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Tag: "labor"

Hope from Scalia?

[ 31 ] January 22, 2014 |

I was feeling pretty hopeless about the forthcoming Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn, which challenges the constitutionality of states signing closed shop contracts with public sector unions. If the right-wingers have their way, states would not be allowed to do this, effectively making the various levels of the federal government operate by right to work laws and kneecapping SEIU and AFSCME, two of the last major successful unions in this country. But as Moshe Marvit reports, Antonin Scalia in oral arguments was quite hostile to the right to work argument:

Scalia turned the NRTW argument on its head by raising the hypothetical of a policeman who, after asking a dozen times for a raise, was denied access to the police commissioner. Did he have his First Amendment rights violated? The answer was no. With this device, Justice Scalia highlighted how the Supreme Court has recognized that the government has wider latitude in dealing with its employees than in dealing with its citizenry. The police commissioner telling his secretary that he didn’t want to speak with his subordinate no more violated the policeman’s First Amendment rights than charging healthcare workers a fair share fee for union representation does theirs.

At one point in the arguments, when Justice Kagan suggested that Scalia believed that the NRTW position was valid, Scalia interrupted to clarify, stating, “I want to hear the answer, too, because, contrary to what Justice Kagan suggests, I didn’t say your First Amendment argument was valid … I said at least it was a comprehensible argument.”

When the NRTW attorney suggested that the way homecare workers negotiate for higher wages was not internal workplace speech, but rather more highly protected political speech, Scalia objected, saying, “Why isn’t it? I mean, it is for private employers.” Scalia went on to suggest that employers may stand to gain by having their workforce represented by a single union. “There are some private employers who think they’re better off with a closed shop and they just want to deal with one union. … They do this as private employers because they think it is in their interest as an employer. Why can’t the government have the same interest?” Coming from Scalia, these arguments have far more force than they would from one of the more liberal justices.

Seattle University Law Professor Charlotte Garden, the author of an amicus brief by labor law professors supporting the union in Harris, tells Working In These Times that Scalia’s position in this case was in line with his partial concurrent opinion in a 1991 case, Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. “Scalia also accepted in Lehnert—and seemed to accept in the argument [on Tuesday]—that requiring the union to fairly represent all members of the bargaining unit, but not requiring the agency fee (which is a model that states are free to adopt) puts pressure on the bargaining relationship by allowing represented workers to free ride,” she says.

Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. And Scalia’s federalism arguments are usually rank hypocrisy that apply only when they favor his personal policy positions. But maybe he cares enough to let states make their own choices here.

At least there’s reason to hope for the future of public sector unionism. For today at least.

The Cost of Free Trade Agreements

[ 287 ] January 22, 2014 |

Free trade agreements are so bipartisan now that even a large number of liberals support them. But free trade agreements and the resultant fully mobile capital unhinged to states has done more than any other thing to destroy the union movement, kneecap the popular environmentalism of 1970s, and undermine the middle class than anything else. It’s cost to everyday people in the United States has been profound. Harold Meyerson on the potential of the Trans-Pacific Partnership for making this even worse.

By now, even the most ossified right-wing economists concede that globalization has played a major role in the loss of American manufacturing jobs and, more broadly, the stagnation of U.S. wages and incomes. Former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder has calculated that 22 percent to 29 percent of all U.S. jobs could potentially be offshored. That’s a lot of jobs: 25 percent would translate to 36 million workers whose wages are in competition with those in largely lower-income nations. Of the 11 nations with which the United States is negotiating the TPP, nine have wage levels significantly lower than ours.

Trade agreements that promote the relocation of U.S. corporations’ factories to nations like China and Mexico have played a central role in the evisceration of American manufacturing and the decline in U.S. workers’ incomes. Two out of three displaced manufacturing workers who got new jobs between 2009 and 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, experienced wage reductions — most of them greater than 20 percent.

