The Los Angeles Times has another installment in its outstanding series of labor exploitation on the Mexican vegetable farms that supply U.S. markets. This piece is on the rampant use of child labor that picks your vegetables. Once again, American corporations openly seek these arrangements out to lower costs. It should be illegal and they should be prosecuted for selling products made with child labor.
Prison labor not only takes jobs away from non-prisoners who earn wages, but it is a corrupt system that does not save the state money, as the Seattle Times reports. There is also no evidence this unpaid labor creates skills for prisoners they can use upon their release.
But behind CI’s glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor, a Seattle Times investigation has found.
Far from being self-sufficient, CI has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent over three years on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.
CI has reaped millions of dollars — money it keeps — by inflating prices of furniture it sells to state agencies and public universities, capitalizing on a law that requires they buy from prison factories. In many cases, prisoners didn’t make the items, but CI instead bought prebuilt furniture then resold it with markups, previously undisclosed state records show.
The Times also found dozens of private business owners in Seattle and statewide who say they’ve had to stop hiring or lay off workers, victimized by unfair competition from an inmate workforce paid as little as 55 cents an hour.
“Have we had some problems?” said Danielle Armbruster, director of Correctional Industries. “Absolutely.”
“I believe in this program. We hope to expand and reach even more inmates. If we help just one inmate, then that’s one less victim in the future.”
But CI can’t substantiate that key claim — that inmates who work in Correctional Industries commit fewer crimes after release than those who do not. State recidivism studies often contradict each other and are rife with shortcomings, failing to account for thousands of inmates who commit new crimes, according to a Times analysis.
Likewise, officials have publicly claimed that CI inmates more successfully gained jobs after release, but they actually have no idea which offenders get jobs or where they’re working.
While for prisoners themselves, doing something with their time is better than sitting in their cell, the problems with prison labor are myriad.
It’s hard to argue against Harold Meyerson’s point that it is a lot easier to win higher wages for 100,000 people than to unionize 4000. Or unionize 20. The barriers to both winning a union election and securing a first contract are so great today, even as there is such an overwhelming desire to raise minimum wages by the Maoists making up the electorate of Nebraska and Arkansas, that it leaves one despairing for organized labor’s future while having strong hopes for real worker victories at the ballot box. The problem of course, as Meyerson well knows, is that unions are not just about minimum wages. They are about dignity on the job, grievance procedures, collective actions, benefits, and wages above the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is an unalloyed good, but it is not the be all and end all of progressive economic legislation. Plus, unions play a major role in these struggles for higher minimum wages but with each lost job, each shuttered local, each failed contract campaign, they lose the economic basis to provide that key support. So the future of these struggles remains tenuous as well.
Growers in the Fair Food Program are prohibited from firing workers who complain about working conditions. Paychecks must be calculated based on electronic time card systems, which are difficult to fudge. Growers must hire their workers directly rather than through labor contractors, comply with surprise inspections, and they have to fire supervisors who abuse or sexually harass worker, or who allow children to work in their fields. Workers’ complaints, collected via a 24-7 hotline, are investigated within two days of being received.
If the FFSC finds that a grower both failed to follow the rules and failed to correct them once caught, the corporate buyer switches to another approved grower, and the noncompliant grower loses business.
This fall, Whole Foods was the first retailer to introduce the Fair Food Label, a labeling program for tomatoes grown under FFSC, in stores. “It’s been a wonderful program,” says Erik Brown, senior global produce buyer for Whole Foods, adding that it helped him to bring “dignity” to his work.
In the program’s first four years, FFSC staff interviewed 7,500 workers in person, and processed nearly 600 complaints from workers, according to the report. Of those, the FFSC found about 40 percent were valid reports of violations of the Fair Food Program; another third of complaints were for conditions not covered by the program. Over the same period, the FFSC suspended seven growers from its program.
