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Tag: "labor"

This Day in Labor History: March 14, 1954

[ 17 ] March 14, 2014 |

On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.

On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).

The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.

For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.

Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.

The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.

The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”

On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.

The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.

The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.

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For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.

This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Does AFGE Officially Support the Death Penalty?

[ 88 ] March 13, 2014 |

The American Federation of Government Employees released an interesting press release today:

The American Federation of Government Employees today expressed its profound disappointment regarding a plea deal that will allow one of two inmates charged with killing a correctional officer in 2008 to escape the death penalty.

The case involves Jose Rivera, a 22-year-old correctional officer and Navy veteran, who was stabbed to death while working at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California. Two inmates were charged in the murder: James Ninete Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan.

Leon Guerrero agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, under a plea bargain approved by Attorney General Eric Holder and made public by the Justice Department on March 7. Sablan will be tried and could face the death sentence if convicted.

“Jose Rivera was simply doing his job as a civil service employee when his life came to a violent and tragic end. On behalf of Jose and all the other federal employees who have lost their lives in the line of service, we must ensure that justice is done,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.

“Regardless of who did the stabbing, both men are responsible for taking Jose’s life and both should be prosecuted,” CPL Western Regional Vice President Michael Meserve said. “That’s not going to happen now, and it’s a bitter pill for the family to swallow.”

Meserve added, “Leon Guerrero pleading guilty in exchange for a life sentence he was already serving is meaningless and an insult to Jose’s memory. Jose didn’t get the choice between life and death, and neither should his killers.”

Donald Martin, president of AFGE Local 1242 at Atwater, echoed Meserve’s sentiments.

“I believe that both men deserve the ultimate punishment our society can administer, and that is death. Granting a reprieve to one of Jose’s killers is an injustice to Jose and his family, and it lets down all law enforcement officers who place their lives in harm’s way every day to protect the innocent,” Martin said. “God bless Jose’s family, and may we never forget the sacrifice of their beloved son and our beloved brother.”

The AFGE is not a correctional workers union or a police union. It is a government employee union with 650,000 members in many different fields. It does represent many correctional officers at federal prisons. It also represents environmental workers, mine inspectors, nurses, office workers, and many other government workers. So is supporting the death penalty the official policy of the American Federation of Government Employees? Does its membership know it has taken this position? Has the membership had a discussion over this issue? The union certainly doesn’t list supporting the death penalty as a key issue on its website.

What’s really going on here (I think) is that the prison locals are pushing the leadership to make a statement here, but it really feels inappropriate. It’d be one thing for the union to call for the prosecution of this person for killing a member. But to make a statement because one of the people on trial didn’t get the sentence you wanted and therefore demand the most controversial sentence in American jurisprudence, well, I’m not sure AFGE is really representing its members as a whole by making this call.

I know that if I was an AFGE member, I’d be asking some questions of my leadership.

Meatpacking, Immigration, and Capital Mobility

[ 175 ] March 12, 2014 |

In comments last night, dollared said this about the decline of unionized meatpacking:

Allowing free immigration and mass union busting by illegal aliens. Never, ever, ever should have happened. 800,000-1M union jobs lost in meatpacking. Bill Clinton.

Now I don’t want to pick on dollared except for his demonizing of migrant labor through describing human beings as “illegal aliens,” which he has an unfortunate tendency to do and then claim those who call him out on it “don’t give a shit” about the American working class. Rather I want to use this comment as a way to understand how corporations use capital mobility as a way to bust unions while concealing the real reasons for job loss behind blaming immigrants (or environmentalists or many other scapegoats). I talk about meatpacking for a couple of pages in my forthcoming capital mobility book. Let’s look real fast at why those union jobs were lost in meatpacking and who is to blame. I’m basing a lot of this off Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, which you should read.

