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This Day in Labor History: March 10, 1925

[ 31 ] March 10, 2015 |

On March 10, 1925, the New York Times first reported the story of the so-called Radium Girls, as U.S. Radium Company employee Marguerite Carlough had sued her employer for $75,000 for the horrific health problems caused by her work with radium that would soon kill her. The story would garner national headlines and would demonstrate both the awfulness of working conditions in the early 20th century and the failures of the workers’ compensation system to deal with health problems caused by poisonous work.

The 1910s saw the development of two phenomena that would come together in horrible ways for workers. The first was the wristwatch, invented during this decade. The second was the entrance of radium into the marketplace. Because radium glowed in the dark, it became a popular method of painting watch faces, since it made the watches useful at night. For soldiers in World War I, these watches were a godsend and this made them popular nationwide.

The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation (later U.S. Radium Corporation) plant in Orange, New Jersey caused a lot of problems in the neighborhood. Residents complained the company’s emissions turned their drying clothes yellow. For the workers, the radium was as much a delight as it was to the consumers. With little health research into its effects on the workers, the young dialpainters suffered heavy exposure to it. They were taught to hold the paintbrush with their mouths as they worked, wetting it with their tongues and thus ingesting the radium that way. They also played with the radium paint. They’d paint the fingernails with it. One woman had a date with her beau. So she painted radium on her teeth so her smile would glow in the dark when they were alone that night.

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Advertisement for radium watch.

As early as 1922, workers began falling sick. The dialpainters were the first industrial victims of radium poisoning. Katherine Schaub and her cousin Irene Rudolph started working in the new dialpainting studio at the Radium Luminous Materials plant in 1917. They were both 15. In 1920, both Schaub and Rudolph quit, finding nonindustrial jobs, although Schaub would briefly return to dialpainting the next year. By 1922, they were both 20 years old. That year, Rudolph had mouth pain. She had a tooth extracted. The socket never healed. Her jaw begin to fester with rotting bones. Other dialpainters began coming down with the same problems. Randolph died in July 1923 after a year and a half of suffering. Schaub started to have health problems in November 1923. By this time, other dialpainters such as Amelia Magggia, Hazel Vincent Kuser, and Marguerite Carlough had died or were dying. Schaub’s continued mouth problems began to be known as “radium jaw.”

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Workers at U.S. Radium, 1922 or 1923.

Medical researchers began to pay more attention to these sick women. So did the New Jersey Consumers’ League, the largely women-led industrial reform movement of the Progressive Era. That era had ended, at least in the years as it is classically classified by historians, but the national and state level organization still existed. The sole paid employee of the New Jersey branch was Katherine Wiley, but she was effective. In 1923, she had successfully lobbied for a bill banning night work for women. After hearing the legendary industrial reformer Alice Hamilton talk about workplace health, Wiley began exploring this in her home state. She soon found the dialpainters. In 1924, Wiley went to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Dr. Andrew McBride. He was furious that these meddlesome women were getting involved in these cases and denied that the radium companies had anything to do with the women’s illnesses.

Working with Hamilton, Wiley began trying to access the medical research. At Harvard, researchers working with U.S. Radium had done initial studies on the substance’s health effects. Wiley and Hamilton sought to acquire that data. The main researcher was loyal to the company and refused to release most of the information. But Frederick Hoffman, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Labor, did find at least some connections, although he was pretty sympathetic to the company too. All of this work did lead to the state labor department closing U.S. Radium, although it just moved to New York. Katherine Schaub kept pushing, convincing Hoffman to write to U.S. Radium about her condition. The company had her visit one of their doctors, who promptly told her that none of her illnesses had anything to do with radium.

Based on this research, in 1927, Schaub joined a dialpainters’ lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Consumers’ League in the state Supreme Court. But this was a difficult task. Not only had the statue of limitations passed since all these workers had quit several years earlier, but the dialpainters needed to prove both that U.S. Radium had caused their illnesses and that the company was negligent in their actions. The lawsuits were a struggle because workers’ compensation generally did not cover health related issues. The workers’ compensation came about as a way for corporations to cut their losses and enter a rational system for dealing with workplace health and safety because after 1890, workers were increasingly suing them successfully for compensation, a slow rejection of the doctrine of workplace risk established early in the nation’s industrial period.

