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Trucker Safety and You

[ 20 ] August 18, 2015 |


One of the points I make in Out of Sight is that the impact of industrial production is shouldered almost entirely by workers because when consumers get exposed to pesticides, for example, they are angry and empowered to demand changes. This is one reason why Cesar Chavez understood that motivating white consumers was more effective in creating the change he wanted than organizing the farmworkers themselves (which had its own problems). One way this has had a real effect was that the agricultural industry developed new pesticides that are intense but dissipate quickly. These nonpersistent chemicals thus intensely affect workers, but who cares about them, so long as my strawberries and apples are fine in the store. Once it doesn’t affect us, the burdens of pesticides are out of sight again.

This type of situation is pretty common throughout America, with companies far more concerned about angry consumers than their own workers. But there’s one area where there’s a surprising lack of consumer activism over the worker safety issues that can then affect them. And that’s the trucking industry. The pressure on truckers means tired drivers which mean crashes and death that can affect any of us any time we drive, as Tracy Morgan found out last year. I’m surprised that drivers–AAA to start with but other organizations as well–haven’t organized campaigns to make trucking safer.

Of course the busting of Teamsters locals and the move to nonunion companies where workers don’t have the voice to fight for themselves doesn’t help.

Nellie Brown, the director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said drivers’ schedules are to blame. “A lot of their schedules are erratic, so people don’t truly have regular sleeping hours,” she said. “You end up with people who are horribly sleep deprived, and this kind of problem is a terribly nasty one.”

Chronically fatigued truck drivers present a danger not just to other people on the road. According to Brown, they are more likely to suffer from long-term health issues such as diabetes, cancer and various heart conditions. She said the proliferation of online ordering and just-in-time delivery practices must take a large share of the blame.

“We’re just asking more of the human body and brain than we can really do, and we’re creating the expectation that people can order things and have them by the next day,” she said.

Others have pointed the finger at declining union membership in the trucking industry. Labor membership has been on the decline across the U.S. for decades. From 1970 and 1990, the percentage of for-hire truck drivers who were union members dropped from 60 percent to 25 percent. As of 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that just 17.4 percent of workers in transportation and material moving occupations are represented by unions.

Art Wheaton, the director of western New York labor and environmental programs at Cornell University, said unions representing truck drivers tend to bargain for additional safety provisions to fight exhaustion and then see to it those provisions are enforced.

“Many of the nonunionized companies tend to try to reduce costs, and sometimes it is at the expense of reduced safety, not only for the driver but for the general public,” he said.

Given that this could kill you or me today or tomorrow, why don’t we talk about this more?


Republican Public Health Policy

[ 71 ] August 18, 2015 |


I’d like to remind the voters (non-voters really) of Maryland of what a good job they did last year by electing Larry Hogan governor. Because Alabama or Maryland, there’s no real difference among Republicans on issues like public health. Everywhere, they like to blame public health problems on the poor. Take Hogan’s Secretary of Housing, Community, and Development. He says that women intentionally expose their children to lead in order to obtain free housing from the state, the filthy leeches! Clearly, the only solution is eviscerating lead paint laws to protect those truly oppressed people in American society, landlords.

Kenneth C. Holt, secretary of Housing, Community and Development, told an audience at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention here that a mother could just put a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth, then take the child in for testing and a landlord would be liable for providing the child with housing until the age of 18.

Pressed afterward, Holt said he had no evidence of this happening but said a developer had told him it was possible. “This is an anecdotal story that was described to me as something that could possibly happen,” Holt said.

Holt, a Republican who once represented Baltimore County in the House of Delegates, said reviewing lead paint standards was part of a series of initiatives he planned that also include relaxing the state’s building codes and making it easier for people saddled with heavy student debts to buy homes. The secretary appeared on a panel discussing economic development strategies.

As critics protested Holt’s comments about mothers of lead paint victims, he declined through his office to call a reporter Friday afternoon to further explain his remarks. The housing department released a statement saying: “Secretary Holt and the department have the highest standards of safety when it comes to protecting children and Maryland families. The department will do nothing to jeopardize that.”

The highest standard of safety. For landlords’ bank accounts.

About that Teflon Skillet

[ 50 ] August 18, 2015 |


There was a time in U.S. history, maybe it’s today still, where we would respond in wonderment to new technological products without questioning what the downside of those products might be. Actually, yes, given that technological fetishism is the national religion we still are in that time. Now, obviously technological innovation can be good and questioning science can be really stupid (thanks Jenny McCarthy says all the kids with whooping cough!). But for the most part, a lot more questioning would be useful. Let’s take, oh I don’t know, a non-stick Teflon pan. What the heck is that non-stick stuff?