And here’s the thing–for workers in Mexico, Central America, and southeast Asia, the overall effects of free trade has not been particularly beneficial either. American food policy and food companies have forced Mexican farmers off their land, creating a new mobile labor force for the maquiladoras and undocumented workers in the U.S. For both of these groups of workers, they have effectively no rights at the workplace; in the U.S., companies have frequently turned themselves into immigration officials when their undocumented workers have organized. Today in Mexico, movements are rising around the “right to stay at home,” as workers do not want to leave for the border or for the U.S. The situation in Central America is similar and has spurred a lot of migration to the U.S. as well for the same reasons. As for Bangladesh and Cambodia and other southeast Asian nations, free trade has had an impact for the elites quite similar to the U.S.–a lot of wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. For the poor, the apparel-elite state is more than happy to send the police after you for organizing. And if that doesn’t happen, your factory may collapse and leave you dead.

And while of course on the ground there is a great deal of complexity as to the overall impact of these agreements on poor nations (obviously there are some it has helped in some ways, etc), there is a glib and largely unexamined response from those who support free trade agreements saying that they have helped these workers, they have jobs, they are moving out of poverty, etc. But not only is the last part of that largely not true, but it ignores the preconditions as to why these workers needed jobs–often being forced off their land by the same policies and corporate-political elite that have them working 14-hour days in a Honduran sweatshop today. We need to take that into account before saying these things are universally good for poor nations.

Not to mention the impact of free trade on your own pocketbook, your own future stability, your own ability to send your kids to college, or to retire by choice rather than by long-term unemployment.

….The thing about Meyerson is that he’s a big enough deal writing in one of the nation’s 2 papers of record that he can force the Obama Administration to respond. Which they did through Penny Pritzker in a letter that can basically summed up as “free trade is good for you now shut up and let’s get back to this bipartisan project with no evidence it benefits the majority of Americans. But trust us, we are thinking of you.”

Scab Cereal

[ 82 ] January 21, 2014 |

Time to avoid Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops, since Kellogg’s has locked out the workers making the cereal at its Memphis factory and instead bused in scabs through an Ohio unionbusting company.

Bradshaw says the lockout is part of a plan to make Kellogg union-free. “If we win in Memphis, they have to wait until the master contract expires to make these changes,” he said. “If we lose in Memphis, it’s going everywhere.

“Other companies are going to see it. General Mills has already called our international president and said, ‘What are you doing about Kellogg?’ He’s thinking if Kellogg can do it, they can, too.”

The Memphis lockout is only the latest step in a series of increasingly hostile anti-union moves by Kellogg globally. Management recently announced that two union plants in Australia and Canada will close this year, and production will move to non-union facilities.

Kellogg also recently shifted 58 million pounds per year of cereal production from Memphis to Mexico. Bradshaw said workers in Mexico are required to live in a housing compound near the factory and are bused to work. Some have been kidnapped by drug cartels.

In 1996, more than 800 people worked at the Memphis facility. Now it stands just above 200. Much of the work is automated.

Hardly surprising that a giant corporation like Kellogg’s is using capital mobility as a union-busting strategy. Capital mobility and the outsourcing of American jobs has done more than anything to undermine the middle class, making the working class ever more poor, and generate the enormous income inequality of the New Gilded Age.

Capital Mobility and Transnational Exploitation

[ 60 ] January 18, 2014 |

David Bacon’s The Right to Stay Home is high on my reading list. Demonstrating the profound impact of NAFTA on both the United States and Mexico, it shows how NAFTA allowed American corporations to go into Mexico, buy up land and evict farmers, create a new pool of cheap labor for American companies in both the US and Mexico that forced Mexican farmers to migrate against their wills, and use immigration authorities as its own union-busting force when that labor begins to unionize.

To illustrate how NAFTA worked in practice, Bacon explains how a Smithfield Foods subsidiary used NAFTA’s land reform laws. The company scooped up land in Veracruz to open a massive mechanized hog-raising facility, driving small local pork producers out of business. Those displaced small farmers then filled the recruiting buses to go work at Smithfield’s packinghouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

Undocumented immigrants were shipped in partly to break a union campaign. When they said “enough is enough” and joined the union drive, Smithfield colluded with ICE to terrorize the workforce. Ultimately, the union drive won, but at tremendous cost: firings, fear, deportations, resentment among the different communities.

