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The Greatest Neoliberal in All Neoliberalland

[ 159 ] April 20, 2017 |

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That Tom Perez, he sure is a neoliberal sellout!

The move is one of many small shifts that Perez has undertaken to steer the Democrats slightly more to the left. Already, Perez is sounding more like the president of the AFL-CIO than DNC chairs of past years.

“I mean, there is an unmitigated assault on the labor movement. It’s an assault that just got a big weapon in the form of the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Now there are five votes on that court to make it very, very hard for public-sector labor unions to collect dues,” Perez tells me as we sit in the lobby of the Louisville Hilton.

It’s an attack that has Perez deeply worried.

“And they aren’t gonna stop at public-sector unions,” says Perez. “The way to take down the progressive movement is to attack those community pillars, whether it’s Planned Parenthood or the labor movement. This is not coincidence—who is getting attacked.”

Critics on the left continue to criticize Perez for being a tool of the Democratic Party’s corporate wing, following a contentious DNC election in which he beat progressive stalwart and Bernie-backed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). Now, Perez has attempted to distance himself from that label by getting involved in labor struggles.

It’s almost as if Tom Perez was never in fact a tool of Democratic Party’s corporate wing, what with being arguably the most best Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins.

In Perez’s first week at the DNC, he declared his solidarity with the historic 5,000-person “March on Mississippi” against Nissan, an event organized by the United Auto Workers in Canton, Miss.

Perez says that he was inspired to get involved in the struggle by a meeting he had with a Nissan temporary worker, who he later invited to an event at The White House.

“Robert was his name, but I don’t recall his last name,” says Perez. “He’s what they call a ‘permatemp.’ That’s an oxymoron—it should be an oxymoron. How can you be a permanent temporary employee? He is a second-class citizen in the Nissan plant.”

Perez’s pace of speech begins to pick up rapidly as he’s agitated by the issue.

“He has had the indignity of training permanent employees, who make much more than him,” says Perez. “He has to work something like 55 hours to make what someone doing identical work makes in 40 hours. That’s not right, that’s not who we are. Nissan is making a tremendous amount of money and they don’t need to make money on the backs of their workers.”

Yep, pretty clear that Tom Perez only serves the Al Froms and Rahm Emanuels of the world!

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The Democratic Party: Labor’s Frenemy

[ 119 ] April 18, 2017 |

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I have a long piece in the Boston Review on the complicated relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party. The basic thesis is that unions have no real choice other than working within the Democratic Party even when the Democratic Party does not pay off that support. In the end, what other choices does labor have? The political wilderness. An excerpt that starts by considering the paradox that despite the Obama administration doing a lot for workers in the second term, unionization rates still declined in the last 8 years:

This mixed bag for American workers suggests both the possibilities and limitations of labor unions’ integration into the Democratic Party. Nothing in American labor history suggests unions can succeed if the government opposes their causes, but unions have consistently failed to further a pro-labor agenda within the Democratic Party. And without a realistic alternative—the Republican Party, after all, has waged a multi-decade war on workers—unions have no choice but to keep working within the Democratic Party.

Historically unions have faced three fundamental challenges within the Democratic Party. First, and perhaps most importantly, they are politically isolated, thanks to geographical limitations. Unions only ever held significant power in a handful of states in the Northeast and Midwest, with smaller numbers on the West Coast. This meant that politicians throughout the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain states could ignore unions, attract companies to their states by claiming they would remain non-union, and pay no political price for hostility to organized labor.

Second, the Democratic Party has lacked a coherent industrial policy for the last half-century that would foster union growth. Both Democrats and Republicans have helped companies move their union factories to overseas locations while having no realistic job plans for those workers left behind.

Third, and as a result of the other two issues, the labor movement has remained a junior partner in the Democratic Party, unable to be the kingmaker it hoped to be after World War II. Without meaningful input or control of the Democratic agenda, it remains reliant on the goodwill of national Democrats and the few allies it does manage to cultivate to promote its agenda.

I go on to discuss how the failure of unions to organize the South in face of widespread racebaiting and anti-Semitism meant that Democrats like Carter and Clinton rose to power owing basically nothing to unions and how that, combined with the lack of a meaningful industrial policy or any real plan to deal with globalization, deindustrialization, and automation, means that Democrats have a lot of responsibility for the problems workers face today. Yet, what else is there for unions to do but to keep trying to make the Democratic Party better? Not much.

I also argue that the progressive politics of the small, grassroots donor is basically a consumerist politics that privileges middle class white people over workers and the collective action that only unions can provide.

The reality of the post–Citizens United world even further marginalizes organized labor within the Democratic Party. Democratic candidates are increasingly reliant upon both corporate grandees and small donors to run election campaigns. But while progressives mostly like the small donor model, which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, what this really means is that legions of middle to upper-middle class white donors will be funding grassroots Democratic campaigns. Without a strong union influence over candidates, union workers, who are increasingly African-Americans and Latinos and who lack the resources to donate to candidates individually, will be shut out of the process. Such a model might be good for progressive initiatives such as gathering support for minimum wage hikes, but significantly less so for union-specific legislation such as passing card check legislation or reversing a national right-to-work bill if Trump were to sign one. If unions could not reverse legislative setbacks during the Johnson or Obama eras, it seems even less likely that they will be able to the next time Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress.

And yes, this may be the first ever political article or at the very least article about labor unions to use the word “frenemy” in the title. I feel like getting that title through the editors is a victory for 21st century language.