This should be the standard, with routine real inspections and a process to deal with problems. This is what needs to happen everywhere from the apparel factories of Bangladesh to the vegetable farms of Mexico. Anywhere that sends products to the United States. Instead, this is a unique program developed in response to a decade or organizing the Florida tomato fields by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of Latino farmworkers. The CIW is hoping to expand this to the state’s berry fields and spread it around the nation. That would be great. But it shouldn’t take this level of organizing to win these kinds of inspections. They should be government mandated.
Here we have yet another article on the decline of the middle class, by which of course the author actually means the words you can’t say in America–the working class. In other words, we had good paying jobs that allowed people to be upwardly mobile. Now we don’t. And now I’m going to write 2000 words on the mystery of why this is instead of just saying the obvious, which is that corporate greed led to massive outsourcing which undercut unions which undercut the ability of the working class to influence policy. This led to policies allowing the elite to concentrate wealth in their own bank accounts they could use to create policies even more favorable to themselves. Thus the jobless recoveries, purchasing of elections (and even more influence in policy!), shrinking economic safety net, long-term unemployment, and generational declines in economic mobility when compared to people’s parents.
I know the Washington Post doesn’t want to run a column ripping corporations and policy makers for greed, but that is actually the answer to why we have a downwardly mobile working class and shocking levels of income inequality.
The above quote is how Michael Powell describes the NFL in this Times article on the horrible treatment of the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleaders, a problem experienced by these workers through the NFL.
Supervisors ordered the cheerleaders, known as the Buffalo Jills, to warm up in a frigid, grubby stadium storeroom that smelled of gasoline. They demanded that cheerleaders pay $650 for uniforms. They told the cheerleaders to do jumping jacks to see if flesh jiggled.
The Jills were required to attend a golf tournament for sponsors. The high rollers paid cash — “Flips for Tips” — to watch bikini-clad cheerleaders do back flips. Afterward, the men placed bids on which women would ride around in their golf carts.
A not-incidental detail: The carts had no extra seats. Women clung to the back or, much more to the point, were invited to sit in the men’s laps.
For these and more humiliations, and for hundreds of hours of work and practices, Alyssa and her fellow cheerleaders on the Buffalo Jills received not a penny of wages, not from the subcontractor and certainly not from the Buffalo Bills, a team that each year makes revenue in excess of $200 million.
I’m sure if more cities would fund the stadiums of billionaire owners, they’d finally have enough to pay cheerleaders a living wage. Or, you know, any wage. The Bills are only team to pay the cheerleaders nothing, but most pay them horribly.
The outstanding New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse took the New York Times buyout and is leaving the paper. The chances the Times will replace him with a full-time labor reporter I’d guess are slightly north of 0 so it’s real loss. Greenhouse sat down with Lydia DePillis for a conversation about his career and what has happened to American unions. His discussion of organized labor’s decline is worth noting here.
Q: You started at a pretty interesting time for the labor movement — as it was really headed into decline. Where did unions go wrong? Were there avoidable mistakes?
A: For two decades, maybe three decades, unions fell asleep at the wheel in terms of organizing. Under the late George Meany, and under Lane Kirkland, they were working very hard to represent the workers, but they didn’t work hard to grow and add members. During the 1980s, businesses became much more aggressive in demanding concessions from unions in collective bargaining. That was spurred in part by President Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 for their illegal strike. And also there was the horrific recession of 1982, and that combined with the real pressures of globalization, in the steel industry, tire industry, oil industry. American companies thought they needed to get much more serious about pulling down costs, fighting foreign competition, and they saw that the way to do that was to get much much tougher in fighting labor unions.
Q: When did unions figure out that something was wrong?
A: In my view, one of the reasons why John Sweeney was elected [as head of the AFL-CIO] in 1995 was that the leaders of other unions realized that labor was doing far too little organizing, that labor was too defensive. He was trying to show more energy to grow and fight back. So in 1995, he had what looked like a very promising plan to reverse labor’s decline. And he got the AFL-CIO to spend far more money on organizing; he worked very hard to ally with immigrants, with young workers, with faith leaders.
