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This Day in Labor History: July 15, 1959

[ 10 ] July 15, 2015 |

On July 15, 1959, the United Steelworkers of America went on strike to protect its significant victories won after World War II in running the shop floor and empowering its members to live a middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps the most underrated event in American labor history, the steel strike of 1959 touches on many of the key labor issues of the postwar period. Combining the total number workers and length of the strike, companies lost more employee hours than any other strike in American history. It showed the height of worker power in American labor history on the shop floor and through the contract. It also demonstrated how government would still bust strikes when it could, a blast from the past and a foretaste of the future. Yet it also suggested just how far unions had come in American society, given how the USWA overcame these challenges and won. Finally, this was the end of the peak of American labor militancy.

During the 1950s, the nation’s major unions mae enormous gains in wages and benefits for their members. That was particularly true of the United Auto Workers and, to a slightly lesser extent, the USWA. After Philip Murray died in 1952, David McDonald became union president. McDonald is no one’s idea of the ideal union president, particularly given his total lack of charisma. There’s a reason no one talks about him today. But he was good at forcing the companies to open up their pocketbooks in contract negotiations and forcing their hand on shop floor issues. He was irritated that the UAW generally won better contracts and worked hard to make up that gap. During the 1950s, the USWA won significant wage gains, health insurance, pensions, vacation time, and other hallmarks of the working class becoming middle class through union contracts. This often took place through strikes, including in 1946, 1949, 1952, and 1955. A 1956 strike was a major victory for the USWA (and for McDonald’s leadership), leading to big wage and benefit gains.

By 1959, the American steel industry was incredibly profitable, with very little foreign competition having developed by this time. But the companies wanted to push back. Their specific line of attack was to take control of the shop floor through eliminating a section in the union contract that had given workers significant shop floor power through the grievance process. Effectively, the USWA was using the grievance procedure to take away management prerogative to rule at the workplace. This included making it very difficult for companies to lay off workers whose jobs were replaced by automation. While the high wages and benefits rankled the companies, it was the sheer gall of employees to tell them how to run their factories that really infuriated the steel industry. And so the companies decided their target would be the shop floor clauses, with the hope that this was a first step to regaining control over their workers. Less than a month before the expiration of contract, and in the middle of ongoing negotiations, the companies offered a slight wage increase in exchange for union givebacks on scheduling, seniority, staffing, and work standards. The hope was to force the union to strike and then the companies would be willing to give up everything but shop floor control givebacks.

This strategy certainly worked at first. The USWA completely rejected the corporations’ offer. More than 500,000 workers went on strike at factories around the nation on July 15. Steel production declined 90 percent. AFL-CIO president George Meany wasn’t happy with McDonald or the USWA. Being a Cold Warrior first and class warrior second, Meany worried the strike would undermine national security. He really wasn’t in a position to distance himself too far from one of the federation’s most powerful unions, so he gave it a very mild endorsement while pressuring McDonald to settle.

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The strike convinced President Dwight Eisenhower to invoke the back to work clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act, forcing an 80-day cooling off period. This then led to the union filing suit in federal court that Taft-Hartley was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Court upheld the law by an 8-1 majority. The strikers had to return to work after 116 days on the pickets. Yet the union was able to survive this frontal assault. Kaiser Steel, which had long had been more willing to work with labor than many of the other companies, caved and took out the offending provision while offering a small wage increase. But the rest of the companies held out. Finally, Eisenhower realized the workers would strike again if the companies insisted on the workplace rule provision. He had Richard Nixon tell US Steel chairman David Blough to give up. With the government clearly stepping in on the side of continued steel production, the companies did surrender. The contract created a committee for the union and management to study the issue of shopfloor rights.

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One lesson of this strike for us is that the idea that the companies ever really accepted unionization, even at the peak of labor’s power, is a lie. There was never a period where the companies saw unions as partners. Rather, they wanted to crush them and return to the 1920s without union shops. The reason they couldn’t is worker power. Corporations had to make public statements that they accepted organized labor as a partner. These were lies but they also reflected the need to appease that worker power. The corporations may have lost the 1959 strike, but the union was not is a good position to win in the long run. Ultimately, the rise of steel imports, which some have claimed were a result of consumers looking to foreign competition in order to avoid production problems because of these frequent labor conflicts, would undermine both the industry and the USWA. The 1959 strike was the last nationwide steel strike of the era. In the 1962 contract, McDonald did give back quite a bit of shopfloor control and made it easier for companies to let workers go because of automation. He became convinced about that the steel industry was increasingly less competitive and hoped these compromises of worker power would help. They did not. But they did create a rank and file rebellion against McDonald and in 1965, he was replaced by I.W. Abel, a very rare defeat for a major union leader to that point in labor history. But the American steel industry did not reverse its long, slow decline.

