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Tag: "labor"

Making OSHA Reports Public

[ 14 ] November 7, 2013 |

Great news, with one caveat, from the Department of Labor:

The Labor Department wants companies to begin filing all workplace injury and illness reports electronically so they are available for anyone in the public to see.

The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will announce the plan on Thursday as part of a proposed rule that would dramatically change the way companies file safety records, according to a person familiar with the proposal.

The person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke anonymously.

In a description of the rule, OSHA said a new electronic reporting system would help the government, workers, researchers and the public more effectively prevent workplace accidents and illnesses. The agency said the change also supports President Barack Obama’s initiative to increase public access to government data.

The plan would apply only to companies with more than 250 employees.

While the proposal is expected to please labor and workplace safety groups, business groups are likely to oppose it. They say raw injury data can be misleading or contain sensitive information that can be misused.

Of course business will oppose it. Business has always opposed any knowledge of their callousness toward worker safety. Business has long fought giving workers the right to know the chemicals they are exposed to at the workplace, fought the right for them to see their own medical records on the job, and fought public knowledge of pollution and emissions.

So it’s great to see this proposal for this information to go online. A huge benefit to labor reporters and the general public. My only criticism is the limit of firms with 250 employees. That’s a lot of employees and this will exclude a whole lot of factories where dangerous work takes place, including most timber mills which of course is my industry of expertise. I’m not surprised that this compromise would take place and starting with 250 is a good first step, but there’s no reason that all safety violations shouldn’t be available to the public.

Black Lung Follow Up

[ 22 ] November 6, 2013 |

Great news. I recently linked to the Center on Public Integrity’s excellent series on how coal miners are denied black lung benefits by Johns Hopkins doctors who always rule in favor of industry. Johns Hopkins has now suspended its black lung program and is investigating what has happened. This is excellent news for coal miners who hopefully will begin to receive their rightful compensation in the future. It’s also an example of the positive impact journalists can make in society.

Suicides and Plant Closures

[ 53 ] November 4, 2013 |

Reuters has an interesting piece on how Volkswagen’s previous attempt to operate a union factory in the U.S. failed and how this relates to its attempts to institute a German-like workers’ council through the United Auto Workers. One major challenge I think this attempt faces going forward is the strong hostility toward organized labor by the American managerial class that will be dealing with the UAW on a daily basis. The Germans are going to have to mandate serious cooperation with the union if their goal of a workers council will come to fruition.

But that’s not why I linked to this. It’s to reiterate the real and often deadly cost of job loss:

While the landscape is very different from 25 years ago, the legacy of the older plant’s failure is part of the troubled history the UAW will have to overcome as it tries to represent VW workers again — this time in Tennessee, where the automaker employs 2,500 people building Passat sedans.

After the 1988 closure of VW’s plant in southwestern Pennsylvania, Ron Dinsmore kept a grisly toll of the pain: the number of suicides of former workers. He stopped counting at 19.

“I used to go to every funeral home,” said Dinsmore, 71. “I quit doing it. It got morbid.”

Minimum of 19 suicides out of a 2500 person workforce. That’s a huge number. You saw the same thing in Oregon and Washington and northern California when the timber industry laid everyone off in the 1980s. I have one story in my research of a pastor in northern California who had to counsel a couple not to commit suicide, which they were considering because they couldn’t provide for their children and had an insurance policy that could. This is the cost of unemployment and factory closure. Way too often, even in the progressive blogosphere, this is abstracted to thinking about economic policy and decisions in Washington. That’s fine of course, but it’s also easier than reckoning with the real human costs. Sad, sad stuff.

The War on Workers

[ 10 ] November 3, 2013 |

Mike Konczal usefully summarizes Gordon Lafer’s new report on the Tea Party’s class warfare. Although the media and most blogs have focused on Tea Party legislators’ work to undermine voting rights and reproductive rights, typically their work undermining employee rights has gone underreported. An excerpt:

Crucially, as Lafer emphasizes, this isn’t about what we colloquially refer to as “conservative values.” Rather than rolling back the state, tea party Republicans are calling for extensive observation and disciplining of unemployed people.

Tennessee conservatives and business interests, for instance, are pushing “the Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012 [which] would add scenarios that disqualify a worker from receiving unemployment in the first place [and] call for audits of 1,000 claimants weekly.” So much for smaller government and more privacy.