Made in the USA

[ 132 ] April 18, 2017 |

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Sure, I roll my eyes at companies saying they can’t actually make their products in the United States because they can’t get their supply chains here. Well, you can always make the parts yourself. But despite this, it’s true enough that one of the biggest problems with Made in the USA rhetoric is that what consumers actually want is whatever is cheapest and they don’t care how many workers die producing the goods because they won’t ever know about it. So if production is moved back to the U.S. and everyone wants the cheapest goods possible that means only one thing–automation. This sort of economic nationalism won’t actually help bring many good jobs back to the working class. The problem however is that the anger of the working class toward a lack of good jobs is not only legitimate but also a major point of social upheaval that is not going away. This is why the left needs a real economic program to deal with these problems that starts with a revived original draft of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act that makes the government the employer of last resort. Because if you liked the 2016 election, you will love what continued desperation and anger loves to our future.

Labor: Preparing for Bad Times

[ 47 ] April 16, 2017 |

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This article on SEIU’s budget cuts confirms what my own internal sources at the union have told me: it is cutting back big time because Friedrichs II is on the way and is going to ravage public sector unionism.

“After spending big on Clinton, Obama, SEIU now facing steep budget cuts,” the Free Beacon published, referencing a recently posted federal filing and launching a flurry of aggregated posts.

But connecting those events — SEIU’s support of Democratic politicians and its upcoming cuts — is misleading, said Joseph Slater, a labor-focused professor at the University of Toledo’s College of Law.

“This isn’t a union financially in trouble because of money spent on the election,” Slater said. “That money was budgeted for the election, and the SEIU has a long history, as do most other labor unions, of supporting candidates.”

Rather, he said, the union is bracing for a monetary blow in the near-future — brought on, in part, by Trump’s Supreme Court pick.

Judge Gorsuch, who was sworn in this week, could cast the deciding vote in a case that concerns whether public sector unions can collect “agency fees” from workers who don’t want to bankroll the union’s political activities. One such case in Illinois could land before the court as early as this year.

By spending freely, one of the things meant is the Fight for $15. People have talked about this as a new frontier in union activism (as well as for the side of the labor movement that hates BIG EVIL PURPLE it’s another sign of SEIU perfidy). But this also costs a lot of money and SEIU really doesn’t get anything in return in terms of member dues. Actually organizing a McDonald’s is something that has never been done. So how much can the union serve as a bank account for outside efforts with no pay off, even if they are socially the right thing to do?

This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1923

[ 25 ] April 9, 2017 |

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On April 9, 1923, the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital that states or the federal government setting minimum wages for women was unconstitutional, as it violated the liberty of contract. This awful decision made clear just how powerful liberty of contract doctrine remained in the United States nearly a century after it developed and how the Supreme Court remained a major obstacle to even the most basic forms of workers’ rights through this era.

In 1918, Congress passed a minimum wage to cover women in the District of Columbia. This was a period when Progressives were fighting for progressive legislation to win rights for workers, especially women and children. The National Consumers’ League led the fight against child labor, while other Progressive organizations created the momentum for the victory in Muller v. Oregon in 1908, when the Court decided than an Oregon maximum hour law for women was constitutional. With growing middle-class support for labor struggles, such as the active support of Progressive organizations for the Uprising of the 20,000 and then the reforms people such as Frances Perkins led in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire, it did seem that the lives of workers would improve. The DC Children’s Hospital though, along with an elevator operator at a hotel, brought suit against Jesse Adkins, the chair of the Washington DC minimum wage board.

There was hope the Court would rule in favor of the minimum wage, as it had in a 1917 decision, even though it made a ruling against a child labor law in 1918. But in 1920, Warren Harding was elected to the presidency. And as usually happens when a Republican appoints justices to the Supreme Court, Harding was sure to give the positions to anti-labor conservatives. In 1922, the Court ruled against another child labor law. He appointed George Sutherland and former president William Howard Taft. Sutherland strongly believed in the idea of freedom of contract and Taft was seen to support this as well.

Freedom of contract went back to the beginnings of industrialization. The Farwell case in 1842 that ruled employers had no liability for workplace safety was an early iteration of this and as time went on after the Civil War, this hardened into ideology at the core of every employer opposition to unions, which they considered an unlawful restraint on trade because they violated the freedom of an individual worker to enter into a contract with an employer. This was the world that Warren Harding and George Sutherland still promoted, no matter the horrible lives of millions of workers.

Fighting this was Felix Frankfurter and his top assistant, Mary Dawson. They argued that the DC law was constitutional because it preserved living standards for working women and noted that it would increase business efficiency. Meanwhile, people like Alice Paul sided with the corporations, arguing that any protective laws for women made them second-class citizens, although Paul would later just go all in with corporations and oppose all labor legislation.

The court decided 5-3 in favor of Children’s Hospital. George Sutherland wrote the majority opinion, joined by Joseph McKenna, Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, and Pierce Butler. William Howard Taft wrote the dissent joined by Edward Sanford, while Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a separate dissent. Louis Brandeis did not participate in the case. In that decision Sutherland wrote that Lochner was still the rule of the land, despite Muller, noting that the minimum wage was completely different from maximum hours and thus the latter case was irrelevant. He also argued that if the states could set minimum wage laws, they could also set maximum wage laws, something that I don’t think has ever been seriously discussed in American history, but when did reality get in the way of conservative thought? He also noted that since women now had the right to vote, there was no reason to treat them any differently than men at the workplace, a sentiment which Alice Paul strongly approved.

