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The Seahawks Debate Black Lives Matter

[ 153 ] September 20, 2015 |


I’m not particularly optimistic about the Seahawks beating the Packers today. Part of that is the holdout of Kam Chancellor (which the Seahawks simply cannot budge on, not if they don’t want all their stars holding out in the future) but part of it is that I think the Packers are a better team all around right now. But in an era of Tom Brady endorsing Donald Trump (and really, Brady may be the world’s biggest douche), it is refreshing that the Seahawks’ internal culture allows its players to debate the nation’s issues of the day with great honesty and it’s no big deal. In this case, Richard Sherman mouths some cliches about bootstraps while Michael Bennett publicly corrects him about the very real discrimination black people face against police forces. It’s just nice to have athletes willing to talk about these things, something that the Pete Carroll atmosphere encourages.

Let this all serve as the open thread for this weekend’s football. LOL to USC, Texas, Alabama, and Auburn fans. And really, Ohio St. as well.


Immigrant Detention Prisons

[ 9 ] September 20, 2015 |


The Obama administration has not done a good job on immigrant detainees:

Immigrant detention facilities are violating detainees’ civil and constitutional rights and failing to meet basic standards of treatment, according to a scathing report released Thursday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The bipartisan commission, composed of four presidential appointees and four congressional appointees, urged President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to limit immigrant detention as much as possible, particularly for women and children.

“All people, no matter whether they are immigrants or asylum-seekers, deserve to be treated as humans,” Chairman Martin R. Castro, a Democrat who was appointed to the commission by Obama, said in a statement.

“Now, more than ever before, we need to treat fairly and humanely those persons, especially women and children, who are seeking sanctuary from violence and instability in their countries,” he added.

The report builds on months of backlash to the Obama administration’s use of family detention. Opponents have argued for years that immigrant detention, particularly of non-criminals, is overly punitive. Last year, the administration fueled that criticism by deciding to ramp up family detention, and critics are hoping to eventually end the practice altogether.

Ramping up family detention was a bad idea and overall, the Obama administration’s immigration record is decidedly mixed, a combination of proposing new policies and using some executive actions in very positive ways with a rise in deportations and effectively putting immigrants into prison. Obama has another 16 months or so in office. I hope he works hard to improve that record.

“Possibly wanted to be arrested?”

[ 317 ] September 20, 2015 |

I’m old enough to remember when Richard Dawkins wasn’t widely viewed as an embarrassing crank.

For someone who seems to be deeply serious about not believing invisible or imaginary things, there’s a whole lot of magical thinking going on…

Jimmy Carter, Radical?

[ 22 ] September 20, 2015 |


I certainly respect Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency. And one can argue he was underrated as a president. A bit, I guess. But he was significantly to the right of his own party in Congress, really did not want to sign a meaningful Humphrey-Hawkins bill that could have significantly expanded the government’s interest in working people, screwed up big time in the Iran hostage rescue attempt, and was generally uninspiring. On the other hand, he was visionary on environmental issues and should be remembered as a president who wanted to set the U.S. on a path that might have led to significant leadership on clean energy and climate change.

But while one expects a certain amount of paeans to a dying Democratic president, let’s not get crazy. Moreover, just because Jimmy Carter said some things that might sound radical to us now, those things are basically meaningless without looking at the context of the time. And that context suggests that Carter could have been far more effective as a president because he ruled way to the right of where he needed to be. That’s a lot more important. One would especially think a labor-oriented publication like In These Times to recognize Carter’s sketchy labor record.

This line of analysis of old presidents really drives me crazy. It’s the same kind of “hey, here’s a speech, it must be meaningful!” analysis that leads people to think that James Garfield would have been some great president on civil rights, that Ulysses Grant was a really great president (he was underrated and now he is overrated), that Reagan or Eisenhower actually respected immigrants and organized labor, respectively, and that Lincoln would have acted to stop the Gilded Age exploitation of workers from taking place. All of these common assertions about dead presidents are usually based on non-contextual cherry-picking and they all mislead as to the potential and reality of those presidents.