Similar cases were happening at the Waterbury Clock Company in Waterbury, Connecticut (I can’t drive past this factory on I-84 without thinking of dead radium workers) and at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Workers at all three plants struggled to achieve compensation. But in New Jersey, all the bad publicity convinced the company to settle with most of the workers in 1928, although it also made it very difficult for workers to prove any corporate culpability. In more conservative Connecticut, women played a much smaller role in state politics and despite a longer statue of limitations provision in the workers’ compensation law of 5 years, business controlled the state. Workers here received only relatively small settlements, even if Waterbury Clock admitted it had caused 10 deaths by 1936. In Illinois, the workers compensation system was such a mess that not a single sufferer received a cent until 1938.

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Newspaper article publicizing plight of Illinois radium poisoning victims.

In the 1980s, high levels of radon were discovered in homes near the old plant in Orange. The company had long ago been purchased by Safety Light. Homeowners and the current corporate owners of the old plant sued Safety Light. In 1991, the New Jersey Supreme Court found U.S. Radium “forever” liable for the radium near its old factory. Workers laboring with radium however continued having problems, even as safety nominally improved. In the 1970s, radium workers in Ottawa, Illinois were found having radiation levels 1666 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved levels.

This post is based on Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.

This is the 136th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A Match Made in Hipster Labor Heaven

[ 19 ] March 8, 2015 |

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It does seem that bike shop workers and the modern IWW fit together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Somewhat OT, I have been perplexed by the establishment of DIY bikeshops and anarcho-leftist organizations over the last ten years. If learning how to fix your own bike is a step on the way to revolution, I may not be prepared for that new society. I know this is a different kind of bike shop and thus the need for a union.

Also, the IWW continuing to avoid contracts as it did a century ago means that even if tens or hundreds of thousands of workers joined it, it would still run into the same problems it faced at Lawrence and other places where it had initial victories, i.e, the inability to consolidate and institutionalize any gains for workers in a situation where the employer really knows how to consolidate and institutionalize its gains.

Tennessee Funding Higher Education on the Backs of Its Workers

[ 8 ] March 8, 2015 |

Michelle Chen reports on how Tennessee has received kudos for offering a free community college program that has influenced Obama’s proposals. But how is this being funded? By cutting benefits for the workers at Tennessee universities.

The new budget would impose major “reforms” to the healthcare benefits of career civil servants. The cutbacks for retired workers and the newest hires, according to Commercial Appeal, include “ending eligibility for pre-age-65 retiree health insurance to state employees and school-district employees hired after July 1, 2015; ending eligibility, after July 1, for state health insurance for part-time state employees.”

The budget also proposes so-called “flexibility” for the state to offer current workers a more limited defined-contribution retirement health plan, instead of the traditional, typically more stable, defined-benefit scheme. The state may also seek authority to tweak the healthcare subsidy formulas for active employees.

And lest you think this is just taking some retirement money from well off professors, think again. As the United Campus Workers state, this is going to hurt the poorest workers–the housekeepers, the janitors, etc–more than the professors.

The United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 3865 union (UCW) is galled that the cutbacks have been proposed amid the governor’s boasts of making higher education affordable for all. Will their kids get free tuition while parents pay more for basic healthcare? Doubling the irony is that the target population of the new expansion of Tennessee Promise—the new funds are aimed at adult learners with a few college credits already—are perhaps the type of folks who might work a campus custodial job and take classes on the side at night: will they see the new tuition boost offset by shrinking benefits, or have to forgo community college courses to take on a second job?

The students campaigning in solidarity with the UCW recognize the fact that the tuition break is just one piece of the promise—one that the state seems to have bargained for on the backs of public servants. Student organizer Lindsey Smith tells The Nation via e-mail:

we are struggling to understand how Gov. Haslam can put money into such a plan, but completely ignore the campus workers’ pleas for better working conditions and higher wages. His plan is to supposedly help traditionally marginalized, working class students to get a higher education degree…but what happens to those students when they graduate? Not to mention, what about the people that are already in the workforce?

