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Tag: "labor"

Pesticide Protections for Farmworkers

[ 12 ] October 8, 2015 |


One of the most important and underreported stories over the last few weeks was the EPA setting new pesticide protections for farmworkers.

The new rules, announced by EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez, include the following stipulations:

All pesticide applicators will be required to be at least 18 years old, rather than 16;

Whistleblower protections, including for undocumented workers, must be implemented so that farm laborers can safely file complaints over workplace abuse;

Workers or their representatives must be allowed easy access to records involving hazardous chemical exposure.

These are the first new regulations designed to promote farmworker safety since 1992. One reason for that is that the new pesticides developed to protect consumers from pesticide poisoning strike hard and fast, but don’t persist. That means that their entire human impact is on the farmworkers, but consumers were safe. That basically ended the pesticide exposure movement among foodies (the organic movement is different but related, but both focus almost entirely on consumers) and left farmworkers high and dry as far as effective allies go for protecting them from pesticides. We’ll see how effective they are; my guess is an improvement but a lot of workers will still get sick.

Agribusiness is of course furious, with all the expected stated reasons being used to hide the real reason, which is that they don’t mind killing farmworkers if it increases their profits.

I’ll also note how the United Farm Workers, despite being a non-entity among unions and that includes those actually organizing farmworkers, remains the historical touchstone that centers them in narratives of farmworker protection in the present as well. If I was an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee or Coalition of Immokalee Workers, this might annoy me.


The Waitress Life

[ 72 ] October 4, 2015 |


Waitresses: combining low wages and sexual harassment with the gendered pay gap for a very, very long time.

The low wages compounded by the gender wage gap breeds a system of living paycheck to paycheck, which means women cannot do anything to jeopardize receiving their next one – not even report the discrimination or harassment they are experiencing. Unlike workers in other professions, tipped workers depend on the consumer directly for their wages. A tipped worker’s bottomline depends on soliciting and earning good tips from customers, but at what cost?

We need to value women’s work and put our money where our mouths are. There are many ways to do this. We can support federal legislation like the Healthy Families Act or the Raise the Wage Act. Alternatively, you can also vote with your wallet. Apps like the Roc National Diners’ Guide, developed by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, allow diners to find out if their favorite restaurants treat workers ethically. At a minimum, employers should pay their employees a livable wage for their area of residence, provide them with proper health insurance, offer them paid sick days, and give them opportunities for promotion. If you find out they don’t, why not speak up about it?

This is a group of workers that never receives enough attention, with the assumption by most that our tips are allowing them to live good lives. Meanwhile, waitresses struggle for basic survival, thanks to the absurd tipped minimum wage and structural sexism.

Domestic Workers and the Legacy of Slavery

[ 22 ] October 3, 2015 |


Training future domestic workers, Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, Bordentown, New Jersey

Premilla Nadasen has an exciting new book out on the history of domestic worker organizing. I’m looking forward to reading it. Jake Blumgart has an interesting interview with Nadasen, where she explains the connection between domestic workers even today and the legacy of slavery:

What was the legacy of slavery in the domestic labor sector, especially in the first half of the 20th century?

After the end of slavery, African-American women increasingly became paid domestic workers. The image that came to dominate their labor in this occupation was the figure of the mammy, an African-American woman loyal to the family for whom she worked and happily served. The image of the mammy becomes essential in the early 20th century to justify an unequal racial order in the South and as an apology for slavery, with its assumption that African Americans were content to serve white families.

The reality is that their work was not treated as real work. They were very often framed by their employers as “one of the family.” That meant they would work longer hours and take hand-me-downs instead of payment because the assumption built into the “one of the family” phrase was that they were working out of love. But Carolyn Reed, an organizer in New York City, put it best when she said “I don’t need a family, I need a job.”

In the beginning of the book you talk about communists and other radical activists who tried to organize with domestic laborers. How successful were those 1930s efforts?

Considering that the occupation was so difficult to organize, I think they were enormously successful. They were isolated employees who often worked alone in a home and were invisible from the public eye and labor organizers. When communists, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Urban League all decided to organize domestic workers, they actually brought these women together in a collective space. Sometimes they reached out to them in the “slave markets,” the name that Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke gave to these street corners in New York City where African-American women waited to be hired as day workers. The Bronx Slave markets became sites of organizing. Then domestic workers and their supporters developed hiring halls where domestic workers could be protected from exploitative employers.

