Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

Book Review: Eric Thomas Chester, The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era

[ 1 ] February 1, 2015 |

Eric Thomas Chester’s new book on the rise and fall of the Industrial Workers of the World before and during World War I provides several key new insights about this union that plays such a large role in the American radical imagination. In particular, Chester makes four key points I think deserve further delineation–that the IWW’s overly masculine rhetoric hurt them significantly, that the IWW vacillating on World War I was a terrible decision that did nothing to protect it from repression, that the IWW was on the verge of transforming the American working class at the point the war began, and that the response to IWW effectiveness is what led to its complete crushing by the combined forces of business, the states, and the federal government during and after the war. Three of these I agree with, one I find problematic.

The IWW started in 1905 and struggled to hold together for several years. The strikes in Lawrence in 1912 and Paterson in 1913 brought the organization to national attention, but the IWW could not gain a significant foothold in eastern states. In the West, however, the IWW had more success, organizing miners, farmworkers, and loggers. These industries had largely male workforces and between the masculine cultural the union developed and the ideological attraction of violent resistance to a lot of desperate men, the use of sabotage became an important principle for the IWW. Wobblies held that industrial sabotage was key to worker power and to punishing corporations for their actions. They talked about it in their publications all the time.

But the IWW rarely if ever actually used sabotage. There were probably isolated incidents—but I say probably because it’s almost impossible to prove, even though industries and government wanted to. The far greater problem was that the violent rhetoric opened the door for criticism and attack of the IWW writ large, which would come back to bite them during World War I.

IWW involvement in the Bisbee copper strike in 1917 plays a pivotal role in Chester’s story because when the Bisbee Deportation happened, it showed that a) business was ready for violent responses to the IWW when the government didn’t step in and when they were threatened by IWW organizing and b) that those businesses would use it an excuse to crush all organizing, including the AFL. This was not palatable to Wilson, who wanted the AFL as a wartime partner. In Butte, when Frank Little arrived from Bisbee, he found a left-leaning miners’ movement united but fractious. Little did not help soothe over those factions. Little’s militancy and his focus on class war prisoners, attempting to tie the Butte strike with the Bisbee Deportation and keep all workers out until the Bisbee workers were freed certainly did not make all factions in the diverse left of Butte comfortable and added to internal divisiveness. But Little was a powerful organizer and his presence frightened the copper magnates and local leaders, who responded by lynching Little in one of the most famous acts of labor violence in American history. Eventually, the Butte and Bisbee strikes both failed but more importantly to the story of the IWW, the violence used against the IWW by employers would demonstrate to the federal government both the threat of the IWW and the threat of employers taking violence into their own hands.

Although Wilson’s record on organized labor was stronger than any previous president, that certainly did not extend to the Wobblies, who Wilson, along with the AFL, held in contempt. Wilson had to walk a fine line here. He wanted the support of Samuel Gompers and other mainstream labor leaders, so despite the desire of many corporate leaders to use the war to crush all labor, Wilson decided to clearly demarcate between the respectable organized labor he valued as a partner and the traitorous organized labor that struck instead of working to defeat Germany. It was easy enough for Gompers to go along. Gompers always held that the AFL was the only true representative of American workers and saw all competitors as enemies to be crushed, even if those unions organized workers the AFL did not bother with. And since the Bisbee Deportation rounded up AFL workers too, Gompers wanted a clear separation between his membership and the IWW so this did not happen again. So with Gompers’ support, Wilson decided to crush the IWW. And crush it he did, with a multifaceted attack that included new laws, rigged courts, and the military. It was brutal and it was effective.

Probably there was nothing the IWW could have done to resist this onslaught. But Chester is right that the Wobblies waffling on the war did not help. The die was already cast with its long history of statements opposing war and supporting sabotage. His claim that it was the IWW’s effectiveness in Bisbee and Butte that caused such a harsh government crackdown is interesting and may be overstated, but the IWW proved enough of a threat in western industries to provoke that response. Had Haywood openly opposed the war instead of realizing, quite correctly, that opposition would be an excuse to repress the IWW, maybe it would have created a broader resistance that would have pushed back against repression. Probably not. But in any case, even without the absurd statements about the IWW being an arm of the Kaiser, the IWW had provided plenty of ammunition against itself with its statements over sabotage to convince enough of the public that it was a real threat that needed violent suppression.