The union organizing in Tar Heel mirrored a community effort in Veracruz to limit the growth of the Smithfield subsidiary—in particular because of its toxic waste that destroyed the water table, causing kidney infections and forcing communities to depend on bottled water. The community won an agreement that the company would not expand further.

In another example, further south in Oaxaca, mining corporations gobbled up farmers’ land—also using NAFTA provisions—and poisoned the environment with toxic wastes. They provided a few jobs at above-average wages, but dried up many more.

These are the processes I am talking about in my own forthcoming book on the effects of capital mobility. Capitalism unbound by national borders and with the support of corrupt elite classes around the world undermines both labor and environmental rights and regulations everywhere with no consequences for their actions. These are the complex forces we have to fight against. Even when you have meaningful and difficult to achieve transnational progressive alliances, the forces of capital combined with the forces of capitalists’ client states make real wins few and far between. Probably nothing suggests the power of capital mobility than food and food policy, where free trade agreements create not only new markets for rich world corporations but by forcing people off the land through either direct eviction or more commonly undermining their economic stability, they then create a labor force for their own operations around the world. It’s win-win for corporations and lose-lose for most of the world’s workers.

Wisconsin Taking Another Step to the New Gilded Age

[ 67 ] January 16, 2014 |

Conservatives’ vision of the future of American work

Scott Walker’s Wisconsin really is vanguard of the New Gilded Age. Republicans have introduced a new bill, almost certain to become law, that will get rid of a state law requiring employers to give workers 24 hours in a row off at least once every 7 days. I know, quite the imposition upon the freedom of workers to work whenever they are compelled upon risk of termination want! But hey, workers have the option to opt out, by which conservatives mean the same as Gilded Age conservatives did in 1895 that workers had real options–do what we say or find another job. But no one is compelling them!

Conservatives say that workers will only have to forego their rest days if they volunteer, but the law’s opponents argue that businesses could create environments that are hostile to workers who insist on their rights. Workers who take their mandated rest days could be skipped over for promotion, denied privileges allowed to workers who work a 7-day week or could see sharp reductions in their schedules until they no longer have enough hours to make ends meet, financially.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce said that it conceived of the law when it noted that the federal government does not have a rule mandating that workers receive a certain number of hours off per work cycle.

Lawmakers Grothman and Born told reporters from the Journal that they had heard from a diverse array of businesses that support the 7-day work week, but when asked to provide examples, they were only able to provide the names of groups belonging to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce network.

“Here’s an opportunity for folks to work together to get things done in a positive way for the employer and the employee,” Born said. “It just seems like a win all the way around.”

All the way around. Indeed. All the way around to the conditions of 1895.

Wal-Mart Doesn’t Have Much Respect for the Intelligence of Its Employees

[ 16 ] January 16, 2014 |

This purloined presentation of Wal-Mart anti-union propaganda is pretty unprofessional. You’d at least think the world’s largest retailer would argue something a bit more complicated than a labor organization would cost employees a whole $5 a month. The second presentation, for managers, is more standard anti-union hack work. But at least it looks like they spent more than 5 minutes putting it together.

Meanwhile, the NLRB is filing a complaint against Wal-Mart for violation labor law in 14 states while cracking down on striking workers.

This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1915

[ 26 ] January 15, 2014 |

On the night of January 15, 1915, the IWW writer and propagandist Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever.” The song is emblematic of Wobbly culture. If there’s one thing the IWW did well, it was culture creation. This culture creation has done a great deal to give them outsized influence compared to their real accomplishments in American labor and radical history, continuing to make the union and its ideas relevant to activists today.

The IWW valued culture as politics very early. The early twentieth century was a period of working-class poetry and song. The timber union journals I look at are full of this sort of thing, whether radical or not. Given the popularity of syndicalism among the Wobblies’ European immigrant base, this was enhanced by these same immigrants also bringing traditions of radicalism through culture with them to the United States.

