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Tag: "labor"

Business Sads in Boston

[ 50 ] October 2, 2013 |

The Boston Globe is having a big sad because mayoral finalist and union member (Laborers Local 223) Marty Walsh votes in the state legislature closer to the AFL-CIO than Koch funded business interests. Oh noes, won’t somebody think about the business community?

A Walsh victory in Boston and a DeBlasio victory in New York would mean real progressives at the helm of two of America’s largest cities. Now if only we could only do something about Chicago…

Independent Contractor Fraud

[ 26 ] October 1, 2013 |

Great job by IBEW Local 520 in Austin to execute its own undercover investigation of independent contractor fraud among the city’s construction industry. Basically, employers are listing workers as independent contractors to avoid labor law. They then place these workers in dangerous situations, take advantage of the limited to nonexistent English language skills, and steal their rightful wages (not to mention taxes that should go to the state).

In case anyone ever asks what unions are good for, point them right straight to IBEW Local 520. Unions aren’t just about money. They are about dignity, safety at the workplace, labor law, and ensuring a better life for all Americans. Given how much even one local in a lightly unionized state uncovered, how much more fraud and abuse is out there?

This Day in Labor History: October 1, 1910

[ 29 ] October 1, 2013 |

On October 1, 1910, International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers member James McNamara blew up the Los Angeles Times building because the paper’s publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, was spearheading the city’s effort to crush unionism and remain an open shop alternative to heavily unionized San Francisco. The explosion and fire killed 21 people and wounded about 100 more, giving a black eye to the entire labor movement, embarrassing the American Federation of Labor, and setting back the labor movement in Los Angeles for decades.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles was arguably America’s most conservative city. An hotbed of anti-union extremism, organized labor was almost entirely nonexistent. No one did more to push this policy than Harrison Gray Otis. In 1896, Otis took over the city’s Merchants Association and turned it to an virulently anti-union organization. Using his powerful newspaper as a mouthpiece for antiunionism, Otis spent the next two decades as the nation’s most important anti-union advocate. Some of this was ideology, some of it was LA boosters trying to undermine unionized San Francisco as the center of the California economy.

The Iron Workers were a tough bunch of unionists, to say the least. Formed in 1886, the union remained weak until it won a strike against a U.S. Steel subsidiary in 1902. This opened the door to them and within a year had most of the nation’s iron shops under their control, even signing some collective bargaining agreements with employers. In 1903, US Steel struck back, organizing the nation’s iron industrialists for a concerted union busting campaign that included spies, state complicity, and violence against workers. It was successful and by 1910, the union was out of every US Steel facility and most others. Responding to this campaign, beginning in 1906, the Iron Workers started using bombs to force companies to the bargaining table. Mostly this was just showing companies what they could do–the total damage of all these 110 bombs was small. But they did know how to manufacture and detonate bombs, that was for sure. No Alexander Berkman were these men.

During this tumult, a pair of Irish brothers named John and James McNamara rose into the Iron Workers’ leadership. John became Secretary-Treasurer of the union in 1905 and was heavily involved in the bombing campaign. In 1910, the Iron Workers launched a major organizing campaign in Los Angeles. They wanted a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour and overtime pay. Otis led the opposition. He and his employers organization raised $350,000 to fight the strike. A court judge issued injunctions that banned picketing. The Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning picketing or “speaking in public streets in a loud or unusual tone.” The strikers refused to follow these absurd laws and 472 were arrested. The strike was going pretty well and the total number of union members went up by 60%.

John and James McNamara

Yet on October 1, a bomb went off under the LA Times building. It was supposed to explode at 4 a.m. in order to not hurt anyone but the faulty timing mechanism set it off just after 1, meaning people were still working, including a bunch of reporters finishing a story late. Most of the dead were killed by the fire caused by the explosion. The next day, unexploded bombs were found underneath Otis’ home, as well as other sites around the city, although many claim that these were probably planted by the police to frame the union, an entirely possible scenario regardless of who bombed the actual building.

Ruins of the Los Angeles Times building

Otis immediately claimed the unionists had blown up his building. He wrote in the Times, “You anarchic scum. You cowardly murderers, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, have committed one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world.” Unionists on the other hand believed Otis dastardly enough to bomb his own building just to frame the union.

