Above: Pittsburgh, 1940
My Pittsburgh visit was also highlighted by not only meeting wjts, but not getting into fisticuffs with him over condiment choices. I was proud of myself.
Above: Pittsburgh, 1940
My Pittsburgh visit was also highlighted by not only meeting wjts, but not getting into fisticuffs with him over condiment choices. I was proud of myself.
In a major victory against the obscuring of employers in order to disempower workers, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that corporations who use contractors and franchises are the joint employers of those workers. This is an enormously important decision because employers like the fast food industry (the case is actually about a waste management company but fast food is the most famous user of this method) argue that if workers were to join unions, they would have to negotiate with each individual restaurant instead of with McDonald’s. The big companies control almost everything about the work, but used these obscuring methods as a way to shield themselves from liability. The NLRB just stripped a lot of that way and undermined some of the reasons for subcontracting and franchising.
In the case, the N.L.R.B. held that a company called Browning-Ferris Industries of California was a joint employer of workers hired by a contractor to help staff the company’s recycling center. But the ruling could apply well beyond companies that rely on contractors and staffing agencies, extending to companies with large numbers of franchisees.
“The decision today could be one of the more significant by the N.L.R.B. in the last 35 years,” said Marshall Babson, a lawyer who helped write the brief for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the case and who was a Democratic appointee to the labor board in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “ Depending on how the board applies its new ‘indirect test,’ it will likely ensnare an ever-widening circle of employers and bargaining relationships.”
Beyond Browning-Ferris, the ruling may have a significant immediate effect on a case the labor board is litigating against McDonald’s and several of its franchisees. In that case, the N.L.R.B.’s general counsel, who essentially acts as a prosecutor, asserts that the company is a joint employer along with a number of franchisees, making it potentially liable for numerous reported violations of workers’ rights, like retaliating against those who have tried to organize unions.
Thursday’s N.L.R.B. ruling, by enshrining a broader joint-employer definition into doctrine, makes it more likely to apply in the McDonald’s case as well, though experts point out that joint employer designations are typically very dependent on the circumstances of each case.
Business representatives said the ruling could make it much harder to operate franchises in the future, undermining a popular path for many entrepreneurs.
“This will clearly jeopardize small employers and the future viability of the franchise model,” said Steve Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association, an industry group. “If I’m an existing and/or aspiring franchisee, why would I want to expand my business and/or get into franchising if I don’t have the ability to run the day-to-day operations of the business?”
The industry pretending that the franchisee controls the business is hilarious given how much control the company holds over the entire operation.
Some credit goes to the Teamsters here who brought the case before the NLRB and this demonstrates how important it could be to unionization efforts:
The Browning Ferris case grew out of an organizing effort by the Teamsters. The union sought to have the waste management company named as a joint employer for workers employed by the staffing firm Leadpoint Business Services, a subcontractor for Browning Ferris. If Browning Ferris were deemed a joint employer, it would have to join Leadpoint in bargaining with the Teamsters. Such a determination could also make it easier for the Teamsters to organize workers at other staffing agencies that do work for Browning Ferris.
A regional director for the NLRB ruled that Browning Ferris did not exert enough control over Leadpoint workers to be considered a joint employer under current standards, but the Teamsters appealed that ruling to the federal board. Thursday’s ruling will change those standards for future cases.
On August 20, 1866, the National Labor Union, the first labor union federation in U.S. history, demanded Congress implement a national 8-hour day. It led to a partial and fleeting success, but the NLU story is an important moment in American labor history as it represents an early response to the onslaught of capitalism upon workers who suddenly found a class-based system developing in what was promised to be a white man’s democracy.
The trade union movement had roots early in American history but had never really taken off, in part because the system of American employment was still in the pre-Civil War years by and large artisan and farmer based. Where you did see large concentrations of industry, unions formed such as in the Lowell mills. But the nation was changing rapidly in 1866. The capitalist revolution of the Civil War was beginning to be felt by workers. Factories were growing and money was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions in factories, railroad yards, and mines were becoming part of the everyday experience for workers.
Unions began to develop in these industries, but there was no national federation to organize and guide them. That’s what the National Labor Union intended to do. Founded at a Baltimore conference in 1866, it was a precursor to the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor. It wanted to bring together all of the current unions in its umbrella and take a political and bargaining approach to solving problems, as opposed to striking which was quite controversial even among workers at this time. It favored arbitration as its preferred labor action. It also wanted a Labor Party to challenge both the Republicans and the Democrats.