If you had a management consultant come up with the 10 things labor needed to do to turn around, I think Sweeney did eight or nine of those things. And even so, labor was really not able to reverse its slide. The main reason for that was continued very strong and sophisticated resistance to unionization drives. And a second factor is that unions were asleep at the wheel in the 1970s and ’80s about spreading their message and making people realize that union members weren’t just a bunch of well-paid workers trying to maintain their privileges and great benefits, didn’t do enough to explain to the public at large the advantages, especially to lower-wage workers.
So when in the late 1990s unions were really trying to rally people, I think a lot of the workforce knew very little about unions, didn’t care about unions, what they heard about unions was always negative, like unions were involved in a strike, closing down rail, there was a fight with teachers unions demanding more wages. Unions allowed themselves to be seen in the negative. If unions were going to turn around, they needed to show more that they were a positive force, that they deliver for workers and society.
In 1995, when John Sweeney led this new voice of labor movement, they saw real promise in turning around and expanding the labor movement. And I think the big difference now with Richard Trumka is they realize, labor’s gotten much weaker, and we really need to ally themselves with other powerful groups in society, with environmental groups, and immigrant groups and progressive community groups. And they realized that labor has been knocked down so many pegs that to really achieve a higher minimum wage or better safety standards, you can’t get that through Congress, it can’t elect the friendly lawmakers it needs unless it works with African American groups, environmental groups, and so on.
Unions still hope to grow by organizing workers, but they’re not having much success. And many rational union leaders could say, ‘I could invest a million dollars to organize 5,000 workers,’ and rationally conclude that ‘the chances of winning are small because if I invest that much, they’ll send consultants and lawyers and besides a lot of workers may not be that interested.’ So I think a lot of unions are saying it’s not worth throwing a lot of money behind organizing right now. But I think unions are worried that their membership is declining, and the have less dues money coming in, so that means they can do less in organizing, less in politics, and so they’re in a sorry cycle downward and they’re trying very hard to figure out how to reverse that.
So the SEIU has been looking for ways to mobilize low-wage workers. And UFCW has been trying very hard to mobilize OUR Walmart workers. There are a lot of unhappy fast-food workers who feel they’re underpaid, and SEIU saw there was a large pool of unhappiness among the nation’s 4 million fast food workers. So it’s spent several million dollars to get this movement rolling, and I think it’s really caught fire now. I think a lot of fast-food workers are eager to get involved and to protest and to push McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, to pay them more.
Whether they can achieve $15, fast-food workers paid just below $9, that’s a very big leap. And you would expect the companies and their franchises to fight it very very hard.
Secondly, the SEIU hopes to figure out a way to unionize these workers. And I do not doubt that if an election were held tomorrow, a majority of the 15 workers or the 22 workers at this restaurant or that restaurant would back a union. But it would be very, very, very hard to get a contract. The SEIU would have to spend millions of dollars on lawyers seeking to negotiate a contract, and it’s going to be very hard to get the companies to agree. So the union’s trying to figure out a way to pressure the parent companies to pressure their franchisees into agreeing to unionization somehow. And if the SEIU pulls that off, it would be a huge coup, but that’s a big “if.” And it’s conceivable that a unionized franchisee might close down, just like Walmart closed down its first unionized store in Canada.
Few points to note here. First, I think we really overstate the fault of organized labor in its own decline. Greenhouse is generally correct here–the unions of the 70s and 80s did a poor job of organizing and bringing low-wage workers into the movement, but the real issues are outside internal union politics. The increasingly aggressive tactics of corporations beginning with the Powell Memo and coinciding with the rise of modern conservatism are a potent duo of problems for organized labor. For all the talk about needing to organize workers, there are real questions about whether this is actually a good investment for unions because the fight to get a contract is so weighted toward the employer.
