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Tag: "labor"

This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1969

[ 28 ] December 30, 2013 |

On December 30, 1969, Richard Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act into law. The first comprehensive legislation in American history to protect the lives of coal miners, it came only after tens of thousands of deaths in mine accidents and even more deaths from black lung and other breathing problems of the mines.

Through most of the period since the Civil War, the coal companies had treated Appalachia as their own little fiefdom, almost completely controlling life in these isolated places and engaging in maximum violence to eliminate union organizers, especially in particularly isolated West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The United Mine Workers of America finally broke through and unionized the mines in the 1930s under the leadership of John L. Lewis. But the conditions of work were still extremely dangerous. While workers themselves had long worried about safety on the job, the attention of union officials to these issues was not always the greatest. Coal mining always had a fatalism about it, with the assumption of the inevitability of some deaths. Between 1906 and 1970, there were 90,000 officially reported fatal accidents in the bituminous mines alone, as well as 1.5 million job related injuries between 1930 and 1969.

The companies consistently fought against any meaningful actions on workplace safety. What’s more outrageous was the indifference of the United Mine Workers leadership to the death of miners. The law only gained momentum after the Farmington Mine Disaster of 1968. Gas and dust exploded at a mine near Farmington, West Virginia with a long history of similar problems. This horrific event killed 78 miners. UMWA president Tony Boyle basically didn’t care. He was more concerned with good relations with the companies than protecting his workers. At the press conference after the disaster, Boyle told reporters, ‘As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger. This happens to be one of the better companies, as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.’’ Miners were furious. They began to organize against Boyle and his thugs who ran the union like dictators. Key to their complaints was the union stealing health and safety funds to line their own pockets. The specter of immediate death from accidents and slow death from black lung spurred grassroots organizing within the union to fight against the leadership.

Farmington Mine Disaster, 1968

With virtually no help from Boyle or top UMWA leaders, the Black Lung Associations managed to publicize the plight of workers and get Congress to push for a coal mine safety law. The BLAs, led by young miners back from Vietnam or Midwestern cities where they had exposure to the tactics of the civil rights movement, led highly public actions such as shutting down the statehouse in Charleston, all in direct defiance of Boyle. The strikers demanded that West Virginia allow for a multiplicity of ways to test for black lung, agreements to fund health and pension programs in exchange for mechanization that threw people out of work to be honored, and expanded workers compensation coverage. The protest succeeded and West Virginia passed a new law with these demands in 1969.

Black Lung Association protest, 1969

The success in Charleston led to a movement toward federal legislation. The Johnson Administration had introduced a coal mine bill in 1968, but it died along with much of the late Great Society over Vietnam and Johnson’s downfall. The Farmington disaster and worker protests led the government to act more seriously in 1969. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 389-4 in the House. Nixon did not want to sign the law. As with much of the environmental and workplace related legislation he signed, he did so quite reluctantly and only after fighting to weaken the bill. He threatened a veto over the black lung compensation program, leading to 1200 workers going on strike. But seeing the inevitability of the legislation, he signed it.

The law mandated at least two annual inspections at above ground mines and four in underground mines. Miners had the right to request federal inspections. Violators were fined and could be criminally charged if egregiously negligent. Coal miners began to receive periodic x-ray exams for black lung (a process that however has become deeply corrupted and captured by industry) and the right to demand less dangerous work when doctors detected black lung. The law also created a federally administered black lung benefits program.

The lung of a miner killed by pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was a precursor of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed the next year and providing a more comprehensive set of protection to all Americans at work. But like OSHA, the implementation of FCMHSA was limited as business began organizing against workplace safety enforcement. The mine owners challenged the constitutionality of the law and lost. But the tide would soon turn. In addition, these agencies take awhile to become effective, something the miners quickly realized when the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster in 1970 killed another 38 workers in a mine with a long history of indifference to safety. In 1978, a further expansion of the law that would have granted workers themselves the right to test the air for dust was rejected as a violation of property rights in a newly conservative and anti-union America.

