In the aftermath of all the attention paid to corporations like McDonald’s trying to recreate the Gilded Age through debit card “paychecks” that force workers to pay to get their own money, companies have begun backing off. At least some McDonald’s are now offering their workers a choice in how they receive their paychecks, while New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation of their use in his state, with the hopes for a bill outlawing them to pass the state legislature.
Last month, I attended a session dedicated to the Chicago Teachers Union struggle at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference in New York. A couple of members of the New York teachers union were on the panel, talking of the struggle to retake their own union from the moderate compromising bureaucrats that were going along with whatever Michael Bloomberg proposed. I’m quite curious to see how the CTU fight affects other teachers unions across the country? Do we see an uprising of rank and file militancy over the attacks on public schools? In Washington at least, that has happened. The Washington Teachers Union ousted its president this week, with a reformist slate of candidates promising to stand up to Rheeism elected. It’s extremely rare for unions to kick out leaders, so this is a big deal, especially since the current president was actually elected on a reformist slate in 2010 and then didn’t live up to it. A new victory in Newark also suggests important growth in rank and file militancy.
Good to see and hopefully this becomes commonplace.
I was interviewed for this Jake Blumgart article at Alternet on attempts by United Students Against Sweatshops and others in the U.S. to hold apparel corporations accountable for the terrible conditions in Bangladesh. I think groups like USAS can play a really big role. USAS had its heyday in the late 90s anti-sweatshop campaigns and then faded a bit as young activists became more motivated by the Iraq War. It’s made a nice comeback however and its ability to inform everyday consumers of the social costs of the clothing they purchase is an important action since most people have no clue about these matters.
Also of note in the piece is that the Obama Administration might have suspended trade privileges with Bangladesh last week but the AFL-CIO is disappointed it did not also provide a roadmap and timeline of reforms, including asserting the right to collective bargaining is respected. These specifics are necessary to make any of it meaningful.
On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free African-American living in Charleston, South Carolina, was executed for his role in leading a purported slave rebellion. This event marked a significant increase in southern surveillance and oppression of free blacks and demonstrates the very real fear the South had of its slave labor force rising en masse and murdering whites.
Vesey was born around 1767, though no one is sure whether in Africa or St. Thomas. As a youth, he was shipped to Haiti briefly and then came to South Carolina, where he worked as a domestic slave for a man named Joseph Vesey. He won a lottery in 1799, using the money to pay for his own freedom. However, he could not buy his wife or children, forcing him to stay in Charleston. He then worked as a carpenter and became a minister, cofounding a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 1817.
The early 19th century was a nervous time for the Southern planter elite. In the aftermath of the successful Haitian rebellion of the 1790s and 1800s, the American slave power was constantly vigilant about their own slaves rising up and killing them all. A successful slave rebellion would have been nearly impossible for slaves in the United States because there weren’t enough of them and they didn’t have the ecological advantages of the Haitians (the Haitian Rebellion primarily succeeded in the end because the French troops kept dying of malaria and other tropical diseases). That certainly didn’t stop southerners from worrying about it though.
Denmark Vesey had of course heard about the slave rebellion in Haiti. There’s no doubt he would have liked to see a similar action in the United States, but then that’s hardly remarkable. We do know that Vesey was furious at South Carolina closing the AME church, which the state had done repeatedly over the past five years, fearing the proceedings going on inside. In 1818, Charleston police arrested 140 people worshipping inside the church. Vesey’s preaching seems to have grown more strident, with a great deal of emphasis on Exodus and the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites (always a small problem for oh so good Christian slaveowners justifying their slave labor system through the Bible). Vesey’s religious message was one of violent redemption. He rejected the idea of the flight to the desert to freedom. Rather, he thought the slaveowners should pay with their lives.
This was a quite syncretic religion. With the legal importation of Africans only ended fourteen years earlier, and with a small amount of illegal importation bringing additional Africans to the U.S., there was a lot of African-born people involved in Vesey’s group. One was a priest named Gullah Jack. Born in modern-day Angola, after the 1818 church closing he brought a mystic side to Vesey’s freedom movement and did most of the recruiting for the church and planned rebellion.
