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America’s Distribution of Wealth

[ 178 ] January 16, 2014 |

If you are like me, you think Lawyers, Guns, and Money has really gone downhill since Erik Loomis began posting here, what with the unionism and socialism and all the other isms that have sought to bring down America. Not to mention thinking climate change is real and questioning our technological utopian fetishism. As a counter to these pernicious foreign ideologies, it’s time to turn to Dr. Clifton Ganus of the National Education Program. He will set us straight on the moral uprightness and godly ways of the American capitalist system. The sheer number of noncontextualized statistics will show the truth of his points. And if they don’t, the English socialist and Russian communist who are totally not Americans doing incredibly lame imitations of the English and Russians will make the glories of American free market crystal clear. Good evening and God bless this great land.

Incredibly, the good Dr. Ganus is either still alive or lived long enough to have his own twitter account, while he chancellor of the right-wing evangelical Harding University in Arkansas, which I think is the descendant of the school he is actually teaching at in this video.

Wisconsin Taking Another Step to the New Gilded Age

[ 67 ] January 16, 2014 |

Conservatives’ vision of the future of American work

Scott Walker’s Wisconsin really is vanguard of the New Gilded Age. Republicans have introduced a new bill, almost certain to become law, that will get rid of a state law requiring employers to give workers 24 hours in a row off at least once every 7 days. I know, quite the imposition upon the freedom of workers to work whenever they are compelled upon risk of termination want! But hey, workers have the option to opt out, by which conservatives mean the same as Gilded Age conservatives did in 1895 that workers had real options–do what we say or find another job. But no one is compelling them!

Conservatives say that workers will only have to forego their rest days if they volunteer, but the law’s opponents argue that businesses could create environments that are hostile to workers who insist on their rights. Workers who take their mandated rest days could be skipped over for promotion, denied privileges allowed to workers who work a 7-day week or could see sharp reductions in their schedules until they no longer have enough hours to make ends meet, financially.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce said that it conceived of the law when it noted that the federal government does not have a rule mandating that workers receive a certain number of hours off per work cycle.

Lawmakers Grothman and Born told reporters from the Journal that they had heard from a diverse array of businesses that support the 7-day work week, but when asked to provide examples, they were only able to provide the names of groups belonging to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce network.

“Here’s an opportunity for folks to work together to get things done in a positive way for the employer and the employee,” Born said. “It just seems like a win all the way around.”

All the way around. Indeed. All the way around to the conditions of 1895.

Wal-Mart Doesn’t Have Much Respect for the Intelligence of Its Employees

[ 16 ] January 16, 2014 |

This purloined presentation of Wal-Mart anti-union propaganda is pretty unprofessional. You’d at least think the world’s largest retailer would argue something a bit more complicated than a labor organization would cost employees a whole $5 a month. The second presentation, for managers, is more standard anti-union hack work. But at least it looks like they spent more than 5 minutes putting it together.

Meanwhile, the NLRB is filing a complaint against Wal-Mart for violation labor law in 14 states while cracking down on striking workers.

Oil Pipelines

[ 38 ] January 16, 2014 |

It’s possible that oil pipleines are a better way to transport the stuff than trains. But the wages of oil pipelines are severe. Ask the people of Mayflower, Arkansas, which suffered a pipeline rupture in town last year.

For her entire life, 28-year old Genieve Long has called Mayflower home. But ever since an Exxon pipeline ruptured in late March 2013, dumping thousands of barrels worth of toxic crude oil onto the Arkansas town, Mayflower has come to feel more like a prison.

“I live next door to the house that I was raised in,” Long told msnbc. “This was a place I wanted to raise my kids in. And I’m afraid to raise them in it now, because of their health, because of what can happen to them.”

Like many Mayflower residents, Long and her four children continue to suffer from chronic respiratory issues, even nine months after Exxon officially wound down its emergency response. The symptoms show no signs of letting up, and many of Long’s former neighbors have abandoned the town. Nobody can say for sure whether Mayflower will ever fully recover.

“It’s going to be very difficult to clean up the soil and the area so that it is completely safe to reoccupy,” said Dave Lincoln, an environmental consultant and board member for the Arkansas Sierra Club. “How long that bitumen will stay in the soil, we don’t really have any examples of that getting cleaned up entirely.”

Mayflower is now coming to grips with the real legacy of ecological disasters: long after the initial state of emergency ends and the national media stops paying attention, the blight remains. The same fate could well await much of West Virginia, where a major chemical spill left 300,000 residents without usable running water last week. That particular spill released an indeterminate amount of the chemical MCHM into the state’s Elk River, and experts are unsure of the long-term consequences for public health. In Mayflower, the consequences of consistent exposure to crude shale oil are still developing.