Most readers here probably have some sense of the early history of American meatpacking, thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair wrote his novel to expose the terrible lives of workers and convert readers to socialism. But Americans mostly ignored those messages. Workers stood on floors soaked in blood and water in very cold temperatures, with flying hooks and knives risking their limbs and lives every second. They began forming unions in the 1890s to improve their lives but it was not until the creation of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1937 that they achieved major gains in pay and working conditions. Organized labor increasingly played a big role throughout the nation’s food economy in the 1930s. UPWA members cut beef in Chicago. Milkmen delivering glass jars of fresh milk to your doorstep were Teamsters. The conditions that led Sinclair to write his novel faded. The UPWA was one of the nation’s most progressive unions. It worked for racial and gender equality and had a strong tradition of internal union democracy. By the 1960s, unionized meat cutters made twenty-eight percent more money than average workers made for nondurable manufacturing.

While meatpackers came to terms with the UPWA, for trucking companies, grocery store chains, and the Republican Party however, unionization and good wages were a bad outcome. Here starts the recent history of capital mobility in food production. A 1955 union contract won by the meatpacker unions put a collective $50 million dollars in workers pockets. This frustrated Eisenhower Administration officials who faced heat over high beef prices. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and his undersecretary Earl Butz, who later created the modern farm subsidy system, wanted to raise farm profits without raising consumer costs. The answer was to undermine unions and squeeze wages through moving meat production out of the cities and into nonunion plants in the countryside, near where the cows and pigs were farmed.

New upstart meatpackers, with the support of trucking and grocery chains who profited from cheaper meat, introduced refrigerated trucks that allowed meat processing in union-free rural areas. This undermined the big Chicago packinghouses and their unions. The new rural corporations had ruthless anti-union mentalities. Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) became a leading meatpacker in the 1960s. Today part of Tyson Foods, IBP rapidly consolidated the rural meatpacking operations in the Midwest, built enormous feedlot operations on the Great Plains, and created nonunion workplaces with low wages. In 1969, IBP workers in Dakota City, Iowa went on strike. IBP hired scabs to replace them. Violence broke out on both sides and one person was killed. When union butchers in New York City refused to sell IBP beef, the company made a deal with the mafia to break the boycott, undermining the strike. Wages were soon fifty percent lower than in the Chicago plants. The big meatpackers could not compete, closed their unionized slaughterhouses, laid off 12,000 workers, and moved to the Plains as well. Further IBP hardline anti-union strategies led to the rapid weakening of what was now the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The new geography of meatpacking, with its decentralized production, low wages, and poor working conditions meant that farmers earned more money and consumers maintained low beef prices. Workers were caught in the middle, people never seen by meat consumers. Nonunion factories demanded vastly increased production from workers. Fatigue, repetitive motion injuries, serious accidents on the job, and high turnover followed. One IBP manager considered an average annual turnover rate of 96% at a plant “low,” showing how little the corporation cared to provide labor dignified enough work to keep them on the job.

Companies might not have wanted unions, but many in the new rural workforce did. The UFCW had major successes organizing southern poultry factories during the 1980s. Poultry truck drivers joined the Teamsters in North Carolina. The largely African-American workforce in these plants took major personal risks to improve the low wages and unsafe working conditions. Companies responded by closing unionized factories and opening new non-union plants nearby, threatening new hires into signing union decertification petitions, and declaring bankruptcy and then reopening the plants without union contracts. They also began replacing African-American workers with immigrants from Mexico and Central America, often undocumented. Beef plants in Iowa and Nebraska did the same thing after workers went on strike in the 1980s. An Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation led to 1991 accusations that Tyson Chicken paid smugglers to bring employees up to their plants from Mexico and Guatemala. Most unionized plants faded in the face of this determined effort.

In other words, Republicans, trucking companies, and anti-union rural business interests teamed up to reshape the beef industry for each group’s political gains. That forced Hormel and other big meatpackers to do the same to compete. Each were more than willing to sacrifice the American working class to make this happen. Capital mobility was the tool to see this project through. Yes, if the borders are closed to migrant labor, the new anti-union meatpackers have a harder time treating labor poorly, but they were determined to find a way to do this anyway. In any case, undocumented migrants are hardly to blame for the situation. Yet dollared, like so many people, first points to the workers forced to take jobs in this new system as the problem, not the underlying causes of why these factories moved. IBP, Tyson, and other meat companies covered up their own culpability through creating the same kind of scapegoating of migrant labor that has separated the American working class since the arrival of the Irish in the early 19th century.