In some ways, the greatest tragedy was the collapse of the IWW over the prison release issue in 1924. With the fanaticism of the war behind the nation, freeing the period’s political prisoners became a popular cause. While Warren Harding maintained a case by case basis for release, Calvin Coolidge wanted the issue behind him entirely. Chester sees this issue as the final government victory for having divided the IWW beyond repair. I am a bit less convinced here. I wonder what would have happened if Big Bill Haywood had remained in the country rather than fleeing to the Soviet Union to avoid prison time. Early in the Wobblies’ existence, there was a great deal of resistance to centralized leadership, but by 1913, Haywood was the clear leader of the union. His departure both demoralized fellow Wobblies and radicals and created a leadership vacuum at a time of crisis. No one could really fill this, especially with major leaders in prison.

My major critique of Chester’s book that is he occasionally projects a radical past he thinks was on the verge of coming into existence. He calls World War I “intensely unpopular in the western states” but that’s far from clear. Moreover, he claims that millions of Americans were looking for IWW leadership on the war and that the union failed them. I’m really unconvinced of that claim. Chester states that workers joined the union fully aware that it demanded revolutionary changes. That is no doubt sometimes true, but there were lots of reasons people joined the IWW, reasons that could be as non-revolutionary as that the IWW controlled some trains that people needed to ride to get a job. Its membership was in constant flux and was never very large. So I don’t buy his claims for a huge section of the American working class ready for forceful resistance against the state and that IWW leadership against the war might have sparked it. You never know, but it feels more like wish than reality.

Still, the major points of this book are spot on. The discussion of the violent rhetoric and its disadvantages is particularly useful in a world where the same kind of sabotage the IWW fantasized about is looked upon as an outright positive by certain, albeit small, sections of the left. Knowing more about the overwhelming state repression of the IWW also reminds us of how the state can be mobilized to crush resistance. Overall, this is a really good book that I strongly recommend.

Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-IWW Rat

[ 16 ] January 31, 2015 |

In 1918 and 1919, the Ford Motor Company produced a bunch of cartoons to support World War I and the Red Scare. This piece of radical eliminationism is from 1919.

Here’s a link with sound, which is better because the rat is singing The Internationale. But I can’t embed it.

Debts

[ 29 ] January 31, 2015 |

If Germany wants Greece to pay its debts, maybe Germany should pay Greece the reparations for World War II it owes the country.

The Big Corn and Pea Man

[ 54 ] January 31, 2015 |

Does this 1945 advertisement make you want to eat corn or curl up in a ball and hope the nightmare goes away?

tumblr_niz18rb5os1qmho7ko1_500

The NFL and the Left

[ 79 ] January 30, 2015 |

Can a leftist have a rooting interest in the Super Bowl? Dave Zirin on why the Seahawks are so awesome from a political perspective:

But to make this a social-media story, or a narrative about the more relaxed nature at the top of the Seahawks organization, takes too much credit away from the courage of the players themselves. To have Seahawks linebacker Michael Bennett use the Super Bowl media scrum to slam the NCAA and say, “I think the NCAA is one of the biggest scams in America” and “I think there are very few schools that actually care about the players. Guys break their legs and they get the worst surgery they could possibly get by the worst doctors with the worst treatment” is more than someone sounding off. It’s an act of solidarity.

To have their always-outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman follow that up by saying, “I tell you from experience that one time I had negative forty bucks in my account. It was in the negative more times than positive. You have to make a decision whether you put gas in your car or get a meal” turns it into a national story.