America’s Scummiest Couple

[ 12 ] September 20, 2015 |


Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee.

Also, America’s Scammiest Couple. I love how a couple that has become famous talking about the supposed corruption of teachers’ unionism are pulling a scam Whitey Bulger would be proud of.

The Constitution and Slavery

[ 13 ] September 19, 2015 |


Slave auction, Charleston, 1856

What’s really amazing about Sean Wilentz’s self-immolation this week isn’t so much that he’s decided to become a hack for Hillary Clinton, but how a once-esteemed U.S. historian has shows such willingness to sacrifice good historical analysis in order to be that hack. That means that his argument was swatted away by many with ease. Just a couple of examples. First, David Waldstreicher:

Another clause in Article I allowed Congress to mobilize “the Militia” to “suppress insurrections”—again, the House with its disproportionate votes would decide whether a slave rebellion counted as an insurrection. Wilentz repeats the old saw that with the rise of the northwest, the slave power’s real bastion was the Senate. Hence the battles over the admission of slave and free states that punctuated the path to Civil War. But this reads history backwards from the 1850s, not forward from 1787. The shaping policies of the early republic were proslavery because the federal government was controlled by southern expansionists like Jefferson and Jackson, who saw Africans as a captive nation, a fifth column just waiting to be liberated (again) by the British.

The refusal to mention slavery as property or anything else in the Constitution means something. But what it meant was embarrassment—and damage control. Domestic and foreign critics had lambasted Americans for their hypocrisy in calling themselves a beacon to human freedom while only a few states moved on the slavery question. The planters didn’t need or even want an explicit statement that slaves were property; it would have stated the obvious while opening up the United States to international ridicule in an era when slavery was coming into question.

On balance, the Constitution was deliberately ambiguous—but operationally proslavery. Perhaps more so than Madison wanted, as Wilentz maintains. But Madison’s putative intentions are all that matters to Wilentz. He’s outdone original-intent jurisprudence in reducing history to a morality play of good founders, bad critics. He loses sight of what actually happened when the ambiguously worded but slavery-suffused Constitution was finally released to an anxious public.

And Lawrence Goldstone:

In late July, after two months of wrangling, the convention appointed a five-delegate Committee of Detail to draft, in secret, a prototype constitution. Anyone who has been in business or government knows that creating the working document bestows enormous influence and power. To chair this all-important committee, the delegates unanimously agreed on South Carolina’s John Rutledge, “Dictator John,” the convention’s fiercest, most unapologetic defender of slavery. (James Madison, whose influence had been waning as the months wore on, was specifically excluded.) Rutledge’s selection made certain that whatever terms emerged would protect slaveholders’ interests.

And so they did. When debate resumed, based on the committee’s report, slaveholders won a series of concessions—on the makeup of the Senate, fugitive slaves, admission of new states, the election of the president, and even the Electoral College. In late August, however, the question of the national government’s control of commerce came up. Here, the North would not budge. In a compromise fashioned principally by Rutledge and fellow Committee of Detail member Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, the slave trade was extended for 20 years (after which the South would be protected by population shifts) and the free flow of commerce was assured when a proposal by the South to require a two-thirds majority to pass navigation acts was stricken. Virginia delegates were livid, none more so than the influential George Mason, who denounced the “infernal traffic” in a speech for which he has been incorrectly lauded by some historians, since he was convention’s largest slaveholder. (Rutledge was number two.) So upset was Mason that he refused to sign the Constitution, and Virginia, a state that had taken the lead in calling for a new constitution, only barely agreed to adopt the document during the ratifying conventions.

So, perhaps as Professor Wilentz suggests, the Constitution didn’t specifically anoint slavery as a national institution, but in clause after clause it tried to make certain that slavery would endure as one.