And for all the conservative talk about making programs as local as possible, what is often referred to as “subsidiarity” or “devolution,” that principle is ignored when it comes to repealing labor protections. Many conservative states have pushed laws designed to override localities that seek to create or increase their minimum wages, prevailing wages, living wages or mandatory sick days. Given that many states have big cities where more extensive labor protections exist, this matters for many people.

Effectively, the purpose of the Republican war on workers is to recreate the Gilded Age, a project going quite smoothly for the plutocrats, even if they are having trouble controlling the electoral implications of the angry people they’ve unleashed.

Black Lung Blues

[ 47 ] October 31, 2013 |

The Center for Public Integrity is running a really great series about how coal miners get black lung from decades in the mines and then face a wall of denial of their claims far harder than any coal seam. The second part of the 3-part series came out yesterday, detailing how doctors at Johns Hopkins deny all black lung claims. This is just awful.

Doctors have come and gone from the unit over the years, but the leader and most productive reader for decades has been Dr. Paul Wheeler, 78, a slight man with a full head of gray hair and strong opinions.

In the federal black lung system, cases often boil down to dueling medical experts, and judges rely heavily on doctors’ credentials to resolve disputes.

When it comes to interpreting the chest films that are vital in most cases, Wheeler is the coal companies’ trump card. He has undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University, a long history of leadership at Johns Hopkins and an array of presentations and publications to his credit. In many cases, judges have noted Johns Hopkins’ prestige and described Wheeler’s qualifications as “most impressive,” “outstanding” and “superior.” Time and again, judges have deemed him the “best qualified radiologist,” and they have reached conclusions such as, “I defer to Dr. Wheeler’s interpretation because of his superior credentials.”

Yet there is strong evidence that this deference has contributed to unjust denials of miners’ claims, the Center found as part of a yearlong investigation, “Breathless and Burdened.” The Center created a database of doctors’ opinions — none previously existed — scouring thousands of judicial opinions kept by the Labor Department dating to 2000 and logging every available X-ray reading by Wheeler. The Center recorded key information about these cases, analyzed Wheeler’s reports and testimony, consulted medical literature and interviewed leading doctors. The findings are stark:

In the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which Wheeler read at least one X-ray, he never once found the severe form of the disease, complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Other doctors looking at the same X-rays found this advanced stage of the disease in 390 of these cases.
Since 2000, miners have lost more than 800 cases after doctors saw black lung on an X-ray but Wheeler read the film as negative. This includes 160 cases in which doctors found the complicated form of the disease. When Wheeler weighed in, miners lost nearly 70 percent of the time before administrative law judges. The Labor Department does not have statistics on miners’ win percentage in all cases at this stage for comparison purposes.
Where other doctors saw black lung, Wheeler often saw evidence of another disease, most commonly tuberculosis or histoplasmosis — an illness caused by a fungus in bird and bat droppings. This was particularly true in cases involving the most serious form of the disease. In two-thirds of cases in which other doctors found complicated black lung, Wheeler attributed the masses in miners’ lungs to TB, the fungal infection or a similar disease.
The criteria Wheeler applies when reading X-rays are at odds with positions taken by government research agencies, textbooks, peer-reviewed scientific literature and the opinions of many doctors who specialize in detecting the disease, including the chair of the American College of Radiology’s task force on black lung.
Biopsies or autopsies repeatedly have proven Wheeler wrong. Though Wheeler suggests miners undergo biopsies — surgical procedures to remove a piece of the lung for examination — to prove their cases, such evidence is not required by law, is not considered necessary in most cases and can be medically risky. Still, in more than 100 cases decided since 2000 in which Wheeler offered negative readings, biopsies or autopsies provided undisputed evidence of black lung.

It’s not clear why this one doctor has dedicated himself to denying black lung claims, but this is a person who has committed a great evil in the world. Despite his self-serving rhetoric about his ethics, he has done nothing but deny relatively small amounts of money to very sick people. Workers have no recourse once the experts at Johns Hopkins led by Wheeler deny their claims. They work for decades. They die in misery. Wheeler is a big reason why.

Seriously, read the whole thing. This is how the system defeats working class people’s attempts at a dignified life. Very powerful stuff.