Figured this would be of interest to many readers.

This Day in Labor History: September 28, 1874

[ 31 ] September 28, 2015 |

On September 28, 1874, the U.S. military defeated the Comanche in Palo Duro Canyon, south of modern Amarillo, Texas, largely by stealing their horse herds. This forced the Comanche to the reservations where they had refused to live by taking away the technology that defined their lives and their work. This was essentially the end of an entire way of labor for the Comanche and indicative of the importance of work to the conquest of Native Americans.

The Comanche were, up until the late 17th century, a relatively small tribe living primarily in Colorado and Kansas. This all changed with the advent of the horse. The Spanish had introduced horses into North America when they defeated the Aztecs after 1519. It became clear to Native Americans very quickly the huge advantage for both battle and work that horses could provide. The horses began moving north, largely following Spanish colonial expansion, but increasingly from horse thefts. That the Spanish largely left the horses to roam on their own made that easier. Certain indigenous cultures began valuing them for work and for war, others less so. One that truly committed to horse pastoralism was the Comanches, a group that split off from the Shoshones around 1500. The first time they appear in the written record was in 1706 when the Spanish recorded a group called the Comanches attacking Puebloan peoples.

The Comanches, like other peoples after them such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow, made a conscious decision to change their life and work cultures upon the acquisition of large horse populations. They became horse cultures, with this technology redefining their work, culture, and social structure. The horse allowed the Comanches to commit full-time to bison hunting, warfare, and raiding to replenish their population lost in war. But they weren’t operating in a vacuum. Like many indigenous peoples, the Comanche took to the Euro-American market economy keenly, seeking to offer their goods–bison skins–in exchange for the other things they needed, including guns, the food they no longer grew because they were in constant motion, pots, horses, etc. They also traded horses for these things, as their growing skills in horse-breeding made then desirable by everyone they traded with, including the Native Americans peoples to the north who began to do much the same as the Comanche had become horse cultures.

A new, gendered system of work developed with the transition to horses. By 1750, Comanche herds had grown large enough that they began moving around specifically to care for them. This meant they needed a large territory strictly for horse foraging, especially because the lack of water and need for wintering grounds limited the number of destinations that could sustain large herds, even for a short time. They began to look more like the Mongolians than other tribes in the United States. As is common in pastoral societies, strongly gendered notions of work developed. The daily herding of the horses was the world of teenage boys. Each boy, according to an 1849 account of a Comanche village, herded about 150 horses, with the most valuable of them rounded up each evening for a night watch and the others left to roam. Men were responsible for the decisions around the pastoral economy, such as when to move. They also were the warriors, which they saw specifically as an act of production, fueling a market-oriented pastoral economy with the necessary raw materials of horses, women, and children.


George Catlin painting of Comanches hunting bison

The status of women declined in Comanche society with the new emphasis on war and horses, both male realms. Women were responsible for raising children, cooking, processing bison meat, and constructing tipis. That grew to processing the bison skins for the Euro-American market and helping out with the horse herds. The practice of polygyny, a marriage system where men have multiple wives, grew rapidly with the horses as wealthy men began to acquire large horse herds and then needed women to process the bison and herding. In other words, marriage became a way to enlarge the labor pool (observers at the time noted that these wives were really servants) as well as introduced a sort of class-based division into Comanche society, as obviously not all men could do this. In many ways, Comanche polygyny and Southern slavery both were responses to labor shortages arising from market production that rested upon patriarchal systems that reduced women to objects of male honor and militarism. Of course, the Comanche also took slaves, and although their system of slavery was much more fluid than the chattel slavery of the South, it was brutal nonetheless (rape and torture with the intent of destroying their will and American/Spanish/Indian cultures and making them docile workers) and again was related in part to their entrance into the market.


George Catlin painting of a Comanche village, 1834

This new culture made the Comanche the dominant empire on the 18th and early 19th century Great Plains. At their height, around 1850, the Comanchería extended from the edge of the southern Rockies into central Texas and central Kansas. They raided much further, especially into Mexico, where they frequently went as far south as Durango to take captives and horses. This went far to shape the region. The Spanish and then the Mexicans wanted to move north but could not defeat the Comanches. The need for a buffer zone helped convince Mexico to invite Americans into Texas, who then became the victims of Comanche raiding. But the lack of Mexican settlement meant that the U.S. could easily take the northern half of Mexico during the Mexican War. But they then had to conquer the Comanches, which was extremely difficult. As late as 1860, white expansion in Texas was quite limited due to Comanche raiding.