And Julia Azari:

Wilentz’s piece reads as if a clear delineation exists between national issues and state issues. It’s true that if you look at how day-to-day social policy was made and implemented, prior to the Progressive era, you find a more limited role for the federal government, and up until the New Deal you find much clearer boundaries. But just because this policy distinction held up, doesn’t mean that it applies to the Constitution or the political system generally. The relationship between federal government and the states was contested all the time. This happened in court cases like McCulloch v. Maryland, over the Constitutional status of the national bank, and Gibbons v. Ogden, which posed the question of control over waterways. The provisions of the Constitution intended to clarify what should be left to the states and what could fall under national control have never been obvious in their meaning. Furthermore, the question of whether the federal government was constituted by a compact of states, or represented a distinct entity on its own – a whole greater than the sum of its parts, legally – was a big controversy in the early republic. Andrew Jackson rejected the “compact theory” approach when he rejected South Carolina’s attempt to nullify tariff laws. Not everyone bought it, as evidenced by the eventual secession of the Confederate states. But to suggest that the early American republic was characterized by a clear boundary between national issues and local issues is to miss the basis of much of the political conflict from the Founding to the Civil War.

What’s notable here is that these historians don’t even have to try to refute Wilentz. The famous Wilentz now writes like an uninformed master’s student with an agenda. It’s pathetic and it’s sad. And so long as Bernie Sanders is in the race, we can probably expect more and we can probably expect the New York Times to publish it.

The Low Self-Esteem of Milo Yiannopoulos

[ 88 ] September 19, 2015 |

Actual photo of Milo Yiannopoulos

It’s hard to imagine someone having lower self-esteem than Milo Yiannopoulos. The woman who abetted two murderers because they were nice to her? Even she’s like “Wow, that Milo has some issues.” Indeed. Milo Yiannopoulos, a self-loathing gay man, seeks the approval of the elite. And by elite I mean basement-dwelling, misogynistic, emotionally-stunted, neckbearded, pseudo-nerds. There’s possibly no one on the planet more pathetic than Milo Yiannopolous. He’s worse than the woman who calls into shopping channels to rave about the latest offerings from Joy Mangano, she’s the woman who listens and nods along approvingly.

Some of you may know Milo from his role as Gamergate’s most dick-sucking cheerleader. Some of you may know him as the world’s best younger-hipper-Richard-Brookhiser-who-doesn’t-sleep-and-maybe-has-some-prostitutes-stashed-in-his-crawlspace impersonator. But mostly Milo is just a frightened little boy who desperately wants the approval of the internet’s new bullyboys: Gators, MRA’s and librotarians.

He’s furiously working the wangs of the bullyboys in his latest offering, a self-refuting mish-mash of evo-psych, MRA-speak, and dickcheese. If he weren’t such a loathsome human being, I’d feel sorry for him.

Oh, and a quick note on sexbots: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find bigger proponents than internet feminists. Feminists, of all people, are not coming to take your sexbots away. I, for one, am 1000% in favor of them. The idea of these dudes sequestering themselves away with their vidya, porn and bots makes me happy. It makes me really happy. I want these dudes to retreat more and more. I figure the more time they’re diddling their dolls, the less time they have to try to drive women to suicide, ya know? And, hey, if all the sexbot sexytime made them happy perhaps they’d learn to be less horrible. BRING ON THE SEXBOTS. Jesus Christ, they can’t get here fast enough.

UPDATE: It appears that some of you are concerned about my oral sex jokes. You don’t have reason to be. The only person who cares that Milo Yiannopoulos is gay is Milo Yiannopoulos. I wouldn’t even care if he were self-loathing if that self-loathing didn’t fuel him to use his platform to damage other gay people. But he is and he does, so there you have it. In the past I have made the almost identical joke about NRO’s Kevin D. Williamson, whom I’m assuming is not gay but is very certainly self-loathing. I think if there’s a lesson we can take from this it’s just that I am a rude, crude person. There’s nothing more nefarious going on here, I assure you.

Nobody Could Have Predicted German Engineering Being Used For Evil Purposes

[ 70 ] September 19, 2015 |



The Obama administration on Friday directed Volkswagen to recall nearly a half-million cars, saying the automaker illegally installed software in its diesel-power cars to evade standards for reducing smog.