How Intimidating Workers Works

[ 8 ] October 30, 2013 |

Gawker has acquired a 20-minute tape of a Georgia trucking company trying to convince workers not to join a union. This is a window into the day-to-day employer intimidation of workers’ organizing. Sometimes it can be hard power, sometimes soft. These managers were not threatening workers (at least not in the part I listened to). But they did have a captive audience to talk about the evils of unions. When Republicans complain about Obama naming NLRB members who are biased toward unions, it’s a joke precisely because they are totally fine with this kind of thing. Do unions get captive audiences inside the plant? No. This is how union campaigns are defeated. An important story and many kudos to Gawker for running it. Here’s an excerpt from the write-up:

Truck drivers at the Duluth, GA facility of the multinational storage company Iron Mountain are considering unionizing. This is a recording of a recent meeting in which two Iron Mountain managers “educate” the employees about the downside of a union. (The link was sent out last night to an email list of labor journalists.) Its content is not especially outrageous—its value lies in the fact that it offers a full look at one of the many little stumbling blocks that go along with any workplace’s attempt to organize.

“This is the South. This is not something where unions are [prevalent],” says one manager. “If the union comes in, it will make it much more difficult to get things done.” When the other manager addresses the employees, he says of their union campaign, “I can’t help but take it personally… it does hurt. It does sting.”

Weak Anti-Faculty Union Arguments

[ 49 ] October 29, 2013 |

University of Illinois professor Nicholas Burbules’ anti-faculty union arguments are laughable. They are laughable precisely because he ignores the reality of 21st century administration-faculty relationships and what administrations are trying to do to faculty. Burbules thinks that shared governance is a real and serious thing today:

By contrast, shared governance begins with a presumption of shared commitment to the constitutional principles and to the best interests of the institution. Faculty and administrators view themselves as partners in a common project; this is what the “shared” in shared governance means. This certainly doesn’t mean that the parties always agree—but even where there are disagreements, they are usually respectful and collegial.

Under shared governance, administrators assume that the feedback and advice of the faculty will help them make better decisions, and that those decisions will be better understood and supported by professors when they grow out of consultation and openness. They respect the faculty’s fundamental rights and control over academic matters, and involve them in a broad range of other decisions as well—even when they may not be strictly required to do so.

Faculty members, for their part, respect that administrators have an accountable responsibility for making certain decisions and sometimes have information and considerations that cannot be widely shared. They recognize that senior administrators are faculty members, share the values of the faculty, and understand the concerns of the faculty. The governance roles of administration and professors are viewed as complementary, having legitimate spheres of authority that need to respect each other.

Right…. Senior administrators totally share the values of the faculty, such as eliminating the German, French, and Philosophy departments, replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, reducing budgets, and generally squeezing the faculty while padding administration with more positions and six-figure salaries. And the administration oh so much cares about faculty feedback to their bad ideas. I mean, in my 7 years as a faculty member, I’ve seen nothing but respect and positive responses to feedback from faculty. In my fantasy world, I’ve seen administrators realize their ideas were bad, restore funding for departments, take the humanities and social sciences seriously, reinforce the values of a liberal arts education, support professor free speech, and respect the traditional role of a higher education in shaping a new generation and exposing them to new ideas. It’s a fantasy world because the real world of academia is mostly terrible. Which is why we need unions.

If it wasn’t for my AAUP union, I would not have a job anymore. Burbules claims that faculty are professionals, not workers, but not only is that an arbitrary distinction, but it also doesn’t represent the reality of the 21st century university. There’s a reason why more and more faculty members are unionizing, including a major recent victory at the University of Oregon. I’m sure Burbules however is on his way to a nice administration sinecure through this essay and what is no doubt his other anti-union activities at his home campus at the University of Illinois.

This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1825

[ 14 ] October 26, 2013 |

On October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal opened, eight years after construction commenced. This engineering marvel would have enormous impacts on the future of American work, including spurring ever-greater industrialization, helping cement the Great Lakes states as a center of American industrialization, and ensuring New York would be the long-term center of American commerce. It also came at a cost of over 1000 dead workers.

The engineers who designed the Erie Canal thought of their project as a uniquely American achievement, a sign of the glorious republicanism of the new nation flexing its increasingly powerful muscles. As economic and technical elites would do throughout American history, these engineers and politicians used national rhetoric to hide the very real muscles they relied on to build their marvel. And those workers were treated poorly.

Americans were used to hard work in the 1820s. Farm work was pretty tough and in some ways had much in common with canal digging. Working on either meant you might cut trees, dig ditches, divert streams and labor in cold weather. Most canal workers labored seasonally, but I don’t have to tell you all how cold an upstate New York winter can be so for those who did labor through the winter, the working conditions were awful.