And let’s note, if a president deserves blame for this situation, it isn’t Clinton, as dollared claims. It’s Eisenhower. That isn’t to say that Clinton did enough on this issue, but it’s important to place blame where it most properly belongs.

Overtime Pay by Executive Order

[ 108 ] March 11, 2014 |

Some of our more third party oriented commenters like to say that Obama has done nothing for workers. Well….

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated.

On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime, according to White House officials briefed on the announcement.

Mr. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is likely to be seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

New American Manufacturing and the Crushing of the American Working Class

[ 106 ] March 10, 2014 |

Lydia DePillis has a typically great story on conditions within the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. Nissan now subcontracts a majority of its employees. Those employees make half as much money as Nissan employees doing the same work and do not qualify for benefits. Workers are forced to toil seven days a week during periods of peak production and are so tired they crash their cars on the way home.

What’s really happened here is that decades of capital mobility has undermined American unions to the point of inability to resist these problems. The methods companies use in their factories in the world’s poor nations to maximize profit and minimize liability are imported back to the United States, bringing working conditions in the United States down towards those of Mexico, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Even the talk of unionism brings out the specter of capital mobility as a threat. Says Mike Sparks, who represents Smyrna in the Tennessee legislature, “If UAW gets a foothold, they’ll go to Alabama, they’ll go to Georgia, they’ll go to Mississippi.”

Once again, capital mobility is the single biggest factor in the undermining of the American working class because not only does it lead to jobs disappearing, but what jobs are left (or return) are worse because capital mobility also sabotages the institutions American workers created to fight for equity and a fair slice of the capitalist pie. Without some restriction on capital mobility, becomes nearly impossible for industrial workers to unionize and without those unions, it becomes nearly impossible to enact legislation that would improve the lives of the American working class. It’s a terrible situation and it isn’t getting better.

Truck Production Returning to Ohio

[ 17 ] March 9, 2014 |

While I’m pretty skeptical of UAW president Bob King’s love affair with employee-management cooperation as the keystone of his union’s approach, at least one point in his favor is Ford moving the production of two truck lines from Mexico back to Ohio, supposedly because of the good relationship the company has with the union. Of course, I assume that this good relationship means terrible two-tiered contracts. But still, American manufacturing jobs are all too rare these days, so this is good news for the UAW. It’s also a slap in the face to Bob Corker and Tennessee Republicans, or it would be if they weren’t all about ideology and actually cared about jobs.

Might as well also note the death of William Clay Ford, Henry Ford’s last living grandson and the owner of the Detroit Lions, a man who brought the same quality leadership and innovation to running a professional football team as he and his family did to producing fine automobiles in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Lives of Farmworkers

[ 105 ] March 7, 2014 |

California farmworkers remain nearly as exploited as fifty years ago. Filthy, substandard housing, a lack of water in the fields, pesticide poisoning, and poor sanitation define too much of their lives. These workers, migrant and beneath the radar of the Americans for whom they produce food, live horribly and it is unacceptable:

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions.

Even today, however, surveys and field reports have revealed that a large portion of workers are squeezed into essentially unlivable spaces. Some dilapidated apartments and trailer parks lack plumbing or kitchen facilities, much less any modicum of privacy; others are exposed to toxic pesticide contamination or fetid waste dumps. Workers can “live in a single-family dwelling with perhaps a dozen to 20 [people] crowding in,” Villarejo says. In some residences, “mattresses are lined up against the wall because during the daylight hours you could not be able to walk through the rooms owing to all the mattresses on the floor at that time.” Though many such dwellings house single male laborers, whole families with children are also known to live in crowded multiple-household units.

This is the “market-based” answer to the rickety labor camp of yore: Though workers are now renting from a landlord rather a farm owner, Villarejo says, “their conditions are certainly no better than they were in the kind of labor camps against which we were protesting back in the ‘60s and ‘70s about horrid living conditions.”

Terrible.

This Day in Labor History: March 5, 1972

[ 142 ] March 5, 2014 |

On March 5, 1972, the workers at General Motors’ plant in Lordstown, Ohio went on strike after authorizing it two days prior. They were angry about sped-up work at their factory, but ultimately this was a young and diverse workforce angry at the degrading and mind-numbing nature of industrial work. The 3-week strike received national attention as much for the generational rebellion it summed up as the labor strife itself. Employers and union leaders both feared the “Lordstown Syndrome” that seemed to be taking over American workplaces as young workers wanted more for their lives than a lifetime on the assembly line.