“They start with chronic lung problems, nausea and headaches, and they just don’t get better,” said Lincoln. “In the case of Exxon Valdez, they call it ‘the Crud.’ It’s like the flu, except it doesn’t go away.”

Seems pretty clear to me the only responsible answer is piping the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast through the Keystone XL pipeline. What’s a few chronic lung problems? If those people deserved to not get sick, they wouldn’t live near an oil infrastructure they may or may not have known was even there.

Also, the picture above? That ain’t water. It’s black gold.

Rider on an Orphan Train

[ 31 ] January 15, 2014 |

For your Wednesday night, how about one of the saddest songs ever, about the orphan trains, which is a real black mark on our national past, even if the alternatives weren’t always great. Not to mention that a lot of the “orphans” actually had parents who made the mistake of being poor and unemployed and Irish. Terrible, terrible times.

Tom Russell does a good version of this on his epic album about the American immigrant experience, The Man From God Knows Where.

David Massengill, who wrote this song, seems to perform it pretty frequently. Which I think would be a very difficult thing to do if it was me. I rarely shy away from the dark side of the American past, but this one is pretty tough.

West Virginia Water

[ 73 ] January 15, 2014 |

Sure am glad the relevant agencies declared West Virginia water safe now after the Freedom Industries chemical spill:

“What we are seeing when we talk to our partners in hospital systems are people with skin and eye irritation, rashes, nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea,” Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said.

The Daily Mail reports:

[Gupta] said 101 patients visited area emergency rooms in the 36-hour span ending at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, reporting symptoms related to exposure to tainted water. He said 46 of those allegedly water-related emergency room visits occurred between 7 p.m. Tuesday night and 7 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Gupta said many of those patients reported using water that was deemed safe to use by West Virginia American Water. As of Wednesday afternoon, the “do not use” order has been lifted for 51,600 of the 100,000 customers affected by the chemical spill.

Why it’s almost like the entire state government of West Virginia is bought and sold by the coal industry and perhaps may not have the best interest of its citizens in mind!

By the way, the last time the factory was inspected? 1991. But of course the nation has too many burdensome regulations on business and too many unions getting in the way of Freedom.

This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1915

[ 26 ] January 15, 2014 |

On the night of January 15, 1915, the IWW writer and propagandist Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever.” The song is emblematic of Wobbly culture. If there’s one thing the IWW did well, it was culture creation. This culture creation has done a great deal to give them outsized influence compared to their real accomplishments in American labor and radical history, continuing to make the union and its ideas relevant to activists today.

The IWW valued culture as politics very early. The early twentieth century was a period of working-class poetry and song. The timber union journals I look at are full of this sort of thing, whether radical or not. Given the popularity of syndicalism among the Wobblies’ European immigrant base, this was enhanced by these same immigrants also bringing traditions of radicalism through culture with them to the United States.

Ralph Chaplin was a central figure in the IWW. He was born to radicalism, having witnessed a worker shot to death during the Pullman Strike at the age of 7. He later traveled to Mexico in the early days of the Mexican Revolution, becoming an admirer of Emiliano Zapata. Upon his return from Mexico, Chaplin became involved with the growing IWW, which had by the early 1910s become the most important union alternative to the American Federation of Labor. Chaplin began writing “Solidarity Forever” while working on a coal strike in West Virginia in 1914. It took him a few months to finish. After watching a demonstration of the hungry in Chicago in 1915, he went back to his hotel room and finished the song. It soon became the most important song of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.

Ralph Chaplin

The song’s lyrics:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.

CHORUS:
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong.

Chorus

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.

Chorus

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
While the union makes us strong.

Chorus

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

Chorus

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

Carried from place to place by the unionists, the songbook gave workers songs over which they could build solidarity. In our present of demographically divided cultural creation, it’s almost impossible to imagine a single song or style having the ability to unite people in struggle. That might well make for better music, but it’s politically a problem. The ability to sing together, although not cool in our oh so ironic and detached age, helped workers riding trains between timber camps, in the fields, and in the mines of the American West get through their daily lives of toil and great struggle. These songs and images created a revolutionary counterculture to the dominant culture of the day that contributed to working-class oppression. Songs and posters were central to building a workers’ revolution. They also served to push a revolutionary message to a polyglot and often illiterate (especially in English) working-class. Not everyone could read a tract. But they might learn the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever.” And it didn’t take a working knowledge of the language to see the meaning of a class war prisoner reaching through prison bars or a muscular man standing proud.