Epidemics were a huge problem and contributed significantly to the dead workers. In 1819, more than 1000 workers got sick from some sort of disease that came from working in a swamp that went on for 30 miles (in our significantly ditched, diked, and drained landscape of the east, it’s hard to imagine such enormous swamps, although they do still exist in some areas). Only a few of these workers died, but most were disabled for long periods of time. Other epidemics were far worse. For workers who did avoid sickness, widespread disease did lead to increased wages, however briefly. One contractor had to raise wages from $12 to between $14 and $17 a month due to an epidemic, about which he complained bitterly.



Building the Erie Canal

The use of gunpowder killed a lot of workers. The care given to explosions was pretty low through the 19th century and workers were blown up all the time or killed by rocks blown through the air. Canal collapses were also common, burying workers. Workers fell to their deaths building the locks and aqueducts. Orrin Harrison was exhausted from too much work. He fell asleep resting against a balance beam on a lock. Dozing, he fell into 8 feet of water where his legs were caught in the lock’s gates and he drowned. The death toll rose daily from these sorts of incidents.

At first, the workers were mostly American-born, but this quickly changed as labor needs increased and the reality of just how brutal this work was became more real. Thus very quickly, the Canal became a prime job site for the nation’s growing numbers of Irish immigrants. We usually associate Irish immigration a couple of decades later with the potato famine, but it had already begun by the late 1810s, with an 1817 famine what was pushing them out. The Irish would take the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the pre-Civil War north and become despised by the nation’s Protestants for it, later leading to the Know-Nothing Party and other anti-immigrant sentiment. By the end of the Erie Canal’s construction, the Irish made up a sizable percentage of the labor force.

Within the national framework of republican free men working for oneself as a craftsman or farmer, laboring as canal diggers was the lowest of work. That living conditions were so awful for these workers seemed irrefutable evidence that these workers were morally deficient, for who would live in such conditions? When the Irish then took these jobs, it reinforced the prejudice many New Yorkers had against the Irish, especially since they already saw them as living in filth. Contractors housed their workers in shanties that were frequently compared to barns that stood physically removed from towns and farms, isolating these workers physically and socially. Plus farm workers had warm beds and good food. Canal diggers did not. The work’s seasonality was also far more unpredictable than farming, meaning economic and personal insecurity.

Mostly, the laborers who came to the U.S. to work on the project found their experience disappointing. William Thomas had immigrated from Wales. He wrote back home: “I beg all my old neighbors not to think of coming here as they would spend more coming here than they think. My advice to them is to love their district and stay there.” Thomas considered returning to Wales, although we do not know if he did.

Dangerous and deadly work in the United States would grow and grow in coming decades as the Industrial Revolution transformed the nation. Some of it would be in the kind of grunt work of building a canal (or a railroad soon after). Some would take place in the factories, some in digging or cutting the raw materials for it all. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, the death toll would be of little concern to bosses and certainly not to the capitalists financing this growth. Immigrants would provide much of this labor, as would African-Americans in some areas. Others would advise their families and friends to love their district and stay there too but millions would choose possible death over permanent poverty and come to work in the dangerous trades and unsafe worksites.

I relied on Carol Sheriff’s book, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 to write this post.

This is the 80th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

I Guess We Know Where the Giants Got the Money to Pay a Fading Tim Lincecum $35 Million

[ 26 ] October 24, 2013 |

What a surprise that billionaire sports owners would steal from their poorest employees:

Two Major League Baseball clubs–the San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins—are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible federal wage law violations. The investigations come amid wider concern about questionable pay practices throughout professional baseball, according to interviews and records obtained by FairWarning under the Freedom of Information Act.

Labor Department spokesman Jason Surbey confirmed the investigations of the Marlins and Giants, but would not give details. However, emails reviewed by FairWarning show that possible improper use of unpaid interns is a focus of the Giants probe. It is the Labor Department’s second recent investigation of the Giants over pay practices involving lower level employees.

An attorney for the Giants said the team would not comment on the current investigation. A Marlins spokesman said the club does not believe “that any of the Marlins’ current labor practices are improper….We can confirm that the Marlins have been and will continue to cooperate fully with the Department of Labor.” Major League Baseball officials could not be reached.

Officials with the department’s Wage and Hour Division announced in August that the Giants had resolved the prior case by agreeing to pay $544,715 in back wages and damages to 74 employees. Many were clubhouse workers the agency said were paid at a daily rate of $55, but who sometimes worked so many hours that they got less than minimum wage and no overtime. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Haitian Wage Theft

[ 81 ] October 17, 2013 |

I see the garment industry is up to the same tricks it’s been using since before the Triangle Fire, this time stealing wages from Haitian workers. And who could have guessed that it would be psychopathic corporations Gap, Target, and WalMart leading the charge?

