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Tag: "labor"

What 13th Amendment?

[ 50 ] May 25, 2014 |

Outstanding Ian Urbina story on the exploitation of people held in immigrant detention centers. The immigration detention system serves as a nearly unpaid labor force thanks to the privatized prison companies controlling the prisons:

As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.

This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed here.

Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.

Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”

Who is responsible?

Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton J. Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, control most of the immigrant detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.

The Corrections Corporation of America’s revenue, for example, rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and the GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.

Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.

Ah, nothing like privatization to find new ways of exploiting labor.

Is this even legal?

“This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said she believed the program violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” she said.

Immigration officials underestimate the number of immigrants involved and the hours they work, Professor Stevens added. Based on extrapolations from ICE contracts she has reviewed, she said, more than 135,000 immigrants a year may be involved, and private prison companies and the government may be avoiding paying more than $200 million in wages that outside employers would collect.

It should not be legal in any case. Everyone deserves the minimum wage and no one should be forced to work for $1 a day, regardless of their immigration status. This is just rank exploitation.

…I haven’t read it but a former colleague of mine strongly suggests this book as a history of prisons undermining the 13th Amendment.

Wal-Mart’s War on Pregnant Workers

[ 34 ] May 24, 2014 |

Given that Wal-Mart’s business model is borrowed heavily from the supply chain management system pioneered by the same textile industry that brought you the Triangle Fire and Rana Plaza collapse, it’s hardly surprising that the company would then import the intimidation of pregnant women so common in Mexican maquiladoras and south Asian apparel factories. Wal-Mart could treat women with respect. But then it only does that with a group of workers it if makes for good PR:

After all, pregnant women are at the final analysis socially valuable and morally distinct as a category of person. They ensure the ongoing life of society, and do so at personal cost: sometimes great, sometimes minor. If Wal-Mart is willing to recognize the moral significance of veterans in those terms, why not pregnant women? The answer in that case would be to simply recognize pregnancy as a discrete category worthy of its own set of special labor protections not because pregnant workers offer any extra utility, but simply because pregnancy is a morally significant vocation.

And it won’t happen. Not because it couldn’t, but because Wal-Mart won’t sacrifice potential profit for the social value or moral import of a person unless it can be turned into a P.R. stunt. There is a reason that when Pope Francis speaks of a culture of death he also often speaks of economies of exclusion; the preference for profit over people and material objects over human life is a symptom of the melding of the two impulses, which are joined by a similar extreme undervaluing of life. Firms and the economy as a whole are here to serve humanity, not to be served by it; to reverse that order is to invite incredible harm, and Wal-Mart is in many senses the very manifestation of that injurious reversal.

And let’s face it, women workers will never offer the PR that a company like Wal-Mart wants because they are not valued highly enough in the broader society. Instead, Wal-Mart continues the exploitation of women workers that has marked low-wage industrial and now post-industrial work for two centuries.

The First Ever Baseball Strike

[ 65 ] May 23, 2014 |

Some of you might be familiar with the first ever baseball strike, but this is the first I’ve ever heard of it, started when Ty Cobb went into the stands to beat a heckler. When Cobb was suspended, the Tigers went on strike.

But as he ducked into the dugout before batting in the fourth, Cobb hurled an insult at the man, according to Cobb’s biographer Charles Alexander. The man, a Tammany Hall page named Claude Lucker (or Lueker, in some accounts), who had lost all but two of his fingers while operating a printing press, continued taunting Cobb.

The Tigers’ Sam Crawford asked Cobb what he intended to do. And with that, Cobb suddenly vaulted into the stands toward Lucker, seated about 12 rows up in the grandstand. Knocking Lucker down, Cobb began kicking and stamping him.

“Cobb,” someone cried, “that man has no hands!”

“I don’t care if he has no feet!” he yelled, continuing the attack with his cleats. Some fans tried to intervene, but several teammates who had followed Cobb into the grandstand held them off with bats. An umpire and a police officer finally pulled Cobb away.