By 1972, the United Auto Workers was in transition after the death of its titanic president Walter Reuther in a 1970 plane crash. The UAW was about as left-leaning as any of the major internationals during the last years of the 60s. Although Reuther’s record on dealing with racism in UAW plants was mixed, he pushed for civil rights and personally opposed both the Vietnam War and the AFL-CIO’s support of it. Finally, in 1968, he pulled the UAW out of the federation, complaining of the Meany doing nothing, refusing to organize, and undermining labor’s future. Reuther planned to take his union on strike against GM in 1970 hoping for a revival of the old-school social movement unionism. He died but the plan continued after his death under the leadership of Leonard Woodcock. However, it wasn’t much of a win and nearly bankrupted the UAW. Despite the social movement talk, the strike operated within the traditional structure of postwar collective bargaining. Moreover, the new contract allowed the company to automate the line, combine two divisions in the plant, and eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, GM and other American car companies were beginning to face competition from low-price, high-mileage Japanese models. In response, GM created the Chevy Vega and chose to manufacture it in its new Lordstown, Ohio factory, just northwest of Youngstown. This new factory was engineered to do most of the work for the workers. Claimed a GM official, “The concept is based on making it easier for the guy on the line. We feel by giving him less to do he will do it better.”

Workers in Local 1172 hated it. By “giving him less to do,” GM really meant speeding up the line and laying workers off. The factory had previously made the Impala at a rate of 60 an hour. The Vega sped off the line at 100 an hour. This gave workers 36 seconds to a complete their task rather than 60. Workers resisted in a number of ways. The worked to rule, refusing to do anything outside of what was specifically stated in the contract. They smoked marijuana and drank on the job. The let cars go by without finishing them. They took days off or quit. They grieved everything. By January 1972, 5000 grievances clogged up the system, workers demanded the rehiring of laid off workers and slowed down production. This was a very young workforce, averaging only 24 years of age. These were young people imbued with the anger and rebellion of their generation. Some had fought in Vietnam. The plant was also highly integrated and with the overwhelming youth culture, the workers at least claimed that racial solidarity was more frequent than racial tension. Local 1172 president Gary Bryner, age 29, said, “The young black and white workers dig each other. There’s an understanding. The guy with the Afro, the guy with the beads, the guy with the goatee, he doesn’t care if he’s black, white, green, or yellow…..They just wanted to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

97% of the Lordstown workers voted to go on strike and it lasted 18 days. UAW leadership was distinctly uncomfortable with local uprisings. They took over the negiotiations and eliminated the empowerment of workers and shopfloor democracy that workers really wanted and brought it back to traditional collective bargaining. Both GM and UAW wanted this to end fast. So GM agreed to restore almost all the jobs eliminated in the 1970 contract and dropped 1400 disciplinary layoffs against current workers. So the workers won on one level, but not on another. Nothing really changed for workers. They still weren’t allowed to question production decisions or workplace culture. They weren’t allowed to play a role in the life of the factory like European auto plant workers, to which they compared their own lack of empowerment. They were still frustrated. Said a union official, “If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?”

UAW cartoon during Lordstown strike

Activists around the country saw what they wanted to in Lordstown. Ralph Nader thought this would do for workers “what the Berkeley situation of 1964 did for student awareness,” while New Left publications believed it was “a trial run of the class struggle of the 70s.” What was happening however was a general dissatisfaction of the American working class with industrial production labor. The mind-numbing pace, the lack of ability to shape one’s own future, this would lead to a number of interesting moments of working-class rebellion throughout the 70s. J.D. Smith, treasurer of the Lordstown UAW local, said “They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They’re not afraid of management. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.” The blue-collar rebellion became a fairly major media and political phenomenon of the period, with newspaper articles, TV reports, Senate hearings, and a presidential commission to study the issue.