Well, it’s something called C8. And it’s, um, not good for you.

Several blockbuster discoveries, including nylon, Lycra, and Tyvek, helped transform the E. I. du Pont de Nemours company from a 19th-century gunpowder mill into “one of the most successful and sustained industrial enterprises in the world,” as its corporate website puts it. Indeed, in 2014, the company reaped more than $95 million in sales each day. Perhaps no product is as responsible for its dominance as Teflon, which was introduced in 1946, and for more than 60 years C8 was an essential ingredient of Teflon.

Called a “surfactant” because it reduces the surface tension of water, the slippery, stable compound was eventually used in hundreds of products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Concerns about the safety of Teflon, C8, and other long-chain perfluorinated chemicals first came to wide public attention more than a decade ago, but the story of DuPont’s long involvement with C8 has never been fully told. Over the past 15 years, as lawyers have been waging an epic legal battle — culminating as the first of approximately 3,500 personal injury claims comes to trial in September — a long trail of documents has emerged that casts new light on C8, DuPont, and the fitful attempts of the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with a threat to public health.

Two years after DuPont learned of the monkey study, in 1981, 3M shared the results of another study it had done, this one on pregnant rats, whose unborn pups were more likely to have eye defects after they were exposed to C8. The EPA was also informed of the results. After 3M’s rat study came out, DuPont transferred all women out of work assignments with potential for exposure to C8. DuPont doctors then began tracking a small group of women who had been exposed to C8 and had recently been pregnant. If even one in five women gave birth to children who had craniofacial deformities, a DuPont epidemiologist named Fayerweather warned, the results should be considered significant enough to suggest that C8 exposure caused the problems.

As it turned out, at least one of eight babies born to women who worked in the Teflon division did have birth defects. A little boy named Bucky Bailey, whose mother, Sue, had worked in Teflon early in her pregnancy, was born with tear duct deformities, only one nostril, an eyelid that started down by his nose, and a condition known as “keyhole pupil,” which looked like a tear in his iris. Another child, who was two years old when the rat study was published in 1981, had an “unconfirmed eye and tear duct defect,” according to a DuPont document that was marked confidential.

Like Wamsley, Sue Bailey, one of the plaintiffs whose personal injury suits are scheduled to come to trial in the fall, remembers having plenty of contact with C8. When she started at DuPont in 1978, she worked first in the Nylon division and then in Lucite, she told me in an interview. But in 1980, when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy with Bucky, she moved to Teflon, where she often sat watch over a large pipe that periodically filled up with liquid, which she had to pump to a pond in back of the plant. Occasionally some of the bubbly stuff would overflow from a nearby holding tank, and her supervisor taught her how to squeegee the excess into a drain.

Soon after Bucky was born, Bailey received a call from a DuPont doctor. “I thought it was just a compassion call, you know: can we do anything or do you need anything?” Bailey recalled. “Shoot. I should have known better.” In fact, the doctor didn’t express his sympathies, Bailey said, and instead asked her whether her child had any birth defects, explaining that it was standard to record such problems in employees’ newborns.

Oh well, that’s nice. See also part 2 of the story.

And like basically every other awful thing corporations produce, 3M and Dupont delayed and delayed and delayed in admitting fault or taking precautions, sending workers to horrible deaths in order to make a few more dollars. It’s the same strategy taken by tobacco companies and that the oil companies use today in order to undermine action on climate change. All these industries have full knowledge of what their products do to people and the planet. And they don’t care. I don’t even really know what to say that’s all that useful here except to point out the story. These companies are tremendously evil. But we accept their products as advancements when really, in this case, we could have just continued using the pans we were using that work fine with some oil. But the combination of our technological futurist fetishism, belief in capitalism, and weak regulatory system created a system where a lot of people have suffered for no good reason and the companies involved (and especially the individuals involved) haven’t been held to account.

And the same thing will happen tomorrow with other companies so long as we continue to believe these myths about technology and capitalism.