To have Marshawn Lynch consciously try to control his own labor and by doing so, dredge up the worst impulses in the sports media aristocracy was, intentionally or not, a national service. Thanks to Lynch, we have seen a layer of sports writers regurgitate all of their suppressed bile against young black athletes—tweeting things like their desire for an “English to Marshawn dictionary”—and exposing the long-standing resentments older and mostly whiter sportswriters have towards the people they cover. When Lynch looked at the media and said, “Shout out to all my real Africans out there,” you could almost hear the ventricles in the room constricting.

Plus who does not want to see Roger Goodell squirm if he has to give the MVP trophy to Marshawn Lynch? Now that would be Must See TV! The idiot sports journalist community would also freak out. It’d be great.

Speaking of the NFL, Jeb Lund published a harsh but true attack on Goodell’s NFL in Rolling Stone today. The magazine then pulled it for unspecified reasons. Maybe Goodell is able to persuade mainstream media outlets to kill anything that criticizes him to an extent that even I don’t realize, who knows. You can read the essay at Jeb’s personal website. You should and then publicize Rolling Stone’s cowardice.

A Corner in Wheat

[ 45 ] January 29, 2015 |

It is my birthday. I am now 41 with the personality of an 80 year old and the back of a 60 year old (as the snow has reminded me). Speaking of old things, my birthday present to the rest of you is A Corner in Wheat, the D.W. Griffith film from 1909. It has everything you want in a political film from the time. Horrible poverty. Grotesque wealth. Bread riots. And capitalists being killed in grain elevators. One of the best movies representing the Gilded Age.

I had my students watch it out of class for my film course that meets tonight. I also had them read Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. In class, we are watching Modern Times. That’s right, it is early 20th century labor week.

Marshawn Lynch and Work to Rule

[ 176 ] January 28, 2015 |

Is Marshawn Lynch actually engaging in a labor action by his refusal to talk to the press? Sarah Jaffe makes a compelling case that Lynch’s continued defiance of the NFL and his refusal is actually a work-to-rule action:

Lynch may be alone in his actions at the moment, but it seems fairly clear that in following the letter of the NFL’s law — showing up to the press conference, and verbalizing an answer to a question — he’s demonstrating that he, not Roger Goodell or anyone else, controls the conditions of his labor.

Jaffe also connects Lynch’s actions to a topic she writes a lot about: emotional labor.

There is no doubt that Lynch gives the game everything he’s got and more — we should always remember when we watch football or any other physical, contact sport that we are watching people literally putting their safety and lives on the line for our entertainment. So why, on top of all that, does the NFL demand that its players show up at press conferences and answer the same inane questions with a ready smile?

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defines “emotional labor” as the work we do to manage our emotions so as to produce a desired emotional state in others. We expect pro athletes to paste on a smile and explain why they won, how they lost, what it felt like to fumble the ball or throw that interception that put the other team ahead, minutes after they’ve been pounded within an inch of their lives.

The NFL doesn’t only demand emotional regulation at press conferences, though. It wants its players to behave a certain way on the field as well. Remember last season, when Lynch’s teammate Richard Sherman was fined for taunting San Francisco 49ers players and excoriated by the (mostly white) press for an emotional interview in which, among other things, he crowed to reporter Erin Andrews, “I’m the best corner in the game!”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

It’d be nice to see the NFL Players Association step in here and at least say something about the league’s constant harassment of Lynch. Except that the NFLPA is absolutely worthless, with far less power than any of the other professional sports unions. Thus this devastating article at Deadspin today calling for the NFL players to unionize and acting like the NFLPA doesn’t even exist. Because that’s not far off. This might be the single best put-down of a bad union I have ever read.

Conkling

[ 57 ] January 28, 2015 |

Roscoe Conkling was the sort of platonic ideal of the Gilded Age politician. Rich, incredibly powerful, corrupt. In 1888, New York was struck by a blizzard. It didn’t go well for Conkling:

Roscoe Conkling is looking out the window of his Wall Street law office on a Tuesday afternoon in March 1888. He sees mountains of snow on deserted streets and wind gusts yanking down telegraph wires. Conkling is arguably the most powerful man in the country: he controls a major faction of the Republican Party, which is ascendant, and has the ability to make or break presidential candidates. He’s a man of action who decides that he will plunge into the storm and catch a hansom cab to his lavish apartments on 25th Street near Madison Square.

