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This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1937

[ 13 ] April 2, 2017 |

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On April 2, 1937, workers at the Hershey Chocolate Corporation in Hershey, Pennsylvania sat down on the job. Following the lead of the General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan a few months earlier, these workers demanded the company live up to the contract it had recently signed. Unlike that previous struggle however, Hershey would respond with violence, demonstrating the limitations of the tactic.

Milton Hershey founded his chocolate company in 1894. He, like many capitalists of the era, decided to construct a company town, of course named after himself. This he did in southeastern Pennsylvania. A bit like Henry Ford, he was worried about the terrible conditions of the cities and so wanted a nice-looking town for his employees. He even built an amusement park in 1907 for them. He was an early adopter of the welfare capitalism that would come to prominence in American industry during the 1920s. But while this was all better than living under the smokestacks in a steel mill, the point of a company town is to control workers and that was certainly the case for Hershey as well, just as it was for his contemporary George Pullman. Personal relationships meant everything when it came to hiring and firing, causing great resentment among workers. And Hershey worked them hard, up to 60 hours a week as late as the 1920s. When the Great Depression began, he reduced them to 40 hours and of course reduced their pay as well, although he tried to avoid layoffs. During the early 1930s, he spent up to $10 million building nice buildings in his company town while his workers faced dire poverty.

Near the end of 1936, workers began to organize. They created a newspaper called “The Chocolate Bar-B” that expressed their discontent and spread it around the factory. It was produced by workers at the factory who had converted to the communist cause and wanted workers to unionize over issues of long hours, low wages, and terrible workplace conditions, especially noise and heat in the factory. By January 1937, with the industrial organizing of the newly formed CIO coming more into the open, CIO organizers met secretly with Hershey workers. They immediately formed the United Chocolate Workers and soon had hundreds of members, with about 80% of the workforce joining. At first it looked like Hershey would cave. When they came to him, he immediately said he would raise wages to 60 cents an hour for men and 45 cents an hour for women and they came to initial agreement in March. But as part of that agreement, union organizers were not supposed to be fired.

Hershey had second thoughts about that. Claiming declining business required layoffs, he fired the organizers, which violated the seniority agreement in the new contract. On April 2, union president Red “Bull” Behman waved a red handkerchief to start the strike. The workers inside copied the tactics now becoming common in CIO organizing campaigns: they sat down on the job. About 1200 workers were involved. They did not want this to be a radical action that would destroy property. They set up cameras to make sure that no property was damaged and they banned smoking in the factory to be sure nothing burned. But there were problems from the beginning. The strike was not competently run and the strikers had to sit-down in shifts of 400, meaning the factory actually stayed open. The strikers were also indifferent to the 240,000 quarters that would spoil, creating immediate divisions between the strikers and the local farmers supplying that milk, a rare localism in supply chains, even at this time.

By this point, Hershey himself was in semi-retirement and company president William Murrie was more of a hard-liner. He rallied the local farmers who were losing money by not selling their milk to Hershey, their only market. He started holding rallies in nearby towns to build opposition to the union. They created a mob to attack the factory and physically remove the strikers. Along with some workers loyal to the company, on April 8, they attacked the sit-down strikers. This may have happened semi-spontaneously at it seems that Behman and Murrie had already agreed to end the occupation. In any case, outnumbering the strikers inside about 4:1, they grabbed bats and bricks and started beating the strike leaders. By the end of the day, about 1000 workers had signed an anti-union loyalty pledge, some because of fear but some because they were genuinely disgusted by the CIO tactics.

This led to an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, which forced Hershey to hold a union election. The creation of the NLRB cannot be overstated in its importance. In the past, Hershey would have simply fired all the organizers at this point and used violence to ensure their factory stayed union-free. Now, the government made sure an election would be held while taking no position on the sit-down strike, a tactic the Roosevelt administration was distinctly uncomfortable with. Intimidating the workers after the violence, the company ensure that a quasi-company union would win, a tactic used by a lot of employers in 1937 until the National Labor Relations Act was declared constitutional, which had banned company unions. The NLRB threw this election out and ordered a new one held. In 1939, that election happened and the workers chose the AFL-affiliated Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. The company union was dead in the town but so was the CIO, and this was not by intimidation but rather by the poorly planned sit-down strike and failed organizing efforts after the strike ended. The CIO had misjudged the sit-down strikes’ popularity and the moderate tone taken by Pennsylvania governor George Earle’s to it led to the destruction of his political career and his resounding defeat in a Senate run in 1938. The new governor, the Republican Arthur James, immediately signed a law banning sit-down strikes when he took office in 1939. Finally, Hershey came to an agreement with the BCW, making it one of the first candy companies to be unionized. Old Milton Hershey himself was devastated, seeing his industrial utopia destroyed by strife he hoped to avoid through never allowing workers a voice on the job.