Taft’s dissent was surprising, since he was usually a conservative on these matters. But he found Sutherland’s differentation between wage and hour laws ridiculous. He wrote:

Legislatures in limiting freedom of contract between employee and employer by a minimum wage proceed on the assumption that employees, in the class receiving least pay, are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer and in their necessitous circumstances are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer. The evils of the sweating system and of the long hours and low wages which are characteristic of it are well known. Now, I agree that it is a disputable question in the field of political economy how far a statutory requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be a useful remedy for these evils, and whether it may not make the case of the oppressed employee worse than it was before. But it is not the function of this court to hold congressional acts invalid simply because they are passed to carry out economic views which the court believes to be unwise or unsound.

Legislatures which adopt a requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be presumed to believe that when sweating employers are prevented from paying unduly low wages by positive law they will continue their business, abating that part of their profits, which were wrung from the necessities of their employees, and will concede the better terms required by the law, and that while in individual cases, hardship may result, the restriction will inure to the benefit of the general class of employees in whose interest the law is passed, and so to that of the community at large.

The right of the Legislature under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to limit the hours of employment on the score of the health of he employee, it seems to me, has been firmly established.

Holmes, reversing his previous anti-worker stance, wrote on much the same lines:

When so many intelligent persons, who have studied the matter more than any of us can, have thought that the means are effective and are worth the price it seems to me impossible to deny that the belief reasonably may be held by reasonable men. If the law encountered no other objection than that the means bore no relation to the end or that they cost too much I do not suppose that anyone would venture to say that it was bad. I agree, of course, that a law answering the foregoing requirements might be invalidated by specific provisions of the Constitution. For instance it might take private property without just compensation. But in the present instance the only objection that can be urged is found within the vague contours of the Fifth Amendment, prohibiting the depriving any person of liberty or property without due process of law. To that I turn.

The earlier decisions upon the same words in the Fourteenth Amendment began within our memory and went no farther than an unpretentious assertion of the liberty to follow the ordinary callings. Later that innocuous generality was expanded into the dogma, Liberty of Contract. Contract is not specially mentioned in the text that we have to construe. It is merely an example of doing what you want to do, embodied in the word liberty. But pretty much all law consists in forbidding men to do some things that they want to do, and contract is no more exempt from law than other acts. Without enumerating all the restrictive laws that have been upheld I will mention a few that seem to me to have interfered with liberty of contract quite as seriously and directly as the one before us. Usury laws prohibit contracts by which a man receives more than so much interest for the money that he lends. Statutes of frauds restrict many contracts to certain forms. Some Sunday laws prohibit practically all contracts during one-seventh of our whole life. Insurance rates may be regulated. …

I confess that I do not understand the principle on which the power to fix a minimum for the wages of women can be denied by those who admit the power to fix a maximum for their hours of work. I fully assent to the proposition that here as elsewhere the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree, but I perceive no difference in the kind or degree of interference with liberty, the only matter with which we have any concern, between the one case and the other. The bargain is equally affected whichever half you regulate. …

This statute does not compel anybody to pay anything. It simply forbids employment at rates below those fixed as the minimum requirement of health and right living. It is safe to assume that women will not be employed at even the lowest wages allowed unless they earn them, or unless the employer’s business can sustain the burden. In short the law in its character and operation is like hundreds of so-called police laws that have been upheld. I see no greater objection to using a Board to apply the standard fixed by the Act than there is to the other commissions with which we have become familiar or than there is to the requirement of a license in other cases. …

The criterion of constitutionality is not whether we believe the law to be for the public good. We certainly cannot be prepared to deny that a reasonable man reasonably might have that belief in view of the legislation of Great Britain, Victoria and a number of the States of this Union. The belief is fortified by a very remarkable collection of documents submitted on behalf of the appellants, material here, I conceive, only as showing that the belief reasonably may be held. In Australia the power to fix a minimum for wages in the case of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State was given to a Court, and its President wrote a most interesting account of its operation. 29 Harv. Law Rev. 13. If a legislature should adopt what he thinks the doctrine of modern economists of all schools, that ‘freedom of contract is a misnomer as applied to a contract between an employer and an ordinary individual employee,’ Ibid. 25, I could not pronounce an opinion with which I agree impossible to be entertained by reasonable men. If the same legislature should accept his further opinion that industrial peace was best attained by the device of a Court having the above powers, I should not feel myself able to contradict it, or to deny that the end justified restrictive legislation quite as adequately as beliefs concerning Sunday or exploded theories about usury. I should have my doubts, as I have them about this statute—but they would be whether the bill that has to be paid for every gain, although hidden as interstitial detriments, was not greater than the gain was worth: a matter that it is not for me to decide.

The Adkins decision devastated the Progressives struggling to remain relevant in the 1920s. Florence Kelley broke with Felix Frankfurter in the aftermath, as the two could not agree on what strategy to take going forward. Kelley and the Consumers League and hoped that carving out laws for women would be the first step toward creating labor rights for everyone and when the legal strategy didn’t work out, they didn’t know what to do. The entire 1920s was horrible for both organized labor and worker rights. It would take the shock of the Great Depression to change this. Of course, the minimum wage became a major goal of the workers’ movement of the 1930s and would finally be guaranteed nationally with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, even if there were enormous carveouts necessary to ensure that enough conservatives would vote for it to pass. The Court itself would reverse Adkins in 1937, with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which I will write about eventually.