This system of work and culture made the Comanches very difficult for the American military to defeat. To do so, post-Civil War military planners went to a more sophisticated strategy developed in the second half of that war by generals such as Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan: total warfare. Rather than defeat these small, fast bands, undermining their way of life through the American industrial machine made more sense. Thus, the military decided to exterminate the bison. Bison populations plummeted in the years after the war, starting with the southern herds that sustained the Comanche economy and moving north. Market hunting was a piece of it, but this was a military strategy first and foremost. Without the bison and the work in hunting, processing, and trading them, the Comanche could not sustain itself. The second part of this strategy was to take away the Comanche’s horses, the transportation tool that facilitated this way of life. This strategy was tremendously successful, albeit increasingly controversial as the 1870s went on and total warfare against Native Americans outraged eastern reformers. Starvation and warfare decimated Comanche numbers, reducing them to about 8000 by 1870. They began relying on the U.S. government for rations, giving the U.S. much power over them. They refused to stay on the reservations that developed in the late 1860 and early 1870s, but leaving also brought warfare that was harder for the Comanche to sustain with the decline in bison, horses, and people. Finally, after the battle in Palo Duro Canyon, isolated badlands in the Texas panhandle, the Comanche largely moved to the reservations for good. The bison were gone anyway.

Undermining traditional ways of work would remain central to the post-conquest strategy of dealing with Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 served to both alienate reservation land from Indians while also forcing them into the subsistence farming lifestyle white Americans had decided was appropriate for Native Americans. By 1920, there were only 1500 Comanche left in the wake of the destruction of their culture through conquest, land dispossession, Indian schools, and the despair all of this created. Like most other tribes however, Comanche numbers grew after that and continue to grow today, although with a very different set of cultural traditions and work life than that of the past.

I borrowed liberally from Pekka Hämäläinen’s prize winning book The Comanche Empire in writing this post. You should read this book.

This is the 159th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Immigrant Workers, Sexual Assault, and Law Enforcement

[ 4 ] September 27, 2015 |


If you want to start your Sunday morning with a truly horrific story, here’s one on how a Florida tomato packing employer used his workers as a harem of women to rape on the job, how the police ignored the women’s complaints, and how it took a lawyer filing an EEOC complaint and using newspapers to get the story out to get any justice at all, justice that ultimately will be denied because there’s no way to collect the money from the now defunct employer. Meanwhile, the rapists walk free.

Aguilar didn’t realize it at the time, but she was far from the only worker victimized by the Moreno brothers and their foreman, a Mexican-born man named Javier Garcia. In fact, just a few days before she was fired, three other women from the plant had driven to LaBelle, the capital of Hendry County, and told deputies the trio had been systematically raping and harassing women.

That criminal case went nowhere. Neither Omar nor Oscar was ever interviewed by police about the allegations, and in May 2012, Hendry County Assistant State Attorney Jill Cabai recommended dropping the case because she “did not feel as though there was enough information present to support charges,” according to a police report.

But that wasn’t the end. With the help of Victoria Mesa, a South Florida attorney, the women filed a civil complaint with the EEOC and then reached out to Aguilar, who agreed to help. In all, three former workers, including Aguilar, would testify that either one of the Moreno brothers or Garcia had raped them on the job; two others testified the men had attempted rape.

It then took nearly two years before the feds filed a civil complaint against Moreno Farms. By then, the plant had already shuttered. The Moreno brothers and Garcia were nowhere to be found.

Other than the awful details, there are larger policy issues here. First is how the police not only ignore women’s complaints over sexual assault generally, but especially when they come from undocumented immigrants. The second is just how vulnerable undocumented immigrants are on the job generally, with few if any tools to fight against that exploitation because they fear deportation. Unless the police actually do something when rape or other illegal forms of exploitation take place, there’s almost nothing that can be done about them and even in a case like this where a jury does rule for the victims, the ability to close businesses to avoid payment makes enforcement a real problem.

Terrible stuff.