Ralph Chaplin was a central figure in the IWW. He was born to radicalism, having witnessed a worker shot to death during the Pullman Strike at the age of 7. He later traveled to Mexico in the early days of the Mexican Revolution, becoming an admirer of Emiliano Zapata. Upon his return from Mexico, Chaplin became involved with the growing IWW, which had by the early 1910s become the most important union alternative to the American Federation of Labor. Chaplin began writing “Solidarity Forever” while working on a coal strike in West Virginia in 1914. It took him a few months to finish. After watching a demonstration of the hungry in Chicago in 1915, he went back to his hotel room and finished the song. It soon became the most important song of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.

Ralph Chaplin

The song’s lyrics:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.

CHORUS:
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong.

Chorus

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.

Chorus

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
While the union makes us strong.

Chorus

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

Chorus

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

Carried from place to place by the unionists, the songbook gave workers songs over which they could build solidarity. In our present of demographically divided cultural creation, it’s almost impossible to imagine a single song or style having the ability to unite people in struggle. That might well make for better music, but it’s politically a problem. The ability to sing together, although not cool in our oh so ironic and detached age, helped workers riding trains between timber camps, in the fields, and in the mines of the American West get through their daily lives of toil and great struggle. These songs and images created a revolutionary counterculture to the dominant culture of the day that contributed to working-class oppression. Songs and posters were central to building a workers’ revolution. They also served to push a revolutionary message to a polyglot and often illiterate (especially in English) working-class. Not everyone could read a tract. But they might learn the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever.” And it didn’t take a working knowledge of the language to see the meaning of a class war prisoner reaching through prison bars or a muscular man standing proud.

The Little Red Songbook

Through their songbooks, their newspapers, and their flyers, the IWW created really great culture. The black cat. Mr. Block. “Solidarity Forever.” These are images and songs that stick with us. As a labor organization, the IWW was often pretty ineffective. Some of that had to do with the conditions of organizing in the early 20th century. But as much had to do with weaknesses within the IWW. It was not infrequent that the IWW’s commitment to culture actually hindered organizing. The disastrous Paterson Strike Pageant was a prime example, dividing the workers (those not selected to participate were jealous and the resentments split the strikers) and taking them away from picketing, thus allowing scabs into the factories.

A classic piece of Wobbly culture creation

Compared to either the AFL or CIO, the IWW accomplished almost nothing. At best, the union’s campaigns caused so many problems in a given industry that it helped force the government to improve the conditions of workers to undermine it, such as with the Pacific Northwest timber workers I study. But both the AFL and CIO were terrible at culture creation. And as bureaucratic organizations, they had little room the kind of individualistic, showy activity that embedded the IWW in public memory. In fact, they explicitly eschewed this kind of thing as unproductive. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But the IWW remains in the memory of American radicals today as an alternative to an AFL-CIO seen as unresponsive, boring, and bureaucratic. It’s had that power since the late 1960s. And the reason for it is largely the powerful cultural creations like “Solidarity Forever.”

Like many Wobbly intellectuals, Chaplin initially expressed hope that the Soviet Union was the beginning a true workers’ revolution but also like many of them, became quickly disillusioned. Chaplin remained committed to anti-communist leftist thought in the United States until World War II. In 1949, Chaplin became curator for manuscripts at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, a position he retained until his death in 1961. I figure this makes him the most famous archivist in American history.

For a good book on the creation of IWW culture, see Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 91st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 14, 1888

[ 25 ] January 14, 2014 |

On January 14, 1888, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was published. One of the two most influential books in American labor history (with The Jungle as the other), Bellamy’s treatise tapped into the dreams of thousands of Americans who found the promises of the post-Civil War economy a lie and were desperate for alternatives to the reality of Gilded Age capitalism.