Second, Greenhouse is absolutely right about the necessity of organized labor to ally with other progressive organizations to get its agenda across. The problem of course is when the agenda of the AFL-CIO is not the agenda of individual unions, as we have seen over Keystone, with the Laborers openly bullying other unions. Trumka might see the necessity of working with the Sierra Club. LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan does not. Since the American labor movement is actually really decentralized, there’s not much Trumka can do.
Third, there are those in the labor movement who will criticize SEIU for anything it does. The fear and even hatred of Big Purple is very strong for some. I don’t want to get into this in much detail here, but SEIU does operate differently than a lot of unions and that leads to a great deal of tension internally in the labor movement. But however one falls on these issues, the union is answering the call to organize more workers. Does this pay off for it in the long run? Hard to say. But criticizing it for organizing workers, as some do because SEIU, is not useful. Moreover, SEIU and UFCW especially deserve credit for working with laborers who may never be union members. But the Walmart workers and the fast food workers have really turned up the heat on the minimum wage and hard lives of American labor in very useful ways.
Does any of this turn around the American labor movement? Hard to believe it will in the current climate, not with a nation happy to tear down the rest of the nation’s unionized workers, a Republican Party working closely with corporate America to destroy unions, and a Democratic Party that primarily sees the movement as useful for GOTV and fundraising efforts but which too rarely pays that back in concrete ways.
Beginning Jan. 1, OSHA rules will go into effect that may reveal higher daily death and injury counts on the job. Although most workplaces are far safer today than in the past, terrible accidents do occur, and the agency is implementing some broader reporting requirements for employers.
The new rule expands the list of severe work-related injuries that all employers with 10 or more employees must report to OSHA. The reports must be made within eight hours of the event. Reports also must be submitted within 24 hours for any work-related hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye. Previously, employers had to report only hospitalizations of three or more employees resulting from a workplace accident or illness.
Ridiculous that this isn’t already the case.
Little less thrilled about this:
The other big change in the new rules is an update of the list of industries that are exempt from routine injury and illness reporting requirements based on their “relatively low occupational injury and illness rates.” That change possibly could reduce some reporting requirements, but the full effect isn’t yet known.
I don’t think exempting industries is a good idea here because there are almost ways workplaces can be made safer and healthier. If office work seems like a place that should be exempted from OSHA requirements (and I don’t know if it is exempted or will be but it seems likely), what about ergonomic standards that could make that work healthier and happier for employees?
The food industry, along with the apparel industry, has long led the way in labor exploitation. Throughout the 20th century, agricultural interests went to extreme lengths to keep labor costs down, which meant paying them as close to nothing as possible, crushing any organizing efforts through violence, winning exemptions from labor law, and creating arrangements to bring in immigrant workers who lacked all rights. In the era of capital mobility and subcontracting agreements, food companies can now use the same types of arrangements that allow Walmart and Gap to get clothes made at factories that burn or collapse without any corporate consequence to acquire the food we buy. All the corporations care about is one thing–keeping costs down. How that is done is up to the contractor. Don’t ask, don’t tell. But make sure you do what is necessary to keep those costs low.
The Los Angeles Times published an outstanding piece of journalism yesterday investigating the labor conditions of huge vegetable farms in Mexico that export produce to the United States. It will not surprise most readers here that the conditions are nothing more than rank labor exploitation, on par with the worst working conditions in the history of the United States and those today of Honduras, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. You obviously need to read it all, but just real quick:
The Times found:
Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.
Basically, big American vegetable sellers contract with farms in Mexico. Those companies might claim they care about labor sourcing but we all know that’s a lie. Those farms then recruit poor Mexicans, largely indigenous people from southern Mexico, with promises of payment. They then house those workers in hovels, refuse to pay them, underfeed them, don’t provide them with bathing facilities, etc. All so you can eat tomatoes for cheap in January. See that image above? This is the “housing” of the people who grow the produce you eat from Mexico. Which is a lot of your produce, especially this time of the year.