Conkling and a young male colleague head out into the weather, flag down a horse-drawn cab, and tell the driver they need to be taken three miles uptown. The cabbie looks them over. He then attempts a primitive version of Uber surge pricing, telling the men the ride will cost $50 — or about $1,280 in today’s currency.

Conkling is outraged. Though he can afford it, he refuses to pay and tells the driver he’d rather walk.

Tough guy, eh? How does that go for him?

But now it’s March 12, 1888, and a blizzard is howling across Manhattan. Conkling is struggling up Broadway. He makes it as far as Union Square before he falls. A doorman rushes out and drags him in from the snow. It seems at first that Conkling will recover. But the walk has given him pneumonia. In two weeks, he’ll be dead.

Political Correctness

[ 195 ] January 27, 2015 |

Some essays are better left unwritten. Jonathan Chait’s essay bemoaning the “political correctness” supposedly defining and dominating modern American liberalism is one of those essays.

Book Review: Marina Welker, Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia

[ 47 ] January 27, 2015 |

In Enacting the Corporation, the anthropologist Marina Welker seeks to humanize corporate behavior by examining how the Denver-based mining conglomerate Newmont attempts to enact the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility in its dealings at a mine site on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. Welker argues that rather than seeing corporations as monoliths concerned only about profit, it is far more useful to examine how different actors seek to “enact” the corporation to meet their own interests, whether as employees, activists, executives at the company’s Denver headquarters, consultants, etc. In doing so, Welker “humanizes” the corporation through understanding as a collective subject that remains unstable because of so many actors affecting it.

The Corporate Social Responsibility movement came out of the late twentieth century, urging corporations to take a more complex view of their relationship with the communities where they worked. Especially important in poor communities within the U.S. and overseas, it asked companies to think of social investment in communities as good for the bottom line because it would assuage dissent and provide good relationships with workers and community leaders. For Newmont in Indonesia, this means portraying the company as Islam-friendly, even if the minority Christian workers there are uncomfortable with it, a lot of charity work that some see as taking away from the prime mission of mining, and running educational programs for nearby farmers, among other activities.

Not surprisingly, corporate executives have widely disparate views on the CSR movement. They express a great deal of frustration because the locals don’t think like the capitalists they want to deal with; in fact, making capitalists is part of the mission. Some see it as a good economic move for the company, others wish they didn’t have to deal with people at all. The CSR workers themselves often see themselves as isolated within the larger company, the “hippies” getting in the way of getting out the color. Battles rage within the company between different models and methods of development, and Welker does an excellent job of delineating the complexities and struggles in implementing CSR.

In Indonesia, the response to the mine is even more complex. While Welker discusses local elites organizing violent opposition to Indonesian critics of Newmont, the people of Sumbawa also demand a lot from the company. People demand roads and bridges and donations. People resist development because they want their farms or jobs for themselves and their family members. The programs don’t always go as expected. Farmer training programs weaning locals off Green Revolution techniques make little difference to people who mostly want more pesticides, and cultural differences make the trainings themselves frustrating to pretty much everyone. Indonesians have different ways of judging the role of the mine. Welker emphasizes an Indonesian term that translates as “social jealousy” which is a sort of relationship-based way of judging your own place in the world that demands relative parity in economic advancement. The issue is important enough to convince Newmont to build a bunch of houses for people with no connection to the mine in order to smooth things over.

Where Newmont faces a lot of criticism is from environmentalists, both inside and outside Indonesia. The Newmont repsonse is pure contempt for green critics. They are seen as outright enemies, accused of lying and deceit for their claims. Managers attack NGOs and individual activists. Welker accesses documents showing how Newmont attacks NGOs, providing a useful window into corporate anti-environmentalist strategy. They provide anti-activist material to village elites, fomenting a response to defend their employer and their jobs that led to violence against a group of activist women.