This is the 217th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Simplistic Solutions to Organized Labor’s Problems

[ 10 ] April 8, 2017 |

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If you want to get published, a real good way is to write yet another version of “labor unions are doing it wrong. They should ORGANIZE and listen to REAL WORKERS instead of PLAYING POLITICS and DOING THE SAME OLD THINGS.” These articles come out all the time. Virtually all have some level of truth in them. Unions often do a lot of things wrong. But they inevitably make broad statements that erase all the complexity from the problems the labor movement faces while asserting a potential for working-class power that probably isn’t there in the way these writers want. There’s a new piece along these lines from Dan Schlademan, the co-director of a group called Organization United for Respect, a group made up of grocery store employees organizing in that industry. So you have to respect the work and I do not mean to say anything negative about that. But this is a good time to critique some of the arguments routinely made on the labor left, because a lot of them are really problematic.

Working people in this country can not and should not underestimate their power. History, as well as emerging movements and organizations, show that working people are not facing a question of life or death. Rather, they are facing the opportunity for renewal. The US labor movement has reinvented itself repeatedly in the past. These rebirths have been crucial to the evolution of the movement’s power. We are now at another historical moment of rebirth. But it’s important to understand how we arrived here, so to best take advantage of the opportunity ahead.

Given the Trump OSHA and EPA though, workers are literally facing a question of life or death. The Trump administration is not an opportunity for renewal. There’s no silver lining here. Yes, the labor movement writ large is not going away. Workers will always fight to improve their lives, or at least some workers will. But I really struggle calling the likelihood of Friedrichs II and right to work laws sweeping any state Republicans take over an “opportunity.”

Today, too many people—inside the labor movement and out—wax nostalgic about mid-1950s movements that are still dominant in 2017. It’s understandable: union membership was over 30% of the workforce, GM workers were able to buy the cars they built, and the modern American Dream—where working hard meant getting ahead—emerged. In this period, unions played a huge role building the middle class and making America strong. But changes to global trade policies, technology, and the rise of other forces, like automation, mean that the organizations that thrived in 1955 are not necessarily equipped to build power for working people today.

This is true.

Emerging worker movements are winning hard fought victories with the painful recognition that the same methods for organizing don’t work inside America’s broken system of laws and traditions. New, emergent forms of organizing are gaining power despite the fact that corporations have unprecedented control over workplaces, politics, laws, and the economy. From OUR Walmart to the Fight for $15, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Better Banks Campaign, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Freelancers Union, new forms of worker organizations are winning better pay and scheduling practices at major corporations. They’re providing access to benefits and services by using economies of scale. And they’re securing stronger public policy, winning paid sick days and higher minimum wages for entire communities.

I would call all of this exceptions to the horrible things happening to American workers rather than a new model that is gaining power. Are these workers gaining power? Are they really winning? These movements have put the minimum wage back on the table and shown that raising it is a popular move, even in conservative states. All of these groups do really good and important work, but there’s little evidence that this is a model of the future per se.

These models show that organizers must not be afraid of being catalysts that help workers build independent organizations and experiment. The decision about forming an organization can’t be left up to the government or employers. The presence of workers ready to initiate organization building should be the only prerequisite necessary for an organization to exist.

Workers and organizers must also remember that who gets elected, and what they do in once in office, is a reflection of their power; until they build independent power, they will continue to lose. Some of the resources currently focused on politics needs to be focused instead on building organizations that give working people a voice, community, and vision for change, first.

So this is a really common refrain on the labor left. Unions should stop with the politics and organize. The problem with this is that it’s totally disconnected from the reality of when and why unions succeed in this country. No, the decision on forming an organization can’t be left up to employers or the government, but giving up on the National Labor Relations Act is hardly a strategy, as limited as the NLRA is today. And it certainly may be that we need worker organizations that are not really unions so that they can operate outside the NLRA. But ultimately, those organizations are hard to run, they face enormous challenges that range from a lack of resources to the need for constant leadership building given the reliance on local people to do all the work. In reality, these are big tasks. Moreover, to give workers a voice, they need to have political power.

The most important factor in the success or failure of the American labor movement is something that the labor left hates to hear. It’s not about organizing. It’s not about militancy. It’s not about worker activism. It’s not about radical union leadership. Through the whole history of American labor, the key deciding factor has been the position government takes in a strike or to labor’s demands. There has simply been very few strikes or other victories in American history where labor has succeeded in the face of the complete opposition of government. The Gilded Age provides the most prominent examples of this, not so much because of Pullman and Homestead and the Great Railroad Strike, but because the two big victories of the period–the Anthracite Strike and Cripple Creek–happened precisely because the government made exceptions to their usual anti-labor politics, with Theodore Roosevelt mediating the former and a Populist governor openly taking the side of the miners in the latter. Yes, the Memphis sanitation strike won in 1968 with the Memphis government in total opposition, but that required the death of Martin Luther King and AFSCME couldn’t even build on that in Atlanta less than a decade later when Maynard Jackson decided to side with the city’s business elites over the workers. Moreover, unions’ success not only required unprecedented interventions from the federal government (which would not have happened had workers not struck across the nation in the early 1930s) but their decline coincides with a newly hostile federal government that is most associated with Reagan destroying the air traffic controllers, but really began during the Carter administration.

Unions do need to do more than just play the political game. But the political game is absolutely vital to any union victories. There is no way around this. We have well more than a century’s worth of evidence on this point.

United for Respect @ Walmart (OUR Walmart) has been working on these issues since 2010. Worker-leaders choose not to wait for the government or Walmart to decide if it had the right to exist. The organization exists because Walmart workers decided to build it into a network of more than 100,000, who, in coalition with communities and allies, created pressure on Walmart sufficient to raise minimum pay, change national policies, and win thousands of store-level victories. By necessity, the organization has focused on developing new forms of building power. While the results may look unfamiliar to traditional labor unions, to date OUR Walmart is both resilient and on the route to building long-term sustainability.