The Little Red Songbook

Through their songbooks, their newspapers, and their flyers, the IWW created really great culture. The black cat. Mr. Block. “Solidarity Forever.” These are images and songs that stick with us. As a labor organization, the IWW was often pretty ineffective. Some of that had to do with the conditions of organizing in the early 20th century. But as much had to do with weaknesses within the IWW. It was not infrequent that the IWW’s commitment to culture actually hindered organizing. The disastrous Paterson Strike Pageant was a prime example, dividing the workers (those not selected to participate were jealous and the resentments split the strikers) and taking them away from picketing, thus allowing scabs into the factories.

A classic piece of Wobbly culture creation

Compared to either the AFL or CIO, the IWW accomplished almost nothing. At best, the union’s campaigns caused so many problems in a given industry that it helped force the government to improve the conditions of workers to undermine it, such as with the Pacific Northwest timber workers I study. But both the AFL and CIO were terrible at culture creation. And as bureaucratic organizations, they had little room the kind of individualistic, showy activity that embedded the IWW in public memory. In fact, they explicitly eschewed this kind of thing as unproductive. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But the IWW remains in the memory of American radicals today as an alternative to an AFL-CIO seen as unresponsive, boring, and bureaucratic. It’s had that power since the late 1960s. And the reason for it is largely the powerful cultural creations like “Solidarity Forever.”

Like many Wobbly intellectuals, Chaplin initially expressed hope that the Soviet Union was the beginning a true workers’ revolution but also like many of them, became quickly disillusioned. Chaplin remained committed to anti-communist leftist thought in the United States until World War II. In 1949, Chaplin became curator for manuscripts at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, a position he retained until his death in 1961. I figure this makes him the most famous archivist in American history.

For a good book on the creation of IWW culture, see Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 91st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

White Wedding

[ 78 ] January 14, 2014 |

Back when I had my own blog, I put up a historical image of the day. It was really just for me to slowly build a bank of images for teaching purposes. Since I don’t do that here, I thought I ought to recollect them in a more user-friendly format. I’ve been slowly doing that. Anyone can feel free to steal of any them, but don’t ask for attribution because I have no idea where I got them at this point (another reason to keep them off LGM). Anyway, I came across this the other day. Figured it might spark some conservation on a Tuesday night.

Ku Klux Klan wedding, Sedro-Wooley, Washington, 1926.

Shorter Boehner: “Freedom Industries Dumping Chemicals into Rivers is the Definition of Freedom”

[ 71 ] January 14, 2014 |

John Boehner gives his official approval to a regulatory regime that allows companies to cut off the water supply for 300,000 people.

More on the lax regulations of West Virginia that lead to worker deaths, pollution, and toxicity. In other words, freedom.

Jesse Helms’ Revenge

[ 42 ] January 14, 2014 |

Today in the annals of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body, we have the case of Robert Pastor. Pastor, who died the other day, was something of a wunderkind in the field of foreign policy toward Latin America. At the ripe old age of 29, he shepherded Carter’s treaty giving the Panama Canal back to Panama through the Senate.* In 1994, President Clinton nominated Pastor to be Ambassador to Panama. And this is where our old friend Jesse Helms comes into the story.

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton nominated Mr. Pastor to be ambassador to Panama, many conservatives remained critical of the loss of the canal. Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, who headed the Foreign Relations Committee, prevented Mr. Pastor’s nomination from being voted on by the full Senate even though his committee had approved it, 16 to 3.

“He presided over one of the most disastrous and humiliating periods in the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America,” Mr. Helms said.

Mr. Pastor asked that his nomination be withdrawn in 1995. Administration officials told The New York Times that he would almost certainly have been approved had the nomination come to a Senate vote. (The post ultimately went to William J. Hughes, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey.)

If by “humiliation” Helms meant “treating nations with respect instead of stealing their land,” and of course that is humiliating for a racist like Helms, then sure. But I do love how a nominee can pass committee 16-3 and be held up by one senator.

Like any good very concerned Beltway pundit, I now see how Harry Reid is destroying the Senate by making it operate in ways that move slightly toward real democracy! Now will Fred Hiatt please hire me!

*We can discuss this in comments, but I’m of the rather decided belief that Carter’s legacy is the second most complex of any postwar president, outside of LBJ of course. The Panama treaty was really a very good thing and something of a repudiation of a century of American imperialism in Latin America. But of course Carter made so many mistakes in other areas.

This Day in Labor History: January 14, 1888

[ 25 ] January 14, 2014 |

On January 14, 1888, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was published. One of the two most influential books in American labor history (with The Jungle as the other), Bellamy’s treatise tapped into the dreams of thousands of Americans who found the promises of the post-Civil War economy a lie and were desperate for alternatives to the reality of Gilded Age capitalism.