He was ejected from the game, which the Tigers eventually won, 8-4. Johnson, in the midst of touring A.L. parks, witnessed the incident and suspended Cobb indefinitely. Cobb’s teammates rallied to his defense two days later in Philadelphia, sending Johnson a message that they would strike in protest.

“If the players cannot have protection, we must protect ourselves,” the Tigers wrote.

That put Detroit Manager Hughie Jennings in a quandary. The Tigers would incur a $5,000 fine if they forfeited their May 18 game against the Athletics, so the team owner, Frank Navin, ordered Jennings to field a team. With the help of Joe Nolan, a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Bulletin, Jennings quickly cobbled together a roster of semipros and amateurs.

The scab Tigers lost 24-2 and the strike ended the next day. Cobb was suspended 10 games.

No Incentive for Safety

[ 85 ] May 22, 2014 |

One big victory for corporations in recent years is keeping OSHA fines so low that their trivial cost makes fixing safety problems not worth the effort. Of course this has a predictable cost:

Twenty-eight-year-old Daniel Collazo was nearly done with his shift cleaning machines at the Tribe hummus plant in Taunton, Mass. when other workers heard his screams.

Collazo had become caught in the rotating screws that blend the hummus and struggled to free himself as slowly-winding 9-inch blades kept turning, crushing his arms and part of his head, according to public records. His co-workers dashed to cut the power and desperately tried to untangle Collazo from the machine.

Despite their efforts, Collazo died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. But the horrific Dec. 16, 2011, accident could have been prevented had the plant followed a standard safety practice known as “lock out/tag out.” It requires employees to be trained to cut power to industrial machinery before cleaning activities begin.

OSHA had visited this factory and found the working conditions outrageous:

Two years before Collazo was killed, federal officials fined the owner of the Tribe plant for failing to follow the safety procedure at another of its New England food processing plants. Tribe’s own consultant had warned that failing to train cleaning workers in lock out/tag out created “an extreme safety risk,” records show, and said “the probability that a fatality could occur is likely certain within a year’s timeframe.”

OSHA fined Tribe $9500 for those violations.

Tribe thought at that price there was no reason to fix the problems. Now they were fined $450,000 upon Collazo’s death, but you can see why they would take that risk since the managers no doubt didn’t think someone would actually die. What is $9500 for a subsidiary of Nestle? Pocket change.

I did like this:

Since Collazo’s death, Tribe has hired a new chief executive, Adam Carr, who has sought to increase the company’s visibility. Tribe finished paying its OSHA fines in April and has embarked on a new marketing campaign: “Hummus made with love and chickpeas.”

The secret ingredient is the blood of dead workers.

Histories of the Gilded Age, Written by Hacks of the New Gilded Age

[ 175 ] May 22, 2014 |

National Review troll Amity Shlaes, who you may remember from such arguments as “true freedom is a worker choosing to labor 70 hours a week,” in lamely attempting to write the “humanitarian case” for repealing the minimum wage writes her own history of the Gilded Age:

It was not always thus. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, many employers and employees believed that their relationship, the two-party one, was key. Outsiders — regulators, unions, lawmakers — were intruders. That privacy of employer and employee often yielded negative results. The employer might exploit the employee. But the two-party dynamic often succeeded. Because the employee-employer pair set their terms together, they trusted each other. From time to time, they also helped each other.

Example: It’s hard to find employers more vilified in the annals of American history than Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick. These gentlemen hired the Pinkerton men who shot at the workers during the steel strike over, yes, wages at Homestead, Pa., in 1892. What is mostly forgotten is that the workers also shot at the detectives. What is entirely forgotten is that Carnegie and Frick did much for workers, precisely because they felt responsible to their counterparty. The exploiting Robber Baron Carnegie endowed more than 1,500 public libraries up and down the Atlantic seaboard and out west, and many more around the world. Carnegie’s aim was to dare workers like those who tackled the Pinkertons to improve their skills, so that they might rise as Carnegie himself had. “He that dare not reason is a slave,” reads the motto at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Many immigrants after Carnegie did reason, and did rise.