There has been some debate over whether this plot was real. It probably was a plan at least. The story goes that Vesey planned a widespread revolt to begin on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. They would rise up, execute the slave owners, seize the city arsenal, briefly take the city of Charleston, then all get on boats and flee to Haiti to escape punishment. Not surprisingly, two slaves leaked the plans to their owners. On June 22, Vesey was arrested. A total of 130 additional African-Americans were arrested. 67 were convicted and 35 hanged, including Vesey on July 2, 1822. Vesey and his followers were tortured to get all the names of everyone involved, but supposedly they never gave them up. Most of the rest, including Vesey’s son, were sold to the death trap plantations of the Caribbean.
In the aftermath of the executions, South Carolina became even more harsh in dealing with its slave labor force. The first thing the city of Charleston did was burn the AME church. The Vesey plot tapped into a long-running fear of freed slaves and led to new laws against owners freeing their slaves. Free people of color faced new restrictions from traveling unless a white person would vouch for their character. Another law mandated the imprisonment of black sailors on ships docked in Charleston. Given the high number of black sailors in northern ports this was a real issue and in fact the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, a point used by the growing Southern nationalism of the South Carolina fireeaters. The state destroyed the AME church building. South Carolina also built what became The Citadel in order to prepare for future slave rebellions.
Vesey became a hero for the free black population of the North on how to stand up and fight against oppression. Among the people who saw Vesey as a model or inspiration were Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and John Brown, who would indeed make slaveowners pay for their sins with blood.
If you are interested in primary sources around this issue, Lois Walker and Susan Silverman put together a primary source reader entitled A Documentary History of Gullah Jack Pritchard and the Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection of 1822, published in 2000. The book attempts to center the revolt more around Gullah Jack and less around Vesey, which may well be accurate but the existing documentation is so sparse that, once again, it’s really hard to know.
This is the 67th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
A real victory for UNITE-HERE today, as their long and contentious campaign against Hyatt has resulted in a nearly total victory, with the hotel chain agreeing to recognize the union in its organized hotels and sign union contracts while accepting neutrality agreements in its nonunion hotels if they want to join the union.
We labor people don’t get to celebrate victories too often these days. So this is a reason to be very happy. And if you have been following the union boycott of Hyatt hotels, you can now return to using that chain.
We think of the company store as a relic of the Gilded Age, of one-company towns dominating the lives of their workers. We left this behind with the New Deal, right? Well, we did leave it behind but like the rest of the Gilded Age, a new form of the company store is coming back with a vengeance, with debit cards that force workers to pay high fees to use their hard-earned wages.
This population — people who tend to use few, if any, bank services — is swelling. About 10 million households in the United States do not use a bank at all, up from nine million four years ago, according to estimates from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. And 24 million households that do have a bank account still use expensive financial services like prepaid cards, the agency said.
For banks that are looking to recoup billions of dollars in lost income from a spate of recent limits on debit and credit card fees, issuing payroll cards can be lucrative — the products were largely untouched by recent financial regulations. As a result, some of the nation’s largest banks are expanding into the business, banking analysts say.
The lack of regulation in the payroll card market, while alluring for some of the issuers, can potentially leave cardholders swimming in fees. Take the example of inactivity fees that penalize customers for infrequently using their cards. The Federal Reserve has banned such fees for credit and debit cards, but no protections exist on prepaid cards. Cards used by more than two dozen major retailers have inactivity fees of $7 or more, according to a review of agreements.
Some employees can also be hit with $25 overdraft fees, called “balance protection,” on some of the prepaid cards. Under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, banks with more than $10 billion in assets are barred from levying overdraft fees on customers’ checking accounts.
Many fees are virtually impossible to dodge, some employees say. A Victoria’s Secret employee, Bintou Kamara, for example, said it cost her $1.50 just to transfer money from her Citi payroll card to her checking account.
Let’s be clear–debit cards replacing paychecks should be an illegal practice and it is an outrage that it is not illegal. Wages should be paid in one way–with a check for the full amount.