By the 1880s, the promise of post-Civil War capitalism had failed the American working class. Most working Americans believed, and this was fundamental to the founding ideology of the Republican Party, in free labor. In short that meant the ability of individuals to control their own economic destiny, either as an independent operator or as an employee in a small shop that would often lead to later independence. But the Civil War had transformed the American economy and while Gilded Age Republicans at first spoke the words of free labor, they consistently supported policies that concentrated capital at the top. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie became unbelievably wealthy while the majority of workers fell into poverty. The search for wealth led to wide-scale corruption that both caused economic collapses and bought off politicians all the way up to Grant’s vice-president.

By the 1880s, a lot of working-class Americans were searching for a solution. Most still fundamentally believed in the system of free labor market capitalism. They generally felt that if they could just tweak the system in one big way, everything would align. So they searched for any number of ways to do that. Some wanted to restrict immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative success for labor unions in American history. Others grasped onto the 8-hour day. The Farmers Alliance sought railroad regulations. Other workers thought Henry George’s Single Tax on land would create conditions of equality.

Of all these one-off solutions, none had more power or appeal than Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy, a previously unknown reporter for the Springfield (MA) Daily Union, wrote a book telling the tale of Julian West, who is placed in a hypnotic trance in 1887 and because of a disaster is forgotten about until he is uncovered in 2000. Waking up, West is confused. His strife-riven, class-divided Boston of the Gilded Age has become a peaceful sort of paradise. Competitive capitalism had disappeared with all its terrible byproducts–inequality, strikes, poverty, taxes, money, wealth, and domestic labor. There were no more political parties, garbage, advertisements, state governments, or corruption. People retired at the age of 45 and lived long lives of comfort. There is harmony between the sexes, although based around a paternalistic view of women.

Most importantly for Gilded Age readers who ultimately still believed in the system’s fundamentals, this revolution was not Haymarket and it was not the Paris Commune. This was a peaceful revolution. Americans saw their society in crisis and voted in the necessary changes.

Bellamy was an evolutionary socialist and his ideas were appealing to those who realized that Gilded Age society was in a state of crisis and needed changes. Looking Backward became a best seller, moving over 1000 copies per day at its peak. By 1891, the book had sold nearly 500,000 copies, making it the biggest best seller of its era. Workers and middle class reformers around the country started Bellamy Clubs to press for his ideas. For the growing middle class, just entering the first stages of what would later be known as Progressivism, Bellamyism had possibly even more appeal than to workers. The first Bellamy Club was set up in Boston in 1889 and they soon spread around the country. A California Bellamyite wrote to him that “When the Golden Century arrives, your name will receive the homage of the human race of that period as the only writer of the 19th century capable of seeing, feeling and portraying the ‘better way.’”

Within the labor movement, Looking Backward was widely hailed. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor embraced his ideas. For the Knights’ leadership, Bellamyism was far more appealing than the anarchism that had led to the Haymarket bombing and helped destroy the 8-hour day movement that had led to its growth up to 1886. The book became central to Knights locals and in fact many Bellamy Clubs became labor unions. The book attracted followers such as Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Upton Sinclair, and Daniel DeLeon. In later years, Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Thomas talked of its influence upon them. The Progressives held the book close as well. Effectively, in a world where people were desperately searching for a vision of a future that included both equality and peace, Bellamy’s dream world was an ideal.

Although one can say this of many futuristic novels, if we squint enough, we can see Bellamy predicting some of the 20th century, including credit cards, shopping malls and radios. As literature, it’s pretty tough sledding. It’s mostly a long conversation between West and his mentor in the new world. It’s stilted and much of it is boring; I used it once to introduce a course on the Gilded Age and it was a complete disaster.

Ultimately, these relatively simplistic solutions to the perils of American capitalism began to fade in favor of far more complex and necessary understandings of the system. Whether through the pure and simple unionism of the American Federation of Labor or the ideologically complex systems of anarchism, socialism, and communism, by the late 19th century, workers increasingly understood that the system they lived in was not an anomaly but rather the intentional creation of the plutocrats. Free labor ideology faded, replaced by class consciousness. Bellamyism had long legs as a utopian ideal, but as a direct goal to attain, more realistic and complex ways of understanding the world came to the forefront.