Welker received significant corporate access to write this book, much more than one would expect from a modern corporation that has been so controversial over the years. It’s slightly unclear to me why a corporation would allow this level of access (maybe it was part of the larger CSR strategy) and while I’m sure Welker was not limited in what she could say, she certainly doesn’t portray Newmont as particularly objectionable. So on one hand, Welker has provided a nuanced understanding of the reality of corporate relationships with communities and the internal struggles over how to do this. On the other hand, Newmont is a tremendously awful corporation, and while Welker doesn’t deny this fact, she certainly doesn’t emphasize it either. Newmont has had to pay millions for cyanide dumping in Ghana, engaged in terrible mining practices in Peru, and was heavily invested in mines during the apartheid regime in South Africa. She mentions its frequent pollution at the mine site and all the toxic waste it is dumping in the ocean, but that plays a surprisingly small part in her story.

Plus, while Welker might not want to see corporations as profit-maximizing monoliths, they are profit-maximizing monoliths. All these CSR programs, charity, and corporate welfare exist for one reason–to create an atmosphere for Newmont to profit. There’s no social agenda here except to smooth over problems with relatively small expenditures in order to get the ore. That doesn’t mean her insights aren’t valuable–profit-maximizing monoliths can in fact be made up of a variety of different actors, but they all feed into the requirement of a corporation, which is to maximize profit. That there are employees within the company who have a social commitment or that the company invests a pittance into local investment does not mitigate the fact of why Newmont exists and why it is in Indonesia. It is there to maximize profit, pure and simple, even if the details can get a bit messy.

My greatest frustration with Enacting the Corporation however is not the somewhat squishy view of the morality of Newmont, but rather with the field of cultural anthropology. I recognize that this is a somewhat unfair critique since books should be evaluated on their own terms and I certainly would never begrudge a graduate student or assistant professor for adhering to the conventions of their field, but I definitely feel that the conventions of anthropology get in the way of telling powerful stories to a much wider audience. Rigor and good writing are not mutually exclusive. Welker pours on the theoretical constructs and literature discussions, and not only in the introduction. I’ve long felt that anthropologists would be better off thinking of themselves more like journalists—a bit like historians do—and focus on telling a story that would engage a broader public. There’s a lot of great and insightful material here for the general reader interested in these issues, but that narrative is so often interrupted by a discussion of this or that theory, that the general reader is going to give up on this pretty quickly. And that’s too bad because it’s a pretty useful book.

Blizzard Prep

[ 84 ] January 26, 2015 |

If civilization is going to end with the approaching blizzard at least let the past help you prepare to go out the right way.

B8TuyKFCcAAULTm

Historical Places Obama Should Protect Through the Antiquities Act

[ 12 ] January 26, 2015 |

In December, Congress passed and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act. Included in the bill was a bunch of new national parks. A couple of them were the traditional big nature parks that come to mind when you think of national parks, such as the Valles Caldera in New Mexico. There were some new historical parks as well. Here in Rhode Island, along with neighboring Massachusetts, the Blackstone Valley, site of the Industrial Revolution reaching the U.S., will be a national park. Slater Mill in Pawtucket, the first factory in America, is already run in conjunction with the National Park Service, including ranger-led tours, so this isn’t too new. Harriet Tubman’s home in upstate New York will now be a national park, as well the Colt gun factory in Hartford, another key site of early industrialization. The long-planned Manhattan Project sites park will also be realized, with spots in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford available for public viewing, albeit probably only a couple of times a year and with some sort of security screening required (I did some historic preservation work at Los Alamos when I was writing my dissertation and this was already in planning at that time).