And since no one can trust banks anymore and there’s no way for many workers to use their money, we might as well go back to another old staple of the Gilded Age economy:
But she grew tired of being charged $1.75, in addition to the A.T.M.’s fees, to withdraw cash. After a tip from a co-worker, Ms. McLemore realized she could reduce her charges if she took out all her wages once a month. Now, supplied with one of the most modern banking products, Ms. McLemore has a decidedly old-fashioned way of handling her pay: it is stacked in a shoe box in her closet in $10s and $20s.
Can a political slogan built around not being crucified upon a cross of debit card fees be far behind?
The circuit court panel remanded back to the district court so that it “can consider the § 302 claim and determine the reason why UNITE and Mardi Gras agreed to cooperate with one another.” This outcome and the ambiguity of the 11th Circuit decision prompted both sides of the litigation to seek a hearing before the Supreme Court (although, interestingly, the solicitor general, on behalf of the Obama Administration, urged the Court to let the 11th Circuit’s decision stand). The consequences could be highly significant. The Roberts Court could decide to go beyond the 11th Circuit’s decision and reaffirm the legality of card-check agreements, a pervasive feature of labor-management relations today. Or it could hold that section 302 of Taft-Hartley makes all such agreements illegal, and thus remove one of the only remaining effective organizing strategies for use by private-sector unions.
But taking a hard line against the conditions that undergird card-check agreements would also put the Court in the anomalous position of limiting the rights of companies to reach organizing agreements with unions on their own terms—in a sense, a broad reading of section 302 could be construed as impinging upon the rights of businesses, not just unions. Still, in this as in all of its litigation, the NRWLDF understands what it is up to, and it is not to enable union organizing. Given that the Roberts Court has been widely acknowledged to be perhaps the most pro-business Supreme Court in the past 70 years, the labor movement might be faced with a court decision based upon a highly creative reading of a section of the Taft-Hartley Act that might have shocked even Sen. Taft and Rep. Hartley themselves.
Every Roberts Court decision moves us closer to the Gilded Age.
In a move pleasing to the AFL-CIO, the Obama Administration has taken what I think is an unprecedented step in suspending trade privileges for Bangladesh after the building collapse that killed 1100 garment workers this spring. The labor federation had pushed for such an action all the way since 2007 because of that nation’s consistent disregard for worker safety.
Honestly, this is not that important of a move. Bangladesh is pretty mad about it, but it’s more that they lost face than real economic burden. For one, the garment industry is not covered by these privileges and that’s about 95% of Bangladeshi imports to the U.S. More likely is that the U.S. is hoping European nations do the same, which would put slightly more pressure on Bangladesh since they have more non-garment trade in the country.
The Generalized System of Preferences, which is designed to boost the economies of developing nations, covers less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s nearly $5 billion in exports to the U.S., its largest market. The benefits don’t cover the lucrative garment sector but Bangladesh’s government was anxious to keep them.
The action may not exact a major and immediate economic toll, but it carries a reputational cost and might deter American companies from investing in the country, one of the world’s poorest.
This is all fine and good. The Bangladeshi government does suck on these issues, what with its murdering union organizers and such. Putting pressure on it is a positive. But the real power behind improving working conditions is the apparel companies. The government needs to pressure the companies to improve conditions. Once again, the only real way to protect workers is to have international safety and health standards that are both legally enforceable in the country of origin and that contractors are still liable for if their subcontractors violate them. One could create these standards with various levels of stringency, but at the minimum, basic workplace safety, exposure, and pollution laws should not only be applicable, but workers around the world should be able to sue the companies in the corporate country of origin.
I know we are nowhere near this happening. But the textile industry has exploited workers for over a century in the worst way. Why things never really improve in that industry is capital mobility while laws and regulations remain tied to place. It is time to make law as mobile as capital.
As it is, the concern is that U.S. companies will invest in Vietnam or Indonesia or Cambodia, taking jobs away from Bangladeshi workers who need them and who are losing them simply because a couple of particularly horrific accidents took place in their country. Those workers want reforms, not to lose their jobs. We need to craft responses that encourage workplace safety, worker empowerment to improve their own lives, and continues to have people work and earn money for their families.
It’s true that we are in the middle of a seismic shift in the way we structure our work lives. Both workers and employers want more flexibility. But that similarity of interests shouldn’t mask the fact that employers will always have more power than their employees, and that it’s in their interests to make those employees work as long and as cheaply as possible.