The sit-down strike declined precipitously after the Hershey failure. Even by the end of 1937, it was rarely used. These proved not only tremendously difficult to pull off, but also deeply alienating to the general public in this conservative nation. Workers themselves were rarely united around the issue and the early victories at Flint and other factories could not be replicated elsewhere.

I borrowed from Robert Weir, “Dark Chocolate: Lessons from the 1937 Hershey Sit-Down Strike,” published in Labor History’s January 2015 issue in the writing of this post.

This is the 216th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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Sandwiches Perhaps Improved by Ketchup

[ 203 ] March 16, 2017 |

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Of course Trump not only eats at McDonald’s, but prefers the Filet o Fish. This may actually be a greater crime than putting ketchup on steak. That is a righteously disgusting sandwich, a concoction evidently created to give Catholics something to eat on Fridays but never improved over its original invention in 1962, a true peak year of American cuisine. Of course, the Filet o Fish was invented in Cincinnati, home of America’s worst regional food tradition. Of course it was. Though I’m surprised St. Louis isn’t claiming it as its own.

Meanwhile, I have been spending the last few days in West Virginia exploring the menu of one of the nation’s regional fast food chains, Tudor’s Biscuit World. The sausage and egg biscuit is highly recommended. My heart may not appreciate it but the rest of me is happy.

Minnesota’s Food Crimes

[ 127 ] March 10, 2017 |

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Minnesota has a lot to answer for on the culinary front. That includes from their members of Congress.

It’s that time when Al Franken makes jokes and eats casserole. Or, as he and his Minnesota colleagues call it, hotdish.

Rep. Collin C. Peterson won the seventh annual Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hotdish Competition with his dish that had bear in it.

It was called “Right to Bear Arms.”

“This bear was shot by Mike in my ag office,” Peterson said. But, ahe dded that it was shot in Wisconsin and cooked by the staffer, not him. Franken, the host of the event, was cracking up.

The senator humorously apologized for Peterson getting political and thanked the crowd for joining the event.

Hilarious. Oh Mike, you and your bear shooting. Of course this is just one of many, many culinary crimes from Minnesota. And to say the least, the fact that said hotdish contest gets a 1500 word or so write up in the Minneapolis newspaper is plenty telling.

We Deserve Trump

[ 180 ] March 6, 2017 |

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There’s plenty we could talk about this evening. The Republican health care “plan.” Muslim Ban 2: Racist Boogaloo. DHS Secretary Kelly talking about the Gestapo ICE splitting up parents from children when undocumented immigrants are caught. All kinds of fun times.

But we need to talk about something really important, an issue that demonstrates why this nation deserves Donald Trump. And that is Peeps filled Oreos. It’s a known objective fact that Peeps are the worst candy in human history. Sure, make an argument for those orange circus peanuts things if you want. But Peeps are utterly grotesque and probably what what you get when Sean Spicer dresses up at the Easter Bunny. I don’t really eat cookies, but if I was to eat a mass-produced major brand cookie, I might well eat an Oreo. Under normal circumstances, they aren’t hateable, even if the stuffing is scary unidentifiable material. So why would you fill it with a flavor that would actually be improved with a dose of ketchup? I recognize that industrial food manufacturers, like any other makers of consumer products, are constantly looking for new products. Sometimes even the craziest ideas, like the Dorito shell tacos, are big hits. So the issue here is not with Mondelez, the French-sounding name given to the megacorp that Nabisco became, even if that company is vile in their outsourcing labor practices. It’s with people who would see this and say, “I want Peeps-stuffed Oreos because I can’t get enough Peeps.” Who would say this? Trump voters, I assume. But at least they are getting their comeuppance:

Who would have thought the 21st Century would produce so many food items that turn people’s poop abnormal colors that the topic would require its own custom search tag on many an internet blog? Yet here we are. Barely a year after Burger King’s all black goth-burger had people shedding green turds and uploading the photo evidence to social media (NSFL), people are claiming the new Peep flavored Oreos are turning their poops pink.

