Sunday that the situation in Ukraine should be an impetus to ramp up oil and gas drilling in the United States and clear the path for exports.

“I would immediately get every obstacle out of the way for our export of oil and gas,” said Paul in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I would begin drilling in every possible, conceivable place within our territories in order to have production that we can supply Europe with if it’s interrupted from Ukraine.”

Smog Drones

[ 63 ] March 8, 2014 |

I’m sure that dumping more chemicals in the air is the answer to the problem of Chinese smog:

Government agencies are to test a new design of aerial drone to see whether it might help tackle the air pollution that often blankets much of the mainland, state media reported.

The vehicle will spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.

The tests would be led by the China Meteorological Administration and carried out later this month at airports and ports, Xinhua said.

The drone has been developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and has a paragliding wing, which allows it to carry three times more weight than the fixed-wing version, making it more efficient and cost-effective.

Premier Li Keqiang said in his speech at the National People’s Congress in Beijing yesterday the government would “declare war” on pollution. It would focus, in part, on reducing PM2.5, the fine particles of pollutants thought to be most harmful to people’s health.

I’m sure that the impact of these chemicals on health have been very carefully tested and that this project will 1) show that technology can solve all our problems, 2) have no unintended consequences because technological interventions in the environment never have unintended consequences and human control of nature has no problems, 3) work.

Willpower

[ 88 ] March 8, 2014 |

If Obama had any willpower and was a real leader, he’d use some of these cat rockets against Moscow. That would totally cower Putin and peace would come to Crimea. John McCain would use cat rockets. That’s why he should be president.

The Lives of Farmworkers

[ 105 ] March 7, 2014 |

California farmworkers remain nearly as exploited as fifty years ago. Filthy, substandard housing, a lack of water in the fields, pesticide poisoning, and poor sanitation define too much of their lives. These workers, migrant and beneath the radar of the Americans for whom they produce food, live horribly and it is unacceptable:

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions.

Even today, however, surveys and field reports have revealed that a large portion of workers are squeezed into essentially unlivable spaces. Some dilapidated apartments and trailer parks lack plumbing or kitchen facilities, much less any modicum of privacy; others are exposed to toxic pesticide contamination or fetid waste dumps. Workers can “live in a single-family dwelling with perhaps a dozen to 20 [people] crowding in,” Villarejo says. In some residences, “mattresses are lined up against the wall because during the daylight hours you could not be able to walk through the rooms owing to all the mattresses on the floor at that time.” Though many such dwellings house single male laborers, whole families with children are also known to live in crowded multiple-household units.

This is the “market-based” answer to the rickety labor camp of yore: Though workers are now renting from a landlord rather a farm owner, Villarejo says, “their conditions are certainly no better than they were in the kind of labor camps against which we were protesting back in the ‘60s and ‘70s about horrid living conditions.”

Terrible.

The Texas Reproductive Crisis

[ 108 ] March 6, 2014 |

Republican abortion policy is working out just fine in Texas. Close all the reproductive clinics that serve poor people because those sluts deserve whatever they get for having sex while ensuring abortion remains a procedure their own daughters can acquire.

Our Solution to the Ukraine Problem? Keystone!

[ 65 ] March 6, 2014 |

Paul Ryan may be slightly disingenuous:

“I think when you have the world’s super power, having a foreign policy that in my opinion is weak, and a defense policy now that shows weakness, I think it invites aggression,” he added. “I think it creates a vacuum that is filled by these types of actions.”

Bolduan pressed Ryan on what Congress could do in response to international crisis.

“Well, I think we should move forward on natural gas exports very quickly,” the former GOP vice presidential nominee insisted. “I think we should approve an LNG terminal in the east coast to go to Europe. I think we should approve the Keystone Pipeline. And I think we should show that the U.S. is going to be moving forward on becoming energy independent.”

“Moving forward with the Keystone pipeline!” Bolduan exclaimed. “That development would take years, though, to actually make that happen.”

