Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "labor"

Suffering For Thee But Not For Me

[ 148 ] November 14, 2013 |

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney is a sociopath:

What we’re hearing from the Boeing Machinists right now isn’t just the usual labor-management posturing. It’s a primal scream of the middle class.

When a union boss the other day called Boeing’s offer to do the 777X jetliner work here a “piece of crap,” he was of course referring to the gory details of that contract: the canceled pension plan, the slashed benefits, the appalling 1 percent pay raise issued only every other year.

….

It’s a race to the bottom. Or rather, a slog to an era when workers will be more reliant on Social Security than ever.

So what’s most galling is that Boeing’s CEO is out pushing to cut back on the nation’s retirement plan as well.

In recent years Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has headed the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of top U.S. corporations. Earlier this year that group called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security to 70 years old, as well as crimping back on the benefits (by reducing the index of inflation used to calculate payouts.)

“We are going to need our employees to work longer just to fill the needs that we have in the work force,” said a Roundtable suit, helpfully explaining why all Americans should willingly retire later, for less.

….

Speaking of expanding, that’s what keeps happening to the pension of Boeing’s CEO. According to the company’s recent annual reports, McNerney’s pension holdings soared by $6.3 million just in the past year.

If McNerney retires now he will get $265,575 a month. That’s not a misprint: The man presiding over a drive to slash retirement for his own workers, and for stiffs in the rest of America, stands to glide out on a company pension that pays a quarter-million dollars per month.

But no doubt he’s earned his salary because of his sobriety and hard work, unlike his employees who are lower on the food chain because they are lesser people. Or at least this would have been the logic of the first Gilded Age. At least Henry Clay Frick was honest in his ideology. But McNerney is moving in the direction of such honesty. Why bother hiding the fact that you are loaded and want to become even more rich by eviscerating not only the safety net of your employees but of the entire working and middle classes of the United States? You have the power, it’s not 1950 anymore when Republicans had to pretend like they respected the existence of labor unions.

Kitchen Labor

[ 103 ] November 13, 2013 |

Arun Gupta’s memorial of the recently deceased Chicago chef Charlie Trotter gets at some key issues about restaurant labor and worker abuse in kitchens, especially at the higher end.

But rather than pore over flaws that paled next to Trotter’s virtuosity, it’s time to admit that the real culprit is a restaurant culture that dishes out abuse. Michelin-starred chefs are often known for their prowess in screaming as much as for their cuisine. Few underlings will openly admit it, lest crossing a celebrity chef consign them to also-ran kitchens, but get a few seasoned cooks together and they’ll swap accounts of star chefs who hurl insults, torment weaklings, throw pots, or perhaps even a punch. As Donald Trump is to real estate, Gordon Ramsay is to the kitchen, building his public persona on being a flaming asshole.

During my brief forays into professional kitchens, I was challenged to a fistfight, worked with a line cook who broke someone’s jaw, and was told about a famed chef who would throw spice into the eyes of hung-over waiters during brunch service. While the stories are entertaining, they also suggest that many chefs believe that high pressure and hard work excuse bad behavior.

Charlie Trotter’s tragedy is that his life was both a testament to and indictment of the restaurant industry. He has an outsized legacy in the chefs he mentored, the Chicago dining scene that he made world-class, and the cuisine he crafted, which defied convention while delighting the senses. But tributes to his work would be elevated by acknowledging that great food shouldn’t be accompanied by abusive working conditions.

Last summer, I saw Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert do a sort of performance/conversation in Providence. Overall, it was exactly what you’d expect and so was entertaining if not particularly challenging. But one highlight was Ripert and Bourdain talking about how utterly awful Gordon Ramsay is and how behavior like his is terrible for the entire food industry since it makes working in a kitchen seem like the worst job in the world. Ripert admitted that he used to be like Ramsay. He had grown up in the French kitchens run by a tyrannical chef and brought that to America. Then he realized he was a loathsome human being who everyone hated. So he reformed his behavior and became one of the most successful French chefs in the United States.

Tolerating and laughing about bad kitchen behavior is no different than tolerating and laughing about the boys’ club in NFL locker rooms that leads to Richie Incognito bullying Jonathan Martin to the point of mental illness. It’s about creating cultures of work where people have rights to basic decency. That’s far too rare in the restaurant industry, as it is in the NFL.

