Last year, Whole Foods was one of many companies to force employees to work on Thanksgiving. The employees were very angry about this and seven went on strike at a store in Chicago. In response to the negative publicity, Whole Foods stores in the Midwest are now allowing workers to sign up if they want to work on Thanksgiving and will pay them double wages to do so. That’s a victory. A bigger victory would be for Whole Foods to just close on Thanksgiving and allow its workers to have the holiday with family or friends. But it’s something.
In 2012, the Tarzeen Fire in Bangladesh killed 112 workers. It’s been slightly forgotten in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1100, but was certainly horrible in its own right–remember, Triangle killed 146 so Tarzeen was nearly as deadly. Of course, it’s hardly coincidental that all three of these incidents were in the apparel industry, which has long thrived on an extremely exploitative model that sought to protect department stores from responsibility for production. Such was the case at Triangle and such is the case at Tarzeen. Of the 16 clothing firms linked to production at Tarzeen at the time, only 2 have paid any compensation to the survivors or the families of the dead. Neither are American firms. The American firms contracting to have apparel made at Tarzeen: Dickey’s, Wal-Mart, Disney, and Sears. None of these companies have paid a cent. They continue to profit off the long-established system of apparel worker exploitation and dead workers are an acceptable cost for those profits. Only with mandatory compensation and legal recompense for the affected will these companies be held to account. And that is what we need to be fighting for, as I argue in Out of Sight.
On November 25, 1865, Mississippi created the first of the Black Codes. Designed to recreate slavery in all but name, this signified the white South’s massive resistance to the freeing of their labor force and the lengths to which it would go to tie workers to a place under white control.
The impact of slavery’s end is hard to overestimate. But the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves immediately and the ratification of the 13th Amendment did not take place until well after the war’s end. The federal government was woefully unprepared, both in manpower and ideas, for ensuring that the rights of ex-slaves were respected after the war. Sure, slavery might be effectively dead as of April 14, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but was the U.S. military there to enforce freedom on the plantations? Largely, no. The immediate months after the war were filled with violence as whites killed newly freed people in the countryside, especially as they began to flee for cities like Memphis and New Orleans. For cotton planters, this black flight was a real threat. They prospered on owning black labor. If they couldn’t own that labor, planters at least needed to keep it on the land to pick the cotton that might allow them to rebuild their economic base.
The Black Codes thus intended to trap black labor in place. The plantation elite’s top goal immediately upon emancipation was to corral black labor, whose core goal was to avoid the plantation labor system, preferably replacing it with small farms they owned. The Black Codes intended to prevent this. Building upon the slave codes regulating black behavior, and especially black movement, before the war, the Black Codes was the South’s statement to the North that the end of the war did not mean the end of white supremacy. Blacks would have to show a written contract of employment at the start of each year, ensuring they were laboring for a white employer. At the core of the Mississippi code and copied around the South was the vagrancy provision. “Vagrancy” was a term long used in the United States to crack down on workers not doing what employers or the police wanted them to do. In this case, it meant not working for a white person.
Mississippi did not allow blacks to rent land for themselves. Rather, all blacks in rural areas must labor for a white under 1-year contracts. They did not have the option to quit working for that white person. If a black person in the countryside was found not working for a white person, the state would contract that worker out to a private landowner and receive a portion of their wages. If a black person could not pay high taxes levied on them by the state, they would be charged the vagrancy and the same process would result. As during slavery, any white person could legally arrest any black person. A Fugitive Slave Act-like provision was included that made it illegal to assist a black person from leaving their landowner with real punishments for whites who did so. That provision also stated that blacks caught running away would lose their wages for the year. Children whose parents could not take care of them, as defined by the whites of Mississippi, would be bonded to their former owners. Other forms of black behavior were also criminalized, such as preaching without a license or “insulting” language toward whites. Interracial marriage, it goes without saying, was banned as well.
In other words, Mississippi reinstituted slavery.
Other southern states quickly built on Mississippi’s black codes. South Carolina barred blacks from any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they played a very steep annual tax that sought to pauperize the large free black community in Charleston. Virginia included in its vagrancy law anyone who refused to work for the “usual and common wages given to other laborers” in order to eliminate whites competing for black labor. Florida’s Black Code allowed whites to whip those who broke their labor contract and then be sold for a year. Texas and Louisiana mandated that women and children who could work be working in the fields.
The response in the North to these laws was largely one of outrage. After all, what had they just fought this war over? While at the beginning of the war, northern whites could legitimately argue the war was about restoring the union and not slavery, no one could make that argument by the end of the war, for so it was so clearly about both. When word of this got out, the North, unclear what path toward Reconstruction it would take and still reeling from the death of Abraham Lincoln six months earlier and the ascendance of his successor, Andrew Johnson, was finally moved to take more decisive action against increasingly recalcitrant ex-Confederates.