Ryan argued that the controversial pipeline would be a “signal” to Russia.

“The signal is very, very important,” he declared. “And I think showing that this [invasion] is going to make us move in that direction helps give our allies the kind of resources they need, and reduces Russia’s grip on this.”

There’s no question that the one thing that will cower Putin is if Obama decides to pipe some Canadian fossil fuels through Nebraska to Gulf Coast posts. It’s hard to see how his Crimean policy can stand up to that bravery.

Memorials

[ 17 ] March 5, 2014 |

Jonas Dahlberg’s memorial plan for the 2011 massacre of the 77 young people in Oslo and Utoya, Norway is incredibly powerful and moving.

This Day in Labor History: March 5, 1972

[ 142 ] March 5, 2014 |

On March 5, 1972, the workers at General Motors’ plant in Lordstown, Ohio went on strike after authorizing it two days prior. They were angry about sped-up work at their factory, but ultimately this was a young and diverse workforce angry at the degrading and mind-numbing nature of industrial work. The 3-week strike received national attention as much for the generational rebellion it summed up as the labor strife itself. Employers and union leaders both feared the “Lordstown Syndrome” that seemed to be taking over American workplaces as young workers wanted more for their lives than a lifetime on the assembly line.

By 1972, the United Auto Workers was in transition after the death of its titanic president Walter Reuther in a 1970 plane crash. The UAW was about as left-leaning as any of the major internationals during the last years of the 60s. Although Reuther’s record on dealing with racism in UAW plants was mixed, he pushed for civil rights and personally opposed both the Vietnam War and the AFL-CIO’s support of it. Finally, in 1968, he pulled the UAW out of the federation, complaining of the Meany doing nothing, refusing to organize, and undermining labor’s future. Reuther planned to take his union on strike against GM in 1970 hoping for a revival of the old-school social movement unionism. He died but the plan continued after his death under the leadership of Leonard Woodcock. However, it wasn’t much of a win and nearly bankrupted the UAW. Despite the social movement talk, the strike operated within the traditional structure of postwar collective bargaining. Moreover, the new contract allowed the company to automate the line, combine two divisions in the plant, and eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, GM and other American car companies were beginning to face competition from low-price, high-mileage Japanese models. In response, GM created the Chevy Vega and chose to manufacture it in its new Lordstown, Ohio factory, just northwest of Youngstown. This new factory was engineered to do most of the work for the workers. Claimed a GM official, “The concept is based on making it easier for the guy on the line. We feel by giving him less to do he will do it better.”

Workers in Local 1172 hated it. By “giving him less to do,” GM really meant speeding up the line and laying workers off. The factory had previously made the Impala at a rate of 60 an hour. The Vega sped off the line at 100 an hour. This gave workers 36 seconds to a complete their task rather than 60. Workers resisted in a number of ways. The worked to rule, refusing to do anything outside of what was specifically stated in the contract. They smoked marijuana and drank on the job. The let cars go by without finishing them. They took days off or quit. They grieved everything. By January 1972, 5000 grievances clogged up the system, workers demanded the rehiring of laid off workers and slowed down production. This was a very young workforce, averaging only 24 years of age. These were young people imbued with the anger and rebellion of their generation. Some had fought in Vietnam. The plant was also highly integrated and with the overwhelming youth culture, the workers at least claimed that racial solidarity was more frequent than racial tension. Local 1172 president Gary Bryner, age 29, said, “The young black and white workers dig each other. There’s an understanding. The guy with the Afro, the guy with the beads, the guy with the goatee, he doesn’t care if he’s black, white, green, or yellow…..They just wanted to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

97% of the Lordstown workers voted to go on strike and it lasted 18 days. UAW leadership was distinctly uncomfortable with local uprisings. They took over the negiotiations and eliminated the empowerment of workers and shopfloor democracy that workers really wanted and brought it back to traditional collective bargaining. Both GM and UAW wanted this to end fast. So GM agreed to restore almost all the jobs eliminated in the 1970 contract and dropped 1400 disciplinary layoffs against current workers. So the workers won on one level, but not on another. Nothing really changed for workers. They still weren’t allowed to question production decisions or workplace culture. They weren’t allowed to play a role in the life of the factory like European auto plant workers, to which they compared their own lack of empowerment. They were still frustrated. Said a union official, “If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?”