The same grassroots outrage that forced Boyle and the UMWA to support the legislation did not abate, leading to the challenge of Jock Yablonski to Boyle’s leadership. Yablonski ran for the presidency of the UMWA in 1969, announcing, “Today I am announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America. I do so out of a deep awareness of the insufferable gap between the union leadership and the working miners that has bred neglect of miners’ needs and aspirations and generated a climate of fear and inhibition.” He ran on a platform of health and safety, including a greater emphasis on fighting against black lung.

Yablonski was “defeated,” in the sense that Boyle committed massive fraud to keep himself in office. A mere week after the legislation passed, Boyle had Yablonski murdered in his home by thugs. Miners for Democracy came out of these acts, demanding the overthrow of Boyle, which succeeded with federal supervisions for elections and Boyle’s arrest for the Yablonski murder.

As of 2007, over 600,000 miners and widows had received several billion dollars in benefits from the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

Much of the information for this post came from Daniel Fox and Judith Stone, “Black Lung: Miners Militancy and Medical Uncertainty, 1968-1972,” in Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers, Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, Revised 3rd Edition, 1997.

This is the 86th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

The Lives of Fast Food Workers

[ 157 ] December 28, 2013 |

Sasha Abramsky with a valuable look into the life of one fast food striker demanding a $15 an hour wage. You know what she wants that she can’t have? Fruit.

Roberts, who is now thirty-eight years old and working at a K.F.C. in Oakland, is slightly stout, with hair done up in braids. She is quick to smile, and she has a matter-of-fact attitude about her circumstances. Tacked to the wall above her stove is a Bob Marley poster with the quote “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Around mid-morning, after Thomas, now fifteen, has headed off to school, Roberts walks to the K.F.C. on Telegraph Avenue. She earns eight dollars an hour as a cashier, and she typically works five- or six-hour shifts.

“I pack orders, take orders. I clean, take out the garbage. I deal with belligerent people, disrespectful people, I deal with a lot of people who do drugs—so I’m basically a security guard, too,” she told me. During a ten-minute lunch break, she wolfs down free fried chicken. In the early evening she walks home to her apartment, where, when she has food in her small refrigerator, she prepares dinner.

I visited Roberts a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, and she still had leftover turkey in an tinfoil baking tray. She usually cooks a lot of beans and ramen noodles. The night before, she said, she had sautéed some vegetables and made a sandwich.

Often, though, she can’t afford vegetables. She is paid little enough that she qualifies for a hundred and ninety-five dollars’ worth of food food stamps, but they run out after a couple of weeks, and by end of the month the fridge shelves are virtually bare, and Roberts starts skipping meals so that Thomas can eat more. “I’d love to eat fruit,” she told me. “Fruit is my favorite. Peaches. Nectarines. Cantaloupe. Bananas. I like Fuji apples. Can’t afford to eat it.”

Should any person in this country be denied apples and bananas, employed or unemployed? No and I don’t think I have to explain why.

Meanwhile, Yum, which is not only the stupidest name of any corporation in the history of the United States but which also owns KFC, has paid its CEO David Novak $81.5 million over the past five years.

The Year in Labor

[ 34 ] December 26, 2013 |

Pretty depressing write up unless you believe the fast food and Wal-Mart campaigns are going to add up to something concrete, a point which I think is maybe for fast food and very unlikely for Wal-Mart. As for the big political picture:

Union strategists once really hoped that Obama would usher in a transformed labor law regime, passing laws to make the state aggressively avert or avenge firings like those at Wal-Mart. (Such firings’ comparative scarcity in fast food could be explained by community escorts used to back up employees returning to work; by the greater difficulty of coordinating union-busting under a franchisee model; or by a collective action problem among the top fast food chains targeted, with no one corporation wanting to become the campaign’s primary target.) Instead, organized labor has spent the Obama era largely playing defense. In politics, this year brought unions some real victories — from an audacious $15 an hour minimum wage passed in tiny Seatac, Washington, to a long-awaited Labor Department regulation covering the growing ranks of home care workers, to a labor-backed blow against the filibuster in Congress. But it dealt its share of indignities and defeats. The Obama Administration kept elevating leaders from union-busting companies to cabinet posts, pushing NAFTA-style trade provisions and dangerous poultry rules, and palling around with Wal-Mart, while rebuffing union pleas to ease Obamacare woes, raise contracting standards or cease deportations. In the space of hours, Illinois Democrats and Republicans came together to cut union members’ pensions, while a federal judge ruled that Detroit workers’ weren’t as sacrosanct as they’d appeared.