This Day in Labor History: November 13, 1909

[ 19 ] November 13, 2013 |

On November 13, 1909, at the Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois, a coal car filled with hay for the mules who worked underground rolled down a track. Earlier that week, an electrical outage had struck the mine. The miners were then forced to use torches, kerosene lamps, and other flammable forms of lighting while at work. Hay sticking out from the edge of the car brushed up against a torch and caught fire. The car moved down the track, spreading the fire. As the mine caught fire, the company closed the oxygen supply to the mine. This tampered down the fire but also began suffocating the workers. 259 miners died, the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history.

The Cherry Mine opened in 1905 to provide coal for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad’s trains. Coal powered technology meant a lot of brutal manual labor to run the machines that the nation increasingly relied upon. Conditions in the mine were sadly what you would expect for the first decade of the twentieth century. Child labor was common, with boys often starting work at age 11. It was mostly immigrant labor. Miners were paid by production, not the hour, making work more dangerous and deadly.

Once the company began moving to control the fire, it was up to the workers to find a way out of the mine. About 200 of the around 480 who worked that day did, mostly climbing through escape shafts. Some of the miners who escaped descended back in a hoisting cage to rescue others. This was extremely dangerous because each time they went down, the chances of coming up again were increasingly small given what was going on underground. They made six trips, rescuing more workers each time. The seventh time however, the man operating the levers above ground misinterpreted their tugging signals and did not hoist them up in time. Everyone in the car burned to death.

When the company closed the oxygen supply, it allowed what is known as “black damp” to infect the workers. This was the combination of carbon dioxide and nitrogen that built up in mines without a fresh oxygen supply, slowly asphyxiating the workers. It’s worth noting what this is like. It’s not a sudden death. It’s a slow choking, as all oxygen leaves the air. You have hours to contemplate your death. Maybe leave a letter for your loved ones if you have paper and enough light from your last lamp. You see your comrades start to succumb and you know in minutes, that will be you. Brutal.

Only 21 workers survived after the immediate post-fire escape. This was a group that was able to collect water from a seep and then descended deeper into the mine to escape the black damp. Finally, after 8 days, they dug themselves out and ran across a rescue party. One died soon after but the others survived.

Of the dead who left behind dependents (the majority), 1 was a native-born American. The plurality were Slavs (broadly defined at the time) followed by Italians, Austrians, and many other European groups. While the survivors and families had very little recourse in the courts (most lawsuits against companies were lost at this time and even if they were won, would drag on for years). This event got enough national publicity though that financial support came pouring in. With pressure on the company to pay up, the donations, and the union, each widow received $3261 (about $82,000 in 2012).

The company claimed innocence, saying that it had constructed the mine to the legal standards. But the legal standards meant unsafe mines where 259 workers could die. The company certainly hadn’t broken any major safety laws with this event. United Mine Workers of America president Duncan McDonald lashed out. From the Decatur Daily Review:

“The safest mine in Illinois,” as the St. Paul Coal Company declared the Cherry mine to be, has turned out a veritable death trap for 400 men. Gross negligence in constructing the mine in defiance of all provisions approved by competent mining engineers was the fundamental cause of the greatest mine disaster in the history of the United States.”

This is the conclusion of Duncan McDonald based upon an investigation conducted by him as president of the United Mine Workers of Illinois. He has been at Cherry since early Sunday morning.

The several points where the company failed to provide safeguards for the miners as found by McDonald follow:

The structure around the main entrance in the Cherry mine was entirely of pine timber, which is a highly combustible material. As soon as the flames from the burning bale of hay, which caused the disaster, came in contact with this timber, a fierce fire was the result. The coal dust which had accumulated on top of the structural work ignited like tinder and spread to other inflamable parts of the mine. Had the entries been built of brick or steel girders or concrete there is no doubt that the dreadful catastrophe would never have occurred.

A scarcity of water and a lack of sufficient rubber hose in the mine made a fight against the flames by the miners caught in the trap an impossibility. The company had neglected to provide sufficient means to extinguish a blaze after once it was started. No pipes carrying water under pressure were placed in the mines, nor was there sufficient support on the surface, and even if there had been such it would have been of no practical service because the company failed to provide necessary fire hose.

No fire drill had ever been practiced among the men, and no precaution had been taken by the company to see that in case of an emergency the miners would have the benefits of the right sort of rational discipline and instruction to them to safety.

The open torch flaming near the main entrance in the second vein was a constant menace. This torch had been used as a substitute for an electric light which had been out of repair for two weeks.

The escape shaft was timbered with pine and the stair were built of wood. This was gross negligence on the part of the company. A mine where any effort has been made to safeguard life would certainly have had an escape shaft constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. One of the first things in the corridor of the mine to burn away was the escape shaft. This made egress absolutely impossible after the cage stopped running and practically sealed the doom of the men below.