UAW cartoon during Lordstown strike

Activists around the country saw what they wanted to in Lordstown. Ralph Nader thought this would do for workers “what the Berkeley situation of 1964 did for student awareness,” while New Left publications believed it was “a trial run of the class struggle of the 70s.” What was happening however was a general dissatisfaction of the American working class with industrial production labor. The mind-numbing pace, the lack of ability to shape one’s own future, this would lead to a number of interesting moments of working-class rebellion throughout the 70s. J.D. Smith, treasurer of the Lordstown UAW local, said “They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They’re not afraid of management. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.” The blue-collar rebellion became a fairly major media and political phenomenon of the period, with newspaper articles, TV reports, Senate hearings, and a presidential commission to study the issue.

The commission issued a report titled “Work in America,” that began the quality of work life movement,” that sought to make industrial labor more satisfactory and less mind-numbing. Perhaps these and other 70s working class rebellions could have led to concrete gains had industry not also engaged in widespread capital mobility, leading to the elimination of nearly all industrial jobs over the next twenty years, destabilizing the American working class, and destroying the cities of the industrial north. Government moves to bust unions certainly has blame too. In the PATCO strike, Reagan came down hard against air traffic controllers who had overthrown their previous union leadership to take a more militant stance.

Over the years, the radicalism of Local 1112 wore down. In the 1980s, workers picked their own union hall against concessions forced upon them by UAW leadership. Today, they talk the same management partnership language as the rest of the union. Surprisingly, the plant is still open and has made the Chevrolet Cruze since 2010.

Much of this was borrowed from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which I strongly recommend.

This is the 97th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Happy Lincoln Inauguration Day

[ 40 ] March 4, 2014 |

March 4, 1861. A good day in American

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history.

The scene at Lincoln’s inauguration.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915

[ 62 ] March 4, 2014 |

On March 4, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, creating standards for working conditions on boats that the U.S. would enforce on all ships stopping at American ports, whether under American flags or not. It was not only a major early victory for American labor but is strong evidence behind the assertion that Woodrow Wilson is the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.

In the early 20th century, working conditions on ships were dire. Many ships were barely seaworthy. Sanitation on the ships was grotesque. A race to the bottom developed in sailing as manufacturers looked to reduce their transportation costs. In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent. Seamen called for “emancipation” from their shipowners. Penalties against desertion were still draconian. Although flogging had largely ended in the mid 19th century, punishing sailors in stocks and other forms of physical coercion were still common. They wanted the right to walk away from their contracts because of the near slavery of shipboard life. They were presently bound to their 1-3 year contracts with penalty of imprisonment and forfeiture of all wages if they deserted. Effectively, they lacked the ability to quit their jobs.

Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907 when they allied against the prosecution of Union Labor Party leader Abe Ruef for graft. LaFollette began to introduce the bill every Congress in 1910. It gained support after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When Wilson won the presidency that year, he named William B. Wilson, a cosponsor of the bill in the House, as Secretary of Labor.

From left to right, Andrew Furuseth, Robert LaFollette, and Lincoln Steffens

In pushing for the bill, the ISU explicitly connected it to the Titanic and the Triangle Fire of 1911, asking “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and the lock the doors. Is it not even more dangerous to jam a steamer full of passengers and then to send it out to the harbor without having on board the means whereby they may be taken off quickly and safely in case of need?” As with much of labor reform at the time, Furuseth and his supporters did take on a racial and anti-immigrant tone. He bemoaned that sailing was “the domain of those who fought life’s battles and accepted defeat, of the sewage of the Caucasian race and of such of the races of Asia as felt that their condition could be improved by becoming seamen.”