Samuel Gompers immediately denied that any union was involved in such a dastardly crime. But a spy placed in the Iron Workers Union found out that the bombing campaign had come straight from the union’s top leadership. A hotel clerk recognized a photo of John McNamara, confirming he had rushed in and out of the hotel just before the bomb exploded. On April 13, James McNamara and Ortie McManigal, a rank and file union member, were arrested in Detroit with bombing equipment on them. They were taken to Chicago where instead of going to the police station they were held for a week in the home of a police sergeant. McManigal finally spilled the beans and implicated the entire Iron Workers leadership in the bombing. John McNamara was also discovered to have bombed a local iron manufacturing plant.

The labor movement was infuriated with the treatment of the prisoners, hiding them in a private home and forcing a confession. McNamara and McManigal claimed they had been tortured by the private investigators. For labor, this felt like the 1906 case when IWW leader Big Bill Haywood and other labor leaders were framed for the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. Clarence Darrow took the defense case. But it was so clear they were guilty that an ailing Darrow could do little for them. Muckraker Frank Norris got the brothers to confess in prison and convinced them to make their case that it was a justifiable bombing campaign. Seeing an inevitable defeat in court, Darrow got Otis and the AFL to agree to a plea bargain that would give the McNamara brothers light sentences in return for the end of the Iron Workers strike, which was ultimately what Otis wanted to begin with. But although Otis and the business community agreed to this, the prosecutor refused and the trial went forward with the stipulation that James would receive life and John a shorter sentence. That final plea agreement also stipulated a meeting between capital and labor and the end of the employers’ open shop campaign.


1911 Socialist Party pins in support of the McNamara brothers.

When Gompers found out the McNamara’s had pleaded guilty, he said they “had betrayed labor.” James McNamara received life in prison. John received 15 years. Thirty-eight Iron Workers were convicted of various crimes. The employers completely ignored their side of the agreement and continued fighting any unionization in their conservative town.

The bombing convinced national labor reformers to push for a greater government role in labor relations so that violence could be avoided. This led to the remarkable U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, created by President Taft in 1912, which will receive later coverage in this series.

The entire Los Angeles labor movement collapsed. Harrison Gray Otis almost couldn’t have asked for a better gift. Los Angeles remained a city with unusually low union density until the 1950s.

Ortie McManigal served 2 1/2 years as part of his plea deal. James McNamara died in prison in 1941. John McNamara served his full 15 years. Upon his release, he returned to union organizing, dying in Butte 2 months after his brother.

There’s a whole website dedicated to the bombing and those involved
, which is actually quite good.

This is the 77th post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

Resisting Unpaid Internships

[ 28 ] September 30, 2013 |

It’s good to see Europeans following their American comrades and resisting unpaid internships. I thought this quote was a pretty good example of why internships need to be governed by conventional labor law.

Saxon Baird, 29, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, says he has already completed six internships. “Only one internship really paid an amount that I could scrape by on,” Mr. Baird said: “In places like Vogue, I was getting paid $12 a day and working 25 to 30 hours a week. So, while that was technically a paid internship, it might as well not have been.”

He said that his internship at Vogue included some perks — like invites to celebrity parties and a few bylines — but he spent a large amount of time running errands, and acting as a substitute for a salaried employee.

But you know, a poor start up like Vogue magazine, how could they afford to pay minimum wage?

Union-Made Cars

[ 35 ] September 27, 2013 |

Buying a new car in 2014? Check out the United Auto Workers list of union-made vehicles before you buy (PDF, see here if you don’t to link straight to it. This list will grow after the UAW-Volkswagen partnership in Chattanooga goes through.

Bangladeshi Labor Protests

[ 34 ] September 24, 2013 |

Apparel workers in Bangladesh are on strike and even burning their factories over their bosses refusal to grant a minimum wage of $100 a month. Although the linked article barely mentions the Rana Plaza factory collapse last spring, the resistance of the apparel corporations, particularly the American companies, to do anything to improve conditions or take responsibility is also contributing to this with workers angry over the terrible conditions of their lives and the lack of safety and recompense.

Labor in Qatar

[ 45 ] September 24, 2013 |

It’d be nice if FIFA had the least interest in human rights or labor rights when it made the choice for where to place the World Cup. Given the gargantuan wealth disparities in Qatar and the horrible conditions of work for the laboring classes, it’s obvious FIFA couldn’t care less. A lot of workers are going to die preparing for the 2022 World Cup. And we probably won’t hear about a single one of them.