The Environmental Protection Agency accused the German automaker of using software to detect when the car is undergoing its periodic state emissions testing. Only during such tests are the cars’ full emissions control systems turned on. During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. said.

“We expected better from Volkswagen,” said Cynthia Giles, the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance. She called the automaker’s actions “a threat to public health.”

This seems like a good test case for the Yates memo.

The Media and the Economy

[ 35 ] September 19, 2015 |

Neil Irwin had a piece on the disconnect between media coverage of the economy and the economy as actually experienced by everyday Americans:

If your entire understanding of the economy comes from headlines about the latest economic data, you would be forgiven for thinking these are the best of times. The unemployment rate is down to 5.1 percent, after all!

If your entire understanding of the economy comes from what is going on in financial markets, you would be forgiven for thinking the same. The stock market, its recent dip notwithstanding, is still not far from all-time highs!

That’s what makes the latest annual data on incomes, released by the Census Bureau on Wednesday morning, an important corrective.

The median American household in 2014 had a lower income, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it did in 2013. The $53,657 the household in the middle of the income distribution earned last year was down 1.5 percent from the year before, though the census said that shift was not statistically significant.

But even if that drop is a statistical blip and you assume that middle-class incomes were really flat, flat isn’t anything to celebrate in the current environment. The 2014 real median income number is 6.5 percent below its 2007, pre-crisis level. It is 7.2 percent below the number in 1999.

A middle-income American family, in other words, makes substantially less money in inflation-adjusted terms than it did 15 years ago. And there is no evidence that is reversing. Those families lost ground in 2014. And as we’ve reported previously, the data on wages in 2015 so far does not suggest there is a meaningful acceleration on the way.

The media coverage of the economy is shameful. So much of it is focused on the wealthy. The constant updating of the stock market, whether on CNN or NPR, is perhaps the most egregious symbol. This has nothing to do with the lives of most of us. As we have seen the last few years, the stock market can skyrocket while most of us live lives of making ends meet. But since the 1980s at least the stock market has been seen as a game we can all play. In the 1990s and then again before 2007, the mania was big enough that a lot of middle class were investing and thinking they were going to get rich off it. Didn’t quite happen that way. Meanwhile, the stock market actually rises the more working people are struggling, since layoffs and low wages and outsourcing mean more profits for the investors.

Meanwhile, as Irwin writes, even with unemployment numbers slightly down (although still not counting those who have left the job market entirely, those who are underemployed, and those who have to put together 2-3 jobs to survive, making this a pretty unhelpful statistic gamed to make the economy look better than it is), wages are terrible and aren’t recovering. Beginning with Occupy and now extending into the Fight for $15 and state-level minimum wage campaigns, people are organizing around fighting these problems. But while the media might cover some of it, it turns back to the stock market as quickly as possible. After all, NPR’s Marketplace needs to assure listeners that capitalism is as healthy as ever.

American Political Thought: Slavery and Freedom

[ 35 ] September 19, 2015 |

One of the courses in my standard rotation is American political thought, an upper division course that’s one of three courses (along with a general historical course and a general contemporary course) that fulfills our political science major’s political theory requirement. I’ve done the course as an overview/survey kind of affair, and it felt rather too disjointed and unorganized for my taste. I’m probably going to offer it in the Spring Semester, but (unlike previous offerings) as an honors class, and a seminar with a cap of roughly 15 students.

On the research side, I’ve been reading quite a bit of historical work on American slavery lately, in conjunction with a paper I’ve been working on. The impulse behind the paper is this: political theorists, particularly republicans, theorize the concept of freedom against slavery, but the version of ‘slavery’ they work with is often quite abstract and ahistorical. How (I ask) might our understanding of freedom change if we used a more historically sensitive vision of slavery as our mirror concept?