In 1905, the Supreme Court supported this old view when it held that New York State might not regulate the hours worked at a bakery because doing so interfered with the sanctity of the contract between worker and employer. The case, Lochner, has long been ridiculed by progressives and conservatives alike as an example of absurd federal interventionism: After all, the issue was a state law, not a law passed in Washington, D.C. Several decades later, in the 1923 case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the minimum wage, with Justice Sutherland explaining of the minimum wage: “It exacts from the employer an arbitrary payment for a purpose and upon a basis having no causal connection with his business, or the contract or the work the employee engages to do.” It was only another decade-plus later, in West Coast Hotel, that the enervated justices finally succumbed and opened the door to a third party, the labor regulator. Well into the second term of a progressive administration, justices do tend to get intimidated, and the Supreme Court certainly demonstrated that in West Coast Hotel.

Defending Henry Clay Frick and the Lochner decision is special but not too surprising I guess. Bringing back the old idea of the equality of contract between the billionaire employer and unemployed worker, now that’s bringing the first Gilded Age into the second Gilded Age!

It’s also amazing how workers’ desires for a minimum wage are never taken into consideration in these arguments. But of course the equality between employer and employee for these people exists only so far as it allows the exploitation of labor.

But Carnegie built some libraries, so it’s all good. Every defender of plutocrats brings up the Carnegie libraries. Two notes. First, that was a century ago. Maybe you should find some modern plutocrats giving away all their money. Second, a person should be judged by how they made their money, not what they did after they were multimillionaires. The former is far more telling. And all the libraries Carnegie could build could not assuage the guilt for his behavior, both at Homestead and throughout his career.

H/T

Empty Apologies

[ 28 ] May 20, 2014 |

New York University expresses its deep apologies for the workers exploited in building their new Abu Dhabi campus. Of course, they are probably not sorry enough to do anything about it. They certainly didn’t heed the many warnings about the horrifying exploitation of immigrant labor in the United Arab Emirates. NYU could have had someone on site monitoring the labor conditions that would actually try to find out what was going on rather one who papered over problems to make the client happy. It could employ these workers directly and be the responsible party for paying them. It could have constructed its own dormitories for these workers.

But of course it did none of these things. NYU administrators were just following the cash. It contracted out the labor and completely forgot about it until the news reports about the exploitation came out. If NYU wants to take real responsibility, it will take on liability for these workers. Otherwise, this falls into the empty “I’m sorry we were caught” category of apology.

The Lack of Skilled Blue-Collar Labor

[ 95 ] May 20, 2014 |

Those who follow labor frequently hear companies complaining about the lack of blue-collar skilled labor. Why, Chevron needs all of these workers and they can’t get them! says the standard narrative. Why? Well, the answer of course is Chevron.

The two missing links are the role of the construction owner, like Chevron, in crushing the unions that provide skilled journeymen in the construction trades, and a clear discussion of the wage levels needed to attract skilled workers from parts of the country the recovery hasn’t reached. The story says wages are rising in Texas, but from what to what? Are wage levels high enough to persuade a journeyman electrician from Michigan or Los Angeles to relocate to Houston? Or are they unreasonably low, given the scarcity of skilled workers and the years of training required to produce a journeyman? How do union wages compare with non-union wages? The story never says.

Oil giants like Chevron can afford to have their construction contractors pay well for skilled work, but they resist. Organizations they fund, such as the Business Roundtable, have led a decades-long

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campaign to weaken or destroy the building trades unions that actually train the greatest number of skilled tradesmen. Chevron, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and many other energy industry corporations fund the American Legislative Exchange Council and its legislative efforts to kill unions and eliminate labor standards. It’s hard to hear Chevron complain about a labor shortage when Chevron and other Fortune 500 companies themselves are a major cause. They don’t merely fight unionization, they also oppose the state and federal prevailing wage laws that protect construction wages from being driven lower and allow union apprenticeship programs to continue providing the best-trained workers.