OUR Walmart was largely put together and funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers, even though that union has mostly pulled out of it. The Fight for $15 is a project of SEIU. Its not an either/or here. The problem though, as evinced by the UFCW turn away from it, is that these projects are incredibly expensive and there is very little chance of a pay off in terms of union dues. SEIU is facing this now with the fast food workers. When will this pay off? You might say that organizing should happen without worrying about this. But these organizations not only owe their current members proper representation, but if you have a declining membership, you need to focus on keeping your organization alive. Moreover, this supposedly alternative model required traditional unions already doing things that were nontraditional to get off the ground. Without UFCW support, Our Walmart has basically done nothing. Maybe it is resilient in the sense that a few people are still trying. And that’s great! But neither is Our Walmart some sort of alternative to unions that demonstrates that if unions QUIT PLAYING POLITICS AND ORGANIZE!!! that a new labor movement will flower.

The essay concludes with an odd point:

We live in an era where the opportunity to bring people together is in transformation, thanks to continued technological developments that allow for the democratization of connection, information, and media. We also live in a time when poverty and inequality are destroying the fabric of America and the world. We know that the labor movement won’t survive in its current state—a state that allowed for the election of Donald Trump. The question for those of us invested in the future of labor is this: Are we bold enough to build something different, and better, than what has come before?

Social media is a great thing. But social media is not going to organize the working class. Period. If capitalist technologies that are easily monitored by the bosses and where infiltrators and provocateurs can easily screw up these campaigns is the great alternative to stodgy unions, we have a long ways to go to recreate the labor movement.

The people struggling to fight for the rights of themselves and their fellow workers are heroes. The people keeping Our Walmart going are doing necessary and incredibly difficult work. But that doesn’t mean we can allow for simplistic narratives about the future of the labor movement or the problems of the contemporary labor movement to dominate our thoughts about working class movements. I know we all like a clear narrative that diagnoses problems and suggests solutions without muddying the waters too much. This is how you get published and these are the books that sell. But not facing the problems with our own narratives doesn’t help us overcome the huge obstacles anyone fighting for working class power faces.

Good Choices from Unions Past

[ 25 ] April 4, 2017 |

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The Washington Post, October 24, 1980:

The executive board of the militant organization that represents the nation’s aerial traffic cops has endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Robert D. Poli, head of the 14,500-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, met with Reagan yesterday in Florida.

PATCO’s leaders charge that President Carter has mismanaged the federal civil service, and has ignored what the union says are serious safety problems that jeopardize the country’s air traffic control system.

PATCO is the exclusive bargaining agent for all 17,000 controllers. It is considered one of the most aggressive of all government unions. Federal Aviation Administration brass have charged that PATCO is preparing for a strike next year during the big Easter vacation travel period. FAA cited a 110-page memo — which it calls a “blueprint” on how to run a strike — that PATCO sent regional officials earlier this year. Details of the memo were outlined here Oct. 5. Strikes against the government are illegal. PATCO members in the past have been involved in work-to-rule actions and sick-outs that slowed air traffic.

The union says controllers are over-worked and underpaid, and that the administration has let safety equipment deteriorate to dangerous levels. Poli charged that Carter had “consistently denigrated federal employes” and supported plans to cut back on retirement benefits for U.S. workers. Reagan says he opposes the White House plan to eliminate one of the two cost-of-living raises that federal and military retirees get. Poli said PATCO’s nin-member board, which endorsed Reagan unanimously, has been assured that the California governor would provide the best leadership for federal workers, and improve the state of the air traffic control system.”

The best leadership. Good choice guys. Good choice.

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.

This Day in Labor History: April 1, 1929

[ 12 ] April 1, 2017 |

Actual photo from the 1929 Loray Mill Strike.

On April 1, 1929, textile workers at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina went on strike. This strike was brutally suppressed by the mill owners who had moved production to the South precisely to avoid unionism and because they felt they could count on loyal politicians and law enforcement if workers did strike. The workers themselves did not win the strike, but this was a critical moment in the rise of textile worker unionism that would help define labor history in the 1930s.

As early as the 1890s, apparel factories began moving to the South to escape unions. This increased dramatically after the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the Lawrence strike, the Paterson strike, and other many other periods of workplace organizing, forcing them to change their methods in New York and New England. They found compliant workers in the hills of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. They wanted a workforce that lacked immigrants or a history of socialism. They found a region that was riven by racial tension, deeply under the influence of fundamentalist evangelicalism (and the anti-Semitism that went with it that would help with resistance to Jewish organizers coming South), a history of paternalism, and poverty. Southern Appalachia was perfect. By the 1910s, there were tens of thousands of southern Appalachians laboring in newly opened textile mills.

Mills opened up in large numbers during World War I, but in the postwar economic slump hurt workers bad. Like farmers producing food, they were promised continued prosperity and spent accordingly, in this case buying consumer items that were hardly luxurious by New York standards, but which required credit lines for these poor workers. Then the hard times came and the workers found themselves tumbling back into poverty. Wages were reduced and work became harder to find. Moreover, the mill owners decided to maximize the production of each worker. They did so through what is called the stretch-out. This was an attempt to make up for lost profits by forcing workers to work up to twice at hard. One worker recalled working 48 looms before the stretch-out and 90 after it was implemented. To make this happen, workers lost their breaks, owners shifted to paying workers at piece rate instead of wages, and they also increasing the number of supervisors to work the employees like slaves. Moreover, all of this was for no additional money. The individual noted above who now worked 90 looms complained that he made $19 a week in 1926 and $17.70 in 1929, despite the huge increase in his production.