The commission issued a report titled “Work in America,” that began the quality of work life movement,” that sought to make industrial labor more satisfactory and less mind-numbing. Perhaps these and other 70s working class rebellions could have led to concrete gains had industry not also engaged in widespread capital mobility, leading to the elimination of nearly all industrial jobs over the next twenty years, destabilizing the American working class, and destroying the cities of the industrial north. Government moves to bust unions certainly has blame too. In the PATCO strike, Reagan came down hard against air traffic controllers who had overthrown their previous union leadership to take a more militant stance.

Over the years, the radicalism of Local 1112 wore down. In the 1980s, workers picked their own union hall against concessions forced upon them by UAW leadership. Today, they talk the same management partnership language as the rest of the union. Surprisingly, the plant is still open and has made the Chevrolet Cruze since 2010.

Much of this was borrowed from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which I strongly recommend.

This is the 97th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915

[ 60 ] March 4, 2014 |

On March 4, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, creating standards for working conditions on boats that the U.S. would enforce on all ships stopping at American ports, whether under American flags or not. It was not only a major early victory for American labor but is strong evidence behind the assertion that Woodrow Wilson is the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.

In the early 20th century, working conditions on ships were dire. Many ships were barely seaworthy. Sanitation on the ships was grotesque. A race to the bottom developed in sailing as manufacturers looked to reduce their transportation costs. In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent. Seamen called for “emancipation” from their shipowners. Penalties against desertion were still draconian. Although flogging had largely ended in the mid 19th century, punishing sailors in stocks and other forms of physical coercion were still common. They wanted the right to walk away from their contracts because of the near slavery of shipboard life. They were presently bound to their 1-3 year contracts with penalty of imprisonment and forfeiture of all wages if they deserted. Effectively, they lacked the ability to quit their jobs.

Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907 when they allied against the prosecution of Union Labor Party leader Abe Ruef for graft. LaFollette began to introduce the bill every Congress in 1910. It gained support after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When Wilson won the presidency that year, he named William B. Wilson, a cosponsor of the bill in the House, as Secretary of Labor.

From left to right, Andrew Furuseth, Robert LaFollette, and Lincoln Steffens

In pushing for the bill, the ISU explicitly connected it to the Titanic and the Triangle Fire of 1911, asking “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and the lock the doors. Is it not even more dangerous to jam a steamer full of passengers and then to send it out to the harbor without having on board the means whereby they may be taken off quickly and safely in case of need?” As with much of labor reform at the time, Furuseth and his supporters did take on a racial and anti-immigrant tone. He bemoaned that sailing was “the domain of those who fought life’s battles and accepted defeat, of the sewage of the Caucasian race and of such of the races of Asia as felt that their condition could be improved by becoming seamen.”

Such statements forced the Industrial Workers of the World, which had quite a few members on the ships, to answer a tricky question of supporting a law that would make their lives better versus the racial internationalism of their ideology. The Wobblies opposed the law in the end, claiming not only was the ISU racist but that Furuseth “very likely has a child-like faith in the state, far exceeding his confidence in the workers whom he is supposed to represent.” Moreover, the IWW actually used the argument that the would hurt their employers by driving American flag-based shipping from the seas, a rather surprisingly pro-business position employed by these anti-capitalists.

Seamen on the S.S. Minnesota, 1919

Wilson’s foreign policy team encouraged him to pocket veto the bill because it might upset the British. But when Furuseth went to lobby Wilson personally, the president’s heart melted in the face of this craggy old seamen telling stories about the horrors of the ships. The new law established the 9-hour day and 56-hour week on ships. It guaranteed minimum standards of safety and cleanliness. It recognized the right of seamen to organize. It allowed them to get out of their contracts with relatively minimal penalty–half their salary earned to that point in the contract. Most importantly, it applied to all sailors–regardless of national origin or citizenship status–if they landed in an American port. The LaFollette Act is thus probably the closest law passed in American history to something that created a “race to the top” in working conditions around the globe. If you were a French sailor and you landed in New York, you could desert and the U.S. government would protect your rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps surprisingly, declared the international enforcement provisions constitutional, at least at first. After a 1918 decision ruled against a seaman who used the act to desert in Mobile while demanding half his wages, Louis Brandeis moved the court to a unanimous decision in a similar 1920 case by explicitly arguing that the point of the law was to enforce nationalist conceptions of labor standards, stating “foreign vessels engaged in the American trade would be compelled to raise wages and working conditions to practically the standard prevailing in our coastwise trade.”