Why the Confederate Memorials Matter

[ 52 ] August 17, 2015 |


Unveiling ceremony of Confederate monument, Salisbury, North Carolina, 1909

Sometimes people wonder why the Confederate monuments matter? As if getting rid of them will end racism! No one argued that, but they matter a lot because there is a war over public memory of the Civil War that is central to race. Despite what a lot of people think, the Confederate memorials were not erected immediately after the Civil War. Largely they went up between the 1890s and 1910s and were central public statements of the triumph of white supremacy over both the ex-slaves and the southern whites who had allied with the Republican Party, which was a lot more people than you think. The civil rights historian Timothy Tyson discusses this in the context of his home state of North Carolina, where the wingnut state legislature has passed a bill that the governor signed called the Mandatory Confederate Monuments Act that would require the state legislature to approve the removal of these statues, which of course in full right-wing extremist North Carolina is not going to happen.


White North Carolinians erected the vast majority of our Confederate monuments – 82 out of 98 – after 1898, decades after the Civil War ended. More importantly, they built the monuments after the white supremacy campaigns had seized power by force and taken the vote from black North Carolinians. The monuments reflected that moment of white supremacist ascendency as much as they did the Confederate legacy.

Take the Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, better known as “Silent Sam.” The speaker at its dedication in 1913, industrialist Julian S. Carr, bragged that he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted … a Southern lady.” Carr’s speech heralded the “Anglo-Saxon race in the South” reunited with white supremacy as the glue.

In the 1890s, white Populists and black Republicans forged an interracial “Fusion” alliance in North Carolina that won both houses of the legislature, two U.S. Senate seats and the governorship. These homegrown Fusionists launched the most daring and democratic experiment in Southern political history.

The interracial Fusion coalition never lost at the polls in an honest election. But in the 1898 election, its enemies turned to violence, intimidation and fraud to steal the election outright. Former Confederate Alfred Waddell declared: “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.” White mobs in the streets of Wilmington beat and killed black citizens and overthrew the city government at gunpoint. This coup was the capstone of the 1898 “white supremacy campaign.”

Two years later, the white supremacy campaign again resorted to extralegal measures and elected Gov. Charles B. Aycock. Aycock said afterward, “We have ruled by force, we have ruled by fraud, but we want to rule by law.” They passed a constitutional amendment that took the vote away from black North Carolinians. Afterward they built a one-party, whites-only apartheid regime. This was the Jim Crow social order that persisted for six decades, until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s gave birth to a better South.

Tyson goes onto to discuss his own ancestor who avoided the Confederate draft, yet the Confederate heritage group keep festooning his grave with Confederate flags. I’m sure they just assume that someone of his generation supported the Confederacy, but this man was a unionist. That’s part of the battle. North Carolina conservatives are fighting a quiet race war that has many facets that include finding ways to stop black people from voting, creating myths around white solidarity in the past and present, and preserving monuments erected as symbols of white supremacy. Because these people still believe in that white supremacy, they don’t want them taken down today, no matter how offensive.

NLRB Reverses Athlete Unionization Decision

[ 33 ] August 17, 2015 |


The full National Labor Relations Board rejected the initial ruling that Northwestern football players could unionize. They used some strange logic to do so, effectively using a competitive balance argument that since the ruling could only cover private schools, it might give those schools a competitive advantage since they could offer benefits that public schools couldn’t. Or wouldn’t since of course they could if they wanted to create a model that was not rank exploitation.

Even if the scholarship players were statutory employees (which, again, is an issue we do not decide), it would not effectuate the policies of the Act to assert jurisdiction.

Because of the nature of sports leagues (namely the control exercised by the leagues over the individual teams) and the composition and structure of FBS football (in which the overwhelming majority of competitors are public colleges and universities over which the Board cannot assert jurisdiction), it would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction.

But I don’t see what business it is of the NLRB to worry about competitive balance in college football. How is that part of its mandate? It’s not. Stephen Greenhouse on Twitter speculated the NLRB was worried deciding in favor of the players might enrage conservative politicians but I am skeptical since they already hate the agency.

Disappointing decision from a usually good group of people at the NLRB.

A Partial Victory

[ 46 ] August 16, 2015 |


The University of Texas did a good thing by deciding to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from public display on campus and move it into its US history museum. But the decision to keep up the Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston statues makes no sense. Johnston did move there so at least that’s a plausible claim I guess. But Lee did not have “deep ties to Texas.” He, along with Johnston, was stationed there in the 1850s fighting the Comanche. For both of them, the 1850s has absolutely nothing to do with why they have statues at the UT campus. We all know why those statues are there and it insults our intelligence to claim they should remain if the Davis statue goes.