The NLU’s leader William Sylvis was an interesting individual. In 1846, at the age of 18, Sylvis became an iron molder, which was someone who poured hot slag into wooden patterns to shape the final product. This was hard, tough, dangerous work. He soon became active in Philadelphia’s union movement and was elected secretary of his local in 1857. In 1859, Sylvis called for a convention of all the iron moulders locals around the nation. He was elected president of what became the National Union of Iron Molders. He spent the Civil War building the union where he instituted a number of innovations, including creating the first ever national strike fund, through mandatory dues payments by members. Sylvis was also a major supporter of unions of female workers, particularly Kate Mullaney’s Collar Laundry Union. Sylvis would later invite Mullaney into a leadership role within the NLU, making her the nation’s first female union executive.
The NLU did invite all workers, including farmers into the organization. But as would be the case with the AFL, its core membership was the skilled building trades. Also like the rest of the labor movement of the time, the NLU held white supremacy as a central guiding point. It was segregated and while there was a black chapter, it was ineffective and small. Sylvis actually opposed this segregation; although he supported Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election, he believed that all workers had the same issues and would have preferred one integrated organization. It took years of fighting recalcitrant unionists to even allowed the Colored National Labor Union to exist alongside the NLU. The federation also called for the exclusion of Chinese workers from the United States, which would eventually be the first legislative victory for the American labor movement in history.
The major legislative aim for the NLU was the passage of the 8-hour day. As capitalism developed, the 8-hour day would become the ultimate goal for much of the American labor movement. It was the call to arms for the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, so much so that the Knights basically lost control of its exploding membership by 1886. Union after union would call for this over the next decades and it was not achieved nationally until the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and even then only partially.
Amazingly the NLU actually achieved an early victory on the 8-hour day when in 1868, the government created the 8-hour day for federal employees. But this was a very limited win as most of the government agencies then reduced wages to go along with it, which was very much not what the NLU wanted. When President Grant ordered departments to stop reducing wages, most just ignored him and he did not press the issue. Ultimately, little concrete benefit came of the 8-hour day announcement.
Frustrations with the federal employee 8-hour day and loopholes in laws in New York and California that made similar statues unworkable combined with the growing concern in the post-Civil War period about monetary policy to turn the NLU in a starkly political direction. It focused its energy on electoral politics and monetary reform, specifically the issuance of greenbacks, as well as providing public land for settlers as opposed to the huge land grants given to railroads as an incentive to build transcontinental lines. This did not exactly excite workers. Many locals believed in “pure and simple unionism” that kept workers out of politics. Thus the NLU became increasingly divided as it prioritized politics over workers’ concerns. While Sylvis claimed the NLU had 600,000 members, he was exaggerating significantly. At its peak, it might have had 300,000. That number declined as the 1860s became the 1870s. Sylvis dying in 1869 at the age of 41 helped speed the decline as the federation lost its guiding light. The NLU dissolved in 1874 after its membership plummeted in the Panic of 1873.
So ultimately, we should see Sylvis and the NLU as an important ancestor of both the Knights of Labor and the AFL. The NLU was an early attempt for workers to collectively find ways out of the inequality arising during and after the Civil War and for all its limitations, was probably more successful than any other organization before the AFL.
This is the 155th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
The full National Labor Relations Board rejected the initial ruling that Northwestern football players could unionize. They used some strange logic to do so, effectively using a competitive balance argument that since the ruling could only cover private schools, it might give those schools a competitive advantage since they could offer benefits that public schools couldn’t. Or wouldn’t since of course they could if they wanted to create a model that was not rank exploitation.
Even if the scholarship players were statutory employees (which, again, is an issue we do not decide), it would not effectuate the policies of the Act to assert jurisdiction.
Because of the nature of sports leagues (namely the control exercised by the leagues over the individual teams) and the composition and structure of FBS football (in which the overwhelming majority of competitors are public colleges and universities over which the Board cannot assert jurisdiction), it would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction.