By not only mandating standards on goods entering the United States, but also giving workers an out from their contracts if they were dissatisfied, the Seamen’s Act had the potential to advance the rights of workers significantly. In the end though, the fears of the shipping industry over its effect proved unfounded, largely because the Commerce Department under Wilson and then subsequent Republican presidents consistently sided with employers in enforcement. Commerce ruled that the space provisions for workers only applied to ships built after 1915 for instance. The French redefined sailors under its flags as members of the merchant marine and therefore ineligible for the protections. Finally, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the international enforcement provisions unconstitutional and by this time the law was not widely applied anyway by a federal government interested in promoting global trade. This saddened the law’s supporters. In 1953, the Friends of Andrew Furuseth Legislative Association wrote, “If only the Seamen’s Act had been enforced from 1917 on, it might not have been necessary to have spent 19 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan, because the standard of living of European countries would have advanced more nearly to a parity with our own.”

Nevertheless, it marks perhaps the first time labor successfully used regulatory reform to advance the interest of specific workers and it provides an interesting precedent for those seeking to use the power of government to improve the conditions of workers toiling for American companies (or subcontractors for those companies) in a global marketplace. Can the American government implement standards in a worldwide economy reliant upon transportation methods to get apparel from Bangladesh? Could organized labor target transportation networks as a way to improve international labor standards? I do not believe a secondary strike by the ILWU or Teamsters in support of a labor action in Bangladesh would violate Taft-Hartley since it would not be an American union supported. The LaFollette Act wasn’t necessarily all that successful, but it suggests an almost totally unexplored strategy for international labor solidarity.

It is also worth noting that even taking into account the Red Scare and IWW-crushing that would take place later in the Wilson presidency, Wilson is still the most union-friendly president in American history before FDR.

I am drawing primarily from Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present for this post.

This is the 96th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 3, 1931

[ 13 ] March 3, 2014 |

This post is a special request from Anna in PDX to help her work out some thorny issues she faces in her local. If this series can be of use to your local or organizing needs, drop me a line.

On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the Davis-Bacon Act, establishing a requirement for the government to pay local prevailing wages on public works projects. Even since its passage, it’s been tainted with an accusation of racism, which will be the subject of today’s post, as we try to untangle the complex knot of race and labor in American history.

The law was prompted by Robert Bacon, a congressman from New York who allied with former Secretary of Labor (1921-30) Senator James Davis. A contractor in Bacon’s home district built a new VA hospital. Rather than hire local workers, he brought in low wage African-American laborers from Alabama. Bacon worried about the government undermining local wages and he sought to put a stop to it. It took the Great Depression to make Bacon’s bill a political possibility. Congress rejected it the first 12 times Bacon introduced it, but the desperation of the Depression created a political force that would lead to the construction of America’s labor law regime. One of the first victories in this was Davis-Bacon. The Hoover Administration itself requested that Congress take up the bill once more in order so that it could seem like it was doing something about falling wages. The law only covered government contracts greater than $5000 (amended to $2000 in 1935) and did not force contractors to hire union labor. As federal labor law often does as well, many states created little Davis-Bacons to cover state contracts, helping to raise the standard of living for construction labor.

James Davis and Robert Bacon

From the time of its passage, opponents portrayed Davis-Bacon as a racist law intended to protect white workers from black competition. Race and labor can’t be separated in this country. The racism that has divided this country since the beginning has also divided workers. Labor deserves no more but also no less blame in perpetuating this than other American institutions, including corporations who openly used race and ethnicity to divide workers, paying black workers lower wages and constructing white workers and black workers as competition against each other. Davis-Bacon intended to stop employers from undermining local standards of living, which they often did by taking advantage of the nation’s inherent racism to bring in workers of color. Today, one certainly cannot blame these black workers for taking jobs significantly better than the cotton plantations of the Jim Crow South, but I don’t think it particularly useful to condemn unionized northern workers for protecting their own jobs either, even if those protections by definition took on a racist tone. After all, feeding their families was a completely legitimate priority.