This infuriated workers. These were not people inclined to unionization, but as their rights and their lives were crushed, they began to change their minds. This also got the attention of unions based in the north. The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) was a communist-led union that saw potential for organizing the South. Seeing the rapid exploitation and anger of the workers, it decided to focus on the Carolina mills. It sent an organizer named Fred Beal to Gastonia and he walked into a powder keg. On March 30, 1929, the NWTU held its first public meeting in Gastonia. Attending it was Ellen Dawson, NWTU vice-president, Scottish immigrant, and a long-time communist organizer who had been involved in several major textile strikes in the 1920s in northern cities such as New Bedford and Passaic and who would evidently die from the damage to her lungs from working in the textile mills. Dawson gave an inspirational speech that motivated the workers to strike, which they officially announced that day.

The next day, 1800 workers walked off the job at the Loray Mill. They wanted a 40-hour week, $20 a week as a minimum wage, union recognition, and, most important, the abolition of the stretch out. The mill owners were absolutely incensed that their workers would form a union. The first step they took was throwing them all out of its company housing, a common tactic in small mill towns and mining villages that kept employer control over workers tight. The town’s mayor immediately asked for National Guard intervention, which the government was happy to provide. The strike continued but the anti-strike forces became more violent. On April 18, 100 masked men destroyed NTWU headquarters.

Scabs began to enter the mill and the strike seemed lost. They continued to hold on. But on June 7, as 150 strikers went to the mill to try and get the night shift to walk off the job, the police decided to bust the strike once and for all. They were attacked by the police, who then went to the strikers’ camp and demanded that the camp guards hand over their weapons. A fight began and the police chief was killed.

71 strikers were arrested in the aftermath of the violence. Eight strikers and Beal were indicted for the murder of the police chief. During the trial, with the strike continuing, a juror went insane and the judge had to declare a mistrial. This set the forces of order off in a violent spasm to crush this workers’ movement. A vigilante movement called the Committee of One Hundred roamed the countryside, seeking out strikers. By early September, mobs were rounding up strikers and kicking them out of the county. On September 14, a mob opened fire on a truck full of strikers. A pregnant woman named Ella Mae Wiggins was murdered. She was a strike leader and songwriter whose songs became rallying cries for the union. Woody Guthrie later called Wiggins “the pioneer of the protest ballad.” This murder effectively ended the strike, as the workers could go no farther.

In the retrial for the killing of the police chief, the judge found seven men guilty of second-degree murder, six strikers and Fred Beal, who received a sentence of 17-20 years in prison. Beal then fled to the Soviet Union, but hating life there and horrified by the lack of freedom Soviet workers had, returned to the U.S. He surrendered to North Carolina authorities in 1938, where he was later pardoned in 1942. He died in 1954, spending his later years working as an anti-communist unionist.

But while Gastonia was incredibly violent, other textile workers in the South managed to win some strikes in 1929. These strikes were strictly about ending the stretch-out. Workers in South Carolina organized while also avoiding unions, appealing to local people as insiders, to win these gains. The owners tried to argue that the stretch-out was “progress,” but the workers won. Alabama, which had the strongest labor movement in the South, saw its unions become strong enough that politicians actively sought their endorsement. United Textile Workers, a union that would come out of this and other strikes along the east coast, had locals in Georgia and Alabama grow quickly after 1929. The Depression would deeply challenge any gains the workers had won in the stretch-out and made their living incredibly precarious, but despite the continued and very real southern white workers’ antipathy for and fear of unions, the UTW would form in the aftermath and would continue to have a presence up to the point of the famed 1934 textile strike.

To say the least, the brutality of the apparel industry has not diminished to the present. It has simply moved out of the United States. The workers of Bangladesh labor under a system not too different from that of a century ago in the United States, still producing your clothing under disastrously exploitative conditions.

I borrowed from Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South, to write this post.

This is the 215th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 29, 1951

[ 54 ] March 29, 2017 |

B29

On March 29, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason for passing classified information to the Soviet Union. A few days later they were sentenced to death. This famous case has of course received a tremendous amount of attention; for this series, it’s useful both as a window into the legacy of the New York-based and largely Jewish radicalism that shaped much of the left in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as to place them in the context of the broader attack on left-wing of the labor movement during these years.

Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg came out of the leftist Jewish tradition extending back into the late 19th century. He was born in New York in 1918, she also in New York in 1915. The both became members of the Young Communist League in the mid-1930s, as was far from uncommon in those days where democracy seemed to be dying and communism was the only hope for the left. They married in 1939. Both had significant union backgrounds. In 1932, Ethel led a strike at a shipping company where she worked, fighting for better wages. In 1935, she led another strike that included the blocking of the entrance to her company’s warehouse with 150 women workers. She was fired, but the National Labor Relations Board ordered she be rehired. All of this helped create the Ladies’ Apparel Shipping Clerks Union. Julius studied to be an engineer, but came from a staunchly union background. His father was a union representative in the sweatshops and apparel industry of New York. They were committed communists who sought to extend the revolution of workers’ rights under a socialist government to the United States. These were the children of the Clara Lemlich and Triangle Fire generation. They brought that same passion and organizing for workers’ rights to a new generation, one shaped by the rise and success of the Soviet Union.

During World War II, Julius worked at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories until it was revealed he was a communist. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, worked at Los Alamos. Julius was running a spy ring for the Soviet Union, believing that military information needed to be shared to ensure peace after the war. He and his comrades managed to take photographic copies of documents concerning a wide number of major military projects, including a complete set of prints and production designs for the first jet planes. Greenglass was providing some information from his position at Los Alamos, though as a machinist, he did not have access to much of the really highly valuable information.