Like so many plans around higher education today, this is about short-sighted political gain that ignores the structural issues around employment in this country. Cutting tuition by cutting benefits makes about as much sense as provosts promoting international studies programs while cutting positions for language professors. Or worrying about the children up to the age of 6 and then underfunding their schools and throwing them in prison for smoking pot at age 15. Education without good jobs is just education. If this is supposed to be about giving people the skills they need to get good jobs, good jobs have to exist. Cutting benefits for those jobs to fund the education does not make sense.

This issue has a bit more meaning for me than most labor issues because I was on the ground floor of organizing what became the UCW at the University of Tennessee back in 1999 and 2000. I had just finished a master’s degree at the school and was involved with a group of students working on economic justice issues. We had a lot of connections with local labor unions and, probably most importantly, with the Highlander Center, which has served as a center of left-leaning southern activism for eighty years now. We held a labor teach-in and through our connections we were able to get Richard Trumka, Bill Fletcher, Elaine Bernard and other great speakers. We put up flyers around campus to see if we could get workers to come out. We received a call from some of the housekeepers. I went to speak to them. What I didn’t expect was to walk into a room full of angry, passionate workers ready to go to the mat after employers who had treated them like garbage for years. They were ready to walk off the job at that moment. It was all pretty incredible.

From that came the UCW, which is now affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. By that time, I had moved to Albuquerque to start my PhD program. But I maintained connections with the union for years, sometimes editing newsletters and the like. Technically, I’m still a sort of honorary member and I pay them monthly union dues. Public workers in Tennessee still don’t have collective bargaining rights and no contract is ever going to come out of that union. But it serves as a voice for the workers of the Tennessee higher education system, from cooks and janitors to library workers and full professors, lobbies in Nashville, and provides power to workers. That this truly grassroots union has survived and flourished for 15 years in the face of the anti-union wave dominating the country is quite remarkable and the implications of it for the modern labor movement is something I should write more about, but I’ll stop reminiscing for now.

Contracts

[ 56 ] March 6, 2015 |

In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.

So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.

This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.

No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.

This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886

[ 23 ] March 6, 2015 |

On March 6, 1886, the Great Southwestern Strike began, marking the start of a year of worker revolt against the exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism. Over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike, but the failure to win helped usher in the decline of the Knights of Labor.

The widely and publicly loathed Jay Gould was one of the leading railroad capitalists and financiers in the United States and he had invested heavily in the massive expansion of railroads into the southwest after the Civil War. This rapid expansion gave workers some level of power and for awhile they achieved good wages. But Gould’s managers consistently sought to cut costs and gain power over workers they thought far too independent.

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Jay Gould

By 1885, Gould had succeeded in gaining control over many of his competitors and he started looking to cut labor costs. That year though, railroad workers had success striking against Gould-owned railroads. Management attempts to cut wages sent workers off the job and the Knights of Labor, a rising labor organization attempted to organize all workers, stepped in and helped negotiate a settlement that included rehiring strikers and paying back wages. Specifically, Terence Powderly personally sat down with Gould and convinced him to grant the workers’ demands. Defeating Gould was the biggest victory the Knights would ever achieve. Feeling hope that a national organization could fight for their demands, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined the Knights in the next few months.

Gould however was not going to take his defeat lying down. He was determined to crush the Knights. The managers’ war on independent labor continued and another strike quickly seemed likely. As these things often go, the strike itself started over an isolated incident. In Marshall, Texas, a Knights member attended a union meeting on work time. He was fired and his fellow workers walked off their job to demand he be rehired. The strike spread like wildfire among workers infuriated with Gould for the terrible wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions along his rail line. Within days, the strike had spread across Texas and into Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