Harry Potter and Working Conditions

[ 17 ] September 17, 2013 |

This is an interesting story about how a sizable group of Harry Potter fans have organized to push Warner Brothers to make sure that Harry Potter-themed products are produced in fair and just conditions. The Harry Potter Alliance believes chocolate associated with the series is produced using child labor in Africa. It is pressuring Warner Brothers to ensure it is produced without child labor. WB claims it looked into it and is fine, but of course there is no transparency here.

This is a case when there is absolutely no reason not to source products with fair employers. Like with Apple products, the buyers are willing to pay high prices already because of the commitment to the brand. Raising those prices by a tiny amount to cover chocolate produced by adults, clothing made in safe factories, and (in Apple’s case) computers not produced in plants that require suicide nets to keep workers from jumping out windows, is an obvious call. Even outside of the morality of the issue and the fact that no products should be produced this way, it’s a clear upside for the corporations who can claim they care about these issues. But producing goods as cheaply as possible is more than just a business decision. It’s an ideology and the hippies who oppose it hate capitalism or something.

This also shows how motivated consumer groups can still make a difference in workers’ lives, but it’s much harder to do when there is such distance between production and consumption. When New Yorkers saw women jumping out of the Asch Building during the Triangle Fire in 1910, they were motivated to demand change because of their own personal experiences. Outsourcing clothing to Bangladesh or producing chocolate in west Africa (admittedly there are climatic and soil limitations on where the crop can grow) make it extremely difficult to know anything meaningful by the conditions of production. And this is a huge benefit for corporations.

FLSA Extended to Home Care Workers

[ 11 ] September 17, 2013 |

It’s about time the Fair Labor Standards Act was extended to home care workers, meaning that minimum wage and overtime law applies to them. I don’t really know why they were specifically excluded in 1975, but kudos to the Obama Administration for ending this problem. A real victory for working people.

$10

[ 9 ] September 15, 2013 |

$10 an hour is not enough to live on, especially in California. But the Golden State creating the highest minimum wage in the nation is a major step in the right direction. Hopefully a national $10 wage will become an important progressive priority soon.

Your Republican Party–Too Extreme To Accept Company Unions

[ 143 ] September 12, 2013 |

Volkswagen has a plant in Chattanooga. It is used to its company unionism of Germany and wants to recreate that in the United States, in part because labor representatives in Germany see the company’s expansion into non-union plants in the U.S. as a threat. But company unions are illegal in the U.S. So Volkswagen has invited the United Auto Workers in to organize the workers into a union that the two parties have agreed will be run on the German company union lines.

I have pretty mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, company unions are rife with problems and those very deep problems are why they are illegal. On the other hand, any UAW representation is going to be better for workers than what they now have and future adjustments to the arrangement are always possible that could result from the militancy of empowered workers. Plus this is an example of unions adjusting to the new reality of organized labor’s demise and thinking in new ways about how they can represent workers.

What’s more remarkable is the anger and outrage from Tennessee Republican leaders, especially Bob Corker and Bill Haslam. They can’t believe Volkswagen would invite Satan into their plants? Are they crazy? Evidently! After all, these guys built their careers on demonizing organized labor and inviting companies to their states because exploitation of labor was possible. Reading what Corker and Haslam are saying, one feels that they would rather lose the factory entirely than accede to the devilish union, even if that union is severely limited in what it can do.

And this gets at why I constantly talk about the Gilded Age as the template for the modern Republican Party. It’s not 1927 and Calvin Coolidge because that was the era of company unionism. At that time, business leaders and conservative politicians saw company unions as a benefit that would buy off just enough of the worker anger that had led to the radicalism of the 1880-1920 period to keep production running and real unions out. It was the cost of doing business.

Today’s Republicans have no interest in this. They see the complete crushing of organized labor and the full power of corporation to exploit workers as the goal. They actively want to recreate the conditions of the Gilded Age, whether in the U.S. or abroad, and keep the money flowing to the vampire plutocrats living off the blood of workers job creators. Recreating the 1920s is an outrage because Corker and Haslam are so committed to the 1890s as a model.

This Day in Labor History: September 10, 1897

[ 7 ] September 10, 2013 |

On September 10, 1897, Luzerne County sheriff deputies slaughtered 19 unarmed coal miners striking outside of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The strikers, primarily German, Polish, Lithuanian, and Slovak immigrants, were fighting for decent wages and working conditions in the one of the most brutal industries in the nation. The Lattimer Massacre was a touchstone event in the history of the United Mine Workers of America, who used it to organize workers across the region.