The report, prepared by the Worker Rights Consortium, focused on 5 of Haiti’s 24 garment factories and found that “the majority of Haitian garment workers are being denied nearly a third of the wages they are legally due as a result of the factories’ theft of their income.”

The group said that the factories deprive workers of higher wages they are entitled to under law by setting difficult-to-meet production quotas and neglecting to pay overtime.

It said that offenders included the Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti, which the United States helped build and has cited as a centerpiece of reconstruction efforts, and factories that make products for prominent retailers like Gap, Target and Walmart.

Scott Nova, the consortium’s executive director, said in an interview: “What goes on here is not some occasional violations where most companies are in compliance and a few are not. You have across-the-board systematic, willful noncompliance with straightforward labor law by a large margin in a way that’s very destructive to workers.”

I have no problem with clothing being made in Haiti. Haitians really need jobs. But there is absolutely no reason that these apparel companies should legally be able to exploit the poorest workers in the world. Once again, the apparel industry tries to recreate Gilded Age America with the workers with the least power to resist. Why should these corporations not be liable in American courts for stealing wages from workers in Haiti? The only way to stop this behavior is to hold them legally and financially accountable. If you want to site factories in Haiti, fine. Even if you actually pay them only the average Haitian wage rate. But then engaging in wholesale wage theft? There has to be legal repercussions for this, and not in ineffective Haitian courts. Rich nations need to regulate this out of their corporations. Without law becoming as mobile as capital, effective labor reform is basically impossible. That means allowing these Haitian workers to sue Wal-Mart in American courts, not only for back wages but also for punitive damages. If Wal-Mart knows there is an actual cost to wage theft, they’ll stop employing contractors who engage in it.

Here’s the full Workers Rights Consortium report (PDF).

Siting Factories

[ 66 ] October 17, 2013 |

Why should a corporation be allowed to move its factories wherever it wants? Take General Electric, who is moving its Ford Edward, New York production to (ironically) Clearwater, Florida.

In response to this threatened closing, UE plans an extensive campaign of action and community outreach. “Solidarity Saturdays” send members out to solicit thousands of signatures from the surrounding communities that will be affected by the job loss. UE representatives have fanned out to meet with unions across the region.

At a picket last Thursday at the plant, every AFL-CIO central labor council was represented, despite the fact that UE is an independent union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Gene Elk, secretary of the UE-GE Conference Board, told the assembled workers and supporters that GE’s response to the union’s request for information was to call it “burdensome.” What the union got, Elk said, was “15 sheets of paper… and we had to sign an agreement pledging that we wouldn’t divulge much of that information to the public.”

Why shouldn’t it be “burdensome” for a powerful, profitable corporation like GE to close a plant? I asked UE Political Director Chris Townsend.

“It shouldn’t be easy to close a plant,” said Townsend, “or it shouldn’t be this easy to close this plant. The General Electric corporation has been shown every imaginable consideration—by the taxpayers, by the state government, by the federal government, by this community, by the environmental regulators, everyone.

“Our members have worked with this company to keep this plant profitable. Now the company decides to walk off, leave hundreds of people stranded with no jobs, no income, and leave this community and this state in possession of the nation’s largest Superfund site.”

I asked a young couple who work in the plant, Kim and Chris, about the local job situation. “Where do you go?” they said.

Upstate New York is littered with abandoned factories. State officials tout the massive GlobalFoundries chip fabrication plant south of Fort Edward, but production jobs there pay about $15 an hour, hardly a family-friendly wage.

UE is United Electric Workers. Townsend has a really good point here. Why should it be easy for corporations to move? You can talk about property rights, but why should the property rights of corporations supercede the property rights of homeowners, shopkeepers, small businesses, and others negatively affected by captial mobility? After turning the area into a Superfund site, GE is outta there, leaving another New York community decimated? Why should governments and people allow corporations to do this? These issues are almost never critically examined. The right of corporate mobility and the race to the bottom is seen as an obvious right. But it shouldn’t be. As I’ve said before, the only way to stop corporate mobility from destroying communities is to create standardized regulations, wages, and working conditions across states and nations. Only then will corporations be unable to play state against state, nation against nation, worker against worker, all in the service of concentrating wealth at the tippy top of society.