This became the largest of the nation’s 1400 strikes in 1886. Eventually, 200,000 workers (out of a total of 700,000 Knights members that year) went on strike. The strikers were hurt by the lack of solidarity from other unions, as the skilled labor union The Brotherhood of Engineers continued to work. On the other hand, one of the leaders Texas Farmers’ Alliance, William Lamb, declared a boycott of the railroads in support of the strikers, although this was controversial within the Alliance. The rapid growth of the Knights also was a problem. Powderly was generally opposed to strikes and the new members didn’t understand that the Knights actually had a pretty limited vision for labor reform that did not include very much direct action. While Powderly’s role in the strike is not entirely clear, he did not approve of the second strike, certainly did not grant it very strong support and stayed mostly hands off. In any case, when he did reach out to Gould to hash this new strike out, the plutocrat refused, seeking to crush the union entirely. Perhaps apocryphally, he said about the workers, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Ultimately, the strikers had trouble maintaining the popular support necessary to overcome the overwhelming odds against organized labor in the Gilded Age. This certainly wasn’t because everyday people loved Jay Gould. He was largely considered a villain at the time as he is today. But people were so reliant on the railroad for goods and transportation that the shutdown of the system made their lives difficult. And if we know one thing about labor struggles today, it’s that for many people, their support of workers remains in the abstract and at the first moment they are personally inconvenienced, that theoretical support dries up. In popular opinion, strike leader Martin Irons began to be portrayed as Gould’s equal in oppressing the needs of the farmer, both monopolists of a sort, a sign of the limited ability for farmer-worker solidarity in these years.

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Martin Irons

Gould also worked with local politicians to crush the strike. The governor of Missouri called out the state militia, while the governor of Texas built on that by calling out the militia and the Texas Rangers. The governor of Kansas however refused, noting the lack of worker violence that Gould claimed was the reason for the troops. U.S. marshals also assisted in ensuring the trains ran. Gould also called in the Pinkertons. What did cause property destruction was the state repression, which led workers to retaliate by burning machine shops and letting train engines go cold, which delayed trains for hours until they warmed back up. In both Fort Worth, Texas and East St. Louis, Illinois, actual violence eventually took place against Gould’s hired thugs, leading to the death of at least nine workers. Shootouts began taking place between workers and trains running through the strike. But the violence caused by the Pinkertons and state forced workers back on the job. The strike was mostly over by May and accomplished little.

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Battle between workers and U.S. marshals at East St. Louis

This was the first major defeat for the Knights of Labor. Up to this point, it had seemed a growing force in American life. A few weeks after the strike’s defeat, the Knights convened a special assembly where it banned the organization from participating in strikes. This was a terrible idea as employers who had previously capitulated to the Knights immediately rolled back workers’ gains, knowing the central organization had taken away their best weapon to maintain those victories. Combined with the Haymarket incident a couple of months later (Powderly himself refused to do anything for the anarchists thrown in prison for it), the corporate-dominated media was able to paint the Knights as violent radicals and public sympathy turned against them. Moreover, workers felt betrayed by Powderly for his actions during the year. The organization would decline soon after, with a loss of 90 percent of members by 1890, and the American Federation of Labor would rise in its place as the primary union organization of American workers, or at least the ones the AFL would accept.

Martin Irons would be banned from the Knights for leading this disastrous strike and was blacklisted from the railroad. He died in poverty in 1900.

This is the 135th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Lock Out the Kids!

[ 29 ] March 4, 2015 |

The refinery giant Tesoro has decided that it can’t allow youth baseball leagues to use the fields it owns next to its Martinez, California refinery. That’s because there are pickets at the plant due to the refinery strike. Oh, and also to protect the kids from the horrors of the outside agitator.

Oil giant Tesoro is locking out 600 youth baseball players from practicing on 15 fields located next to its refinery in Martinez, California. As part of a nationwide work stoppage involving some 7,000 workers, the Martinez workers have been on strike since Feb. 2, with regular pickets from the United Steelworkers and their allies protesting health and safety conditions.

“It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines,” Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche explained to the local press. “We just don’t have to expose them to any negative interactions.”

In another interview, Deutsche specifically mentioned the threat of outside agitators from groups like Occupy, the California Nurses Association and Communities for a Better Environment, a group that works on environmental justice issues affecting low-income and minority communities.

These groups insist they pose no threat to children.

“This is a PR stunt,” said Nile Malloy, Northern California program director for Communities for a Better Environment. “It’s just really sad — like, really? … Everybody who protests is peaceful. They’re there to demonstrate solidarity with the workers, to protect the health and safety of the community, the climate.”

“Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Charles Idelson, spokesman for the CNA. “How disgraceful [for Tesoro] to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”

“There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” Scott told the Vallejo Times-Herald.

Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee told International Business Times “there have been reports of strike-related incidents deemed to be unsafe at the gates of our refinery and in the areas near the facility’s ballfields.” But when asked for more information about the “strike-related incidents,” Barbee said she did not “have additional details to share.”

That is pretty pathetic. I guess it is an attempt to turn the community against the strike, but that is lame.

This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1936

[ 16 ] March 1, 2015 |

On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.

The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.

The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.

The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.

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Building Hoover Dam

Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.

But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”

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The 1931 strike

The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.

The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.

This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

What Could Go Wrong

[ 10 ] February 27, 2015 |

Good ol’ regulatory capture: Department of Agriculture edition from Tom Philpott:

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

What’s more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That’s when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speed-up formula sounds familiar, it’s because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did greenlight turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: 1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; 2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and 3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of 1) and 2).

Good times. My only problem with Philpott’s piece is how much it underplays the effect of the speedup on workplace safety. It’s referenced in passing, but like so much when it comes to the food industry, consumers’ interests are privileged above that of workers, when in fact the two are so interconnected that any reasonable analysis can not really separate them. The meat industry is already incredibly dangerous labor and speed-ups always make labor more dangerous, while also of course making inspections less rigorous and with greater likelihood of tainted meat getting to the consumer. Both issues are equally important.

Really, it’s impossible to see what could go wrong with the meat industry regulating itself. That is, if you like killing workers.

This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1908

[ 21 ] February 24, 2015 |

On February 24, 1908, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Muller v. Oregon. This landmark decision upheld the idea that, at least for women, laws restricting the hours of work were constitutional. This would be a major victory in the long fight to bring working hours down to eight hours nationally, a dream that had already extended for more than two decades and would not be realized for another thirty years. It also created gender inequities in labor law with implications that continue today.

In 1903, Oregon had passed a law limiting the hours of women to ten hours a day and sixty hours a week. Curt Muller, a laundry business owner in Portland, sued the state. Muller believed, for good reason given the predominant legal climate of the time, that he signed legal contracts with individual workers when he hired them and that those workers freely agreed to the terms of hours and wages when they took the job. Yet, these ideas were increasingly challenged during the Progressive Era, as activists sought to create a more fair America that protected basic rights of workers to a decent life. This was especially true for women workers, who many Progressives saw as both uniquely exploited and mothers responsible for raising the next generation of Americans. Progressives argued that whatever the merits of the freedom of contract interpretation of labor legislation, the state had a unique interest in excepting women from that principle. Progressives were especially prominent in states like Oregon, as well as Wisconsin and Washington, which would see the first workers’ compensation legislation a few years later. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the the state’s law and Muller then appealed to the Supreme Court.

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Laundry workers

Supporting Oregon’s case was Louis Brandeis, who filed a lengthy brief, mostly created by his sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, an activist with the National Consumers League, about women’s working conditions and lives, helping to sway the case. Brandeis employed this paternalistic ideal of women as mothers to justify upholding the law because the state had an interest in the health of future generations of Americans. He used four specific arguments. First, women were physically different and weaker than men. Second, damage to women’s health on the job might affect their reproductive capacity. Third, the health of children might be damaged if the mother was overworked. Fourth, long workdays deprived family members of their wife and mother.

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Louis Brandeis

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the law’s constitutionality. David Brewer wrote the opinion. Part of the reason this was such a landmark decision was its partial repeal of Lochner v. New York , decided just three years before. Lochner invalidated state laws on the hours of bakers and thus hours legislation nationwide based on the idea of the liberty of contract that it read into the 14th Amendment. But Brewer was clear that this was no rejection of Lochner. Rather women were different than men and thus deserved protection:

That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

In short, the justices had a gendered construction of freedom of contract. They held to the Gilded Age belief that individual male workers freely signed agreements with employers (thus making labor legislation unconstitutional because it would violate that freedom of contract) but for women workers the state’s interest was greater than this freedom. This was not completely unprecedented however, for as early as 1876, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had founded similarly, as had several additional states between then and 1908, although Illinois had overturned a law restricting women’s hours that applied freedom of contract to women as well as men.