I’ll post something more about my answer to that question in some later post, when it’s ready to be published and/or my answer is more thoroughly worked out (for any political theory readers, I’ll be presenting the latest version of this paper at the Association for Political Theory conference at CU-Boulder next month). My purpose here is to throw up a very early draft of my planned syllabus, in which I’m proposing to explore American political thought through the theme of ‘freedom and slavery,’ integrating historical and theoretical work. I’m in the planning stage–this is already probably a bit overstuffed, but I’m open to stuffing it some more before I begin the winnowing down to what I’ll actually assign. This is something of a new area of interest for me, so there’s a pretty good chance I’ve missed something obvious and important; indeed, that’s one of my motivations for posting this here at this stage.

One thing I was hoping to include is an exchange between Frederick Douglass and Stanton, Anthony, and some other suffragists on the 15th Amendment. All in the exchange were in agreement that ideally women should have been included, but there was disagreement about whether to support a 15th amendment that didn’t include women. Douglass (and, IIRC, some suffragist but not Stanton or Anthony) argued that it should be supported, as the need for voting rights as a tool of self-defense was more urgent for (male) former slaves than for women. I have a distinct memory of this exchange being reprinted in some anthology. I could have sworn it was Sue Davis’ excellent but out of print American Political Thought: Four Hundred Years of Ideas and Ideologies but the internet tells me I’m wrong about that. If anyone knows where that exchange can be found, I’d be grateful.


American Political Thought: Slavery and Freedom

University of Dayton, Spring 2016

When Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” he betrayed a rare failure of irony, not to mention a superficial grasp of the idea of liberty. There was nothing at all hypocritical or anomalous about the southerner’s highly developed sense of honor and freedom. Those who most dishonor and constrain others are in the best position to appreciate what a joy it is to possess what they deny.  –Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 94.

It’s commonplace for political theorists to note that our understanding of freedom—what it entails, demands, and requires—is deeply influenced and shaped by slavery, both as an idea and a social fact. It’s probably not a coincidence that slave societies, such as ancient Athens and Rome, and of course The United States, were particularly fixated on the concept and nature of freedom. This course asks a deceptively simple question: how has the experience of being a slave society shaped the American understanding of freedom? This can be framed as a question for theorists or for historians, but we’re going to treat it as both simultaneously, reading work in both fields alongside each other. We’ll occasionally veer into comparative dimensions of slavery, but try to keep our focus primarily on the American experience, its legacy, and responses to it. We’ll strive to consider how slavery has shaped understandings of freedom (in theory and practice) for both White America and the Black America (before and after emancipation), open to the possibility that there might be significant differences there.

Week 1: Slavery, freedom and American citizenship

  • Judith Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Harvard, 1991)
  • Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of American History 59:1 (1972), 5-28

Week 2: The American experience: Slavery in a capitalist society

  • James Oakes: Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (Norton, 1990)
  • selections from Ed Baptiste, The Other Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic, 2014)
  • Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” Journal of the Early Republic 24:3 (2004), 299-308.

Week 3: Jefferson, slavery and freedom in colonial Virginia

  • Selections from Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, book I (Norton, 1975)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
  • Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Bishop Henri Gregoire” (1808) and “Letter to Joel Barlow” (1809)
  • Paul Finkelman, “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (1994), 193-228.

Week 4: Slavery, the framers, and the constitution

  • Mark Graber, “The Constitutional Politics of Slavery,” pp. 91-125 in Dred Scott and the Politics of Constitutional Evil (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Paul Finkelman, “Making a Covenant With Death: Slavery and the Constitutional Convention,” pp. 3-35 in Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (ME Sharpe, 2001)
  • Publius, Federalist Papers #54
  • U.S. Constitution, Slavery Clauses: Art. I, sec. 2, cl. 3; Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 15; Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 1; Art. IV, sec. 2, cls. 1, 3
  • James Madison, “Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves” (1789)
  • Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field, “Reasons for Dissent” (1788)
  • Donald Hickey, “America’s Response to the Slave Revolt in Haiti, 1791-1806,” Journal of the Early Republic 2:4 (1982), 361-379