After the war, Julius and Greenglass ran their own machinist shop briefly but it fell apart, causing some tension between the two men. When Klaus Fuchs got busted for spying for the Soviet Union, he named names to hopefully reduce his sentence. This led the government to David Greenglass. When Greenglass was caught, he then testified that it was Julius Rosenberg who introduced him to the spy ring. Rosenberg was arrested. So was Ethel, although there was no evidence that she was involved. The government hoped to use her to pressure Julius into revealing everything. She denied everything on the witness stand, including any knowledge of her husband or brother’s activities. She may well have been lying and later studies have suggested she was. But the government didn’t have any evidence to convict her. This did not stop them. After all, the co-prosecuting attorney was one Roy Cohn, who later bragged that he was responsible for them getting the death penalty. The prosecution went full atomic scare, claiming that Greenglass had given the Soviets the secret to the atomic bomb, which is not really supported by the evidence. Atomic scientists said that Greenglass’ supposed sketch of an atomic bomb was worthless and Greenglass himself was highly inconsistent in his testimony. The trial was a complete farce, even if they were both probably guilty. Both Julius and Ethel were convicted and were sentenced to death. They were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel’s was botched and they had to keep applying shocks through the electric chair. By the time she was declared dead, smoke was rising from her head.

Despite this famous case though, the communists in the labor movement were hardly a threat to the United States. Were there communists in the labor movement? Of course there were. They had played critical roles in the CIO’s organizing campaigns. By the late 1940s, the CIO was ready to get rid of these people for a number of reasons. There’s no question now, after decades of leftist historians dying it, that the CP-led unions and their organizers were following Moscow’s dictates, often alienating non-communist workers who could see through their inconsistency and constantly shifting positions to conform with the Soviets like a thin soup. There’s also no question that the communist issue also split unions, with non-communist members writing in to HUAC, asking for the communists to be investigated and eliminated. The question of communism in the labor movement during the postwar period is much harder and thornier than either anti-communist zealots or the modern left want to admit. Kicking out the communists was both an anti-democratic and anti-left move and was probably necessary for the industrial unions to survive the Cold War. It took away many of the best organizers, but those organizers had often worn out their welcome anyway and I am hesitant of arguments often made that this doomed the labor movement to its staid state of the post-1955 merger of the AFL and CIO. On the other hand, the loss of those good organizers was not replaced with some new generation of hard-core organizers and organizing fell off considerably after around 1950.

But in any case, most of these communists in the labor movement, including the Rosenbergs, genuinely thought they were doing the best thing they could for humanity in a global movement that would bring equality and freedom to the masses. You might argue that after 1939, only someone blind to reality could believe that. And maybe you are right. But I think when looking at people like the Rosenbergs, or the communists in the midcentury left generally, it’s useful to think of them in their own terms. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. But it does mean that the same desire for freedom that led them to create the modern labor movement and the greatest victories in the history of American workers is the same that led them to give secrets to Joseph Stalin. Such were the complexities of the time.

This is the 214th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1959

[ 5 ] March 28, 2017 |

3_1958frr_nono

On March 28, 1959, railroad worker union leaders in Mexico that threatened to shut down the nation were arrested. The government crack down, its firing thousands of workers and arrest of many more demonstrates how the PRI government in Mexico would reject militancy in the labor movement and how this once revolutionary government had now entered its own Cold War phase.

Mexican railroad workers were significantly underpaid by the late 1950s and the nation had entered a period of inflation. The Mexican rail workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores Ferrocarrileros de la República Mexicana (STFRM) created a price study committee to determine proper wages for its members. They demanded an increase of 350 pesos ($28) a month. When the government rejected this, offering an increase of 200 pesos ($16) a month, the path was laid for an increasingly bitter series of labor actions that resulted in one of the most important events in Mexican labor history. This union had been an independent union in the 1940s but by the 1950s was heavily co-opted by the PRI, the institutionalized revolutionary government of Mexico that theoretically made unions central to the state but in reality had made them adjuncts of state policy that did not represent workers. Moreover, railroad workers were a hugely important part of the Mexican labor movement and Mexican workers had played a leading role in starting the Mexican Revolution. As late as the 1950s, trains were a major mode of transportation in Mexico. Even today, public transportation is enormously important there, especially in rural Mexico, although today this is predominantly bus travel.

The first of the strikes began on June 26, 1958 in Oaxaca. Led by Demeterio Vallejo, a long-time union leader and one-time communist who had been active in the Mexican labor movement since the late 1920s, the workers began their actions with short strikes, usually only about 2 hours. Vallejo’s actions were not just about the wages. They were also about retaking control of the union from the officials handpicked by the government since 1948 and who had worked with the PRI to keep freight rates low by freezing wages. Vallejo’s newly invigorated workers escalated the length of their walkouts over the next few days, reaching 8 hours, before finally calling for a full-fledged strike. 60,000 workers participated in the first 2-hour strike. By the June 28 8-hour strike, Vallejo’s rail workers were joined by petroleum workers, teachers, and students. At this point president Adolpho Ruiz Cortines stepped in and offered a 215 peso raise. That was accepted and it seemed like this strike would end quickly. However, on July 12, the Railroad Workers Union elected Vallejo general secretary of the National Railroad Council, in no small part because he was angry about the Ruiz Cortines agreement that gave them such a small raise. He rode that rank and file anger to a victory. The companies refused to accept this and neither did the government, who wanted a less radical union leader in a system where the ruling PRI had incorporated unions into its government structure. Once again, the union went on strike and forced the government to cave.