The legacy of Muller is complicated because of the paternalism at its core. It fit the ideals of many Progressive reformers, who used ideas of femininity and motherhood to protect women and children in a number of ways, but especially at the workplace. For people like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, these sorts of decisions were validations of their larger campaigns to protect poor women from the ravages of industrial life. But the small more explicitly feminist movement disliked the decision because it created artificial differences between the sexes.

Still, placing Muller in the context of the time, we should see it as an important victory because of its precedent setting approval of hours laws for anyone. Lochner reinforced the idea so prevalent in American business that corporations had no responsibility to anyone and that the halls of Congress and federal courtrooms would reinforce this if necessary. Even if Muller was sexist, for a lot of labor activists getting these principles applied to women laid the groundwork for all workers, which may not have been the goal of all Progressives, but was for labor activists. Establishing this principle did indeed start chipping away at the freedom of contract idea and within a decade, many industries would have 8-hour days.

States followed up on Mueller by passing night work laws for women to ensure they were not laboring during hours deemed by the state to be hours when they should be taking care of their children. Between 1909 and 1917, 19 states passed new legislation limiting the hours of women’s work, leaving only 9 states in 1917 that lacked any restrictions at all, a number that decreased to 5 by the mid-1920s. However, in most if not all of these states, the laws did not cover domestic or agricultural workers. The decision itself was rendered irrelevant by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 since it provided equal coverage for men and women. Yet gender inequities on the job have never fully been overcome, not even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The struggle for real equality on the job continues today.

I relied on Andrea Tone, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America and Nancy S. Jackson, “Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-Based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract” in Labor History, September 1989.

This is the 133th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 23, 1864

[ 10 ] February 23, 2015 |

On February 23, 1864, Kate Mullaney (sometimes spelled Mullany), leader of the Collar Laundry Union, the second all-female union in the United States (the Lowell Female Reform Association, established in 1845, was the first), led union members in Troy, New York out on strike. The CLU wanted higher wages and better working conditions. The strike succeeded, marking a rare union victory for women workers during the era.

Women working in commercial laundries faced the terrible working conditions that were becoming so common as the nation industrialized in the mid-19th century. They worked 12-14 hour days in extraordinarily hot workplaces. The Collar Laundry Union workers labored specifically with collars. This required the use of harsh, caustic chemicals and boiling water. Workers frequently suffered severe burns. Like in the rest of American work in the second half of the 19th century, rapid technological advancements came at the price of worker safety. In this case, it was new starching machines that were known for causing horrific burns for workers. Of course, companies were not held responsible for workers getting hurt or dying on the job. The pay for this labor: $3 a week.

Kate Mullaney was an Irish immigrant born in 1845, emigrating during her teenage years. Her family ended up in Troy, New York, a growing industrial city that specialized in iron foundries and collar production. Troy was one of the nation’s most prosperous cities at this time. In 1864, about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collar production (a popular fashion of the time) was located in Troy. In the 1860s, about 3000 women worked in the Troy collar laundries. Mullaney was forced into the labor force in the early 1860s when her father died and with her mother an invalid, she became the family’s primary breadwinner. Like the vast majority of the collar workers, Mullaney was a young unmarried woman. 92 percent of the Irish collar workers were single, and another 5 percent widows. Generally, the Irish worked in the collar laundries while native-born Protestants labored in collar sewing, as it paid better and was seen as more respectable, not to mention was less dangerous. Like much work as well, these jobs tended to be passed through families, as workers got jobs for their younger family members.

It did not take long for Mullaney to become a leader of the collar workers movement to make a better life for themselves. On February 23, 1864, she led about 300 workers out of the job and onto the streets. Within a week, 20 Troy laundries increased workers’ pay over 20 percent and agreed to work on safety issues. The strike made the union a successful operation. The CLU lasted for five years, which may not seem long to us today, but that in an era of nascent labor organizations, that was a pretty long run. In 1866, the CLU again went on strike, forcing employers to raise wages to $14 a week, over four times what workers made just two years earlier.