There’s plenty of links within the original article on all these issues, but as has been the norm of his presidency, Obama’s record on labor is mixed but leaning toward the poor side.

In general then, the most positive thing that’s happened for labor is growing momentum for an increased minimum wage. But more typical for labor has been pension cuts, workplace safety problems such as we saw at West, Texas, and the increasingly visible impact of American corporate strategies to outsource production to death traps in Bangladesh. Less visible but important in people’s daily lives is long-term unemployment or underemployment, increased income inequality, and the continued decline of the American middle class, conditions openly supported by one political party and half of the other political party.

I am skeptical 2014 will be any better. I also hope I am wrong.

The U.S. Government and Sweatshop Apparel

[ 10 ] December 24, 2013 |

This is a very strong piece of journalism detailing how the United States government contributes to the exploitation of apparel workers around the world. The problem is multifaceted. Some of it stems from constant pressure from a Congress that doesn’t care about safe or dignified jobs pressuring the Pentagon to cut unnecessary expenses like uniforms made in respectable conditions. Some issues come from the military base exchanges guaranteeing products sold at equal or lower prices to whatever military families get on the outside, meaning downward pressure on the world’s working conditions. But other parts of the problem stem from the government simply having very little interest in ensuring that it is not part of the problem.

Labor Department officials say that federal agencies have “zero tolerance” for using overseas plants that break local laws, but American government suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam show a pattern of legal violations and harsh working conditions, according to audits and interviews at factories. Among them: padlocked fire exits, buildings at risk of collapse, falsified wage records and repeated hand punctures from sewing needles when workers were pushed to hurry up.

In Bangladesh, shirts with Marine Corps logos sold in military stores were made at DK Knitwear, where child laborers made up a third of the work force, according to a 2010 audit that led some vendors to cut ties with the plant. Managers punched workers for missed production quotas, and the plant had no functioning alarm system despite previous fires, auditors said. Many of the problems remain, according to another audit this year and recent interviews with workers.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, employees at the Georgie & Lou factory, which makes clothing sold by the Smithsonian Institution, said they were illegally docked over 5 percent of their roughly $10-per-day wage for any clothing item with a mistake. They also described physical harassment by factory managers and cameras monitoring workers even in bathrooms.

At Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which makes clothes sold by the Army and Air Force, an audit conducted this year found nearly two dozen under-age workers, some as young as 15. Several of them described in interviews with The New York Times how they were instructed to hide from inspectors.

“Sometimes people soil themselves at their sewing machines,” one worker said, because of restrictions on bathroom breaks.

Federal agencies rarely know what factories make their clothes, much less require audits of them, according to interviews with procurement officials and industry experts. The agencies, they added, exert less oversight of foreign suppliers than many retailers do. And there is no law prohibiting the federal government from buying clothes produced overseas under unsafe or abusive conditions.

“It doesn’t exist for the exact same reason that American consumers still buy from sweatshops,” said Daniel Gordon, a former top federal procurement official who now works at George Washington University Law School. “The government cares most about getting the best price.”

There’s no question that American consumers could put pressure on the government to live up to international labor standards. But this sort of movement, if it ever actually exists, is almost certainly going to be ephemeral as the nature of activism goes from one issue to another for reasons no one can ever pin down. As I’ve stated before, the only real solution to these problems over the long-term has to be giving workers in factories access to courts around the world, not dissimilar to the human rights decisions made in Spain against dictators like Augusto Pinochet for instance, that gives workers real access to monetary compensation and punishes contractors, including governments, for working with contractors who violate national labor laws, abuse workers, and provide unsanitary and unsafe working conditions. While complex to create, this has to be the long-term goal in order to provide the workers of the world the power to improve their lives without risking further capital mobility to yet another impoverished nation.

Also, wouldn’t it be nice if the American government wasn’t part of the problem for once?

