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Tag: "labor"

This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1973

[ 26 ] December 28, 2015 |

Does space have a labor history? The answer is yes. On December 28, 1973, the crew of Skylab went on a one-day strike to protest their working conditions and the pressure NASA placed on them to catch up on their experiments after one of them had gotten sick. This event might not have any enormous implications for the history of the American labor movement, but is a moment indicative of the broader worker protests of the 1970s that had the potential to reinvigorate the American labor movement.

NASA launched Skylab in 1973 to great fanfare but it had a lot of problems from the start, with the spaceship damaged upon takeoff, requiring two missions just to make it habitable. It was not intended for long-term usage, so the third mission was extremely important as it was the last one scheduled before Skylab was ended as a experimental station. Because so much time had been lost in the first two missions, all the scientists involved wanted to make sure their personal experiments were conducted by the third crew. So NASA planned for an 84-day mission that would include 16-hour days every single day. Among that work would include four spacewalks to inspect the conditions of the spaceship, four days of observing the Comet Kohoutek as it passed near the sun, conducting medical experiments, and 80 different projects to photograph specific places on the Earth.

That third crew consisted of three astronauts: Mission Commander Gerry Carr, Science Pilot Ed Gibson and Pilot William Pogue. None of these three men had been in space before. They knew they would need some time to get used to the conditions on Skylab. Even before the mission, Carr had suggested they would take some time to adjust. But there was no time in the schedule for adjustment. And almost immediately problems developed. Pogue got sick. The astronauts saw no reason to report this to Mission Control. It was pretty common after all for astronauts. But then they found out that Mission Control was listening in to their private conversations and knew about it anyway. This infuriated the astronauts. Moreover, NASA began sending extremely specific instructions about minute-by-minute tasks for the astronauts to accomplish. Remember, these men were professionals at a very highly specialized job working in extreme conditions. These were astronauts after all. You can imagine how this kind of micromanagement would infuriate them. They tried to keep up for two weeks but found themselves falling behind, as there was no room in the schedule for the natural delays that happen at work. Moreover, they were exhausted with these 16-hour days. When they fell behind, NASA began demanding less sleep and working through their meal breaks. So the astronauts began to complain to Mission Control. But NASA’s response was that they were whining. Carr told NASA, “We would never work 16-hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground, and we should not be expected to do it here in space.”

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NASA’s treatment of the astronauts began gaining attention of other astronauts. The commander of the previous Skylab mission told NASA to give the workers a break, saying the work schedule was impossible and far more difficult than his mission. But NASA ignored him too. Carr and his crew demanded a day off. NASA refused. So Carr simply shut off the radio and the astronauts took the day off they wanted. Effectively, they went on a 1-day strike against their working conditions. They relaxed, took pictures of the Earth, and just hung out. NASA went ballistic. But there was nothing they could do at the time. After all, the only people who really controlled what happened at Skylab was the astronauts themselves.

After the 1-day strike, NASA finally came to terms with the astronauts. The next day, December 29, NASA agreed to quit micromanaging the astronauts, allowed them to take their full meal breaks, and just send them a list of tasks for the day and let them figure out how to get it done. You know, treat them like adults. And it worked. All the projects got done before the mission ended. The last 6 weeks went without a hitch.

NASA did not forgive the astronauts for their rebellion. None of the three ever went into space again.

So what? Why does this tiny labor action matter, other than being a curiosity because of the unique conditions of work and location? I think it’s a nice window into the 1970s. This was a decade where workers around the country were making new demands of their employers and of their unions. This was the great period of internal union rebellions. It was the period of Miners for Democracy overthrowing the corrupt, murderous regime of Tony Boyle of the United Mine Workers. It was a year after Lordstown, when an interracial group of young workers at a GM plant in Youngstown went on strike against the company and the United Auto Workers international they felt was not really representing their interests and were too close to the company. It was the era of the massive explosion of public sector unionism, including the militant, democratic unionism of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which overthrew its own leadership to elect a new slate that would more directly challenge the government and endorsed Ronald Reagan because it hated Jimmy Carter so much. It was the era of OSHA and environmentalism and attempts to create safer workplaces and forge alliances between unions and greens.