They then sought to build on these two victories to demand much more. They wanted their pay raise based on the principle of a 6-day pay week instead of a 7-day pay week, thus raising their overall pay by 16% instead of 14% and wanted it applied retroactively to Ruiz Cortines’ intervention. They also wanted a housing allowance of 10% or a government housing plan for railroad workers. Finally, they wanted a limitation on loans from U.S. companies that was taking up too much of the railroad’s finances and thus getting in the way of pay raises for workers. By this time as well, a new president had taken office in Mexico. Adolfo López Mateos was seen as a possible return to a more populist and left-leaning Mexico by many disappointed with the conservative, corrupt statism of the PRI since Cardenas. Alas, they were to be bitterly disillusioned by the new administration.

Contract negotiations stalled and the 1-year contract agreed to in 1958 expired. Vallejo and his union became national pariahs in the media, but they pressed ahead with their strike, which started on February 25, 1959. This strike lasted less than a day, as the company agreed to the 16% raise, free medical care for workers’ families, and a government housing program. But the contract was not equal for all rail workers as some lines were left out. This led Vallejo to once again call a strike that would commence on March 25. The union chose that date specifically because it was Holy Week. With Easter on March 29, this maximized their leverage because people could not travel to see their families on this critical Mexican holiday. But this was too much for the López Mateos government. It declared the strike illegal. The military took over the rail stations. Army telegraphers scabbed on the striking rail telegraphers. The police busted the doors of workers, pulled their guns on them, and forced the to work at gunpoint. The military arrested Vallejo and thousands of workers. This actually filled the available prisons and many of the workers were sent to military camps. Throughout all of this, the workers grounded their demands in the language of the 1917 Constitution that is the fundamental document of the Mexican Revolution. But for the government, even this reeked of radicalism in a Cold War world where PRI leaders now feared leftist organizing as opposed to welcoming it, as it had done a mere 20 years earlier.

Vallejo was found guilty of sedition and given a 16-year prison sentence. The government replaced Vallejo and his followers with hand-chosen union leaders who would cooperate. The new contract remained and the lives of average workers improved, but union militancy in Mexico would be crushed by the PRI, which valued control and power over the unions brought into the government over its supposed revolutionary ideology. The state was the revolution and the revolution was the state. Vallejo remained in jail for 11 years and became a major cause for students in the 1968 movement. That fateful year saw the greatest suppression of labor and civil rights in modern Mexican history, most notoriously with the Tlateloco Massacre just outside of Mexico City, where the government murdered protesting students. This combined with guerillas fighting for dignity in the rural state of Guerrero set off Mexico’s Dirty War, a spasm of state violence that it has never really recovered from. The ultimate betrayal of Mexican democracy culminated in 1968 but it started in 1959.

I borrowed from Robert Alegre, Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory, in the writing of this post.

This is the 213th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Happy Triangle Day!

[ 30 ] March 25, 2017 |

TriangleFire_25March1911_BodiesOnSidewalk

Triangle Fire Day is such a happy time. Good thing we have learned so much and we treat our workers with respect, allow them to work in safe workplaces, give them a voice on the job, and generally allow them to live a dignified life, unlike those savage times of the past.

“The supply chain isn’t going just to Bangladesh. It’s going to Alabama and Georgia,” says David Michaels, who ran OSHA for the last seven years of the Obama administration. Safety at the Southern car factories themselves is generally good, he says. The situation is much worse at parts suppliers, where workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)

Cordney Crutcher has known both environments. In 2013 he lost his left pinkie while operating a metal press at Matsu Alabama, a parts maker in Huntsville owned by Matcor-Matsu Group Inc. of Brampton, Ont. Crutcher was leaving work for the day when a supervisor summoned him to replace a slower worker on the line, because the plant had fallen 40 parts behind schedule for a shipment to Honda Motor Co. He’d already worked 12 hours, Crutcher says, and wanted to go home, “but he said they really needed me.” He was put on a press that had been acting up all day. It worked fine until he was 10 parts away from finishing, and then a cast-iron hole puncher failed to deploy. Crutcher didn’t realize it. Suddenly the puncher fired and snapped on his finger. “I saw my meat sticking out of the bottom of my glove,” he says.

Now Crutcher, 42, commutes an hour to the General Motors Co. assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., where he’s a member of United Auto Workers. “They teach you the right way,” he says. “They don’t throw you to the wolves.” His pay rose from $12 an hour at Matsu to $18.21 at GM.

In 2014, OSHA’s Atlanta office, after detecting a high number of safety violations at the region’s parts suppliers, launched a crackdown. The agency cited one year, 2010, when workers in Alabama parts plants had a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole. That gap has narrowed, but the incidence of traumatic injuries in Alabama’s auto parts plants remains 9 percent higher than in Michigan’s and 8 percent higher than in Ohio’s. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory was double the amputation risk nationally for the industry, 65 percent higher than in Michigan and 33 percent above the rate in Ohio.

Korean-owned plants, which make up roughly a quarter of parts suppliers in Alabama, have the most safety violations in the state, accounting for 36 percent of all infractions and 52 percent of total fines, from 2012 to 2016. The U.S. is second, with 23 percent of violations and 17 percent of fines, and Germany is third, with 15 percent and 11 percent. But serious accidents occur in plants from all over, according to more than 3,000 pages of court documents and OSHA investigative files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Feel the Freedom!

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