Edward Bellamy was uncomfortable with the ardor his book evinced and resisted publishing a follow-up. He eventually did in 1897, but it did not sell well. He died in 1898.

This is the 90th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 13, 1874

[ 17 ] January 13, 2014 |

On January 13, 1874, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers met in Tompkins Square Park to protest their unemployment and poverty. There, the police would beat them in the first large-scale state crackdown of the American white poor in the nation’s history.

The Panic of 1873 was the first of the post-Civil War economic collapses to throw the working class into desperation. Caused primarily by corrupt railroad financing, especially thanks to the notorious Jay Cooke, the Panic led to high unemployment throughout the 1870s and created the first explicitly class-based political actions in American history. By November 1873, 55 railroads had gone bankrupt, wages were slashed, unemployment jumped, and the American working class began realizing the impact of the unregulated capitalism suddenly transforming their country. Most Americans at this time lacked what we might consider a “class consciousness” or any real doubt that the growing economic system wouldn’t serve their interests as independent operators manfully thriving. But the Panic began to lead to the first meaningful questioning of how this system affected workers and while substantial and well-organized radical resistance would take some time to develop, the first stirrings of resistance are clear in the mid 1870s.



Political cartoon of the effects of the Panic of 1873 on New York. Frank Bellew, New York Daily Graphic, September 29, 1873

Some urban workers responded to the Panic by organizing into one of the first unemployed workers movements in American history (probably we can trace the very first stirrings of these types of movement to the economic problems of 1857). In New York, the Committee of Safety was formed, demanding public works projects to employ those who needed work and the mayor to meet with them about it. In the first days of 1874, a series of protests became increasingly larger. By January 8, over 1000 workers were meeting in Tompkins Square Park and the demands were growing, including for the 8-hour day.

Tompkins Square as a site of recreation for the poor, 1873

Already though, the nascent labor movement in New York was divided between “radicals” and “conservatives.” Some of the leaders of the Committee of Safety were socialists and other labor leaders in New York denounced them as “communists,” a term with a much less defined threat than the post-1917 period, but one that already meant un-American. A bricklayer named Patrick Dunn led a counter movement that denounced the Committee of Safety and launched his own movement with many of the same demands, culminating in a January 5 march to City Hall. The Iron Molders International Union also tarred the Committee of Safety with a similar brush, using the term “anarchist.” What this really meant to Americans in 1874 was “immigrant that questioned the fundamentals of American capitalism.” The leader of the Committee of Safety was Peter J. McGuire, later famous for being the founding figure and long-time president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which later became the most powerful union in the American Federation of Labor. McGuire called for a mass demonstration on January 13, urging the city to quit evicting unemployed tenants and instead to provide public aid. Many of the unemployed workers were immigrants and McGuire urged sympathy with their plight, a stance many native-born unionists were not willing to follow.

The forces of order across New York freaked out. Calling this the American version of the Paris Commune, newspaper editors and business owners called for the crushing of these workers. The mayor refused to meet, the police refused to allow them to march to City Hall, the governor refused to get involved. On January 13, over 8000 workers met at Tompkins Square. This was the largest political demonstration in New York history to that point. The protestors permit to meet had been revoked but no one told the protestors. Meanwhile, 1600 police officers gathered near the park.

At about 10 a.m., the police moved in and began savagely beating the protestors with clubs, while horse-mounted police cleared the streets. Samuel Gompers, still over a decade away from his ascension as a major American labor leader, remembered, “mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.” 46 workers were arrested. Two men were charged with assault, one, a German named Christian Mayer, for hitting a policemen with a hammer. Most of the arrested workers were unemployed immigrants who could not afford bail. One, Justus Schwab, later became a leader of American anarchism.



The police clearing Tompkins Square

The suppression of the Tompkins Square protests undermined the unemployed workers movement in the city. Most of the city’s and nation’s newspapers lauded the police for purging the United States of its own version of the Paris Commune, beginning a long history of police and big newspaper editors joining to suppress the rights of workers. For much of the 19th century, the police response to Tompkins Square became a model. Pennsylvania law enforcement looking to suppress the Molly Maguires took lessons from it, while Chicago developed militias with the aim of cracking workers’ heads if need be; several of these were engaged in the violence of 1886 that culminated at Haymarket.