But I don’t see what business it is of the NLRB to worry about competitive balance in college football. How is that part of its mandate? It’s not. Stephen Greenhouse on Twitter speculated the NLRB was worried deciding in favor of the players might enrage conservative politicians but I am skeptical since they already hate the agency.
Disappointing decision from a usually good group of people at the NLRB.
Above: The actual Rosie the Riveter image, which did not seek to fight unions
I know I will never win this fight, but if we are going to try and set world records in women dressing up as “Rosie the Riveter” can it a) at least be the real one and b) not copy what was in fact an anti-union poster. Remember, the “We” in “We Can Do It” does not mean women. It means Westinghouse.
I get that the image has been appropriated for good. It doesn’t mean that we should forget about its history or pretend that it is what it isn’t. Historical mythology should always be corrected.
Why do companies or agencies hire workers as independent contractors rather than regular laborers? In order to maximize profit, of course. Thus you have the Uber model of blatant exploitation that has built the company. In a world of extreme individualism, where people think working this way is freedom because it gives them a certain amount of control over how much they work and when, corporations have discovered many advantages to this system and encourage it through this language of individualism. Like subcontracting, franchising, temp work, and outsourcing, independent contractors shield employers from liability, training, wages, and benefits. It’s not too surprising to me that workers in some of these fields are starting to wake up to their own exploitation and that helps explain the sudden push toward union drives in new media, where you combine politically astute people laboring in this exploitative system.
So what happens when an independent contractor gets pregnant?
But she wasn’t like everyone else. Cetrone was a contractor, along with two other staffers at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and therefore not entitled to benefits like workers compensation or unemployment insurance — or more importantly when she became pregnant, the eight weeks of paid family leave that D.C. government employees get.
“They made us look to the public like we were full-time employees, but we didn’t have any of the benefits,” Cetrone says.
Cetrone thought it was unfair she’d have to take time off to have a baby without pay. But it didn’t strike her that there was anything untoward about it — until she began seeing reports on all the lawsuits over misclassification in the “sharing economy,” alleging that everyone from Uber drivers to Homejoy cleaners should be treated as employees rather than contractors.
“I started looking at my contract, and reading all the articles about Uber,” Cetrone says. “And I’m like, if these people are working 20 to 50 hours a week, then maybe my contract isn’t legal.”
When she raised her concerns, she soon found herself out of a job.
But if the District misstepped, it wouldn’t be the only one. Disputes over the role of contractors are becoming commonplace after the federal government and others outsourced many functions.
“I see this all the time,” says Alan Lescht, whose law firm deals largely with federal employees and contractors. “Companies think they can hire someone as an independent contractor to avoid paying benefits and overtime, and when they look carefully into their roles, more often than not they’ve been misclassified.”
And more people might be taking second looks at their contracts these days. The federal government and state labor agencies have been cracking down on misclassification, which allows companies to dodge taxes and other overhead associated with bringing on full-time employees, and is especially prevalent in low-wage industries like construction and trucking. But it happens in white-collar jobs too, and now the media attention is waking up those workers to the idea that their employers could be part of the trend.
This is why joint employer status is so important and why I hope the Obama NLRB will start moving in this direction. If you work in a place of employment, you should have the same status as everyone else working in that place of employment. We have to take away the incentive of using independent contractors or temps to avoid responsibility. And of course, as in the case above, the anti-government mentality among conservatives and Beltway elites since 1980 has contributed significantly to this problem by trying to shrink the size of government, thus forcing agencies to get creative in how they staff positions. Robust labor law is only a start, but an important start, in pushing back against this panoply of problems in our work lives.
On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, completing one of the great engineering projects of the time, one that recreated racialized labor norms of the United States in Panama while also demonstrating how sanitary reforms could save workers lives. It also served to connect the imperial empire of labor the United States was building around the world.
Much of the story about the Panama Canal is well-known, including how Theodore Roosevelt worked with the French company that had originally hoped to build a canal to hew Panama off of an uncooperative Colombia in order to acquire the canal rights, a classic act of imperialism in now two nations who would long bear the brunt of American interventionism. To some degree, the brutality of building of the Canal is known as well and this post will expand some of your knowledge on these points.