Bernie and His Fans

[ 311 ] August 16, 2015 |


Good take on the problem with Bernie Sanders: the cult of personality his fans are erecting around him that make any criticism an attack on their hero.

It’s time for Sanders supporters to relax a little. It’s great that we’re fired up. But fired up to the point of alienating potential allies with our unwavering and, to be frank, ever so slightly cultish support of Sanders? That’s harmful, and it needs to stop.

The thing is, we’ve been through this once before, back in 2008. Everyone got all fired up and excited for Barack Obama and he was going to magically make everything better and then he was elected and the air went out of the room. Now, I’m not saying a hypothetical Sanders would follow the same path. Obama was always too fond of bipartisanship and compromise, even when it had become painfully evident that those who he was seeking compromise with hadn’t managed to stay awake in class. Sanders is of a different mold, and I very much doubt he will seek compromise for the sake of compromise. At the same time, a hypothetical president Sanders will not be able to do all the wonderful things his supporters think he can. Beyond that, Sanders isn’t perfect. Sorry, but it’s true. On Israel, while he’s less hawkish than most, he is still too far to the right for my tastes. Some of his statements on gun control are a little questionable. He’s a human being, and I don’t expect to agree with him 100% of the time. And there is nothing wrong with that, save when his supporters deify him as the best candidate in the history of everything. That a) sets yourself up for disappointment and b) creates a weirdly cultish atmosphere that doesn’t exactly welcome new recruits.

This course is counterproductive and, if something is not done to change it, downright harmful. I like Sanders. As far as I’m concerned he’s easily the best candidate out there. But he’s not the messiah. He’s not perfect. It is long past time for those of us who support Sanders to come to grips with that. If every criticism of Sanders, every action that his fans deem harmful, every question about his polices is met with an unthinking and reflexive attack, his campaign is in serious trouble. Maybe not now, but in the long term. No one wants to join a cult of personality. If we want the Sanders campaign to succeed it is time we stopped acting like one.

It continues to be striking to me how much liberals want to believe in That One Candidate Who Will Change Everything. Like Obama in 2008 (who admittedly stoked these fires for himself), many liberals are turning to the next Great Man to solve our problems. They would have preferred the first Great Woman, i.e., Elizabeth Warren to do this for them, but with her refusing to run, Bernie is good enough. The problems here are manifold, but far more so if Bernie was actually elected. Were that to happen, he’d face the exact same structural problems Obama does with Congress and the courts, the same corporate lobbying system, and the same inability to change the system on his own. It’s true that he would not have some of Obama’s weaknesses, like the believe in bipartisanship and the terrible education and trade policies. But then again, Bernie’s gun and Israel policies are bad. So progressives would quickly see their hero thrown against the rocks of the system and make some mistakes of his own. They’d call him a sellout and look for the next Great Man to solve all their problems.

The inability of so many liberals to think structurally is really exasperating.

World Record in Posing as Anti-Union Image

[ 17 ] August 16, 2015 |


Above: The actual Rosie the Riveter image, which did not seek to fight unions

I know I will never win this fight, but if we are going to try and set world records in women dressing up as “Rosie the Riveter” can it a) at least be the real one and b) not copy what was in fact an anti-union poster. Remember, the “We” in “We Can Do It” does not mean women. It means Westinghouse.

I get that the image has been appropriated for good. It doesn’t mean that we should forget about its history or pretend that it is what it isn’t. Historical mythology should always be corrected.

Julian Bond, RIP

[ 7 ] August 16, 2015 |


Julian Bond has died at the age of 75.

On Amazon

[ 145 ] August 15, 2015 |


Above: Jeff Bezos, Sociopath

Everyone is talking about the big Amazon story in the Times today. This should be an open thread for that. I don’t have a whole lot to add, as the story speaks for itself. A couple of quick points.

1. People often praise these new tech leaders as heroes. Mostly they are sociopaths. That was the case with Steve Jobs and it is certainly the case with Jeff Bezos. These are terrible, awful human beings. It’s not necessarily so different from John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick, but we need to stop thinking of these people as heroes. Bezos has created a culture of 24-hour devotion to him and his company that kicks people with kids or who have cancer to curb for those truly committed to him. This is a sign of a tremendously evil person.

2. Internal Amazon culture, with its constant self-criticism and elimination of those above and below you reminds me of nothing so much as the Cultural Revolution. That’s not a good thing. It’s probably not sustainable in the long-run either, but so long as Bezos controls everything, it will remain. That this story comes out while other tech companies are creating more benefits for mid-level workers shows that if there are other options, workers are likely to take it.