Quickly after its passage, General O.O. Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, declared the Black Code invalid. Congress met just a few weeks later for the first time since the end of the war. At this Congress, the South also sent ex-Confederate leaders such as former vice-president Alexander Stephens to represent them. Taken together, this led to the rise of Congressional Reconstruction and the war between Congress and Johnson. As the Southern elite did during the 15 years before the Civil War, its aggressive overreach created northern white backlash that then led to a significant commitment to black rights. That might not have lasted very long, but it did ensure that as unfair as postwar labor relations would become, they would look nothing like slavery. Congressional Reconstruction would void the black codes and put off the violent suppression of southern black labor for several years, opening at least the possibility of a future that provided the freed slaves dignity, although it was not to be.
In the end, it was sharecropping that would define the postwar southern agricultural labor force, not bonded black labor. There are a number of reasons for these complex arrangements that would still strongly exploit African-American labor, but it still provided ex-slaves more control over their lives than desired by the white plantation elite, who would largely be unable to recreate their economic dominance after the war.
As with all things Reconstruction, the work of Eric Foner is a great place to start, and some of this post is borrowed from his books.
This is the 125th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Why do Wal-Mart workers keep using one-day strikes as a protest tool? Largely because they don’t have any other tools that are likely to work:
One-day strikes don’t shut down the workplace like iconic strikes of yore did (and some workers, like Chicago teachers, still can). But if done right, they can accomplish some of what those walkouts did: Embarrass companies, estrange them from their customers, and engage fellow workers and the broader public by disrupting business as usual and creating a public spectacle. Instead of halting production, they anchor broader campaigns of political, media, legal, and consumer pressure aimed at getting management to budge. “It’s showing them that enough is enough,” says Venanzi Luna, one of about 60 employees who joined a Nov. 13 California walkout backed by OUR Walmart, the non-union workers group closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. OUR Walmart insists its protests are paying off, pointing to a series of announcements by the retailer that address policies—from minimum-wage pay, to part-time scheduling, to accommodations for pregnant workers—that have been rallying cries for the campaign.
It’s entirely possible (I’d say probable) that this pressure is what is causing Wal-Mart to slightly move the dial toward a dignified life for its workers. But the end game is really hard to see for this movement. A wide-scale strike is really not possible without 100 times more active support for Wal-Mart workers than it presently has, in no small part because there are so many locations and workplaces. Even if everyone in one store went on strike, if the other nearby stores didn’t follow, Walmart would easily swat it away. Given this situation, the 1-day strike makes a lot of sense with continued pressure throughout the year that keeps the Wal-Mart workers’ situation in our consciousness and hopefully leads to some sort of eventual larger transformation of workers’ lives. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when Wal-Mart embarrasses itself.
In other words, these actions are indicative of both the problems American workers face in 2014 and the potential organizing actions to alleviate those problems.
Graduate students at the University of Oregon are threatening to strike over the university not giving their demand of paid family leave. You can read the details of the bargaining in quite a bit of detail here. It is nearing the end of the quarter at UO, so the graduate students have as much power as they are going to have because all the grading needs to get done. So how did the university administration respond? Pretty much in the most embarrassing way possible, sending deans and directors this leaked memo concerning what to do if they had to give the finals without their TAs.
1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.
2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.
3. Provide students with the following options:
a. Forgo the final and take the grade they had going into the final
b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded
Give everyone Scantron exams! Now that’s education. Let’s not even get into the issue that students forced to take multiple choice exams do significantly worse because there is no partial credit (which is why it is basically impossible to fail a history course unless you don’t turn assignments in or never show up). In fact, let’s just forget about education entirely. Give the students their current grade without a final! Hire some scabs to serve as TAs! Make a mockery of your entire pedagogy!
Really, shouldn’t the University of Oregon just allow students to choose their own grade? That’s only fair way to deal with a labor conflict.