By the 1880s, the promise of post-Civil War capitalism had failed the American working class. Most working Americans believed, and this was fundamental to the founding ideology of the Republican Party, in free labor. In short that meant the ability of individuals to control their own economic destiny, either as an independent operator or as an employee in a small shop that would often lead to later independence. But the Civil War had transformed the American economy and while Gilded Age Republicans at first spoke the words of free labor, they consistently supported policies that concentrated capital at the top. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie became unbelievably wealthy while the majority of workers fell into poverty. The search for wealth led to wide-scale corruption that both caused economic collapses and bought off politicians all the way up to Grant’s vice-president.

By the 1880s, a lot of working-class Americans were searching for a solution. Most still fundamentally believed in the system of free labor market capitalism. They generally felt that if they could just tweak the system in one big way, everything would align. So they searched for any number of ways to do that. Some wanted to restrict immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative success for labor unions in American history. Others grasped onto the 8-hour day. The Farmers Alliance sought railroad regulations. Other workers thought Henry George’s Single Tax on land would create conditions of equality.

Of all these one-off solutions, none had more power or appeal than Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy, a previously unknown reporter for the Springfield (MA) Daily Union, wrote a book telling the tale of Julian West, who is placed in a hypnotic trance in 1887 and because of a disaster is forgotten about until he is uncovered in 2000. Waking up, West is confused. His strife-riven, class-divided Boston of the Gilded Age has become a peaceful sort of paradise. Competitive capitalism had disappeared with all its terrible byproducts–inequality, strikes, poverty, taxes, money, wealth, and domestic labor. There were no more political parties, garbage, advertisements, state governments, or corruption. People retired at the age of 45 and lived long lives of comfort. There is harmony between the sexes, although based around a paternalistic view of women.

Most importantly for Gilded Age readers who ultimately still believed in the system’s fundamentals, this revolution was not Haymarket and it was not the Paris Commune. This was a peaceful revolution. Americans saw their society in crisis and voted in the necessary changes.

Bellamy was an evolutionary socialist and his ideas were appealing to those who realized that Gilded Age society was in a state of crisis and needed changes. Looking Backward became a best seller, moving over 1000 copies per day at its peak. By 1891, the book had sold nearly 500,000 copies, making it the biggest best seller of its era. Workers and middle class reformers around the country started Bellamy Clubs to press for his ideas. For the growing middle class, just entering the first stages of what would later be known as Progressivism, Bellamyism had possibly even more appeal than to workers. The first Bellamy Club was set up in Boston in 1889 and they soon spread around the country. A California Bellamyite wrote to him that “When the Golden Century arrives, your name will receive the homage of the human race of that period as the only writer of the 19th century capable of seeing, feeling and portraying the ‘better way.'”

Within the labor movement, Looking Backward was widely hailed. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor embraced his ideas. For the Knights’ leadership, Bellamyism was far more appealing than the anarchism that had led to the Haymarket bombing and helped destroy the 8-hour day movement that had led to its growth up to 1886. The book became central to Knights locals and in fact many Bellamy Clubs became labor unions. The book attracted followers such as Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Upton Sinclair, and Daniel DeLeon. In later years, Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Thomas talked of its influence upon them. The Progressives held the book close as well. Effectively, in a world where people were desperately searching for a vision of a future that included both equality and peace, Bellamy’s dream world was an ideal.

Although one can say this of many futuristic novels, if we squint enough, we can see Bellamy predicting some of the 20th century, including credit cards, shopping malls and radios. As literature, it’s pretty tough sledding. It’s mostly a long conversation between West and his mentor in the new world. It’s stilted and much of it is boring; I used it once to introduce a course on the Gilded Age and it was a complete disaster.

Ultimately, these relatively simplistic solutions to the perils of American capitalism began to fade in favor of far more complex and necessary understandings of the system. Whether through the pure and simple unionism of the American Federation of Labor or the ideologically complex systems of anarchism, socialism, and communism, by the late 19th century, workers increasingly understood that the system they lived in was not an anomaly but rather the intentional creation of the plutocrats. Free labor ideology faded, replaced by class consciousness. Bellamyism had long legs as a utopian ideal, but as a direct goal to attain, more realistic and complex ways of understanding the world came to the forefront.

Edward Bellamy was uncomfortable with the ardor his book evinced and resisted publishing a follow-up. He eventually did in 1897, but it did not sell well. He died in 1898.

This is the 90th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

Roy Campbell, RIP

[ 5 ] January 13, 2014 |

The great jazz trumpeter has passed, way too young. I saw him play with Other Dimensions in Music (also featuring William Parker, Rashid Bakr, and Daniel Carter) in Atlanta in 1999. Here’s a piece from the band in 2009.

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