It was also an era that failed to achieve lasting reforms. I think this is for three reasons. First, the union rebellion movements were not particularly competent at managing the unions they overtook, leading to disappointment and disillusionment such as with Miners for Democracy and very poor political decisions that did not correctly read the union’s interests as with PATCO. Second, capital mobility totally undercut this labor militancy. It’s hard to make new demands of employers when those employers are just going to move the jobs to Mexico, as was happening throughout the 1970s. Third, the rise of conservatism and the growth of the powerful corporate lobby with the open intent of crushing the American labor movement overwhelmed these unions at the same time that capital mobility undermined their base.

But the 1970s is arguably the most fascinating decade in the history of the labor movement one with great relevance for the present as we are forced to rethink labor activism in the aftermath of conservatism’s near complete victory over organized labor. So maybe small events like a 1-day strike of astronauts against overbearing management is something that can inspire us in some way.

This is the 166th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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The Slave Labor Loophole

[ 23 ] December 27, 2015 |

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The loophole allowing slave labor-made products into U.S. markets has to be closed:

Sadly, 150 years hasn’t proved to be enough time to eliminate the scourge of human trafficking. Slavery is now illegal in every nation, yet behind the scenes human traffickers are thriving, pulling in massive profits totaling $150 billion per year. For the sake of the more than 20 million victims of trafficking worldwide, we must make sure that slavery is not only illegal, but eliminated. Traffickers should be behind bars, not lining their pockets through exploitation.

As part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005, the Department of Labor (DOL) submitted its annual report disclosing products the DOL believes are produced by child or forced labor. The List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor offers an extensive accounting of what illicitly produced goods may make their way into American stores or American business supply chains. While it’s illegal to import goods produced with forced labor, as NBC News recently reported, a loophole has allowed them to slip through for over 80 years

It’s called the “consumptive demand” clause, introduced as part of the Tariff Act of 1930, which forbids importing products made through forced labor. The loophole allows U.S. companies to import goods made with forced labor when similar goods made in the United States can’t satisfy consumer demand. Over the years, courts interpreted this broadly, leading to more goods created through forced labor crossing into our domestic markets.

So which slave-made goods are in your local department stores?

According to the DOL’s list of goods produced through child and forced labor, products including cotton, garments, palm oil, cocoa, coffee, and electronics are the most ubiquitous. U.S. consumers would be hard-pressed to identify anything they have purchased in the past year that hasn’t included at least one of those components.

Closing the consumptive demand clause loophole has been a major goal of labor progressives in Washington like Tom Harkin for years now, but these loopholes openly benefit American corporations, especially in the age of supply chains, so nothing happens. This really should be the kind of concrete goal all progressives can get behind. I have no illusions of a repeal of this clause getting through a Republican Congress. After all, many of them would like to introduce child labor back into the United States today. But this specific goal should be part of the Democratic platform and really just a common-sense litmus test for any politician who wants progressive and union support.

A Look Into the Future American Economy

[ 103 ] December 27, 2015 |

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Jed Kolko provides an interesting analysis of where the American job market is headed. Couple of points:

1) It’s hardly surprising that health care is the fastest growing overall work sector, although it’s also notable that the single biggest category of job growth is wind turbine technician, which I hope turns out to be true.

2) It’s equally unsurprising that the fastest declining job categories all revolve around the old industrial economy, with both production and movement of goods in collapse. I didn’t even know the U.S. still had sewing machine operators as a job except for often illegal sweatshops in California, but whatever is left of that sector is still declining.

3) The growth fields all require higher education but the economy leaves absolutely no future for those who simply aren’t suited for higher education. This is something that virtually no one involved in education or employment policy wants to deal with or even admit. Yet anyone with working class relatives knows that some are simply not suited for higher education under any circumstances for a variety of reasons. This has to be taken seriously for social stability.