The first real transportation labor in what would become the Panama Canal took place in the 1850s, when Chinese and African laborers died by the thousands building railroads in the area that later became the Canal. The French were heavily involved in these early projects, as they would be in the first attempt to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific in the 1880s. The French particularly targeted the impoverished island of Jamaica for the workers on this project, running advertisements showing Jamaicans returning from Panama with great riches. This was an effective advertising scheme but certainly didn’t represent the reality for those workers. Approximately 20,000 workers, mostly Jamaicans, would die in the first effort to build a canal. Most of these workers died from disease, as the canal was built upon tropical swamps rife with mosquitoes and with enormous rates of malaria and yellow fever. Hygiene was horrible and significantly contributed to the death rate. The West Indians only earned 10 cents a hour and less than 20 percent of those who lived lasted more than a year. Ultimately, the first effort to build the canal would fail in the face of the engineering problem and deaths, but with such great poverty throughout the Caribbean Basin, it wasn’t because the French couldn’t find workers.
When Roosevelt stole Panama from Colombia in 1903, he was determined that a canal succeed and wanted to learn from the French mistakes. Once again, the workforce was primarily West Indian. The Jamaicans remembered what had happened twenty years ago and largely refused to go, so the U.S. targeted Barbados, whose citizens would make up nearly half the total workers who labored on the Canal during its construction. To say the least, the natural conditions that had plagued workers in the 1880s hadn’t changed. Poisonous snakes were rampant. The rainy season created six months of mud. The original housing was the falling apart workers’ housing the French had built. The hygiene was still terrible. In 1906, 80 percent of the Panama Canal labor force was hospitalized for malaria. By this time, doctors were learning more about tropical disease, but continued to believe that people of African descent were uniquely capable of resisting it and so applied none of the new medicine to protect these workers. Yet with poverty still dominating the region, tens of thousands of workers from around the Caribbean and Central American flocked to Panama for work.
The U.S. hoped to build on the French failure to build a canal through the application of newly discovered sanitary principles, even if they held on to their racialized beliefs about African workers. Sanitary engineers descended upon Panama to make the landscape livable. Draining standing water to protect against malaria, paving streets, screening windows, quarantines of the sick, preventing the fecal contamination of water, and other measures were used to protect against epidemic disease. This all built on the work of Walter Reed and other physicians to fight against avoidable death during the U.S. conquest of Cuba, which killed a lot of troops. In fact, Reed was in Panama to expand upon this work. The doctors forced the Army Corps of Engineers to give the black workers better living quarters because pneumonia was moving through the cramped housing at tremendous speed. The death rate for black workers plummeted from 18.8 per 1000 in 1906 to 2.6 in 1908 thanks to these changes. Even in the harshest conditions and with the most despised and exploited workers, basic sanitary reforms could save the lives of thousands.
Racial discrimination was also rife, with the U.S. determined to hold the segregation line in its empire as it was at home. So in its new colony of the Philippines it was strictly segregating many parts of life while doing the same in Panama. Not only were white workers paid better but they were paid in gold, while non-white workers were paid in Panamanian currency. Those workers were crowded into cramped barracks while white workers lived in conditions that would be acceptable in the US (not that this was necessarily a high standard in 1910). Mess halls for the non-white workers did not have chairs. Conditions for whites improved quickly after 1905 when a 75 percent turnover rate convinced the canal builders of the need to make whites want to be in Panama. They received increasingly luxurious housing, received cold-storage facilities to improve their diet, paved roads, baseball teams, YMCA recreational facilities, and all the other amenities that would later be associated with the company unionism of the 1920s. Black workers would eventually rise somewhat in the labor hierarchy because of the need for labor, but racial discrimination would remain stark.
The work was far more dangerous for the West Indians than the whites, largely because the former was in charge of the dynamiting. Dynamite was always dangerous to deal with because it could be placed incorrectly or not explode, thus creating a hazard later. The worst single workplace death incident in the building of the Canal was on December 12, 1908, when prematurely exploding dynamite killed 23 workers. There was also significant labor discontent, with black workers protesting the unfair treatment they received at the hands of the Americans and local Panamanians outraged at the division of their new country by the U.S. But the overwhelming number of poor workers meant that meaningful work stoppages never occurred.
Ultimately, the opening of the Canal would allow the products of American imperialism around the world to move around the planet at a much faster rate, connecting rubber workers in Asia with fruit workers in Colombia and miners in Montana.