Under Mullaney’s leadership, the CLU was pretty radical for its time. It donated large sums to striking male unions in a time when that was not so common. In 1868, National Labor Union president William Sylvis appointed Mullaney to the NLU’s national office as assistant secretary and women’s organizer, probably making her the first woman to hold a position in a large national labor union. The NLU was also a Troy-based organization, with Sylvis the head of the Iron Moulders Union that had made that city a strong union town for the era. Sylvis also had long supported the idea of women’s unions and so was quite favorably disposed to the CLU. Mullaney was actually elected second vice president of the union at the 1868 NLU convention but she declined that offer.

In March 1869, the CLU won another strike, but this convinced operators to destroy the union. That May workers again walked off the job. But the owners were starting to follow a strategy that would prove very effective throughout this period at forestalling unionization in the United States–they organized and planned a common strategy against the unions. They pressured smaller operators to hold out against the CLU, began to recruit scab laborers, and worked to control press coverage of the strike in Troy. The workers protested the bad press coverage, but while the Troy Times published a letter by the workers, it refused to endorse their actions. New York City newspapers provided more sympathetic coverage, but that was relatively far away. Perhaps the most effective action was to lockout union members. The owners offered more wage increases to workers, but only if they agreed to leave the union. This proved effective. The strike was lost and the union destroyed.

In its wake, Mullaney and some of the other collar workers formed their own collar manufacturing cooperative, Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactury. Mullaney became president of that cooperative and, working with friends in the women’s rights movement, sought wealthy investors to fund the enterprise. Alas, the cooperative failed in the wake of both struggles to keep up with the latest technologies and the replacement of cloth collars with paper collars, which led to the slow decline entire Troy collar industry, although factories were still active into the 1880s. In 1870, Mullaney dissolved the CLU, which was also suffering after the death of Sylvis and the loss of support from the National Labor Union.

At this point, Mullaney and her fellow workers returned to work for their employers at the May 1869 wage levels, but again, this did not last long because of fashion changes. Mullaney eventually faded from view after 1870. We know she married at some point and that she died in in 1906 in Troy. She ended up remaining poor, being buried in an unmarked grave until the 1990s, when women’s rights and labor rights advocates fought to create a National Historic Landmark to remember Mullaney and the CLU. She was given a proper headstone and her home marked with a plaque.

Kate Mullany House dedication

Dedication of Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark

Collar workers continued to organize, with hundreds joining the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.

I borrowed much of this material from Tiffany Wayne, ed., Women’s Rights in the United States: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Events and People, Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-86, and a bit from Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, eds., America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present.

This is the 132nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Stolen Wages and Labor Enforcement

[ 28 ] February 22, 2015 |

Unfortunately, it’s not really news that a lot of employers steal the wages of their workers and that immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to this problem given how many lack documentation. But even if those workers do successfully sue for back wages, do the employers actually pay them? We are seeing a breakdown in the system at that point. Owners are taking advantage of legal loopholes, opening and closing businesses, in order to avoid paying these workers. New York labor activists are looking to close those loopholes:

Two years ago, legislation was introduced by State Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal and State Senator José R. Peralta that was intended to limit the gamesmanship, but it never left committees. A new version of the bill will be offered next week. It would make it possible for workers to file a wage lien, similar to a mechanics’ lien. The bill would change the civil court procedures to allow a judge to attach assets before a case has concluded if the workers can show they are likely to succeed. Its third important provision would make it easier to hold primary shareholders of corporations liable for unpaid wage judgments.

The changes are not intended to hold businesses hostage to frivolous claims, according to Hollis Pfitsch, a staff attorney at Legal Aid.

I think the need to hold individuals responsible is absolutely crucial here. If there’s not real personal punishment against wage thieving employers, there is no reason for employers to not continue doing this.

The Death of Abood?

[ 21 ] February 21, 2015 |

Not surprisingly, anti-union groups have responded to reasonable moderate Sam Alito’s call for a good case to overturn the 1977 Abood decision that allows public sector unions to charge fees in lieu of dues for non-union members that they represent and would otherwise be free riders on the contracts they negotiate. Whether the Court overturns Abood remains in question since that’s a more radical move than just chipping away at it, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

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