3. That so many workers are not only willing to put up with this sort of treatment but actually revel and want it shows how far so many of us have gone in accepting the extremist corporate culture of the New Gilded Age that demands complete devotion to the employer. The entire culture around disruption and innovation is really a conversation about destroying other people’s lives for profit and that isn’t going to happen without an almost religious faith in the corporate culture of these companies.

4. Relatedly, what these people actually need is a union, or some other employee organization if they can’t unionize that would represent collective disgruntlement. But even for the most exploited of these workers, not only would I be shocked if they supported such a thing, but I think it would be anathema to them, even after experiencing the incredible exploitation of the Amazon workplace.

Independent Contractor Status Screws Over Workers, Part 1,000,000

[ 29 ] August 15, 2015 |


Why do companies or agencies hire workers as independent contractors rather than regular laborers? In order to maximize profit, of course. Thus you have the Uber model of blatant exploitation that has built the company. In a world of extreme individualism, where people think working this way is freedom because it gives them a certain amount of control over how much they work and when, corporations have discovered many advantages to this system and encourage it through this language of individualism. Like subcontracting, franchising, temp work, and outsourcing, independent contractors shield employers from liability, training, wages, and benefits. It’s not too surprising to me that workers in some of these fields are starting to wake up to their own exploitation and that helps explain the sudden push toward union drives in new media, where you combine politically astute people laboring in this exploitative system.

So what happens when an independent contractor gets pregnant?

But she wasn’t like everyone else. Cetrone was a contractor, along with two other staffers at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and therefore not entitled to benefits like workers compensation or unemployment insurance — or more importantly when she became pregnant, the eight weeks of paid family leave that D.C. government employees get.

“They made us look to the public like we were full-time employees, but we didn’t have any of the benefits,” Cetrone says.

Cetrone thought it was unfair she’d have to take time off to have a baby without pay. But it didn’t strike her that there was anything untoward about it — until she began seeing reports on all the lawsuits over misclassification in the “sharing economy,” alleging that everyone from Uber drivers to Homejoy cleaners should be treated as employees rather than contractors.

“I started looking at my contract, and reading all the articles about Uber,” Cetrone says. “And I’m like, if these people are working 20 to 50 hours a week, then maybe my contract isn’t legal.”

When she raised her concerns, she soon found herself out of a job.

But if the District misstepped, it wouldn’t be the only one. Disputes over the role of contractors are becoming commonplace after the federal government and others outsourced many functions.

“I see this all the time,” says Alan Lescht, whose law firm deals largely with federal employees and contractors. “Companies think they can hire someone as an independent contractor to avoid paying benefits and overtime, and when they look carefully into their roles, more often than not they’ve been misclassified.”

And more people might be taking second looks at their contracts these days. The federal government and state labor agencies have been cracking down on misclassification, which allows companies to dodge taxes and other overhead associated with bringing on full-time employees, and is especially prevalent in low-wage industries like construction and trucking. But it happens in white-collar jobs too, and now the media attention is waking up those workers to the idea that their employers could be part of the trend.

This is why joint employer status is so important
and why I hope the Obama NLRB will start moving in this direction. If you work in a place of employment, you should have the same status as everyone else working in that place of employment. We have to take away the incentive of using independent contractors or temps to avoid responsibility. And of course, as in the case above, the anti-government mentality among conservatives and Beltway elites since 1980 has contributed significantly to this problem by trying to shrink the size of government, thus forcing agencies to get creative in how they staff positions. Robust labor law is only a start, but an important start, in pushing back against this panoply of problems in our work lives.

This Day in Labor History: August 15, 1914

[ 30 ] August 15, 2015 |

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, completing one of the great engineering projects of the time, one that recreated racialized labor norms of the United States in Panama while also demonstrating how sanitary reforms could save workers lives. It also served to connect the imperial empire of labor the United States was building around the world.

Much of the story about the Panama Canal is well-known, including how Theodore Roosevelt worked with the French company that had originally hoped to build a canal to hew Panama off of an uncooperative Colombia in order to acquire the canal rights, a classic act of imperialism in now two nations who would long bear the brunt of American interventionism. To some degree, the brutality of building of the Canal is known as well and this post will expand some of your knowledge on these points.