4) The workforce is getting old because people don’t have the money to retire. This is a big problem going forward because it also means more workers in the market, driving down wages and opening fewer jobs for younger workers. I doubt I will be any different as I age.

Faculty Organizing at the University of Washington

[ 39 ] December 27, 2015 |

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Faculty at the University of Washington are considering unionizing, the only sensible move for faculty around the nation. Unsurprisingly, the Seattle Times is opposed to it. Unfortunately, from what I understand from a couple of sources, these arguments against unionization, especially that UW promotes its administration from within and thus we are all on the same team, are likely to win out. That’s a bad argument because it’s not like the faculty in the humanities and social sciences and arts are treated any better at UW today than anywhere else. But of course that’s where the core of union support always is in the university, whether the graduate students or the faculty. Assuming business will always be opposed, it’s often up to the sciences and some of the other professional schools like nursing to decide in the end. The two professors making these arguments are leading UW professors in the sciences. So I don’t know. I’m hardly surprised that department chairs and others who simply don’t see themselves as workers or see themselves as needing protection from university administrations or see any need for solidarity with either humanities professors or contingent faculty would oppose unionization.

But the problem with these arguments is that there is literally zero downside for faculty to unionize. You have workplace protections you didn’t have before. You have a committee to negotiate a contract rather than relying on the administration and the state alone. You have a grievance procedure. You have a way forward for dealing with workplace safety issues–which is an underrated problem on university campuses in the older buildings. You have real lobbying at the state legislature level. All of this for the price of union dues, which aren’t that high. The claim made in the article that unionization would stop UW from recruiting the finest faculty in the nation is flat out laughable. There’s no reason that a union can’t work with administration on issues that are common to both faculty and administration. That relationship doesn’t have to be constantly confrontational if the administration doesn’t try to rule without faculty input. But faculty who have not been at unionized campuses really have a hard time seeing these benefits because they don’t come from workplaces with a culture of thinking of themselves as workers, as opposed to awesome researchers are totally where they are because of their own awesomeness (as opposed to their social class, educational opportunities beginning at the K-12 level, and pure luck on the job market that probably explain more than their special brilliance or whatnot). So let’s hope the University of Washington faculty vote in this campaign, but it doesn’t sound too promising right now.

Solidarity Unionism and Two-Tiered Contracts

[ 13 ] December 26, 2015 |

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This story on the solidarity shown by Kohler’s workers in their recent strike in which 94% of the workers voted yes for striking shows how counterproductive two-tiered contracts are for corporations. The story of the two-tiered contracts is fairly well known, where companies force unions to accept a lower-paid tier for new workers without any way for them to rise to the wages made by the coworkers. Most notoriously, the auto companies forced the United Auto Workers into this during the recession. It has really infuriated workers for years now, with older workers not just looking out for their own interests, but rather voting to strike to help the newer workers achieve living wages. It’s really hard to eliminate these tiers entirely, but at least Kohler’s workers forced the company to significantly raise the lower tier. One wonders if it isn’t just worth it for the companies to eliminate these tiers entirely.

This Day in Labor History: December 22, 1988

[ 13 ] December 22, 2015 |

On December 22, 1988, the Brazilian rubber worker, union leader, and environmental activist Chico Mendes was murdered by a rancher named Darcy Alves who wished to clear the Amazon rainforest where Mendes and his fellow rubber tappers worked, lived, and tried to preserve from exploitation and destruction. His assassination showed both the power Brazilian developmentalists have over those who try to conserve forests but also the connections between labor and environmental movements that exist around the world.