Somehow, there is not a really key historical work on the ’59 strike. Hopefully this changes soon. Jack Metzgar’s autobiographical remembrance Striking Steel is however a fantastic book that you all should read.

This is the 151st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

….I forgot to insert this earlier. Dave Alvin wrote a song about the strike. His father was an organizer for the USWA during these years.

Murnau

[ 15 ] July 14, 2015 |

nosferatu_2

Someone needs to make a dark, shadowy film with angular shots about this heinous crime, no doubt perpetrated by a mastermind criminal.

Today, the story of Murnau’s death gets a little bit weirder: Der Spiegel is reporting that someone has broken into the Plumpe family crypt outside Berlin and stolen the director’s head.

It is unknown how or when the perpetrators gained access to the tomb, though, notably, the coffins of the director’s brothers Robert and Bernhard were not disturbed. The Plumpe crypt is located in Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf, a large woodland cemetery known for its mausolea and dense forestation. According to local police, the break-in was first noticed on Monday morning.

This is not the first time that someone has broken into the crypt, and, at present, the cemetery’s administrators are weighing whether to permanently seal the tomb or to bury the director’s body separately from the rest of his family to prevent further vandalism. Police have reportedly found wax drippings at the scene, suggesting either a ritualistic element, or that Murnau’s head was stolen by old-timey grave robbers by candlelight.

Punishment Park

[ 49 ] July 14, 2015 |

I have discussed the 1971 New Left dystopian film Punishment Park here a bit before. I’ve mentioned that it is a great leftist film and that the wonderful Paul Motian did the soundtrack. And I think I’ve mentioned the plot–that post-Kent State, Nixon has ordered the rounding up of all the nation’s leftists and sent them to prison camps where they are tried by makeshift tribunals of squares and then forced into Punishment Park, a Mojave Desert training course for cops to kill hippies. This is great stuff. Great. And it is on YouTube. Watch it. Watch it now.

Say hello to my little friend

[ 146 ] July 14, 2015 |

trump

Whoops.

This wasn’t nearly the worst thing to happen to America’s favorite xenophobic demagogue in this news cycle, however:

Joaquín Guzmán Loera ‏@ElChap0Guzman Jul 12

Sigue chingando y voy hacer que te tragues todas tus putas palabras pinche guero cagaleche @realDonaldTrump

chapo

Mostly Because I Want to Know How to Fight the Furred Furies of Hell

[ 98 ] July 14, 2015 |

I must get my hands on this:
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Is the American male a momma’s boy? And I’m also very interested in these joy-hunting hussies…

Hat tip to Andy Ferris.

What does an intellectually dishonest review look like? Just ask The Economist!

[ 221 ] July 14, 2015 |

The Economist’s review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was predictably atrocious, but having just read the book this morning — and remembering the publication’s record on reviewing books about race — I thought it best to subject the atrocious thing to the kind of punishment all of its ilk deserve. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Arms Industry!

[ 14 ] July 14, 2015 |
Chinese Su-27.JPG

“Chinese Su-27″ by Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My latest at the National Interest takes a look at the areas of likely competition between Russian and Chinese arms industries:

Chinese industry can still learn much from Russia, but in many areas it has caught up with its model. The vibrancy of China’s tech sector suggests that Chinese military technology will leap ahead of Russian tech in the next decade. Historically, China’s military exports have occupied a different, lesser tier than Russian. Within the next decade, however, we should expect that Russia and China will fight hard for market share in the following five areas…

As usual, the comments themselves are worth the price of admission.