Such statements forced the Industrial Workers of the World, which had quite a few members on the ships, to answer a tricky question of supporting a law that would make their lives better versus the racial internationalism of their ideology. The Wobblies opposed the law in the end, claiming not only was the ISU racist but that Furuseth “very likely has a child-like faith in the state, far exceeding his confidence in the workers whom he is supposed to represent.” Moreover, the IWW actually used the argument that the would hurt their employers by driving American flag-based shipping from the seas, a rather surprisingly pro-business position employed by these anti-capitalists.

Seamen on the S.S. Minnesota, 1919

Wilson’s foreign policy team encouraged him to pocket veto the bill because it might upset the British. But when Furuseth went to lobby Wilson personally, the president’s heart melted in the face of this craggy old seamen telling stories about the horrors of the ships. The new law established the 9-hour day and 56-hour week on ships. It guaranteed minimum standards of safety and cleanliness. It recognized the right of seamen to organize. It allowed them to get out of their contracts with relatively minimal penalty–half their salary earned to that point in the contract. Most importantly, it applied to all sailors–regardless of national origin or citizenship status–if they landed in an American port. The LaFollette Act is thus probably the closest law passed in American history to something that created a “race to the top” in working conditions around the globe. If you were a French sailor and you landed in New York, you could desert and the U.S. government would protect your rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps surprisingly, declared the international enforcement provisions constitutional, at least at first. After a 1918 decision ruled against a seaman who used the act to desert in Mobile while demanding half his wages, Louis Brandeis moved the court to a unanimous decision in a similar 1920 case by explicitly arguing that the point of the law was to enforce nationalist conceptions of labor standards, stating “foreign vessels engaged in the American trade would be compelled to raise wages and working conditions to practically the standard prevailing in our coastwise trade.”

By not only mandating standards on goods entering the United States, but also giving workers an out from their contracts if they were dissatisfied, the Seamen’s Act had the potential to advance the rights of workers significantly. In the end though, the fears of the shipping industry over its effect proved unfounded, largely because the Commerce Department under Wilson and then subsequent Republican presidents consistently sided with employers in enforcement. Commerce ruled that the space provisions for workers only applied to ships built after 1915 for instance. The French redefined sailors under its flags as members of the merchant marine and therefore ineligible for the protections. Finally, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the international enforcement provisions unconstitutional and by this time the law was not widely applied anyway by a federal government interested in promoting global trade. This saddened the law’s supporters. In 1953, the Friends of Andrew Furuseth Legislative Association wrote, “If only the Seamen’s Act had been enforced from 1917 on, it might not have been necessary to have spent 19 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan, because the standard of living of European countries would have advanced more nearly to a parity with our own.”

Nevertheless, it marks perhaps the first time labor successfully used regulatory reform to advance the interest of specific workers and it provides an interesting precedent for those seeking to use the power of government to improve the conditions of workers toiling for American companies (or subcontractors for those companies) in a global marketplace. Can the American government implement standards in a worldwide economy reliant upon transportation methods to get apparel from Bangladesh? Could organized labor target transportation networks as a way to improve international labor standards? I do not believe a secondary strike by the ILWU or Teamsters in support of a labor action in Bangladesh would violate Taft-Hartley since it would not be an American union supported. The LaFollette Act wasn’t necessarily all that successful, but it suggests an almost totally unexplored strategy for international labor solidarity.

It is also worth noting that even taking into account the Red Scare and IWW-crushing that would take place later in the Wilson presidency, Wilson is still the most union-friendly president in American history before FDR.

I am drawing primarily from Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present for this post.

This is the 96th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Méliès Monday: A Grandmother’s Story

[ 2 ] March 3, 2014 |

This week, Méliès Monday brings you 1908’s The Grandmother’s Story.

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