I know for instance that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters has a huge training center in Las Vegas where they make sure that the next generation of UBC members have the needed skills for the modern workforce. But without the building trades training their own members, who is going to do that? The companies? Please. No one. If you want a trained, high-quality blue-collar workforce, you need unions. But ideology trumps economic rationality for corporations.

Tipped Minimum Wage

[ 296 ] May 12, 2014 |

Once again, there is simply no good reason for the tipped minimum wage to exist. Even when cities and states have raised minimum wages in recent years, they often have continued to place restaurant workers below the standard wage.

There is of course one very bad reason for the tipped minimum wage to exist. It allows restaurant owners to exploit their workers.

Lynn Williams, RIP

[ 47 ] May 12, 2014 |

The former head of the United Steelworkers of America has died. And reading his obituary,

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I am again reminded that there is really nothing organized labor could have done in the 80s to stem its decline. If you want to say that labor should have made different decisions in the 40s and 50s that might have made a difference down the road, well maybe. But the problem with organized labor in the 80s and 90s was the jobs all going overseas and there is nothing any union leader could have done about that at the time.

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1869

[ 55 ] May 10, 2014 |

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines met at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad itself was key to the growth of the American nation after the Civil War, but it came at a terrible cost to workers, particularly the Chinese for the Central Pacific. Examining the treatment of the Chinese shines a lot not only the conditions of labor of the most despised group of workers in the United States, but also on the limits of Republican Party free labor ideology.

While the Union Pacific relied largely on Irish labor, the Central Pacfiic hired mostly Chinese laborers to build the railroad. There were certain dangers with all railroad construction and the UP did build across the territory of still pretty powerful Native American tribes, but the land itself was slowly rising and without major physical obstacles in the way. On the other hand, the CP had to build across the Sierra Nevada and then through the difficult terrain of Nevada. It was going over the Sierra that tells the most compelling labor history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Central Pacific hired James Strobridge as its construction superintendent. It was his job to hire the men and build the road. Strobridge liked to beat his workers with a pick handle. While Charles Crocker, one of the CP top executives, objected to this treatment, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, were fine with it. In 1865, Strobridge started hiring Chinese laborers, the most easily dominated in the country at that time, even more so than the newly ex-slaves. The low wages meant that even the Irish were hard to get. CP wanted 4000 workers and had 800. By 1868, 80% of the 12,000 member CP workforce were Chinese. The Chinese presence was hated in California but was also necessary in the early years to do the work white miners did not want to do. When everyday whites left mining after not striking it rich, they saw the Chinese as competition for the white man’s republic they hoped to build in the Golden State.

railroad_laborers_news

Image from Harper’s of Chinese railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad

Few would object than if Strobridge turned his legendary labor methods on the Chinese. And turn on them he did. He only brought the Chinese on when the Irish began demanding higher wages. The CP explicitly divided workers by race, forcing the remaining Irish to take lower wages. They wanted about $50 a month. The Chinese were paid $30 and the Irish $35. The Irish had their food and board provided, but the Chinese had to pay for theirs. The Irish of course blamed the Chinese for keeping wages down.

The conditions of work were extremely difficult. Building through the Sierra meant cold, rain, and lots of snow. The Chinese labored on blasting 16 tunnels through the Sierra, an extremely dangerous proposition at any time, and especially during an era when employers had no legal responsibility for workplace safety. It is impossible to know how many Chinese workers died building the railroad, from avalanches, explosions in tunnel building, and other causes. No one kept track because the CP didn’t care. A 1870 newspaper story in a Sacramento paper reported that a train carrying the bones of 1200 dead Chinese workers to San Francisco had passed through town. We can probably see that as a bare minimum of the dead and the number was almost certainly much higher.

chinese-railroad-workers

As word of the horrible conditions got back to San Francisco, fewer Chinese signed up. Strobridge raised the wage rates for the Chinese to $35, but this was not enough. In late June 1867, thousands of Chinese went on a short strike. They had concrete demands. They wanted $40 a month, a 10-hour day for above-ground work and an 8-hour for tunneling work instead of the 12-hour day they faced, and end to beatings, and the right to quit without harassment from the company.