One however can shake their head at how labor used racist rhetoric to justify what could in principle have been a very reasonable bill. AFL president William Green in supporting Davis-Bacon noted in talking about why it was needed in Tennessee, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.” The debate in Congress over the bill also took on the racial overtones of American life in the early 30s. Alabama Rep. Clayton Allgood said in support, “Reference has been made to a contractor from Alabama who went to New York with bootleg labor. This is a fact. That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country. This bill has merit, and with the extensive building program now being entered into, it is very important we enact this measure.” Some wished it could be extended to protect “white” labor from immigrants as well. Fiorello LaGuardia was among those expressing these sentiments, noting “the workmanship of this cheap imported labor was of course very inferior.”

The law’s wording was pretty vague and both unions and employers have fought over its meanings ever since. For the building trades, Davis-Bacon directly benefited them and they fought for its vigorous use. For contractors, “prevailing wage” was totally undefined and frustrating. It never proved easy to determine or enforce when determined. The Department of Labor was tasked to determine just what the prevailing wage was for a region, but the formulas were increasingly complex and had to cover individual job classifications. In 1979, the General Accounting Office issued an appeal to repeal the law, citing four decades of it not working well.

In 1956, Congress extended Davis-Bacon to cover highway construction, the only controversial piece of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Southern senators like Harry Byrd sought to reduce union influence by trying to exclude Davis-Bacon from the bill. In 1964, Davis-Bacon was expanded to add fringe benefits, including medical insurance, pensions, vacations, and sick pay into the calculations. This expansion also increased the reach of the law to include the states and municipalities receiving large federal grants for capital construction projects, ranging from schools to roads.

I think the debate over the origin of the law is a separate question over its value today. There is a whole history of terrible racist laws in this country, not to mention good laws passed with racist intent. Are we going to overturn hunting and fishing regulations because they were enacted to save the nation’s game for rich white people to use and overturned hundreds of years of subsistence food traditions by Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, poor whites, and European immigrants? No. Neither should we eliminate Davis-Bacon. Is the law racist today? That’s the key question. And the answer is no.

The argument is basically concern trolling by businesses when what they really want is to avoid paying workers a living wage. Business hopes that by saying that labor law is racist, they can undermine unionism nationally. While northern African-Americans did often have very good reason to be suspicious of white labor unions in the past, today they are among the most union-friendly groups. Research consistently shows that unions have not hurt African-American employment over the years and that today they join unions to protect themselves from wage inequality (see Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp’s “Organized Labor and Racial Wage Equality in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology, March 2012) The NAACP supports the continuance of the Davis-Bacon Act. That support is a lot more important to me than the law’s overtones in 1931.

Opponents also claim Davis-Bacon openly favors union labor. Call the whaaambulance. It actually doesn’t favor union labor per se. It favors paying people the same wage rates unions have negotiated in areas where they control enough of the labor market to do so. Right-wingers use whiny arguments about taxpayers, noting that Davis-Bacon can increase public construction projects by 20 percent. Of course, usually it is less high than this, but those higher costs go back into the community through returned tax dollars, higher purchasing power, better schools, and happier citizens.

Also, high wages are needed for the building trades. Construction is seasonal labor. Without high wages during the work season, you aren’t going to convince young people to join these professions. You are going to lose skilled labor to build your house, fix your toilet, etc. These people have to live and eat and feed their families and I don’t think we should be giving any support for undoing some of the last legislation that helps provide workers with real benefits on the job. Employers should not be able to undermine local wages by importing cheap labor, just as they should not be able to decimate communities by a global race to the bottom to increase profits.

This is the 95th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Near Future of Union-Busting

[ 23 ] March 1, 2014 |

This Tennessee politician who wants to ban union picketing as a “preemptive measure” against the growth of organized labor in his state will probably be representing mainstream Republican doctrine by 2017 or so.

This Day in Labor History: February 26, 1972

[ 23 ] February 26, 2014 |

On February 26, 1972, a Pittston Coal Company slurry dam collapsed in Logan County, West Virginia. The ensuing flood of coal slurry would kill 125 people and demonstrate once again the horrific contempt the coal industry has for the people of West Virginia.