I consulted David McBride, Missions for Science: U.S. Technology and Medicine in America’s African World, in the writing of this post.
This is the 154th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
There is potentially huge news coming out of the National Labor Relations Board that would reclassify temp workers as joint employees of the company where they are temping, thus stripping away much of the reason why companies want temp workers and making them part of potential union bargaining units.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is widely expected to rule by month’s end that Browning-Ferris Industries, a Houston-based waste-disposal company, is a joint employer of workers provided to the firm by a staffing agency, experts say. As a result, the company would be forced to collectively bargain with those employees and could be held liable for any labor violations committed against them.
Such a decision could hit companies from a host of industries, including hospitality, retail, manufacturing, construction, financial service providers, cleaning services and security.
The expected action would be the latest in a string of major wins for labor groups under the Obama administration, which has already issued several sweeping executive actions on worker protections and wages.
Backers say it is a necessary step to protect a vulnerable class of temporary workers and independent contractors. But business groups fear the decision will wreak havoc throughout the private sector.
“It has the potential to change the entire way businesses operate in this country,” said Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants.
“There are so many business relationships in the economy that rely on companies providing services to other companies,” he added. “So you can imagine that any business sector could be impacted by the decision.”
This could be gigantic and is another example of how the Obama NLRB has issued decisions favoring workers.* The public persona of temp workers that companies like to employ is something like needing to bring in an extra office worker to catch up on some work or replace someone on maternity leave. But as many of you know, that’s not the case at all. Rather, companies use temporary work as one of their many strategies to shield themselves from liability, training, wages and benefits, and unions. They use pliant state legislatures to carve out broader and broader room for temporary work, effectively creating an entirely new class of worker outside of unions’ ability to organize them. So now you have cases like the Toyota plant in Kentucky, to take one of many examples, where you have long-term workers doing the exact same work as the person next to them except that they don’t work for Toyota and they don’t get the wages and benefits of their co-worker. Not only are these workers presently ineligible for unionization, but they create divides in the workforce that benefits employers by undermining solidarity. There’s absolutely no good reason for this system to exist except to benefit corporations. So you have temp workers in the California lettuce fields who have been there for 10 years and who lack the ability to improve their lives on the job. The NLRB seems to understand this and feels a correction is necessary.
*I do find it hilarious however that the reporter claims it is “the latest in a string of major wins for labor groups under the Obama administration.” Except that whole Trans Pacific Partnership thing! But hey, if you take that tiny little issue out of the equation, I suppose it’s true! But then the story itself is pretty hackish, basically just presenting the corporate point of view, including on McDonald’s controlling its franchisees labor policies but shielding themselves from responsibility through the franchise.
Sarah Jaffe has an excellent discussion of the relationship between police unions and the rest of the labor movement at Truthout. UAW Local 2865, which represents California graduate students, has pushed for the AFL-CIO to kick out the one police union that remains in the federation, the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA). This has received some attention and is worthy of more.
Jaffe makes a number of key points. First, as the quote I used for the title points out, busting police unions isn’t going to change police behavior at all. The problem is police culture. There’s no evidence that police without collective bargaining rights are going to be less obnoxious, less thuggish, and less brutal than police with collective bargaining rights. Patrick Lynch may be a terrible human being, but that he is the head of a police union is not the reason the NYPD kills black people. We’ve had too many comments at the blog here that have called for ending police unions. This does not solve any problem. It punitively hurts police officers without doing anything positive. Supporting collective bargaining means supporting it for all workers, not just the ones we like. And unions have to represent their workers no matter what they do. It’s part of what unions are, whether the UAW supporting a member busted for drugs on the job, the AFT providing representation for a teacher who has acted inappropriately with a student, or the FOP defending its murderous members. Unions exist to support worker power and to give members representation on the job. Like a defendant in a horrible murder, every union member deserves representation from their union when they are in trouble.
At the same time, is there any reason to believe that the police will ever show solidarity with other unions? No. And is there any reason to think they ever will? No. Jaffe interviews the noted labor historian Joshua Freeman here who states that the labor movement has always had a very tenuous relationship with police because those police have happily busted the heads of workers for a very long time. The only time police have ever shown any kind of interest in the rest of the labor movement is when the special carveouts politicians have so often given them in order to promote their own careers often build on the culture war have disappeared. Two examples of this are the 1919 Boston police strike that raised Calvin Coolidge to the national spotlight, which resulted from the wages and the repeal of John Kasich’s right to work bill in Ohio that did not have an exception for police unions like Scott Walker provided in Wisconsin.