4679 Dead American Workers

[ 16 ] September 26, 2015 |


Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor released its preliminary numbers of deaths in American workplaces. 4,679 workers died in 2014, a number that will almost certainly be revised higher (which always happens). That rate is the same as 2013, but the raw number is higher because of a growing workforce. Who is dying? Workers in the oil industry, especially in the Bakken oil boom of North Dakota; immigrants working dangerous jobs and who lack the English skills for rapid communication in emergency situations, and older workers. For the latter group, death on the job 9 percent, probably because they were too poor to retire thanks to the structural changes in the American economy brought on by NAFTA, the lack of an economic safety net for older workers, long-term debt issues, etc.

But these numbers do not tell the whole story because they do not include the number of people who died making products that ended up back in the United States. If 4679 dead workers in a nation this size doesn’t seem all that high really, that’s because we’ve exported much of our dangerous work and our employers have exported the dangerous work precisely because they didn’t want to make their factories safer in the U.S. and deal with the pesky unions who would force them to have safe workplaces. Workers dying in the textile industry, such as the 1129 dead at Rana Plaza making goods for the American market should be counted in the death toll of American workplaces because they are American workplaces, even if they are overseas. The same of workers in electronics, mining, steel, and other industries who are either owned by American companies or are using contractors for American companies.

It’s impossible then to really know what the human toll of the American workplace really is, but it’s a whole lot higher than it should be.

Meat vs. Rice

[ 51 ] September 22, 2015 |


How are you all this morning? Enjoying yourselves? Well, that’s nice and all, but let’s change the mood by delving into the legacy of American racism. Here is the 1908 pamphlet by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and Herman Gutstadt, “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Will Survive.” And really, the title says most of what you need to know. And the pamphlet has most everything you need to teach about anti-Asian racism. You have the Chinese compared to cancer, pretending like Americans care about Filipinos by comparing them favorably to the Chinese horde, fears of the Chinese outcompeting whites, comparing the Chinese to African-American slaves, fears of the Chinaman and his horrible living standards, not to mention his sweet, sweet opium; sections of the pamphlet titled “Do Asiatics Have Morals?” (short answer, no!), etc. Not to mention the utterly bizarre although expected to the historian of the period equation of food and race.

And of course, the most important person in the American labor movement being involved with this (I don’t know to what extent Gompers wrote this as opposed to signed his name to it, I’d guess he wrote none but endorsed all) is just wonderful. Worth remembering yet again the the American labor movement’s first national legislative victory was the Chinese Exclusion Act. White solidarity almost always trumps class solidarity in the United States, then and now.

Good times.

Starting next year, I am finally going to get to teach U.S. Labor History since the (quite great) individual teaching it forever is retiring). I am wondering to what extent to expose them to this kind of thing. Not sure.

Free Market/Slave Labor: L.A. Edition

[ 6 ] September 21, 2015 |


Yesterday I talked about the California bill for a meaningful wage theft law. On this particular issue, the problem is not Walmart or McDonald’s. The problem are employers who rely on immigrant labor who don’t have an easy ability to speak out about their exploitation. But in these industries, especially the apparel sweatshops of Los Angeles, are not just rogue employers at the global economic margins. Rather, they are central to global capitalism, just the kind of employer we might expect more in Bangladesh than the United States. The apparel industry, which has operated on a system of extreme exploitation since its beginning, rewards employers who can steal as much from workers as possible while the department stores and apparel brands get off scot free. Charles Davis has more, particularly about Thai migrants to the United States. A brief excerpt:

Outraged that identified trafficking victims had to fight to stay, activists then fought for legislation that would grant future victims an automatic visa: the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. Now those the government considers “trafficked” can work legally while receiving medical care and housing. But the problem has become a labeling issue. Extreme cases warrant condemnation and the “trafficking” label—the El Monte case was even prosecuted as slavery—but other low-wage immigrants who are victimized by their employers, denied money they are owed and forced to work in dangerous conditions, are ignored or even treated as criminals. “I have experienced workers coming forward, reporting abuses, who are undocumented and then get summarily deported after getting picked up,” says Martorell, “and, of course, denied justice and their back wages.” Those who aren’t immediately kicked out of the country have the option of working behind bars, scrubbing floors for 13 cents an hour in an immigrant detention center.

“I see it as a manifestation of what the U.S. has done abroad,” Martorell says of those who come here hoping for a better life, only to suffer even more indignity. We “talk about democracy,” she says, “then end up installing puppet governments that support the U.S. at the expense of their own people.” Those people then come here; a few are officially recognized as victims, considered the rescued prey of traffickers. But many more are deemed exploited, perhaps, but their victimhood not worthy of asylum. All of them suffer.