Rubber is a South American native crop, but it cannot grow in plantations there due to disease called South American leaf blight that wipes it out when it is too concentrated. Despite attempts by Henry Ford and other to develop plantation agriculture in the Amazon rainforest, it failed and the world’s key rubber production moved to southeast Asia where rubber could grow without its natural predators. With the exception of Ford’s failure, this was basically fine by the U.S. and industrial users of rubber like tire companies until World War II, when Japan overran most of the world’s rubber supplies. This led to a renewed effort to spur production in nations like Brazil, as well as investments in synthetic rubber that eventually did much more to solve the Americans’ rubber needs. But the Brazilian rubber tappers maintained a reasonable market share for natural rubber, which they could only continue with a relatively undisturbed forest. Families began to create traditions of multiple generation rubber tappers. One of them was Chico Mendes. Born in 1944, he followed his father into the forests to work the rubber trees from the age of 9, in 1953. He couldn’t read until he was 18 as the rubber plantation owners did not want schools or an educated workforce. But Mendes eventually received a rudimentary education and became a fighter for his fellow rubber workers.

But the Amazon became desirable for people far more powerful than poor rubber tappers. Cattle ranchers saw this forest as waste that could be cut down and turned into pasture for the vast South American (and to some extent North American) beef market. The dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in 1964 encouraged this investment as a way to bring more money into the nation’s coffers, reward supporters, and pull a region far away from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo into the nation’s orbit. This investment began in earnest in the 1970s. The dictatorship ended in 1985, but the ranchers sought to use extralegal violence to defend their investments, creating the ironically named Rural Democratic Union to fight against any land reform and to use violence against both worker and environmental activists.

These cattle ranchers and the violence inherent to them was disastrous to Mendes, his fellow rubber tappers, and the forest in which they worked and lived. So he and his rubber tappers’ union, founded in 1975 with Wilson Pinheiro as president and Mendes as secretary, sought to defend the forest and their own livelihood from these ranchers. In this case, the work environment and forest environment were one and the same, with the rubber tappers and rubber trees needing an non-industrial forest to survive. Mendes began organizing his fellow rubber tappers to fight for their future. Using nonviolent tactics, the tappers and their families created human barricades to machines trying to log the forest. He called for large forest reserves, not fully preserved, but there for traditional harvesting techniques for workers, including rubber tappers and nut gatherers. In 1985, with the Brazilian dictatorship finally over, Mendes founded a new union, the National Council for Rubber Tappers, that was a leftist union dedicated not to the modernist ideas of development that led to so many terrible environmental policies from communist governments, but to a politics of both ecological and labor stability. At the National Council’s first meeting, rubber tappers from around Brazil’s forests arrived and came to common agreement about their major problems, including deforestation for cattle and the roads that cut through the forest to make that happen.

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This got the attention not so much of North American labor activists but of environmentalists, who saw Mendes’ cause as both a way to build alliances in South American to defend the rain forests they probably had not seen but loved in an abstract way and a way to push back against the commonly held belief by the 1980s that greens did not care about the plight of workers. In 1987, Mendes won the UN’s Global 500 Award for his work protecting the forest. He said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

Mendes’ activism in defense of his tappers and his forest was seen as a threat by the ranchers, who believed themselves above the law in a wild area far away from the big cities and administrative bureaucracies of the nation’s highly populated south. Darcy Alves and his father Darly were big ranchers in the forest. Mendes specifically targeted their ranch expansion plans as a major threat to the forest and to tappers’ livelihood because they had purchased land that was supposedly in a forest reserve near where Mendes’ own relatives worked as tappers. As was common for these ranchers, when local residents protests, Alves used intimidation tactics and violence to drive them away. Mendes also personally delivered an arrest warrant to the police in another state where Alves had killed someone in order to expand his holdings, but the police did nothing. When the tappers’ union continued resisting, it led the Alves family to decide to simply murder Mendes, despite his increased international fame. After Darcy killed Mendes while the two policemen supposed protecting him were busy playing dominoes, enough international outrage took place that both Alves men were arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Yet the killings of environmental and labor activists continues in the Amazon, including to the American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005. And while deforestation rates did decline after Mendes’ death in 1988, the recent governments of Lula and Dilma in Brazil, while on the left, have significantly rolled back forest protection and deforestation rates have again risen.

Mendes has become something of an iconic figure in Brazil and there were celebrations and remembrances of him on the 25th anniversary of his death. But the ranchers and developmentalists hold as much sway today as they did in 1988 and violence on these frontiers is still endemic.