The Committee of Safety soon dissolved, attempting to form a political party which soon disappeared on its own. A socialist newspaper campaign convinced the governor of New York to pardon Mayer later in the year, but otherwise there was little public sympathy for the victims of Tompkins Square. In coming years, more class-based social movements would develop as the American working class tried to understand and fight back against this new world of big capitalism. Most notably, in 1877, the Great Railroad Strike would announce to the nation’s leaders that American workers would engage in mass organizing. But it would take over six more decades of economic boom and bust, the growth of class consciousness, and a series of left-leaning movements for working-class dignity before the government would finally become even minimally responsive to the needs of unemployed Americans.

This would not be the last time Tompkins Square found itself the point of police violence, as in 1988, the people who hung out in the park, now a space for punks, youth cultures, and the homeless were angry about gentrification and a 1 a.m. curfew battled police.

This is the 89th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Cambodian Crackdown

[ 55 ] January 11, 2014 |

The Cambodian government has pretty much completed its violent crackdown against the apparel industry workers protesting the terrible conditions of their lives as they toil away in unsafe factories for low wages making the clothes you buy and might be wearing as you read this.

GRASSROOTS protestors, folk songs and labor rights activists converged at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh last week as garment workers campaigned to raise their minimum wage from $80 a month to $160. After the Ministry of Labor approved a wage increase to $95 a month, trade unions and workers took to the streets, demanding $160. According to rights activists, the approved $95 wage is simply not enough to live on. So the campaign continued, galvanized by the support of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had joined the protest in support.

Yet the peaceful protest ended in riots as the military closed in, shot and killed five garment factory workers and injured over 30 others on January 3. A ban on gatherings of groups larger than 10 has been put in place. Twenty-three protesters and labor leaders were missing for a week after their arrest.

“Garment workers and sex workers are blamed as causing public disorder and social insecurity when they organize and protest for better working conditions,” Kun Sothary, of the Messenger Band, told Asian Correspondent. The Messenger Band is an all-woman group made up of six former garment workers which collects the oral histories of garment workers, farmers and sex workers.

“We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical. We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits… poverty, exploitation and human right violation,” Kun explained.

Once again, this is why these arguments made by developed world consumers, including many liberals, that Cambodians need to take care of Cambodia if they want to improve their lot is a morally bankrupt argument. When they do try to change the working conditions of their country, they die. Meanwhile, you keep on buying inexpensive Cambodian (or Bangladeshi or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan) made clothing. The system exists to provide you cheap clothing. Just because apparel corporations have outsourced production overseas does not make you a morally neutral agent in the process.

This Day in Labor History: January 8, 1811

[ 54 ] January 8, 2014 |

On January 8, 1811, the largest armed slave uprising in U.S. history took place. The German Coast Uprising in Louisiana had up to 500 participants marching to New Orleans to attempt a Haitian Revolution in the United States. Only 2 whites died in this uprising, showing the extreme difficulty any slave revolt had in succeeding or even making a dent in the slave power within the United States. Yet for the significance of this event, it is almost completely unknown in popular American history, even compared to the rest of slavery history.

Louisiana developed a significantly different slave tradition than the rest of the United States. Whereas most early British North American slavery was in tobacco (and rice in South Carolina) and then cotton in the 19th century, Louisiana money was made in sugar. This made it much more like the Caribbean. There was a lot more money in sugar than the other crops. This meant wealthier planters and higher concentration of slaves. The German Coast of Louisiana, generally speaking St. Charles Parish and St. John Parish, had these concentrations. Some have estimated a 5:1 ratio although census records suggest a more even ratio. This matters because the larger the predominance of the slaves, the better the conditions were for organized rebellion, something whites knew and a fact that scared the bezeejus out of them, especially after the success of the Haitian Revolution.