Week 5: Varieties of White Abolitionism

  • Samuel Sewall, “The Selling of Joseph” (1701)
  • Selections from James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764)
  • William Lloyd Garrison, selected columns from The Liberator
  • Angelina Grimke, excerpt from “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836)

Week 6: In defense of slavery

  • Selections from Dew, Simms, Hammond, and Harper, The Pro-Slavery Argument (as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the Southern States) (1853)
  • Selections from George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, or Slaves without Masters (1852)
  • John Calhoun, Speech to the Senate (1837)

Week 7: The question of wage slavery

Week 8: Slaves Seeking Freedom (I) Narrating slavery, freedom, and the transition: Frederick Douglass

  • Douglass, My Freedom and My Bondage
  • Douglass, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Week 9: Slaves seeking freedom (II): Marronage

  • Selections from Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago, 2015)
  • Selections from Slyvia Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of America’s Maroons (NYU, 2014)
  • John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, “The Quest for Freedom: Runaway Slaves and the Plantation South,” in Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom, edited by Gabor Boritt and Scott Hancock (Oxford 2008), 21-39
  • Daniel Sayers et al, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp,” International Journal of Historical Archeology 11:1 (2007), 60-97

Week 10: Slaves seeking freedom (III) economy and culture

  • Selections from George Rawick, From Sun-down to Sun-up: The Making of Black Community (Greenwood, 1972)
  • Selections from Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America (Oxford, 1997)
  • Alex Lichtenstein, “‘That Disposition to Theft, With Which They Have Been Branded’: Moral Economy, Slave Management and the Law,” Journal of Social History 21:3 (1988): 413-440.

Week 11: The aftermath of emancipation/reconstruction

  • Booker T Washington, “Atlanta Exposition Speech” (1895)
  • Selections from Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  • Selections from Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
  • Selections from Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution

Week 12: The aftermath of emancipation/reconstruction, cont.

  • Selections from Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (LSU, 1983)
  • Selections from William Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor 2009)

Week 13: The legacies of slavery, freedom and white supremacy in the 21st century

Week 14: Conclusion, new directions, etc

  • Sharon Krause, “What is Freedom?” and “Plural Freedom”, chapters 4-5 of Freedom Beyond Sovereignty: Reconstructing Liberal Individualism (Chicago, 2015)
  • Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson, “The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment,” Columbia Law Review 112:7 (2012), 1459-1499
  • David Watkins, “Freedom and Slavery in Theory and Practice”


This Day in Labor History: September 19, 1977

[ 52 ] September 19, 2015 |

On September 19, 1977, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company shut down its operations, laying off approximately 4100 workers. This event, which became known as Black Monday, was emblematic of the deindustrialization decimating the Youngstown economy and dooming it and cities like it to long-term decline and entrenched poverty it has not recovered from today.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube opened in 1900, one of many heavy industries establishing themselves throughout cities in the Midwest and Northeast in the Gilded Age. This company helped make Youngstown a steel town. U.S. Steel had large operations there. Republic Steel did as well. These steel mills made Youngstown. It was only a small town before the Civil War, growing from 3000 in 1860 to 45,000 in 1900 and 167,000 in 1940. Youngstown soon became the nation’s second biggest producer of steel, only behind Pittsburgh. The city became a home to thousands of immigrants, particularly Italians, Croatians, and Slovaks, who migrated for the brutally hard but comparatively remunerative work, at least compared to their home nations. But that doesn’t mean they were satisfied with their low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, and lack of a voice on the job. The fight to unionize these and the rest of the nation’s steel factories had been a long, hard, and even deadly struggle. But the success of the United Steelworkers of America in the 1940s transformed this hardscrabble town into one where hard work was still central to its identity, but where hard work also paid good wages with benefits that would raise workers into the middle class. It also increasingly attracted an African-American and Latino workforce; by 1977, 23 percent of Youngstown Steel and Tube workers were racial minorities.