In Roosevelt’s day, the courts found most wages and hours legislation unconstitutional based on the doctrine of “liberty of contract.” The idea was as simple as it was pernicious: wages and hours legislation violated an individual’s freedom to make an independent (read: worse) deal with his employer.
We can’t afford to drift further back to the bad old days of liberty of contract. Americans are drastically overworked and underpaid compared to workers in other advanced countries, and our workers are trapped in a rigid pattern of inequality that has ended a historic claim to being the nation of upward mobility.
Roosevelt did not bother with economic arguments when it came to hours and wages. He offered a simple framework, both moral and patriotic. “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy,” he proclaimed, “can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.” That is as true today as it was then.
It’s fairly unlikely that I’ll read George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding of America. But I did read this excerpt, presumably from the introduction. Packer bemoans the decline of the fabric that held American society together, leading to today’s plutocracy, individual aggrandizement, and dysfunctional government. In part:
This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.
It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.
Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.
Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.
Packer misses one big thing here: the decline of labor unions. He talks of the Roosevelt Republic and its collapse. The New Deal state was complex and came into being for a cluster of reasons. Organized labor was not really one of them, not at first anyway, with the AFL neutral to uncomfortable with much of the New Deal. But the primary factor allowing the New Deal state to stay in place for forty years was the political power of organized labor.
Packer likes moralistic bromides. For example, I just finished Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture today. Rodgers writes an intellectual history of the fragmentation of American thought and society in the late 20th century. He quotes Packer after 9/11: “What I dread now is a return to normality, to the hedonisms of the past. Instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.” OK, OK, we get it, we are a nation of sinners.
What Packer’s moralism about the choices elites make misses is that they always made those choices when they could. The Roosevelt Republic only changed their behavior because of the combined strength of a federal government seeing corporate behavior as destabilizing the nation and threatening capitalism with tens of millions of unionized workers providing the votes and public pressure to cower corporations as best they could. One frequently sees progressive commentators today cite some business exec or Republican politician from the 1950s or early 60s on the need for labor unions or Social Security or some such thing. It always makes me chuckle because it is out of context. Rarely did these people truly believe in such social programs. And when they actually did, it was because the power of the American working class to demand these programs had become internalized within them, so they could not fathom eliminating them.
It’s one thing to leave labor unions out of such an analysis. But when you start your piece by talking about the decline of Youngstown, you really have to talk about organized labor. It was unions who improved the working and living conditions of the American working class. It was unions who fought for increased wages and shorter hours, for OSHA regulations and safety committees. Without unions, all of this has collapsed, along with Youngstown and so many other places.
The decline of labor unions isn’t the only reason for the collapse of the Roosevelt Republic. But Packer can’t understand his subject without making unions central to his inquiry. And at least from the excerpted piece, he fails to do so. I hope he does in the book.
On June 21, 1877, ten alleged members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society blamed for labor radicalism in the anthracite country of Pennsylvania, were executed.
The Molly Maguires began in Ireland before their members immigrated to the United States. In both places, they became known for radicalism (in Ireland, primarily over land tenure issues) and violence, especially against employers and their enforcers. The extent to which we can really call this a labor movement is debated, but they definitely stuck up for their interests as miners. The group probably came over to the United States sometime around the Civil War, although this is conjecture. Historians don’t even know all that much about the movement since they didn’t leave written records. To quote the historian Kevin Kenny, it’s not possible to “disentangle the strands that went into the violence, from rudimentary trade unionism, and from draft resistance to robbery, intimidation, and drunken brawling.”
Northeastern Pennsylvania became a major supplier of industrializing America’s coal in the mid 19th century. By the 1870, this was full-fledged coal country. Conditions, like those experienced by most of industrial labor, were terrible. Occasional violence occurred against mine operators and their interests. Between 1862 and 1868, six mine operators or supervisors were murdered. The extent of Molly Maguires involvement in these particular cases is unknown, but they were accused of the killings later on, as they would be of other mine official deaths and just any random industrial violence across the region. Of the 22,000 miners working in Schuylkill County, about 5500 were under the age of seventeen, some as young as seven. Disasters happened all the time. Sometimes 1 or 2 workers died. On September 6, 1869, 110 died in the Avondale mine fire in Luzerne County. A union formed in the area called the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Thousands joined in the aftermath of Avondale. Many of these were Irish miners who were also members of the Mollies. Probably 85% of the workforce joined the union by the mid 1870s. The WBA had some initial success, including forcing the companies to raise wages.