Gomercindo Rodrigues’ Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes is an excellent place to start if you want to read more.

This is the 165th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Gold Standard of Union-Hating Retailers

[ 49 ] December 19, 2015 |

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That’s what Hamilton Nolan called Menard’s, a Midwestern home improvement store chain. It’s CEO, John Menard is an anti-union extremist and is close friends with Scott Walker. For years, it’s had a policy that if you are a Menard’s manager and you allow a union to form at the store, you the manager will lose 60% of your salary, which is essentially firing you. But the company made a mistake in actually placing this in its contracts with managers, creating a major backlash that forced the company to withdraw the offending clause. But that’s not going to change the massive pressure corporate places on managers to ensure that workers have no voice on the job. Just another day in the New Gilded Age.

Uber Unions

[ 48 ] December 16, 2015 |

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Yay for Seattle ruling that Uber and Lyft drivers are not independent contractors and thus have the right to join a union.

Of course Uber and Lyft are as anti-union as any other company in history and so are going to fight this to the bitter end, especially their business model is predicated on exploiting independent contractors’ exemption from labor law.

And let’s also remember the long-term impact of the gig economy, which can create people not accruing any sort of benefits for years on end and leaving them with no safety net.

OUR Walmart, RIP

[ 21 ] December 15, 2015 |

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Peter Olney’s post-mortem for the OUR Walmart campaign seems more or less right on to me. In short, it simply never had any real support inside the stores that could resist the corporation’s blunt anti-union tactics, including firing workers and did not reflect a clear ability from United Food and Commercial Workers to organize so many other stores in the United States that have fewer resources to fight and could build to a broader Walmart organizing campaign. A couple of choice excerpts:

While the few workers would return to work successfully after this strike and others, the campaign was unable to defend them months later when the company canned them for other alleged violations. These minority actions were often glorified as an example of the “militant minority” strategy employed by the fledgling UAW against the giant auto manufacturers in the 1930s. While it is true that much of the successful organizing of the auto industry was done by a militant minority, it was a militant minority of thousands of strategic workers positioned to inflict real damage on the production chain—not a handful of symbolic “strikers.”

OUR Walmart was a public relations irritant to the company, but it never was a strategic challenge to Walmart’s power or its business model. Perhaps the campaign contributed to recent increases in minimum wages; perhaps it contributed to the growing national conversation about increased inequality; perhaps Walmart’s recent increase in its starting hourly wage to $10 was result of this campaign (though it may also have been the result of tightening labor markets because other employers have raised their wages as well).

But none of these is “organizing,” and none builds a powerful union.

Secondly, the OUR Walmart campaign never really organized around the company’s strategic weak points. OUR Walmart organized brief mini-strikes mostly among Walmart retail workers, but the company’s real strength as a company is its logistics model. Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson write about Walmart’s business model in their essay “Hoisted By Its Own Petard” in New Labor Forum:

Giant retailers like Walmart are no longer simply the outlets for the goods produced by other companies. Rather, they exercise increasing control over suppliers, shaping every aspect of their production and distribution, including their pricing and labor practices. Although their stores and sales are the most visible aspect of the company to the public, there is a whole underbelly of procurement and logistics that rarely receives the same notice.

If we really seek to build power among Walmart workers, it will require the organization of their supply chain.

Organization of retail workers at stores is not sustainable without the company’s proprietary distribution centers (DCs). The Warehouse Workers United effort in Southern California (which was folded in late 2012) evolved into organizing Walmart third party logistics (3PL) providers. These are independent companies that giant big box retailers hire to handle a piece of their supply chain management. Walmart relies on 3PLs for gross cargo moves, but the order fulfillment for particular stores is done in over 200 Walmart-owned million square foot DCs, often located in semi-rural areas. These warehouses do not primarily use temps and Walmart directly hires its own truck drivers for the transport of goods from the warehouses to the stores. These workers are better compensated than 3PL contracted temps, and they have benefits. Walmart knows where the strategic workers are in their operation and they take care of them to try to mollify discontent. This is where power lies in the Walmart model.