This is the best possible result for this abomination. Certainly the experience of seeing your feces contaminated with colors never seen anywhere close to nature is a better fate than actually tasting this horror.

And now we see why we have elected a man who thinks that his shitty restaurant’s taco salad is a good way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and who eats his steak well-done and covered in ketchup is president of these United States.

Happy Pancake Day

[ 48 ] February 28, 2017 |

Hey, it’s Pancake Day. Enjoy!

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We Need Open Borders In Order to Cleanse This Nation of the Eating Habits of Old White Men

[ 193 ] February 27, 2017 |

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We’ve known this for awhile, but once again, Donald Trump eats his steaks well-done with ketchup.

“The President ordered a well-done steak. An aged New York strip. He ate it with catsup as he always does. The sides and appetizers on the table were shared. Three jumbo shrimp cocktails were delivered before the meal. At one point, the President looked at his watch and remarked ”They are filming ‘Saturday Night Live’ right now. Can’t wait to see what they are gonna do to me this week.“ It was hard to serve him because he is so funny and relaxed, it makes you laugh.”

Do we call this Putin-style steak?

Mislabled Fish

[ 75 ] January 15, 2017 |

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I am not generally the biggest fish fan in the world, and the intellectual jumps Catholics make to say fish is not meat is just hilarious to the outsider, but I do like good sushi, oysters, lobster rolls, the very occasional fried fish sandwich, Veracruz-style preparations in Mexico, etc. In other words, I eat fish perhaps once every other month or so. But the entire fish supply chain is full of outright fraud, with sellers claiming fish is one thing when it is another. Given that we are eating our way through the ocean’s bounty with remarkable speed, you would think that people could at least figure out what animal they are eating from the taste. However, they rarely can, even when eating sushi, which is basically the purest form of eating fish. That it takes DNA scans to confirm that a fish is what its sellers claims it is and that so often it is not, I guess the question I have is why eat it in the first place if we don’t even know what it is. I suppose that we always take it for granted that we aren’t eating horse or dog when we buy ground beef. Or maybe we just want meat, no matter what it is, and honestly don’t really care outside of the social norms about a) not eating certain types of animals and b) social status for eating supposedly better cuts of fish and other animals.

Lighthearted (If Heavygutted) News

[ 25 ] December 2, 2016 |

In more amusing news than most of what we are seeing in the world these days, I’m glad the person in charge of the great 70s Dinner Party Twitter feed has published a book based upon it.

America’s Greatest Failure

[ 121 ] September 12, 2016 |

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I still maintain that the United States allowing Canada to exist is the nation’s greatest policy failing. Here’s yet another reason why:

I’ve tried to remember when ketchup chips first came into my life, but it’s a little like trying to remember the first time I wet the bed. I grew up in the 1980s in Canada, a country that takes its wack-job salty snack foods seriously. Few of these are more revered than ketchup chips. For a while in my early teen years you could determine my age from the blood-red rings of ketchup seasoning that permeated deep into my fingers and palms.

This is the point where my American friends usually start retching loudly, as if the thought of ketchup-flavored potato chips is somehow too much for their delicate constitutions—too upsetting for a nation of people who’ll happily down a couple Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme, three pints of Coke, and a family pack of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns as a post-breakfast snack.

Though ketchup chips are pretty much the most American snack food ever invented, by most accounts their origins, along with their fan base, lie north of the border. Canadians, being Canadians, remind Americans of this at every chance. We want ketchup chips to become a part of you like they’re a part of us.

The best ketchup chips are made by Lay’s and sold only in Canada. They’re a masterpiece of MSG-laden zip and crunch. The beauty of Lay’s ketchup chips is that they don’t taste at all like actual ketchup: They taste like ketchup’s component parts, without the wet. You get the slap of vinegar and citric acid, the sweet, synapse-twerking pull of cooked tomatoes and sugar, the crunch of deep-fried potato starch, and all the lip-sticking salt of a Dead Sea skinny dip. Which is to say they’re snack-time solid gold. Most good Canadians can eat a quarter-kilogram bag in a go.

A “quarter-kilogram”? Is this some sort of code for infiltrating our great nation without ketchup chips? Or do they use some sort of weird anachronistic measurement that proves their savage nature? If we simply invade and obliterate Canada, we can provide them freedom, by which of course I mean they will now be eating this:

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Remember 1813!

Hey, White People Have Appropriated Black Culture Again!