Since we all know that a divided government is the answer to the problems of this nation, I present you the kind of commonsense bipartisan leadership that Americans are demanding. Rep. Steve Stockman:
We have introduced legislation renaming Labor Department headquarters after National Right to Work Committee founder Reed Larson (HR 5757)
— Rep. Steve Stockman (@SteveWorks4You) November 20, 2014
Jillian Fisher, who started a petition on Coworker.org asking Kmart to give her mother and other employees the flexibility to take the holiday off, surveyed 56 self-identified employees from more than 13 states. Of those, just three said they had the option to ask to take the holiday off. In a press release from the petition organizer, one employee said human resources has told them, “if you do not come to work on Thanksgiving, you will automatically be fired… I made the request to work a split shift on Thanksgiving and was denied.” Another said, “Our manager stated at a staff meeting: ‘Everyone must work Thanksgiving and Black Friday. No time off.’” At one location, an employee says signs have been posted in the break room saying workers can’t request time off on Thanksgiving or Black Friday and that everyone has to put in at least some time on both, while at another signs have been posted saying no one can request time off between November 15 and January 1.
“I am a lead at a Kmart and it is mandatory for me to work on Thanksgiving,” another employee said. “If I were to call out I would be terminated, and requesting off is not allowed.”
I’ll leave the fact that people who go shopping at a department store on Thanksgiving have some priority issues that need addressing and just state it is flat out immoral to force non-emergency employees to labor on Thanksgiving. And K-Mart and other department stores do not have emergency employees. But these stores do not treat workers with respect to begin with. This is the kind of story where public pressure can really make a difference. Last year there was a lot of negative attention paid to this issue. This year, many department stores have announced they are giving everyone the day off and closing. K-Mart is not one of those but embarrassing it might force a change.
They are an endangered species, but there are a few capitalists who see the income inequality of the New Gilded Age as a threat to capitalism, as they should. One is Nick Hanauer, who was an early investor in Amazon. He writes a lengthy essay in Politico about how awful it is that overtime for workers has gone away and what President Obama can do about it:
So what’s changed since the 1960s and ’70s? Overtime pay, in part. Your parents got a lot of it, and you don’t. And it turns out that fair overtime standards are to the middle class what the minimum wage is to low-income workers: not everything, but an indispensable labor protection that is absolutely essential to creating a broad and thriving middle class. In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Not because capitalists back then were more generous, but because it was the law. It still is the law, except that the value of the threshold for overtime pay—the salary level at which employers are required to pay overtime—has been allowed to erode to less than the poverty line for a family of four today. Only workers earning an annual income of under $23,660 qualify for mandatory overtime. You know many people like that? Probably not. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute. And so business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all.
In my defense, I’m only playing by the rules—rules written by and for wealthy capitalists like me. But the main point is this: These are rules that President Barack Obama has the power to change with the stroke of a pen, and with no prior congressional approval. The president could, on his own, restore federal overtime standards to where they were at their 1975 peak, covering the same 65 percent of salaried workers who were covered 40 years ago. If he did that, about 10.4 million Americans would suddenly be earning a lot more than they are now. Last March, Obama asked the Labor Department to update “outdated” regulations that mean, as the president put it in his memo, “millions of Americans lack the protections of overtime and even the right to the minimum wage.” But Obama was not specific about the changes he wanted to see.
So let me be specific. To get the country back to the same equitable standards we had in 1975, the Department of Labor would simply have to raise the overtime threshold to $69,000. In other words, if you earn $69,000 or less, the law would require that you be paid overtime when you worked more than 40 hours a week. That’s 10.4 million middle-class Americans with more money in their pockets or more time to spend with friends and family. And if corporate America didn’t want to pay you time and a half, it would need to hire hundreds of thousands of additional workers to pick up the slack—slashing the unemployment rate and forcing up wages.
The Obama administration could, on its own, go even further. Many millions of Americans are currently exempt from the overtime rules—teachers, federal employees, doctors, computer professionals, etc.—and corporate leaders are lobbying hard to expand “computer professional” to mean just about anybody who uses a computer. Which is almost everybody. But were the Labor Department instead to narrow these exemptions, millions more Americans would receive the overtime pay they deserve. Why, you might ask, are so many workers exempted from overtime? That’s a fair question. To be truthful, I have no earthly idea why. What I can tell you is that these exemptions work out very well for your employers.
I’m not a labor lawyer, so I will leave the legal specifics to others. But according to Hanauer, Obama can unilaterally change the overtime regulations. And the president has acted a bit on this issue. There is no good reason for Obama not to make a really significant change to the overtime rules except that he, like most Democrats in Washington, actually believe that corporate leaders are correct when they talk about “burdensome regulations” and themselves as “job creators.” Hanauer says these are outright lies, later going into what the capitalists actually spend their money on (note: it may make you angry). But that ideology is so incredibly powerful among the American political elite, an ideology backed up by the need for massive campaign contributions in a post-Citizens United world, that the reality matters less than pleasing the plutocrats. And that’s the Democrats. As for the Republicans, impoverishing the American working class is an outright goal.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that attorneys in Harris’ office had unsuccessfully argued in court that the state could not release the prisoners it had agreed to release because “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.” Those prisoners, the Times reported, earn wages that range from “8 cents to 37 cents per hour.”