Many regional and ethnic markets remain non-union. UFCW Local 770 and 324 in Los Angeles are engaged in a multi-year campaign to organize El Super grocery stores. This is a regional chain in the Southwest with 56 stores catering to the Latino market and owned by the Chedraiu Group, the third largest retailer in Mexico. This battle has gone on for three years and could benefit from the national focus and attention that Walmart got.

If we can’t win El Super, how do we win Walmart? Why not build up your organizing muscle and build up the passion and commitment of the members who see the strength of their union and can be apostles to Walmart workers?

Yes to all three of these points. Obviously Walmart plays the role of gigantic evil corporation to target in the same way as McDonald’s and you can see why targeting it is appealing. It will get a lot of publicity, a lot of people already have a negative view of the corporation (at least compared to other corporations), and a victory would be a spark for larger reinvigoration of the labor movement. The problems Onley discusses however are too much to overcome and that’s why it’s hard to blame UFCW for pulling the funding. I know everyone wants labor to be a social movement but after awhile, you have to ask how was this is a good use of members’ dues. It just wasn’t. Going after the supply chain, building density among Walmart’s competitors, and focusing campaigns on stores with real in-store militancy among workers is simply more likely to be more successful. May not be very sexy but might lead to a lot more real victories for American workers in the end. Including maybe at Walmart.

What Should Labor Do?

[ 16 ] December 13, 2015 |

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Rather mixed on this In These Times article on how unions should deal with the post-Friedrichs world. Yes, Friedrichs is an assassination attempt on unions in the United States. Yes, some workers will sign up for an organization that can’t directly bargain for them but will be a social movement for all workers. And these are good ideas, at least in the pie in the sky way of thinking about the future:

Opening up the labor movement and pursuing new rights for all workers would help get labor out of the box of thinking mostly about unionized workplaces and appearing to be a special interest. Unions’ recent embrace of ambitious efforts to raise state-level minimum wages to $15 has so far been at the heart of these efforts. Upwards of 24 million working people would receive a raise if the pathetic federal floor of $7.25 an hour was raised to just $10, so the Fight for $15 has a huge built in constituency beyond just fast food workers.

Unions should add to this a state-by-state effort to change the legal standard of employment relations to “just cause.” “Just cause” is the principle that an employee cannot be fired unless it’s for a good reason—basically, that the punishment (losing your livelihood) should fit the crime (stealing, lying, just not being good enough at the job). This often means that an employee has been given some advance notice of her supposed shortcomings and an opportunity to improve and/or be presented with the documentary evidence to back up the employer’s claims of sub-standard performance with an opportunity to contest it.

This is very commonly negotiated into union contracts. Non-union workers generally labor under an “at-will” standard of employment, a holdover from English common law that basically tells a worker, “Congratulations, you are not a slave. That means you are free to quit your job—and your boss is free to fire you.” It’s a kind of liberty, I guess, but not one that’s particularly appealing.

The only job protection that at-will employees currently have is to try to shoehorn their case into one of a handful of legally “protected categories” of workers: be a woman, be a racial minority, be over the age of 42, be disabled, be a whistleblower. And even if a case does fit in one of those categories, a worker can only receive some financial recompense—generally not retaining her job—if she can prove that she was fired because of their protected status. It’s a lousy framework, but the best that an at-will employee has.

Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit advocate for union activists to be added as a protected class through an amendment to civil rights laws. They do us a favor by getting unions to think outside of the National Labor Relations Act for labor law reform. But their proposal is still too limited. We should not merely be fighting for “special” rights for union activists. As union density has declined, the remaining unionized workplaces come to be seen as islands of relative privilege. Bosses and the media exploit this and try to whip up a degree of working-class support for stripping our last few rights away, seen most clearly seen in the public debate around teacher tenure protections (which is simply the just cause standard by a different name).