[ 252 ] September 1, 2016 |

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Nashville hot chicken has become a thing. A recent write up of this phenomenon of a dish long eaten by the area’s African-American population credited white people for making it happen. Um, no.

George Embiricos at Food Republic has written a hot mess of an article on Hattie B’s hot chicken that gives credit for the popularity of the dish to the white guys who took a piece of black culinary culture and made it cool. This is not me paraphrasing. This is literally what Embiricos says:

Today, Hattie B’s has two Nashville locations, in addition to one in Birmingham, Alabama, with plans to expand throughout the Southeast. Lengthy lines — packed with locals, tourists and celebrities alike — regularly stretch down the block during peak times. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack may have created hot chicken in the 1930s, and institutions like Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish may have helped preserve the tradition over the years, but Hattie B’s has made hot chicken cool.

Before Hattie B’s opened, there was plenty of hot chicken in Nashville, but the emphasis was always on the “hot” part. Lasater put more focus on the chicken, using high-quality birds. That, combined with a central location, an outdoor patio, pairing the chicken with sweet options like waffles and offering local beers on tap, changed the hot-chicken experience. All have proved vital to Hattie B’s sustained success, cementing its place among the city’s staples.

Let me remind you, it’s 2016. We’ve lived through white people “inventing” rock & roll so they could sell it to white people and then half a century of people — black and white — pointing out that it’s an older art form than that. We’ve lived through a century of “vulgar” “exotic” “indecent” dances done by black kids becoming “fun” and “energetic” and “cool” when white kids do it — see everything from the hop straight through breakdancing through whatever kids are doing today. Graffiti, when black kids were doing it, was criminal and fed into gang culture. Banksy does it and now it’s worth preserving and spending money to collect it. There’s not a black art form, food included, that by this point hasn’t been popularized by white people and then the popularized version celebrated by white media like white people invented it, or at least, perfected it.

If, at this point, you’re still writing articles where black people have been doing shit for years, going mostly unnoticed by white people, and it’s only when the white people come in and decide to monetize it that you declare it cool, then you are the problem with America.

Indeed. Racism has many forms. Among them is ignoring long histories of African-American food culture to appropriate it for whites using fancy hipster words.

Local Food? What About Local Farm Working Conditions?

[ 36 ] August 25, 2016 |

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Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.

But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.

Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.

The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.

Manuel expounded on this point:

I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.

The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.

One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”

Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.

These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.

Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.

A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.

There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.

In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.

This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:

If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.

While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.

And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.

Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.

Indeed.

Cherry Catsup Salad

[ 96 ] August 24, 2016 |

As is clear by now, like many others, I am both fascinated and horrified by postwar food. The terrible recipes of the 1950s-1970s are a wonder to behold. Today, I was introduced to this.

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Color me shocked that this horror comes from South Dakota. Probably some distant relative of mine. Really, this is the single worst ketchup-based recipe I have ever seen. And that’s a high bar!

I have discovered as well that there is a website devoted to making and trying these food catastrophes. You may not be surprised that this is a terrible recipe.

This didn’t go together at all. At all! If you have ever had a bite of ketchup-covered hot dog in your mouth and washed it down with a gulp of cherry Kool-Aid, then you know what this gelatin tasted like. It tasted like a bad idea. Add a bite of salad to that mouthful, and you have the complete flavor profile: A bunch of random ingredients, thrown together and suspended in gelatin. I can guess that this was supposed to be a type of side to be served with meat, like a sauce or a chutney, but I can’t think of the type of meat that this would compliment. Except for hot dogs, apparently. In this gelatin’s defense, it had a good, crunchy texture. And it did remind us of summer through the whole hot-dog Kool-Aid thing. But other than that it was a bunch of different flavors all happening at once. And all those flavors told us ketchup and cherry gelatin do not go together well.

The canned black olives may be the worst part of a very bad idea. Even worse than the ketchup. What’s with canned black olives? It’s like postwar food companies decided to take a wonderful food, with hundreds if not thousands of awesome varieties, and breed them to make a really terrible tasting olive that somehow worked brilliantly on the market. I guess it’s forgivable in the 1970s. Not sure why on earth someone would eat them now. I figure the use of canned black olives is a good sign that one shouldn’t eat at a given pizza place, although the even less forgivable use of canned mushrooms is more telling. Anyway, you all should make this recipe and report back.

Also, this California prune cream salad from 1934 is seriously the most disgusting historical artifact I have ever run across.

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Night night! Sweet dreams!

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