The U.S. government probably does a better job than any other nation in the world in protecting historical sites and interpreting them for the public. How many World War I or World War II battlefields are protected parks in Europe compared to Civil War or Revolutionary War battle sites in the U.S.? Of course, Republicans have drastically underfunded the NPS ever since the Gingrich takeover of the House, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to interpret our past in this way. These parks can also be great examples of small-scale stimulus programs. If you don’t think Pawtucket businesses could use a little extra money from tourists stopping by the new park, well, you’ve never been to Pawtucket then.

So what other sites should Obama prioritize in protecting during his last two years. Here’s a list of eight sites I think would be great inclusions to the national parks. I don’t know that we will see another bill that passes a Republican Congress, but Obama can also use the Antiquities Act to create National Monuments and then give authority over them to the NPS. So he doesn’t need Congress.

1. Pullman

Recent years have seen a significant improvement in protecting sites of early industrial history. There’s Lowell, which is great. The newish Paterson Great Falls site in New Jersey added to this, and now there’s the Blackstone and Colt sites. But our labor history is horribly remembered, whether inside or outside the NPS. Homestead is a mall. The Everett Massacre site seems to be some fenced off area of the port (or at least I couldn’t find it at all when I tried to). Even the Triangle Fire is just marked with a small plaque. So the first three of these are going to be about remembering labor history.

There is not a more obvious site in the nation for the NPS to interpret than Pullman. The site of the legendary 1894 strike is basically a fenced off ruin. A few of the key buildings still remain and could be restored. The company housing is still occupied. There are so many stories to tell here–the strike. Eugene Debs. African-American work on the railroad. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The growth of Chicago, which lacks a park site at all. It’s a clear call and one I hope happens soon.

2. Blair Mountain

If Obama is declaring a war on coal, he might as well go all the way and save the site of the largest insurrection since the Civil War from being subject to mountaintop removal. So much to interpret here.

3. Ludlow

Right now, all there is at the Ludlow Massacre site is a small monument run by the United Mine Workers of America and the chamber where the women and children suffocated to death when the company thugs burned the camp down. Otherwise, it’s a big open space with plenty of possibilities for a cool museum. There’s a lot in southern Colorado that could also be included. I think the prison where Mother Jones was placed in Walsenburg still stands. There’s also the Colorado Fuel & Iron facility in Pueblo. So many stories here too. Not only the massacre, but the immigrant miners (and the NPS really doesn’t do enough to tell Mexican-American stories), the coal industry, and the rise of company unionism with John D. Rockefeller’s response to the criticism he faced after Ludlow.

4. Auto Industry

I’m not sure precisely which building in Detroit or Flint the government should make a national park to talk about the auto industry, but it is so central to our history and there are so many empty factories that it needs to do something like it did with Lowell and do some interpretation. Maybe the Fisher Body Plant where the Flint Sit-Down Strike took place. Maybe part of the River Rouge plant where Ford busted unions. Doesn’t even have to be a place where a major union struggle took place. But the auto industry is so important to our history and to the regional identity of Michigan that something is needed.

The second area I’d like to see more interpretation on is Asian-American history. So here’s three good sites for this.

5. Wintersburg, California

This site, which is threatened by demolition, would be a great way for the National Park Service to tell the story of the Japanese that focused on something other than the tragedy of the concentration camps.

6. Angel Island

How is Angel Island not already a national park? The Ellis Island of the West Coast and the site where Chinese attempting to get into the U.S. after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 is such an obvious site. I know it is a California State Park and receives some protection but this should be a federal operation.

7. Rancho Cucamonga Chinatown House

The NPS has done a great job integrating African-American history into its interpretation, but outside of Japanese internment, has not done so well with Asian-Americans. Turning this old store into a park would save one of an increasingly few buildings from that era and significantly resolve the Asian-American issue.

8. Marias Massacre. I talked about the Marias Massacre site in Montana here. This clearly needs to be brought into public interpretation since there is basically nothing out there.

There are lots of other worthy places as well. The aggressive expansion of the national parks is the kind of thing we should all be able to get behind.

Page 1 of 28412345...102030...Last »