Strobridge’s response was to stop feeding the workers. Crocker looked into hiring newly freed slaves (at the same time that southern planters were exploring hiring Chinese) to replace them but this was unrealistic. So simply refusing to send supply trains carrying food was the best answer. The Chinese were high in the mountains, far away from home, and with no means of survival. They were at the mercy of the Central Pacific. After a week, the strike ended and they returned to their brutal, deadly work.

Once they crossed the Sierra and started building in the baking hot and dry alkali flats of the Great Basin, the Chinese had enough. Hundreds of workers fled back along the railroad lines to California. Strobridge sent horsemen to round them up just like they would round up cattle. Free labor this was not.

This story suggests the very strong limitations of Republican labor policy and I want to once again push back on the idea that the Republican Party was a revolutionary political party. The vast majority of these railroad executives were Republicans. Many Republicans were perfectly fine with coerced labor so long as it wasn’t the actual conditions of slavery in the American South. That’s because for them, the problem with slavery was not the treatment of blacks, but the effect on whites, making them lazy, violent, and unconcerned with industrial progress. The abolitionists had different views and at least some of them were not horrible toward the Chinese, but they were always a pretty stark minority in the Republican Party. There was a revolutionary element in the Republican Party, yes, but their views of labor with the mainstream were more an alliance of convenience than a broad set of commonly held views. Far more common and growing ever more powerful in the years after the war were people like the Central Pacific executives, who would happily drive labor to the point of death for profit.

The Chinese would go on to build many western railroads, facing discrimination and violence wherever they went. Hatred of the Chinese eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislative victory for organized labor in American history. Violence however continued and it was only with the rise of Japanese immigration and declining Chinese populations due to the immigration restriction that the violence subsided.

I based part of this post on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, which is not primarily a labor history, but which contains detail of these issues in its railroad chapter and which is worth you reading for more on the importance of nature for understanding key events in American history.

This is the 106th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Most Dangerous State for Workers

[ 35 ] May 8, 2014 |

North Dakota, thanks to an oil industry that continues to shirk on workplace safety.

According to the AFL-CIO, the most dangerous U.S. state for workers is North Dakota, which the report calls “an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work.” Its fatality rate — almost 18 deaths per 100,000 workers — is five times higher than the national average. It’s also double the state’s 2007 rate, when it stood at 7 deaths per 100,000 workers.

North Dakota’s spike in workplace deaths illustrates the dark side of the state’s booming energy industry, which has brought both high-paying jobs and problems such as rising crime rates and homelessness, thanks to a lack of housing. The rising rate of workplace deaths suffered in the oil and gas industry was called “unacceptable” by Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez last year.

“A particular focus is needed on the oil and gas industry,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, on a conference call with reporters. “With that industry growing and expanding, we’ve seen an expansion of fatalities not just in North Dakota, but in other states. It needs much more attention by employers, OSHA, and other state and federal agencies.”

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1970

[ 87 ] May 8, 2014 |

On May 8, 1970, 200 unionized construction workers attacked an anti-war march in the wake of the Kent State shooting a few days before. The so-called Hard Hat Riot placed an image in the American mind of right-wing workers opposed to social justice that sadly remains far too prevalent today.

Unfortunately, the actions of a small number of unionists are used 44 years later as evidence of why unions can’t be trusted by otherwise progressive people. Although the national AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War, the reality is that the union movement is very ideologically diverse and was so even more at that time, when there were many more unions than the present. Many union members and union leaders opposed the Vietnam War. Many had fought there and came back bitter. Others fought there and were die-hard supporters.