It’s to protect these workers that we need a strong national wage theft law and to stop seeing the workplace as a site to enforce immigration law, which empowers employers to exploit workers. Right now, there are situations of not only wage theft but slave labor in these sweatshops. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention from policymakers as it should. That needs to change.

Indigenous Mexican Migrants to American Farms

[ 3 ] September 21, 2015 |

Mixtec Immigrant Picking Strawberries

David Bacon, who has done so much great work over the years exposing the plight of Mexican migrants to the U.S., has an excellent piece on how so many of the farmworkers in the U.S.–and more specifically the farmworker activists–are indigenous Mexicans, primarily from poor regions of Oaxaca, the state in southern Mexico where my wife does her academic research.

Agribusiness farming started in San Quintin in the 1970s, as it did in many areas of northern Mexico, to supply the U.S. market with winter tomatoes and strawberries. Baja California had few inhabitants then, so growers brought workers from southern Mexico, especially indigenous Mixtec and Triqui families from Oaxaca. Today an estimated 70,000 indigenous migrant workers live in labor camps notorious for their bad conditions. Many of the conditions are violations of Mexican law.

Once indigenous workers had been brought to the border, they began to cross it to work in fields in the U.S. Today the bulk of the farm labor workforce in California’s strawberry fields comes from the same migrant stream that is on strike in Baja California. So does the migrant labor force picking berries in Washington State, where workers went on strike two years ago.

Two of the 500 strikers at Sakuma Farms were teenagers Marcelina Hilario from San Martin Itunyoso and Teofila Raymundo from Santa Cruz Yucayani. Both started working in the fields with their parents, and today, like many young people in indigenous migrant families, they speak English and Spanish – the languages of school and the culture around them. But Raymundo also speaks her native Triqui and is learning Mixteco, while Hilario speaks Mixteco, is studying French, and thinking about German.

“I’ve been working with my dad since I was 12,” Raymundo remembers. “I’ve seen them treat him bad, but he comes back because he needs this job. Once after a strike here, we came up all the way from California the next season, and they wouldn’t hire us. We had to go looking for another place to live and work that year. That’s how I met Marcelina.” They both accused the company of refusing to give them better jobs keeping track of the berries picked by workers – positions that only went to young white workers. “When I see people treat us badly, I don’t agree with that,” Hilario added. “I think you have to say something.”

For these workers, Spanish is not their first language. They are discriminated against in Mexico–perhaps not to the same degree as Native Americans in the United States, but this is mostly because of the reservation system in the US and the sheer number of indigenous people in Mexico–and are taking the hardest jobs in the United States when they migrate. Many of these indigenous villages are almost completely devoid of people between the ages of 15 and 50 except during Fiesta when people come back if they can. This discrimination is trans-national, as they are likely to be undocumented, may lack Spanish language skills not to mention English (although this is increasingly less common among younger people), and have little capital–financial or cultural–to be upwardly mobile in either country. But they are willing to fight for better lives. Progressives do a terrible job of recognizing indigenous issues in the U.S., not to mention Mexico, but we also have to recognize when we think about immigration that indigenous status is a really important part of that.

Wage Theft Enforcement in California

[ 16 ] September 20, 2015 |


California is leading what should become a federal law to crack down on wage theft:

The bill, known as SB 588, was sponsored by state Senator Kevin de León of Los Angeles. It would allow California’s labor commissioner to place a lien on the property of an employer cited for wage theft.

It would also help prevent cited employers from skipping out on paying penalties and back wages by requiring them to post a bond of at least $50,000 to continue doing business. It would also prohibit the company from closing down and re-opening with a different name.

“Stealing the pay of employees who don’t make that much money to begin with is unconscionable. It takes food off their tables and makes it difficult – if not impossible – to provide for their families,” said De León in an emailed statement. “It also violates the fundamental promise of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. With SB 588 we can give the Labor Commissioner the tools necessary to enforce the law for the workers and target the bad actors to level the playing field for honest businesses.”

As I’ve said repeatedly, the only way to deal with employers and corporations is to punish them where it hurts. Forcing employers to post bonds is one way to do that. For some, it wouldn’t matter that much because of their large amount of capital, but most of the employers engaging in wage theft are lower end businesses like nail salons. So this would threaten them with really hard times if they don’t comply. There is potential here to move employee rights forward in a meaningful way.

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.

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.

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