Imagine how quickly the debate would change if unions fought for and won meaningful job protections for all workers in a state! Call it a “right to your job” law. Such a law would lay bare just how cynically manipulative and hollow the so-called “Right to Work” laws are.

To be meaningful, such just cause laws would have to include some kind of a court in which to hear cases. This could be as simple as mandating private mediation and arbitration or as complex as creating new state regulatory agencies to hear such cases. If workers did have a court in which they could defend their employment, unions would have something real to offer at-large members as a part of joining the union. And with that offer comes the potential for substantial membership growth.

That’s fine, I think of ways to craft legislation for international labor standards that has no chance of passing tomorrow. But I think asking unions to be the leaders here is a step too far. They can and should be a leader in coalitions fighting for this. But unions with dues-paying members also have to represent those members’ interests in grievances and at the bargaining table and with legislators. And I feel like these fundamental jobs of unions are often dismissed by union activists who want to see unions be social movements. The problem is that someone has to fund that social movement and that’s the dues-paying members. And those members are going to have other interests as well. Yes, if labor can sign up a million workers for this social organization type movement than, sure. But let’s not ignore the very good reasons why unions protect their membership while also calling for new ideas on how unions can move forward.

This Day in Labor History: December 10, 1789

[ 25 ] December 10, 2015 |

On December 10, 1789, Moses Brown, a Rhode Island businessman, hired Samuel Slater to build an English-style factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This began the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Samuel Slater was a farmer’s son in England who started working in an early cotton mill in 1778 at the age of 10. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there was room for fast learners to rise rapidly. Slater became close to the mill’s owner, who trained him in its various workings. As the British developed this mill technology, it sought to protect its advantages by banning the transporting of this knowledge outside of its borders. But Slater had a great memory. Once he knew how the mill ran, he decided to go to the United States to make his fortune in that new nation.

Moses Brown was a Rhode Island businessman who decided to start a spinning factory in Pawtucket along with other members of his family. They wanted to use the Arkwright system developed in England but could not figure out how to operate the technology. Hearing of this, Samuel Slater, who had just arrived in New York looking for an opportunity to build his own mill, offered his services. The contract between Slater and Brown combined the former’s technological skills with the latter’s money. It made both of them very wealthy.

Slater began constructing his new factory in early 1790. By December, it was partially operational, with about 10 employees. In 1793, the factory opened in full. Slater then used his own education to train the new mechanics in how to operate these industrial machines. Slater relied very heavily on child labor, again borrowing from his own personal life. Given the close-knit New England family economy, this was not a particularly difficult transition to make. Slater soon split from his original partners, opening mills around southern New England.

This, along with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, transformed the New England and broader American economy. The cotton gin drastically reduced the labor necessary in the cotton mills, allowing for more spinning and thus higher production rates. The British still held the majority of the world’s spinning production during these years but the growth of American industry was spurred by the tensions with the British during the Early Republic, including Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and 1808 and the War of 1812, lasting until early 1815. By 1815, there were 140 mills within 30 miles of Providence, employing 26,000 people.

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The growth of this industry made Americans nervous, for they feared the Dickensian industrial cities of Britain. Slater built his own company town, Slatersville, that attempted to create a ruralesque village around a factory. It included a company store and tenement housing for workers. These concerns also led to experimental towns like Lowell which would allow American industry to grow while retaining its fundamentally rural values. But growing competition undermined Lowell, creating some of the first strikes in the United States and eventually leading to the importation of largely Irish labor to replace the native-born women in those factories. The awful conditions of British cities would indeed be replicated in the United States, with social problems and unrest that would mark American industry through the New Deal unionization of the industrial workforce.