Coal slurry is basically the toxic leftovers of modern industrial coal production. This was less of an issue in the days of underground mining, but with strip mining and later mountaintop removal, large scale residue became a real problem. The coal is sifted and processed, washed of impurities, and transported to market by rail or boat. The leftover is the slurry. It includes heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, beryllium, manganese, selenium, cadmium, as well as a whole slough of toxic chemicals. This is nasty stuff. The process for cleaning this up was haphazard then and it is now. Basically, coal companies built a dam and dumped it in there mixed with the water that naturally filled up behind the dam.

Pittston was the largest coal company in the United States in the 1970s and its dams had a history of problems. The company began dumping coal waste in the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek in 1957 and built its first dam to impound the material in 1960. It built two more dams, each about 600 feet upstream, turning the creek into a series of black pools of polluted water. These were basic impoundments made of earth and not sophisticated dams guaranteed to stand up to harsh weather. In 1967, the Department of Interior had warned Pittston the dams (along with 29 others in the state) were unstable and dangerous. Pittston executives did not care. The third dam broke in July 1971, but the second dam held the water and disaster was briefly averted. Pittston also had a long reputation for poor safety practices. It was cited for over 5000 violations at mines in 1971 alone, but only paid $275 of the $1.3 million in fines it was levied. These impoundments were actually banned by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, but had so far been unenforced.

Late February was very rainy in West Virginia. Residents were nervous about the state of the dams. A mere 4 days before the dam collapsed, a federal mine inspector declared the dam safe. But on the morning of February 26, the third dam caved and this time the second dam did not hold. Neither did the first. A huge wall of polluted water rushed down Buffalo Creek.

When the dam caved, 132 million gallons of slurry entered Buffalo Creek. Downstream lay 16 small towns with a total of 5000 people. 125 would die that day. 1121 were injured 4000 people lost their homes. These little towns were all old coal company towns. The companies had divested any responsibility for the towns before this, but most the people who lived either worked in coal or had family members in the industry. Already these towns were dying as mechanization replaced thousands of jobs in the 1950s and people left, largely for the northern industrial factories.

Pittston Coal called the mine collapse “an act of God” in its legal filings, saying the dam couldn’t hold all the water “God poured into it.” As if it was God who constructed unsafe dams and then filled them with coal sludge. Typically, the state government of West Virginia, wholly owned by the coal industry, “investigated” the dam collapse with a commission made up of wholly pro-coal men. Governor Arch Moore initially banned reporters from entering the area to prevent “irresponsible reporting,” a tactic that reminded many of the old days when basic constitutional rights and freedoms did not apply in coal country. A circuit court grand jury refused to indict Pittston or its executives for any of the many laws it broke with the dam collapse. The special prosecuting attorney, Willard Lorenson of the West Virginia University School of Law, said, “It has been a noble exercise in American justice.”

When the United Mine Workers, now in a period of reform after the corrupt Tony Boyle, a man indifferent to the lives of his own men, was ousted and imprisoned, protested over this sham, the governor ignored them. So the UMWA created the Citizens Commission, which issued a report calling the coal company guilty of the murder of all 125 dead. The state followed by suing Pittston for $100 million, but just before leaving office, Moore settled for a mere $1 million, thus ensuring his place as one of the most pro-industry hacks in the history of American politics.

The survivors sued Pittston but received only a pittance of $13,000 a piece after legal costs, or about $61,000 in 2014 dollars. Moore sought to capitalize on the disaster by promising to do something to help the citizens who lost their homes. He proposed 10 new housing developments for Buffalo Creek, with 750 homes. The total built was 17 homes and 90 apartments, all constructed on top of a coal tailings pile. Moore also attempted to use federal disaster money to ram a superhighway through the valley. Residents were bought out but only a two-lane road was built. Moore promised to build a community center with the funds given back to the community by the lawyers for the plaintiffs from their fees. The community center was never built.

In 1975, the great Appalachian film project Appalshop made a film titled “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man.” You can watch an 8 minute excerpt here.

Pittston Coal would later be the site of one of the most important strikes of the late 20th century.

In 1990, Arch Moore was sentenced to 5 years in prison for graft after stealing money from the state’s black lung fund. He is the father of Shelley Moore Capito, the likely next senator from West Virginia.

Here is a list of the dead.

This is the 94th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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