Like much about the Irish, the Molly Maguires scared Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. Being Irish, Catholic, and secret confirmed all the fears the forces of order had against these recent immigrants. Add unionization, well that was too much. The Panic of 1873 gave employers added ammunition to destroy worker resistance to employer demands. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, consolidated control over the region’s mines during the early 1870s. Now the leading anthracite mine owner, Gowen hired Allan Pinkerton to crack down on the union and the Mollies. Pinkerton made his name in 1861, shepherding Abraham Lincoln to Washington under a serious assassination threat. Like the rest of the Republican Party, Pinkerton moved seamlessly to supporting the plutocracy in the 1870s. Pinkerton sent his rising detective James McParland to lead the investigation. McParland, an Irish immigrant himself, joined the organization when his liquor store burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
In December 1874, Gowen announced a 20% pay cut, knowing the union would strike, which would allow industry to eliminate it. Gowen ordered McParland to target the Mollies, writing, “The M.M.’s are a species of Thugs… Let Linden get up a vigilance committee. It will not do to get many men, but let him get those who are prepared to take fearful revenge on the M.M.’s. I think it would open the eyes of all the people and then the M.M.’s would meet with their just deserts.” On December 10, 1875, 3 men and 2 women, identified by McPharland as Mollies, were attacked and killed in their home by the Pinkertons, satisfying Gowen’s desire for blood.
Gowen fed newspapers around the region made up stories about Mollie violence. Some random fire in Indiana? Mollies! He also had the police arrest the strike leaders. Then McParland managed to infiltrate the Mollies. The strike collapsed after six months with arrests of the strike leaders. The workers took the 20% pay cut. But the Mollies kept up the fight. Support grew for the underground organization. With the courts, police, and mine owners all controlled by the English and Welsh (or their descendants) and the crushing of the union, the miners and their families were humiliated, poor, and desperate. At least according to McParland’s testimony, the Mollies were planning violent revenge. But as these things often go, this moved slow, most plans were aborted, and those attempted were botched. Finally, they managed to kill a couple of cops they particularly hated. One was killed while changing a streetlight at this location in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. The sign is very exciting. I saw it when I was there in January.
I really need to take that Mollie Maguires driving tour.
In addition, a mine boss, bartender, and justice of the peace all died, possibly killed by Mollies. At least McParland said so and that’s all that mattered. The cops conducted mass arrests. The trials were a total farce. The District Attorney for Schuylkill County, where the trials took place? Why one Franklin Gowen, mine plutocrat! Gowen named himself special prosecutor for the trial. McParland’s personal testimony was enough to get someone a death sentence. One Mollie went state’s witness, but it’s entirely possible he was lying the whole time to save his skin. His wife was so disgusted with him for doing so, that she accused him of a murder on the witness stand. Who knows who did what. Twenty men were given death sentences. Ten were executed on Black Thursday, June 21, 1877. An additional ten were executed over the next year.
Mining interests used the Mollies to taint any labor organizing among Irish miners, whether in Pennsylvania, Leadville, or Butte, as Molly terrorism, an effective tool in the public relations battle against unionization.
The anthracite miners of Pennsylvania continued to suffer in poverty, die on the job, and be murdered by coal barons and their thugs for several decades.
McParland would go on to be the Pinkertons’ top labor crusher. He worked for Jay Gould to suppress the Knights of Labor railway strike in 1886. He later headed the Pinkertons’ Denver office, where he placed spies in the Western Federation of Miners and United Mine Workers. This included sabotaging union relief programs during a strike, ensuring that workers starved and the union was divided. He also trumped up the charges that led to the arrest of Bill Haywood and others for the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Stenuenberg. Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in The Valley of Fear based on McParland.
In other words, James McParland is one of the most horrible human beings to ever live in the United States.
This is the 66th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
An outstanding collection of old Dutch work safety posters. Of course I liked the timber mill one from 1940 best.