But the building trades have long been bastions of conservatism in the labor movement, whether the United Brotherhood of Carpenters not endorsing a Democratic candidate for president until 1964 (and mostly not endorsing Dems today) or the Laborers supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline. There are exceptions to this–the Painters tend to be quite a bit more liberal. But the building traders generally supported the war. That was especially true of Peter Brennan, president of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice-president of the state AFL-CIO. Brennan was moving significantly to the right in these years, around Vietnam and other issues. Hating hippies was pretty easy for Brennan.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed 4 students at Kent State University, leading to the largest protests of the war. Protests continued after the Kent State massacre. New York mayor John Lindsey ordered flags to be flown at half mast to honor the 4 dead. On the morning of May 8, hundreds of young people gathered at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan for a protest. Brennan coordinated construction workers to attack them. The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.

Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway. The construction workers, carrying American flags and patriotic slogans, singled out the men with the longest hair and beat them. They began tearing up nearby buildings as well as the attacks verged nearly out of control. One of the first things the construction workers did was to raise the flags back to full mast, a direct rebuke to Lindsay, who many saw as unmanly and cowardly for kowtowing to antiwar protestors and hippies. About 70 people were sent to the hospital, mostly students but including 4 policemen. Brennan claimed it was a spontaneous demonstration by workers sick of hippies desecrating the American flag. This was an obvious lie.

The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway.

hardhat

Throughout the rest of May, building trades workers continued to rally. On May 20, the rallies became officially sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, with 100,000 people festooned with flags and signs reading “God Bless the Establishment” and “We Support Nixon and Agnew.” Construction workers in St. Louis held similar rallies. Very quickly, the hippies began distrusting labor unions as part of the corrupted establishment. In the 1971 hippie dystopian film Punishment Park, about a world where the hippies are rounded up, tried in kangaroo courts, and then given the option of fleeing from the army for their freedom in the eponymous park, one of the key figures on the courts is a unionist, masking his evil in vague language of workers’ interests but in fact just being a tool of the man. Such images of labor unions became all too common on the American left, sometimes not without reason, as we see in this post.

But again, it’s important that we today push back against “labor” being pro-Vietnam. Polls showed that manual laborers were more opposed to the war than the college-educated. These were not public sector unionists or industrial unionists or even all building trades unionists. This was a small sector of labor. Moreover, what galled many of the working-class people at the protest was not the lack of support for the war itself, but rather the privilege of the anti-war protestors who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam. There were lots of tensions at work here, but they were more complex than presented at the time. And they are basically irrelevant today. People talking about this today with any relevance to the present might as well pull any event from the American movement 44 years ago. It would be relevant if American labor unionists began beating Occupy protestors or environmentalists rallying against Keystone. But even if such a horrible thing happened, it would be one very labor union acting very badly, not all of organized labor. We need to recognize this and place it in context of who is the problem here. In 1970, it was the New York building trades and their ambitious hippie-hating leader, not the United Auto Workers or United Steel Workers of America.

Of course Richard Nixon thought of all this was great. All his talk about “law and order” did not apply at all to rioting construction workers. Nixon repaid Brennan for his actions by naming him Secretary of Labor. Brennan continued in the job into the Ford Administration. Ford replaced him in 1975 whereupon he returned to his old post in the Building Trades Council. Brennan died in 1996. Congressmen Peter King, a man wrapped up in the politics that drove Brennan nearly a half-century ago, saluted him for “standing up to the antiwar protesters who tried to take over our streets.”

Bits of this are taken from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the American Working Class, although he doesn’t talk about this event much. Joshua Freeman’s “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations” from the Summer 1993 issue of Journal of Social History was also used. I understand that Penny Lewis’ recent book is quite good on this history, but I have not read it.

This is the 105th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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