The escape shaft was placed less than three hundred feet from the main shaft at Cherry. This would be contrary to law, unless the location of the escape shaft were permitted by some state mine inspector.

In the aftermath of the Cherry Mine disaster, the state of Illinois began crafting new safety laws for mines that included safety training, certification for those in charge of safety equipment, and better fire fighting equipment. The company was fined $650 for using child labor in the mines and the state strengthened its child labor laws. It also helped convince Congress to establish the United States Bureau of Mines in 1910, which oversaw mine safety. The settlement for the survivors also led to the passage of Illinois’ first workers’ compensation law in 1911, following closely behind Wisconsin, Washington, and other states in creating the beginnings of a social safety net, however pro-corporate it was at the time.

For those who want to read a journalistic account of the disaster and the survivors’ experience, check out Thomas White’s “Eight Days in a Burning Mine,” published in The World in October 1911 and reprinted on the web by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. You may also be interested in this 1910 report by the State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics on the investigation that followed the fire.

This is the 82nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

What Unions Face with Democrats

[ 45 ] November 11, 2013 |

Another sign that most Democratic politicians simply don’t care about organized labor outside of writing checks and getting on votes on election day. Illinois governor Pat Quinn has named Paul Vallas as his candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Who is Vallas? The ultimate Rheeist, Vallas attacked teacher unions in Chicago before going on to doing the same in New Orleans and Bridgeport, where voters have just repudiated his “reforms” that had both Democratic and Republican support.

“Paul Vallas is one of the least popular leaders among the rank and file educators in Chicago public schools we’ve ever had,” said laid-off teacher Xian Barrett, a former member of the Chicago Teachers Union executive board currently working for a non-profit. Barrett cited Vallas’ moves that “reduced the power of the local schools councils,” and said before his 2001 departure he “was already laying the groundwork for a lot of the privatization movements” that progressed under his successor Arne Duncan, now President Obama’s Education Secretary. Barrett said Quinn’s choice of Vallas “reflects a disconnect between our state governance and the people, and specifically in this case a lot of the educators who’ve been Quinn’s greatest supporters his last time getting elected.” (The CTU, an AFT affiliate, did not respond to a Friday afternoon inquiry.)

Rob Traber, the vice president of Bridgeport Education Association, disputed Quinn’s praise for his new running mate. “I have seen nothing to show that he has been successful anywhere he’s gone, including Bridgeport,” Traber told Salon Friday. “And he has moved from one place to another and left it in worse shape than when he got there.” Traber contended Vallas and Finch had wrongly taken credit for construction of a new high school that “was already in the pipeline,” and that “the ‘miracle’ of balancing the budget” under Vallas was a response to “a budget crisis created by Finch.” Traber added that “the only reason it was balanced was Finch suddenly came up with money, which he hadn’t done for five years,” as did the state of Connecticut. “And so you know,” charged Traber, “that seems a little phony to me.” Like the IEA, the BEA is an affiliate of the NEA, the largest US union.

This is a case where organized labor should withdraw all support for Pat Quinn and the Illinois governor’s race. If the governor is openly opposed to labor’s interests, why should labor support him at all? This is a classic Samuel Gompers mentality–labor supports candidates who support labor. Labor does not support candidates that do not support labor. Progressives may look askance upon Gompers today for a number of reasons, but he understood the interests of his people and if Pat Quinn wants to put a teacher union busting Lieutenant Governor on the ticket in a relatively pro-union state like Illinois, then how much worse is a Republican going to be for organized labor? And while the answer to that question is potentially a Scott Walker and that would be horrible, we have to ask–would we expect pro-choice women to give money and support to an anti-choice candidate? Pro-gay marriage groups to support a candidate who named a homophobe as his running mate? Civil rights groups to support a ticket that included someone who backed voter ID laws? Ultimately, labor can’t be the only group asked to sacrifice when the Democrats promote people who oppose its interests. There has to be a payoff.

Making OSHA Reports Public

[ 14 ] November 7, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lung Follow Up

[ 22 ] November 6, 2013 |

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

Suicides and Plant Closures

[ 53 ] November 4, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

The War on Workers

[ 10 ] November 3, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lung Blues

[ 47 ] October 31, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Intimidating Workers Works

[ 8 ] October 30, 2013 |

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

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

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

Weak Anti-Faculty Union Arguments

[ 49 ] October 29, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1825

[ 14 ] October 26, 2013 |

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

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

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

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



Building the Erie Canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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