This Day in Labor History: October 16, 1859

[ 64 ] October 16, 2013 |

On October 16, 1859, radical Republican John Brown and a small band of followers, both white and black, launched a violent attack against the American system of slave labor at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia). While unsuccessful (and insane if one assumes he wanted something other than martyrdom), Brown’s raid did more than almost anything else in the 1850s to highlight the differences between northern and southern labor systems and the moral bankruptcy of the latter. Agree or disagree with his actions, he made it almost impossible for northern whites to claimed to be abolitionists to hide behind gradual programs or a vague hope for the future. For southern whites, it was a call to arms against increasingly radical anti-slavery forces in the north and the desires of slaves to escape. For African-Americans, at least the few who had the opportunity to take advantage of Brown’s actions, it was the deliverance from a hell of forced labor and degradation for which they had prayed.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time revisiting Brown’s famous raids here. Most readers here have heard of his 1859 attack and many are no doubt familiar with his 1856 murder of slaveholders in Kansas that put him on the run. Rather, I’d rather explore Brown’s positions and words about the United States’ slave labor system.

African-American women working in cotton field. Not sure of date, but typical of slave labor.

Brown had called for armed resistance to slave labor since at least 1851. Speaking to the United States League of Gileadites, a radical anti-slavery organization he founded to mobilize African-Americans, Brown talked about how to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Brown told 44 attending free blacks that if one was arrested, “Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; Let that be understood beforehand.” As we know from Harpers Ferry and Kansas, Brown had no problem putting this into effect. And we can certainly condemn his violence. But let’s step back and remember just how horrible slavery was. On December 20, 1858, Brown, who had briefly returned to Kansas, led a party into Missouri to free slaves. They liberated 11 slaves and killed a slaveholder. He then took them north, helping to deliver a baby from one of the ex-slaves, and got them into Canada after an 82-day trip. Were his actions justified?

This is from his letter to the New York Tribune, justifying his actions. “On Sunday, September 19, a negro man called Jim came over to Osage settlement, from Missouri, and stated that he, together with his wife, two children, and another negro man, was to be sold within a day or two, and begged for help to get away.” Brown and his friends gathered other slaves and helped them to freedom? If a slave holder was killed in such an action, is this a reasonable price? As Brown put it, “Now for a comparison. Eleven persons are forcibly restored to their natural and inalienable rights, with but one man killed, and ‘all hell is stirred from beneath.’” If one has the opportunity to free people from slavery, what is less moral? Saying no or killing a single white person in the process of saving eleven black people? For Brown, the answer was obvious.



John Brown in Kansas

When Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry, the South recognized it for what it was–a direct and violent attack upon their system of forced labor they had based their economy around for two hundred years. John Brown was their greatest fear and railroading him to the hangman’s rope was the obvious result (even if it also served the national political ambitions of the Virginia governor).

Frederick Douglass, who of course knew the horrors of the slave labor system first hand, lauded Brown’s ideology, if not his strategy. Douglass and Brown had known each other since 1847 and while they did not see eye to eye on many things, they were allies. While Douglass disagreed with the attack on the federal arsenal (he fully supported freeing slaves and starting a hideout in Appalachia), he was close enough to Brown that he had to flee after the raid. With an arrest warrant out for him, Douglass crossed into Canada. Douglass’ own assistant, Shields Green, joined in the raid. In fact, Douglass knew about the attack before it happened. Brown had directly recruited him, saying “I want you for a special purpose. When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.”

On the other hand, William Lloyd Garrison was outraged by the use of violence, calling it “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” It took until the South seceded and ending slavery seemed possible before northern whites began embracing Brown as a harbinger of free labor. During the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” became an anthem for the Union army and abolitionists who could not countenance violence in 1859 felt like they were honoring their fallen martyr by using the violent ends Brown died for to end slave labor.

For early African-American scholars of slavery like W.E.B. DuBois, Brown was nothing short of a hero for doing so much to free their people. Here is DuBois from his 1909 biography of Brown:

“Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth to-day? John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor, poor, unfortunate or oppressed. This natural sympathy was strengthened by a saturation in Hebrew religion which stressed the personal responsibility of every human soul to a just God. To this religion of equality and sympathy with misfortune, was added the strong influence of the social doctrines of the French Revolution with its emphasis on freedom and power in political life. And on all this was built John Brown’s own inchoate but growing belief in a more just and a more equal distribution of property. From this he concluded, — and acted on that conclusion — that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”

For the words of John Brown and other primary sources on his life and attack on Harpers Ferry, see Jonathan Earle, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents. Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, is an excellent history of the events, with special attention paid to the issues I highlight here. I borrowed from both books to write this post.

This is the 79th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

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