So is there any reason for the AFL-CIO to provide any active support to police unions or not kick the IUPA out of the federation? No. It is more important for the AFL-CIO to build relationships with communities of color, many of whom could be potential union members or are already union members, than to ameliorate a racist international that supports police violence. The entire labor movement does not need to be under one tent and there are lots of labor organizations outside of the AFL-CIO. The federation has every right to police its own boundaries of acceptable behavior. It should take an anti-racist position and kick out internationals that hew to racism.
A more minor point that I’ll also note is that Freeman discusses how the police unions are a lot more democratic than most other unions, in part because they originated in 19th century fraternalist culture which still informs them today, and that the union leadership is legitimately representing the desires of the rank and file. This means two things. First, we can’t just blame Patrick Lynch for these problems. Second, unlike what a lot of labor reformers claim about union democracy, that it will create a more progressive labor movement and more progressive society, the evidence for it really isn’t there. Internal democracy might create a more activist and progressive labor movement at times, but there’s nothing in American history more democratic than white supremacy and you see that in how the police unions act toward communities of color today.
In a widely expected move, Kraft Heinz is cutting 2,500 jobs, the company announced Wednesday. That amounts to 5% of the company’s 46,000 employees, with affected workers located in the U.S. and Canada.
This marks the first round of layoffs at the newly merged food giant after Heinz bought 51% of Kraft in March in a deal brokered by Warren Buffett and the Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital. Given that management group’s reputation for aggressive cost-cutting, most observers expect more layoffs to follow.
As the AP reports, the cost-cutting process began last month with a memo to employees in which Hees told employees to print on both sides of paper (a rule Brito enacted at AB InBev as well) and to conserve office supplies. At Kraft headquarters, employees no longer get free Jell-O.
In a statement, Kraft Heinz spokesperson Michael Mullen said the cuts are part of a new structure that “eliminates duplication to enable faster decision-making, increased accountability and accelerated growth.”
Free Jello is a staple of American worker power.
Kraft employed about 2,000 people in Northfield before the layoffs. The 2,500 job cuts amount to slightly more than 5 percent of Kraft Heinz’s global workforce of about 46,000. Mullen declined to break down the layoffs by location but said that cuts in Pittsburgh, Heinz’s hometown, were not “material.”
Northfield village President Fred Gougler said the layoffs were expected, adding that Heinz’s cost-cutting measures served as a warning for Kraft employees after the merger.
“We were not surprised, but that doesn’t make it any easier for us,” Gougler said.
With the news, the village adds its name to a long list of local communities feeling the brunt of corporate consolidations and restructurings. Other companies with offices in the Chicago area have laid off more than 7,700 workers since the beginning of the year, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The list includes downstate companies Caterpillar and Deere, which are among the state’s largest employers. While many of the layoffs affected workers here, the 7,700 figure also includes layoffs elsewhere in the country for these companies.
There’s only one solution–boycott ketchup. It’s the only way to stand with American workers. Which side are you on?
The march to new media unionization continues rapidly, with writers at Vice Media voting to unionize. It’s not a huge percentage of the company’s employees, but is still significant because it shows how rapidly new media writers are seeing the benefit of representation to push back against the exploitation that seems to be just accepted by so many employees in the internet world today.
Might be time to unionize LGM writers against the Farley/Lemieux tyranny!
On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, New York, in response to the discovery of massive amounts of toxins underneath a school and near a housing development for the working class who lived in the city of Niagara Falls, near Buffalo. This event was a key moment in the American working class standing up to the environmental depredations of American industry and eventually led to the creation of Superfund, the last major environmental legislation passed to address the popularly-based environmentalism of protecting people from pollution that played a major role in American politics during the 1970s.