The only way the companies care about this is when all their efforts to hide production from American consumers fails. Then they develop strategies to avoid culpability and stall reporters long enough for everyone’s attention to be turned to some other issue. It’s quite effective, even when their documents on how to do this are leaked.
As I argue in Out of Sight, these conditions are precisely why central to our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts. Anything else will keep workers in these conditions. If Subway wants to use tomatoes grown in Mexico, fine. But those tomatoes have to be produced in conditions that stand up to a basic test of human rights. If wages are stolen, workers threatened, bathing facilities not provided, etc., then workers should have the right to sue for recompense in American courts. Subway, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc., must be held legally responsible for the conditions of work when people labor in growing food for them to sell.
This has to be a legal framework. Mass movements are useful only in the short term because we will move on to the next issue. One month it is protesting war, the next it is sweatshops, the next it is police violence. There are too many injustices in this world to rely on mass movements. People only have so much time. Only through a legal framework can those people who do devote themselves to this issue full time have a framework to enforce worker rights in the long term.
Being poor is horrible for so many reasons. Among them is that life’s little inconveniences for the non-poor can be utterly devastating. Getting sick and missing a couple of days of work means you can lose your apartment. The car breaking down destroys your life. Linda Tirado, from her new book on living in the New Gilded Age:
It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year. For those of you that think in quarters: $65 per quarter in savings. If you deny yourself even small luxuries, that’s the fortune you’ll amass. Of course you will never manage to actually save it; you’ll get sick at least one day and miss work and dip into it for rent. Gas will spike and you’ll need it to get to work. You’ll get a tear in your work pants that you can’t patch. Something, I guarantee you, will happen in three months.
When I have a few extra dollars to spend, I can’t afford to think about next month—my present day situation is generally too tight to allow me that luxury. I’ve got kids who are interested in their quality of life right now, not 10 years from now.
Here’s the thing: we know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at 10 bucks an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive through window. Or how many floors you can vacuum, or how many boxes you can fill.
It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right—and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet. I’ve done well in years that I had a job I didn’t mind terribly and that paid me well enough to get into an apartment that met all the basic standards. I’ve done less well in years where I didn’t have steady work. The trouble’s been that my luck simply hasn’t held out for long enough; it seems like just when I’ve caught up, something happens to set me back again. I’ve been fortunate enough that it’s rarely compounded, and I’ve stayed at under sea level for short periods instead of long-term. But I’ve stared long-term in the face long enough to have accepted it as a real possibility. It’s only an accident and a period of unemployment away.
Of course, the rich will say that Tirado and others are just lazy. Sure. No one knows work like poor people. Because they do it, and a lot of it, whenever they can.
As I discussed awhile ago, the teaching assistants at my alma mater, the University of Oregon, were discussing going on strike over the university’s refusal to provide them paid sick leave. In response, the university threw academic integrity out the window and threatened to allow students to have their current grade be the grade for the course and encouraged professors to give scantron finals. Well, the TAs did go on strike and the university has moved forward with its plans. For one, the university is threatening TAs (or GTFFs as they are called in Eugene) on foreign visas with deportation if they strike. That’s a pretty low blow.
The faculty union has come out in support of their TAs. Here is its statement:
Today, the University of Oregon administration escalated its tactics against the striking graduate employees that will have profoundly negative implications for undergraduates.
The College of Arts and Sciences decreed unilaterally that final examinations and end-of-term assignments will be optional in graduate-assisted courses taught in the Departments of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Ethnic Studies.
If the GTFF strike continues after Dec. 12, the Associate Dean for Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences will assign all grades in the affected courses, based on only a portion of the graded assignments and tests listed in course syllabi. In the Department of Philosophy, the department head and all graduate instructors have been removed as instructors of record. More departments may suffer a similar fate.
This course of action threatens to damage the mentorship between teachers and students, relations of trust among colleagues, and between the university community and the administration. It also interferes with the ability of teachers to do what they do best: to educate students. This harms students who hoped to improve their grades with end-of-term writing assignments and final examinations.