The rise of factory work would transform American labor. While this could not be predicted in 1789 or 1793, a process had begun that would bring Americans in from the fields to the factories, from the farms to the cities, and from relative control over their own labor to an increasingly centralized and deskilling work under control of managers. For decades after Slater’s Mill opened, Americans primarily believed that in the principle of controlling their own labor, whether in urban shops or on farms, with large-scale factory labor something of an afterthought or something that could be done by the Irish. But in fact, it, and the profits it engendered in the hands of the very, very few, would come to define American work and create the proletariatization of the working class. It would lead to rapid advances in transportation technology, including the canals of the 1820s and the beginning of the railroads by the late 1830s. And it would create a new legal regime that would allow an ideal of “progress” to run roughshod over the rights of workers or property owners, as the mill owners demanded the right to dam rivers in order to power the mills, even if it caused erosion to farms upstream or ended shad runs that interior communities relied on for both food and trade. The also demanded the right to not take responsibility for workers’ getting hurt on the job, which Massachusetts would encode in law in 1842 and would continue largely unchallenged by the American legal system until the early 20th century.

Samuel Slater died a millionaire in 1835, in an age when there were very few.

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Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket and the company town of Slatersville are part of the new Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park and should help to tell the story of American labor within the National Park Service more effectively once the sites are fully transformed into NPS locations. Already, Slater’s Mill is well worth a visit.

This is the 164th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Job Retraining

[ 46 ] December 9, 2015 |

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This is an interesting piece on job retraining program, using Appalachian coal miners as an example. The reality is that job retraining programs are usually disastrous because there aren’t actually decent paying jobs in the places these people live. Yet politicians love them because it makes it sound like government cares about these workers and is preparing them for some good old fashioned bootstraping. But then they finish these programs and where are the jobs? They aren’t in Kentucky or West Virginia. Or Flint or the Oregon timber towns for that matter. But can the government do more to make these programs effective? Possibly:

It would be wrong, however, to write off coal country completely, or to underestimate the abilities of former coal miners. In a fascinating article in Matter, Lauren Smiley highlights an intriguing initiative in Kentucky to offer specialized job re-training to former coal miners in a well-paid, in-demand field that doesn’t necessarily require relocating: coding. Smiley’s piece focuses on BitSource, Kentucky’s first Web development firm that was founded by the former owners of a land-moving company. BitSource is still new, and small—the first trainee class included only 10 former miners (out of 900 applicants)—but if the model can be scaled, miners might just have a shot at landing high-paying jobs without having to move or wait for a new industry to set up shop in Appalachia. Efforts are also underway to expand other tele-working opportunities in the region, although coding generally offers higher wages.

Coal mining, as Smiley notes, involves more than pure physical labor. Miners “calculate daily shock reports, operate complex machinery, and draft plans to get coal out of a mountain”—all tasks that make them better-suited to coding than one might expect. BitSource’s coders underwent an intensive, 22-week training program (during which time they were paid $15 per hour, from federal funds). The start-up pieced together the open-sourced curriculum from websites like Lynda.com. BitSource is hoping to again train a new group of former miners early next year.

Well, maybe? A job retraining program needs to do two things. First, it needs to train workers for existing jobs. Second, it needs to train workers for jobs in the places where they live. You can’t expect mass migrations out of West Virginia to Texas if there are more jobs there. That’s not realistic and many workers simply can’t leave for reasons ranging from family to poverty. So maybe the coding thing makes sense. Despite stereotypes, these aren’t stupid people. They are just regular people. No doubt a lot of them could be retrained for something like coding.

Also, direct subsidies of workers’ income should happen, especially in circumstances where industries have shut down because the government decided environmental protection is more important:

The TAA program includes a feature designed for older workers who chose not to undergo job re-training, but were able to find a lower-paying job: a wage subsidy. “I think it’s an interesting alternative to job training for older workers that may not have the time to reap the benefits of training in a new occupation,” Berk says.

Barnow, the George Washington University economist, points out that such a program might be particularly sensible for coal workers suffering the health effects of decades of coal mining. “A lot of them have lung damage too, so taking a lower-paying job that’s indoors might make a lot of sense,” he says. “The subsidy would help cushion that.”

I would certainly support this, although no doubt those who freak out about “welfare” will call this process of keeping 60 year old men with black lung out of poverty a giveaway we can’t afford. I would say that it’s a question of doing the right thing by people who have given up their lives and their health to heat American homes.

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