By the 1970s, the jobs were disappearing from Youngstown quickly. Youngstown Steel and Tube was sold to the Lykes Corporation, a shipping conglomerate based in New Orleans and who had little interest in running a factory that was struggling in the face of international competition. On September 19, 1977, the 4100 workers showed up on the job, only to be told they were being laid off. Over the next several weeks, they experienced their final day on the job and for many, their final day working in a steel mill. That was the end of not only an era of work, but of a way of life and a community identity. Throughout this period, the USWA continued representing its members as well as possible. But in the aftermath of the 1959 strike, the government and the industries that relied on steel began looking for international competition to make up the gap for the periodic shortages caused by frequent strikes. At the same time, American allies in Japan and South Korea began producing a lot of steel in modern mills for low prices. Soon, not only was the USWA cowed from more strikes, but the steel companies found themselves in a rapidly declining industry. American steel mills innovated and remained quite productive, but between 1969 and 1978, employment in American steel declined by 17 percent, a loss of 95,000 jobs.

If this was the only factory to close, Youngstown might have recovered. But the combination of foreign competition and newly unrestrained capital mobility meant it was repeated over and over. In 1979, the Brier Hill mill closed. In 1980, U.S. Steel closed its Ohio and McDonald Works. In 1985, Republic Steel shuttered its Youngstown mill. 50,000 workers in Youngstown lost their jobs during these years, in steel, other industries, and the stores and shops that relied upon steel wages for an economically healthy community. By 1992, only about 1000 people worked in Youngstown steel mills, compared to 40,000 after World War II. With companies able to close at any time without giving workers any time to prepare, it could be devastating. George Chonock was 62 years old when Youngstown Steel and Tube told him on a Monday that his last day would be Thursday. He had 3 days to prepare. Of course there was nothing he could do in that time. Companies also started letting workers know plants were closing by announcing at the bargaining table for the next contract negotiations, forcing USWA officials to spread the news, a last slap in the face of the unions they always hated.

As has happened more often than you’d think, local community members, in this case led by churches, tried to buy one of the old steel mills and run them as workers’ cooperatives. But this failed pretty quickly as the federal government refused to give the effort funding. People fought in other ways. When U.S. Steel shut its operations, workers occupied the company headquarters in Pittsburgh. But all U.S. Steel really had to do was wait them out. The companies had all the power here. A coalition of religious and union leaders filed a lawsuit, arguing for a new form of eminent domain that prioritized community property over private property that would stop plants from closing immediately like this. This went nowhere but is a really great idea and is part of the package of ideas we need to stop the New Gilded Age with extreme capital mobility.


Conservatives, including the business leaders of Youngstown, responded with contempt for the workers. Local business leaders invited conservatives like Michael Novak and Irving Kristol to come give talks about how what the workers were really experiencing was creative destruction that they would soon overcome if they were deserving. Major news publications basically reported the same story. Business Week took the opportunity to blame environmentalists, even though pollution controls had nothing to do with it, despite the EPA telling steel mills to stop dumping wastes into the Mahoning River. Meanwhile in the real world, community decline set in fast. Between 1970 and 2000, the population of Youngstown fell from 141,000 to 82,000. Today it has about 65,000 people. By the mid-1980s, Youngstown had the nation’s highest arson rate. Enormous stretches of the city are abandoned. The sewer system does not work properly because it was planned for growth and decline means not enough water flows through to wash the wastes away, and then when heavy rains fall, the dilapidated system discharges into lakes in the city’s parks. The steel companies and their descendants have not taken responsibility for the long-term pollution they inflicted upon the city. And of course, this all inspired the famous Bruce Springsteen song.

I borrowed from a few different sources for this post, including Steven High, Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rustbelt, 1969-1984 and the essay by John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon in Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott, eds., Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization.

This is the 158th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Spam! Italian Spam!

[ 10 ] September 19, 2015 |

4d799ce06b6e74ae97a1cc59ccc80a22As a few of you have noted, there’s currently a low-key problem with the Facebook feed.  Someone has figured out a way to convince our automated posting service to pick up some Italian advertising spam in the conversion from RSS to Facebook.  We’re working on it.

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