The apparent goal of this attack is to break the GTFF and not, as the administration insists, to maintain “academic continuity.”
Every effort by faculty members and the university senate to deal with the problem of assigning grades during the strike in a manner that upholds the professional integrity of teachers and the expectations set out in course syllabi has been rejected.
Furthermore, because the administration has declared final examinations to be optional, grades will not have the same value for all students.
Such callous disregard for academic freedom and the welfare of students forces faculty and students between a rock and a hard place. Rather than work with faculty to create meaningful options for grades to be delayed, the administration has chosen to compromise the integrity of undergraduate education at the University of Oregon.
I have a bit more information. I was forwarded an e-mail from the Associate Dean of Humanities, Judith Baskin. At the request of the person who sent it, I have redacted the course name this e-mail applies to. It reads as follows:
I am responsible for ensuring that you receive a timely grade for
the work you have done in [COURSE NAME].
On the Academic Affairs website
(affairs.uoregon.edu/academic-continuity ) the Provost has advised
that students in courses taught or supported by GTFs may be given the
option to forgo the final assignment/exam and take their current grade
in the course.
Please be advised that should the GTFF strike continue to Dec. 12, I
will enter the grade you achieved in [COURSE NAME] up to December 1 as
your approximate grade for Fall term. This grade will be based on the
grading information given to me by your Instructor. If you wish you
may accept this grade as your final grade. In that case, you need
not complete any further work for this course and the grade I entered
will not be altered.
* If this is your preference please send me an email to that effect
(firstname.lastname@example.org) by date XXXX. Be sure to include your name,
student number, and the course number and name; you may include your
understanding of what the final grade would be. I regret that,
given the large number of courses with which I am working, I cannot
give you the grade I will be entering at this time but I assure you
that it will be based on the information your Instructor supplied for
work competed as of Dec. 1.
* You have the option to complete the final exam / assignment as
described on your course syllabus and/or by your Instructor. You may
submit that work either to the Department of [BLANK] or electronically (if this was your Instructor’s
preference) by the date and time assigned by your Instructor. At such
time as your work is graded, the approximate grade will be replaced by
a grade based on all your course work, including the final
assignment/exam. If you have any questions, please feel to email me
(email@example.com) or contact me via Blackboard.
Judith R. Baskin, Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities
Associate Dean for Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences
So there you have it. “You may include your understanding of what the final grade may be.” Great! Tell me you are getting an A and then I don’t have to bother looking it up. And why even bother taking a final? Just go celebrate the Ducks’ victory at Rennie’s! (a local bar) Now this is some academic integritude!
On December 5, 1894, Alabama repealed its child labor law in order to convince the officials of the Dwight Manufacturing Company, a textile corporation, to move its mill operations from Chicopee, Massachusetts to its state. Dwight did this, settling in Gadsden. This incident is both an early incident in the history of capital mobility, a phenomenon that plagues workers today, and also shines a light into how the apparel industry was a pioneer in breaking labor resistance through simply closing up and moving operations to a non-union state.
Child labor had long plagued the United States. Of course, children worked in various ways on farms on in the cities but the Industrial Revolution made that work all the harder and more dangerous, with factory owners using children’s small size to hire them in the most dangerous jobs, often around moving and deadly machinery. At the same time, in New England, increasingly restive workers protested against the poor wages and bad working conditions of the textile industry. Moreover, northern states had started passing legislation mandating wages and hours, especially for the female and child workers the textile industry loved exploiting. By the 1903, Chicopee had about 2000 union members in the textile industry and a growing set of state labor laws these unions successfully fought for that today we would see as basic protections for workers.
Stepping into this labor unrest were the southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama, who began to see attracting northern investment in textile mills as part of the solution to its persistent white poverty and an economic move befitting a New South image they pushed. The first cotton mill opened in Alabama in 1832 but the industry remained small, despite that state’s centrality in American cotton production. By the mid-1880s, Alabama legislators decided to encourage northern capital investment, offering tax exemptions and cheap labor to textile corporations.