William T. Love wanted to build a small canal intended to connect the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers around 1900 to generate power for the community he hoped would grow there. It failed and by 1910, the partially built canal was abandoned. Industry began turning it into a waste dump. Hooker Chemical Company purchased the land in 1942 and continued using it for toxic waste. In 1953, Hooker capped the land and looked to sell it. By this time, there was 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals in the canal, including at least 12 carcinogens. The company buried the waste in barrels 20-25 feet deep and capped it with dirt, allowing grass to quickly cover it up. Hooker sold it to the school board of Niagara Falls to build the public school for a growing suburban neighborhood near the canal site. It included a caveat in the contract about what was buried there and felt itself absolved from legal liability.
This was the period of the postwar housing boom in the United States. And while the New Deal state had already led to enormous positive changes for the now upwardly mobile white working class, guaranteeing them good union contacts if they wanted them, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage, and then a variety of new benefits after World War II like federally insured home loans through the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill (so long as you were white and building in the suburbs), little progress had been made to protect the working class from the environmental impact of industrialization. At Love Canal, housing developments for working class people–both some public housing and single-family housing–began filling some of that housing need.
Most of the early conservation movement was predicated on efficient resource use. The New Deal did take working people into account in its planning, but primarily on the farms with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and other responses to the Dust Bowl. The giant dam projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority also sought to improve working people’s lives through large-scale regional planning, but pollution issues were an afterthought here as well. During the 1950s, the proto-environmental movement worked on pressing for more conservation of natural resources and more public planning, while building support for new national parks and trying to bring some limits onto the dam building mania that would eventually lead to the damming of Glen Canyon and the near damming of Dinosaur National Monument. Organized labor was involved in all of this, much more so than is usually acknowledged, a project I am presently researching for a future book. The CIO had a full time staffer working specifically on conservation issues through the 1955 merger with the AFL and the UAW had a full-time atomic energy staffer. But pollution, that just wasn’t really on the radar in the 1950s. In fact, as the nation geared up for the Cold War, pollution was often seen as a problem, at least in the post-Donora Fog period, but an acceptable sacrifice for preparedness and economic growth.
What this all meant is that new housing developments and public schools could be built upon toxic waste dumps and no one would bat an eye. But by the 1970s, the American working class, building on a foundation laid by the growing environmental movement, began demanding accountability from corporations over the sacrifices they suffered. Some of that was in famous cases like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 or the Santa Barbara oil spill of the same year. In the latter case, oil workers’ unions were deeply involved in demanding the companies be held accountable for pollution. The growing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between pollution and personal health by the late 1960s helped fuel this as well. The Black Lung Associations within the United Mine Workers of America was a rejection of horrific union leadership as well as the impact of coal on their bodies. Everyday people, union members or not, began trying to understand the science behind the chemicals transforming the world and how they impacted their own bodies, such as in the anti-pesticide movement. This popular epidemiology would play a major role in Love Canal, especially as residents began to notice the horrible cancers, birth defects and other diseases that affected them, especially their children. No one really knew what was happening until heavy rains led to erosion that began uncovering the barrels of toxic waste in 1976.
Lois Gibbs was the leader of the Love Canal residents. Her son suffered from a variety of healthy problems. After reporters began reporting on what was in the barrels in 1976 and the New York State Health Department declared the site an emergency on August 2, 1978, leading to Carter’s decision a few days later. But what would happen to the residents? Gibbs took the lead here against a state not wanting to do much of anything. She continued investigating, discovering the canal itself was the site of the contamination. The growing investigations discovered dioxin among many other hazardous chemicals in the soil and drinking water of the housing. The government finally relocated 800 of the 900 families nearby and compensated them for their homes. Some still remain on the site today, or at least were there during my visit to what is a very spooky place two years ago.
Carter then responded by pushing for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Popularly known as Superfund, this law mandated the cleanup of the nation’s most toxic sites. At first, a polluter tax paid for the program, creating a $3.8 billion surplus for the program by 1996 and creating a very successful agency. Unfortunately, in 1995 Congress did not extend that tax, meaning the rapid depletion of that surplus and an underfunded agency, a defeat of successful government becoming ever more common in that decade. Organized labor strongly supported the creation of Superfund, both for the jobs it could create and for the protection of working people from industrial hazards. Ultimately, Superfund and the outrage Love Canal caused did help protect Americans from these hazards. Yet disparities in toxic exposure between rich and poor still exist today, and as these things go in America, they tend to fall on racial lines, with African-American and Latino communities exposed to toxicity at much higher rates than wealthier or whiter communities.
This is the 153rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.