The first real transportation labor in what would become the Panama Canal took place in the 1850s, when Chinese and African laborers died by the thousands building railroads in the area that later became the Canal. The French were heavily involved in these early projects, as they would be in the first attempt to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific in the 1880s. The French particularly targeted the impoverished island of Jamaica for the workers on this project, running advertisements showing Jamaicans returning from Panama with great riches. This was an effective advertising scheme but certainly didn’t represent the reality for those workers. Approximately 20,000 workers, mostly Jamaicans, would die in the first effort to build a canal. Most of these workers died from disease, as the canal was built upon tropical swamps rife with mosquitoes and with enormous rates of malaria and yellow fever. Hygiene was horrible and significantly contributed to the death rate. The West Indians only earned 10 cents a hour and less than 20 percent of those who lived lasted more than a year. Ultimately, the first effort to build the canal would fail in the face of the engineering problem and deaths, but with such great poverty throughout the Caribbean Basin, it wasn’t because the French couldn’t find workers.

When Roosevelt stole Panama from Colombia in 1903, he was determined that a canal succeed and wanted to learn from the French mistakes. Once again, the workforce was primarily West Indian. The Jamaicans remembered what had happened twenty years ago and largely refused to go, so the U.S. targeted Barbados, whose citizens would make up nearly half the total workers who labored on the Canal during its construction. To say the least, the natural conditions that had plagued workers in the 1880s hadn’t changed. Poisonous snakes were rampant. The rainy season created six months of mud. The original housing was the falling apart workers’ housing the French had built. The hygiene was still terrible. In 1906, 80 percent of the Panama Canal labor force was hospitalized for malaria. By this time, doctors were learning more about tropical disease, but continued to believe that people of African descent were uniquely capable of resisting it and so applied none of the new medicine to protect these workers. Yet with poverty still dominating the region, tens of thousands of workers from around the Caribbean and Central American flocked to Panama for work.


The U.S. hoped to build on the French failure to build a canal through the application of newly discovered sanitary principles, even if they held on to their racialized beliefs about African workers. Sanitary engineers descended upon Panama to make the landscape livable. Draining standing water to protect against malaria, paving streets, screening windows, quarantines of the sick, preventing the fecal contamination of water, and other measures were used to protect against epidemic disease. This all built on the work of Walter Reed and other physicians to fight against avoidable death during the U.S. conquest of Cuba, which killed a lot of troops. In fact, Reed was in Panama to expand upon this work. The doctors forced the Army Corps of Engineers to give the black workers better living quarters because pneumonia was moving through the cramped housing at tremendous speed. The death rate for black workers plummeted from 18.8 per 1000 in 1906 to 2.6 in 1908 thanks to these changes. Even in the harshest conditions and with the most despised and exploited workers, basic sanitary reforms could save the lives of thousands.

Racial discrimination was also rife, with the U.S. determined to hold the segregation line in its empire as it was at home. So in its new colony of the Philippines it was strictly segregating many parts of life while doing the same in Panama. Not only were white workers paid better but they were paid in gold, while non-white workers were paid in Panamanian currency. Those workers were crowded into cramped barracks while white workers lived in conditions that would be acceptable in the US (not that this was necessarily a high standard in 1910). Mess halls for the non-white workers did not have chairs. Conditions for whites improved quickly after 1905 when a 75 percent turnover rate convinced the canal builders of the need to make whites want to be in Panama. They received increasingly luxurious housing, received cold-storage facilities to improve their diet, paved roads, baseball teams, YMCA recreational facilities, and all the other amenities that would later be associated with the company unionism of the 1920s. Black workers would eventually rise somewhat in the labor hierarchy because of the need for labor, but racial discrimination would remain stark.

Panama Canal Workers

The work was far more dangerous for the West Indians than the whites, largely because the former was in charge of the dynamiting. Dynamite was always dangerous to deal with because it could be placed incorrectly or not explode, thus creating a hazard later. The worst single workplace death incident in the building of the Canal was on December 12, 1908, when prematurely exploding dynamite killed 23 workers. There was also significant labor discontent, with black workers protesting the unfair treatment they received at the hands of the Americans and local Panamanians outraged at the division of their new country by the U.S. But the overwhelming number of poor workers meant that meaningful work stoppages never occurred.

Ultimately, the opening of the Canal would allow the products of American imperialism around the world to move around the planet at a much faster rate, connecting rubber workers in Asia with fruit workers in Colombia and miners in Montana.

I consulted David McBride, Missions for Science: U.S. Technology and Medicine in America’s African World, in the writing of this post.

This is the 154th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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