The 1890s saw a rise in immigration from Germany and eastern Europe; thousands of those migrants came to the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. They were recruited there by coal companies as strikebreakers and because of that, the English, Welsh, and Scottish miners that previously dominated the industry hated them as scabs. Conditions in the coal miners were abysmal, with mine collapses and death shockingly common, a situation akin to modern Chinese mines. Making things worse was the Panic of 1893 and following depression that lasted for five years. The terrible poverty and desperation that resulted from these events led to some of the most dramatic events in American labor history, including the Pullman Strike, Coxey’s Army, and the rise of the Populists as a serious challenge to the 2-party system. Mine owners slashed wages during the depression for those who could get work at all. Typical company town conditions existed as well, with miners forced to rent from company-owned homes at high prices, forced to see company doctors, forced to shop at company stores, etc.

In 1897, the miners went on strike. The Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company laid off workers, raised fees for homes and doctors, forced longer hours on those who still worked, and tolerated a decline in working conditions. Work became more dangerous and more profitable for capitalists. The strike was lead by drivers, mostly teenagers who ran teams of mules to carry the coal out of the mines. The company consolidated its mule stables, forcing the drivers to travel farther on their own time to get their animals. In response, the drivers struck on August 14. When the new mine superintendent, a man named Gomer Jones, found out the mule drivers were striking, he grabbed a crowbar and whacked the first striker he saw in the head. The striker fought back and a general scuffle ensued. This helped lead the rest of the workers out on strike. With overall employment declining, workers saw little to lose by walking off the job together rather than get fired separately. By August 16, 2000 workers were on strike and most joined the United Mine Workers of America, a union trying to establish itself in the coal fields. This was a big deal because the Slavs had avoided the UMWA after being vilified by the unionized Anglo-Saxon miners. But the terrible conditions began to break down the ethnic divides in the anthracite fields.

The first strike ended on August 23 when the companies agreed to give miners the option to live in their own houses and see a doctor of their choosing, as well as grant a wage increase of about 10 cents. A second strike a few days later at nearby mines made the pay raise more universal in the region.

Or so the workers thought. In fact, when the owners announced the new pay rates on September 1, only a few workers saw a raise. On September 3, the workers went on strike again, with 3000 walking out. By September 8, somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 miners were on strike. The miners developed new demands, including a pay raise of 15 cents per employee, the ability to select their own doctor, the right to get paid for work even if the machines they workers were out of order (commonly Gilded Age workers were not paid if the company was not running for any reason; employers never could understand why workers wouldn’t “see reason” over this issue), and the freedom not have to buy from the company store.

Strikers near Lattimer, PA

The coal companies’ private police force, the Coal and Iron Police, were overwhelmed by these numbers and the owners created a posse of English and Irish residents, including many ex-miners. On September 8, about 300-400 miners, largely Slavs and Germans, marched to a mine in the town of Lattimer to support miners who had just joined the UMWA. Expanding the strike to Lattimer would be a huge victory for the miners because it would go a long way to shut down the entire the area and force the companies to grant workers’ demands. The mine owners knew this too. Luzerne County police, led by Sheriff James Martin, were openly heard bragging about how many miners they would kill. When the miners reached Lattimer, the police confronted them and ordered them to disperse. When they refused, the police opened fire, killing 19 and wounding about 40. All had been shot in the back.

The immediate aftermath led to infuriated miners who destroyed the home of the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Company mine superintendent and the Pennsylvania National Guard called in to restore order. Unrest continued until September 20. Local response was pro-miners. The Hazleton Daily Standard published this poem on September 17:

“If the courts of justice shield you
And your freedom you should gain,
Remember that your brows are marked
With the burning brand of Cain.
Oh, noble, noble, deputies
We always will remember
Your bloody work at Lattimer
On the 10th day of September.”

Philadelphia Inquirer depiction of the shooting, September 12, 1897

The state actually bothered to try Martin and his 73 deputies but despite the evidence of shooting workers in the back, they all claimed the marchers refused to disperse and were acquitted.

The Lattimer Massacre was a hugely important event in the history of the UMWA. First, standing up for the workers led to membership rising to 10,000, the largest in the union’s history. Second, it ended the widely held belief by both Anglo-Saxon miners and company owners that the Slavic workers were docile and would never join the union. The UMWA built off this event and in 1900, with an improved economy after the depression ended in 1898, won significant wage increases. UMWA president John Mitchell became, along with AFL head Samuel Gompers, the most important labor leader in the country.

The massacre was mostly forgotten about in the larger national consciousness, but finally, in 1972, a monument was erected at the site, which I visited in January.

This is the 76th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.