But in 1887, Alabama also became the first southern state to enact regulations on hours and child labor. This created an 8-hour day for most women in factories, an 8-hour day for children under 14 in most work and banned work for those under 15 in the coal or iron mines. This was supported by the Knights of Labor, which was briefly prominent in Alabama, as it was in much of the nation. But with the Knights’ decline in the aftermath of Haymarket, the political will to keep these laws in place quickly waned.
In 1894, the Dwight Manufacturing Company announced it was going to build a southern factory to get away from its restive workers and “oppressive laws” guaranteeing them some rights, as their executives called them. It put itself up to the highest bidder. Dwight didn’t like that it couldn’t employ children. Alabama repealing their child labor law thus made it the winner of Dwight’s race to the bottom. The original law simply excepted Etowah County, where the factory was to go, but 12 days later, Governor William Oates signed another bill repealing it for the whole state. The company refused to transfer workers to Chicopee in order to keep the union traditions away from its new home. About this repeal, Samuel Gompers wrote, “I was horrified by this outrageous piece of legislation…this crime that had been committed by that legislature in sacrificing young and innocent children to the greed and rapacity of the profit mongers.” By May 1897, 17 of the 162 employees in the Dwight spinning department were 10 years of age or younger.
Northern unions did not take this lying down. The National Union of Textile Workers began trying to organize the southern mill workers, fighting for northern standards in order to undermine the threat of capital mobility. Factories such as Dwight used the standard anti-union procedures–firing unionized workers, kicking them out of company towns, threatening to replace them with black labor, the blacklist. The NUTW and other unions struggled mightily to organize the mills, which were largely seen as public benefactors by many white Alabamans. The labor movement outside the textile industry in the state did however start fighting immediately for new labor legislation. After several failed attempts, a 1903 compromise bill banned child labor under the age of 12 except for some exemptions such as orphans and children of widowed mothers who could be employed at the age of 10. The textile companies, including Dwight, fought against this, but it did pass.
However, it lacked any meaningful enforcement mechanism. With the rising Progressive Era, even in Alabama the continued use of child labor sparked increased concern, and a somewhat better law passed in 1907. The Dwight Mill received a significant amount of negative publicity throughout this fight, including from the Massachusetts State Federation of Labor who had it in mind when it blamed the lack of labor law in the South on “attorneys of Northern capitalists who have large investments in the Southern mills.” Despite this new law, in 1910, Alabama mills still employed 2903 children between the ages of 10 and 13.
By 1927, Dwight had closed its Massachusetts operations and had moved to Alabama full time. While the southern textile operations slowly killed the industry in the northeast, it was not immune from the same problems. In 1934, textile workers around the nation, including in the South, struck over low wages and bad conditions and after World War II, the apparel industry began experimenting with moving their operations overseas. For the Dwight Company, their workers had organized even before 1934 and continued fighting for unionism through the 30s, despite continued firing and blacklisting from the company. Dwight openly defied the National Labor Relations Board and challenged the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, even after the Supreme Court found for its constitutionality in 1937. Because of Dwight, The Nation‘s Maxwell Stewart called Gadsden, “the toughest [antiunion] city in the United States,” although there was plenty of competition for that honor. Finally, when their Alabama workers struck in 1959, the company shut the mill down and threw 2100 people out of work.
By the 1980s, companies like Dwight were leaving the United States entirely because of too many labor laws like the Wagner Act, what with its minimum wages and guaranteeing of collective bargaining rights. The southern mill towns suffered the same fate as did New England. As does any place today that tries to give workers right or pass legislation protecting labor or the environment. Apparel manufacturers pioneered capital mobility and continue to aggressively search for the cheapest and most exploitative labor today, even if over 1100 workers die in a single factory collapse in the process.
This post is based on Beth English, A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry, a book I found very useful in conceptualizing Out of Sight.
This is the 127th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.