In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
Approximately 4,400 California prisoners help the state battle wildfires, at wages of about $2 a day. There is an exception in the agreement that allows the state to retain firefighters — but only firefighters — who are otherwise eligible for release.
Like incarcerated firefighters, inmates who perform “assignments necessary for the continued operation of the institution and essential to local communities” draw from the same pool of inmates who pose a limited threat to public safety, the state argued in a September filing. Therefore, reducing that population would require the prisons to draw more incarcerated workers away from its firefighting crews.
This is the reality of the labor force today–states actively rely on incarcerated labor for work. I don’t think I need to list the many problems with this.
Workers in the California garment industry are enduring poor working conditions and insufficient pay, the US Department of Labour has found. More than 1,500 Southern California garment workers are owed over $3 million in unpaid wages, the government department found following a year-long survey – which also concluded that American companies Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom and JC Penney, among others, were producing garments in the factories concerned.
You want to stop this? Charge huge fines to Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and JC Penney for doing business with people who make clothes in this manner. That’s how you stop it. We make decent working conditions part of the cost of doing business. This so often gets portrayed as an issue of “ethical sourcing.” That’s not incorrect, but it misstates the problem. The problem isn’t sourcing production with the right contractors. It’s the entire system of apparel contracting. It’s that the apparel industry gets away from washing its hands of responsibility through it’s don’t ask don’t tell position about its contractors. Only by holding these companies fiscally and legally responsible will clothing be produced ethically
There are a lot of labor stories in my blogging queue right now. Let’s just deal with them all at once.
1. Do we need a new legal framework for food workers? Jacob Gersen and Benjamin Sachs say we do and they are correct:
Take farm workers who witness the processing of infected (or “downer”) cows — an illegal but, unfortunately, not uncommon practice that risks spreading a host of diseases to humans. Or workers in poultry-processing facilities, where safety and hygiene regulations are flouted, thus increasing the risk of salmonella, which every year results in more than one million illnesses, more than 350 deaths and over $3 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. Unless we offer specific legal protection for all food workers who come forward to expose such practices — something the law does not do now — we all are at risk.
We should also adjust many of our standard workplace rules to take account of the special nature of food production. To avoid the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which causes mad cow disease, workers involved in the processing of beef must fully and carefully remove the dorsal root ganglion, a part of the spinal nerve, from all cattle that are 30 months old or older. That’s because these dorsal root ganglia can contain the infective agent behind B.S.E.
Not sure what the Obama Administration can do on this in the face of certain Republican opposition but it should be a priority within American labor regulation.
2. San Francisco is considering an ordinance to force companies to provide a “predictable schedule” for part-time workers. This is absolutely a workplace justice issue that needs to be taken care of. Among the many problems with people stringing together multiple part-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads is the inability to know when they will need to work week-to-week at each job. Keeping workers’ lives unstable of course helps the company and so they will probably fight such a common-sense idea.
3. In the world of labor on our college campuses, administrators at Pensacola State College are telling faculty members they are violating state law by talking to student reporters about their stalled contract negotiations. The administration is trying to use a section of the state legal code already shot down by both state and federal courts. Absurd, but all too typical for one of the biggest union-busting industries in the U.S. right now–institutions of higher education.
4. I always like to highlight stories of student labor activism when I see them, so here is one on anti-sweatshop activism at Oregon State University.
5. Meanwhile, a Chicago alderman whose father worked in a sweatshop in India is pushing the City Council to pass an anti-sweatshop ordinance. Wonder what ol’Rahm thinks about that.
6. Finally, the chemical industry strikes again, with 4 dead workers at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas after a chemical leaked. I’d be real curious to see when the last time this plant was inspected by OSHA.
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy and one of the most detestable and immoral people living in the United States, was finally indicted for a few of his many crimes yesterday.
Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of Massey Energy, was indicted Thursday on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
A federal grand jury in Charleston charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules — meant to prevent deadly mine blasts —during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.
The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance of government inspections.
“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the indictment states. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
The indictment also alleges that, after the explosion, Blankenship made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public about Massey’s safety practices before the explosion.
I’m really curious to what extent lying to investors wasn’t his real downfall. Being indicted is definitely not the same as receiving the harsh punishment Blankenship deserves, but it is a necessary and all too rare step to hold an employer accountable for people dying on the job. Still, the case of Blankenship is SO egregious that it could not be ignored and still took 4 1/2 years after the death of 29 miners.