Richard Glossip and the Broken Death Penalty

[ 76 ] July 14, 2015 |

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The Breyer/Ginsburg dissent in Glossip v. Gloss made a strong argument that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional, a position that may well become the default position of Democratic Supreme Court nominees. It’s worth noting — as Breyer’s dissent did not — that Richard Glossip is a particularly strong case for the arbitrary, unreliable nature of the death penalty:

Richard Glossip is Exhibit A for problems of reliability and fairness with the process that sentences people to death, particularly when prosecutors rely heavily on plea-bargaining with one defendant in order to convict a defendant who refused to admit guilt.

[…]

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed, even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court implied if not stated outright that, given the inconsistencies in the trial record and police reports in his first trial, and decent counsel would have beaten the murder charge, if not the entire conviction.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though the witnesses at his second trial were trying to recall events that happened more than seven years ago and at least two justices not known for their liberalism think prosecutorial misconduct biased the jury.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though Justin Sneed, who provided the only evidence that directly ties Glossip to the murder of Barry Van Treese, was induced to testify by the promise that he would not be executed. Not exactly the most reliable testimony.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed because no physical evidence can exonerate him. There is no physical evidence in this case. The central issue is whether Justin Sneed lied or exaggerated in order to save his skin.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though Oklahoma has decided not to execute the person who actually committed the murder, Justin Sneed. This seems particularly arbitrary given that one of the aggravating factors in the case was the brutality of the murder and Sneed was the person who actually committed the murder.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though for almost a decade, Oklahoma was prepared to promise Glossip that he would not be executed if he confessed to the crime. Glossip is being executed because he exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial.

There are some similarities between this case and McKleskey v. Kemp, the 1987 case in which the Supreme Court considered whether the death penalty was unconstitutional if there was proof of systematic racial discrimination. (Majority holding: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) It’s not a prefect comparison: there is the possibility that Glossip is entirely innocent of the murder, whereas McKleskey was part of the robbery that led to the killing of a police officer and was at the scene. But McKlesley was singled out among the four conspirators for the death penalty based on “evidence” that he was the triggerman that came from an illegally paid informant.

To return to Glossip, Thomas’s concurrence responded to Breyer’s lengthy demonstration of the arbitrary nature of the death penalty by describing some horrible crimes committed by people who were executed. But this is just a non-sequitur. Breyer’s argument was not that nobody executed in the United States has convicted a heinous crime. Breyer’s argument was that the death penalty does not reliably single out the worst crimes for the ultimate punishment, even in death penalty jurisdictions, and sometimes results in killing people who were guilty of no crime at all. The facts of the lead petitioner’s case illustrate this. The evidence that Glossip is guilty at all is underwhelming, and even assuming arguendo that he paid for the murder he’s not obviously more culpable or deserving of punishment than the man who committed it.

Potter Stewart said in Furman v. Georgia, the case that temporarily suspended the death penalty in 1972, that the death sentences in question were cruel and unusual “in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” It remains true today.

The GOP in 1 Facebook Post

[ 79 ] July 14, 2015 |

OK rep Party Circle_Elph 485-301

This is the text of a Facebook post from the Oklahoma Republican Party:

The Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is proud to be distributing this year the greatest amount of free Meals and Food Stamps ever, to 46 million people.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service, administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us “Please Do Not Feed the Animals.” Their stated reason for the policy is because “The animals will grow
dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.”

Thus ends today’s lesson in irony ‪#‎OKGOP‬

www.OKGOP.com

No comment is necessary

Let’s Have a Toast for the Assholes

[ 204 ] July 14, 2015 |

202450945718635011UVLUNQuScAs we begin to delve through the details of the Iran deal, let’s have a toast for the lying douchebags who’ve been jabbering away for the past twenty years that Iran was 18 months away from a bomb. It’s almost as if all that bullshit made people think that a deal with a ten year sunset (followed by a resumption of normal IAEA monitoring procedures) might be a good idea.

Homer Simpson Is Real

[ 46 ] July 13, 2015 |

Found this in the archives today. It’s faint, but readable. And it shows that Homer Simpson is real and evidently worked in the Fermi reactor in Michigan during the 1960s.

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Sorry for the large size, I wanted to make it as readable as possible.

Further documents suggest it was in fact a beer can.

Does Evangelicalism Have to Be Anti-Labor?

[ 30 ] July 13, 2015 |

No. Although I think the case is overstated here because while there are examples of evangelicals being pro-union during American history, by and large evangelicals have been anti-union a lot more than not.

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