From the perspective of the United States government and the nation’s white supremacist ideology, Louisiana was also a troubled place. While Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had close relationships with the French, after purchasing Louisiana, they did not believe the Creoles of Louisiana could govern themselves (they used the typical rhetoric of children needing to learn good government from the Americans that would be used against Native American tribes, the Philippines, and Latin America). Part of the discomfort was Louisiana’s different racial hierarchy, with a wealthy free black community and common consensual interracial sex that led to skin tone rather than one drop rules dominating the racial hierarchy. Jefferson and Madison resisted granting Louisiana statehood, clearly guaranteed in the Louisiana Purchase agreement, until 1812. So when the slave revolt took place, it happened in a Louisiana undergoing rapid changes.

As for much about the history of slavery in this period, the specific details of even such a major event are pretty hazy. Planning for the revolt began on January 6, just after the end of the brutal sugar harvest. The leader seems to have been Charles Deslondes, with men named Quamana and Harry also playing major roles. Quamana and another slave named Kook were Asantes, evidently warriors, who had been imported from Africa around 1806. Deslondes summed up the fear of race mixing and the French system of slavery for American whites, a green-eyed man with greater education and access to the world than the average slave. He was the son of a white planter and black slave and evidently was used as a slave driver.

The revolt began at the home of plantation owner Manuel André, about 36 miles north of New Orleans along Lake Ponchartrain in an area known as the German Coast because of a number of German planters in the area. André was struck with an axe and wounded and his son chopped to death. Deslondes brought the slaves from a plantation owned by widows where he was enslaved. Deslondes led the slaves into the plantation cellar for muskets and militia uniforms.

The precise numbers of slaves involved are unclear and estimates varied. The original revolt consisted of between 64 and 125 participants. As these slaves marched toward New Orleans, they picked up people along the way, leading to a final number of between 250 and 500. It’s thought that between 10 and 25% of slaves from the various plantations affected joined the rebellion, mostly single young men under 30. Armed with hand tools, knives, and a few guns, they marched for two days, covering twenty miles. The historical documentation is sketchy. But there is at least limited evidence that the slaves were aware of the Haitian Revolution and modeled this after that, a possibility given that many Haitian planters had fled to Louisiana with their slaves during the Revolution. It also seems that some of the slaves had military experience in Ghana and Angola before their capture. We do know that the slaves marched in military formation so someone had some military training at some point.

Area whites panicked, fleeing to New Orleans, fearing a Haiti in their midst. And in fact, it does seem that Deslondes and the slaves wanted to conquer New Orleans. Later, after this was over, a slave named Jupiter was asked why he participated. He answered that he wanted to kill white people.

The response to the uprising was utterly brutal. Whites came at the slaves with maximum force. The U.S. military combined with French planters to suppress the rebellion. They came close to New Orleans before being turned around at Jacques Fournier’s plantation and crushed near modern-day Norco, Louisiana, on or very near the site of what is today the Waterford 3 Nuclear Power Plant. As they fled into the plantation backcountry and bayous, whites hunted them down. Another 44 were tried and executed. The total number of dead was around 95. What makes this response different than other slave rebellions is the brutality. Slave owners recognized the rebellion as a very real threat and wanted to be clear of the consequences. So they cut off the heads of the slaves, placed them on pikes, and lined the roads with them, in the most public and brutal suppression of slave agency in the nation’s history. The territorial legislature compensated the owners for the loss of their property by paying them $300 for each dead slave.

The federal-planter alliance to crush the rebellion helped smooth over the hard feelings about the federal treatment of the territory. Louisiana would become a state the next year. It also helped commit the federal government to the defense of slavery. Slowly Louisiana’s system of race and slavery would become more like the rest of the American South.

The most prominent book I know of on the 1811 rebellion is Daniel Rasmussen’s American Uprising, and some of the information for this post comes from there.

This is the 88th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Mapping Child Labor, 1933

[ 20 ] January 7, 2014 |

The Department of Labor provided some useful maps in 1933 of the United States’ patchwork regulations on child labor. One map.

Seems to me that Arkansas was infringing on the freedom of 8 year olds to work given that 4th grade requirement.