This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1969

[ 62 ] December 24, 2013 |

On December 24, 1969, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood wrote a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn protesting a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies and asking to be declared a free agent. Thus began a process that freed professional sports athletes from total control by the owners and began the period of free agency, when athletes were finally paid fairly for the revenues they generated.

Major League Baseball had long exploited its players. The key tool for this was the reserve clause. This gave owners total control over player labor, allowing the movement of players from team to team only through trade, release, or retirement. In other words, when the owner was ready to dispense with them or the player decided to quit.

Flood referenced slavery in his letter, writing, ”After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” This was a shot at the total control white owners had over all players’ labor, who were supposed to be happy that they could play a kid’s game and appreciative of the father figure-owner who gave them the opportunity. This labor of course made owners an incredible amount of money, of which the players saw very little. Flood made $90,000 in 1969, the equivalent of $555,000 today. That’s not nothing, but for a well above-average outfielder in a profession with a relatively short work life, it was not nearly enough for the profits he generated through his work.

Curt Flood

When Kuhn denied his request, expressing some outrage at the slavery comparison, Flood sued for his release. He claimed not only did the reserve clause violate antitrust laws, but also the Thirteenth Amendment, doubling down on the slavery comparison in a time of great racial tension in the United States. The Major League Baseball Players Association was trying to become a real union. It was established in 1953 to provide some level of representation but was weak in its early years. Luckily for Flood, he had an ally at the MLBPA in lawyer Marvin Miller. Hired by the MLBPA away from the United Steelworkers of America in 1966, Miller desperately wanted to turn the organization into a force that would, among other things, destroy the reserve clause. He had won credibility with players by winning a collective bargaining agreement from the owners in 1968 that raised the minimum salary from $6000 to $10,000, which was pretty significant. Miller convinced the other players, many of whom were skeptical and turned off by the slavery rhetoric (the white ones anyway), to bankroll Flood’s case.

Marvin Miller

Miller himself was outraged by the reserve clause. As he put it, “Yes, you’re an American and have the right to seek employment anywhere you like, but this right does not apply to baseball players.” Miller told Flood this would kill his career but Flood was willing to go to the mat in order to improve the lives of baseball players in the future. Flood himself had a long history of activism, including attending civil rights rallies in Mississippi in 1962, a risky move for any African-American but perhaps even more so for an “outsider,” coming from Oakland as Flood did. In 1964, Flood successfully sued a man who had sold Flood his house in the Oakland suburb of Alamo, CA without meeting him; when Flood arrived, the owner pulled a shotgun and refused to let him and his pregnant wife entrance. So Flood, a political man with a great deal of courage, was willing to take this sacrifice and use racially charged language in doing so.

The case cost Flood his career. Although he was beginning to fade in his age 31 season, he likely had at least one more good year in him. He did manage to play 13 games in 1971 for the Senators, but was out of baseball after that. It’s also worth noting the atmosphere of fear Flood faced. When Flood testified in court, not a single other active player showed up because they were terrified of the owners. Only the retired stars Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg attended. In 1972, Flood lost his case before the Supreme Court, 5-3, after the Anheuser-Busch stock owning Lewis Powell, who would have voted in his favor, recused himself from the case and a last second change of mind by Warren Burger. Flood was granted free agency but the baseball antitrust exemption could only be removed by an act of Congress.

In the short-term, the marginal nature of Flood’s victory gave Marvin Miller greater leverage in his battles with owners and he forced them to agree to binding arbitration for grievances. But it was not until 1976 that an arbitrator ruled Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents that the reserve clause fell away and the modern era of free agency began.

Of course, owners resisted free agency in all sports as strongly as they could. In baseball, owners colluded in the mid-80s to not bid up free agents, a direct violation of the collective bargaining agreement. This was coordinated by MLB commissioner Peter Uberroth, who wanted the owners to run their teams as a business and not spend millions of dollars for the best players. Between 1985 and 1987, only a few players changed teams. But further lawsuits forced the end of that strategy and player salaries skyrocketed by the late 1980s. The 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the game was the final major battle in this war and the determination of the Yankees to win every year and other new owners willing to spend to catch up with them pretty much ended any concentrated owner resistance to high salaries. The growth of television contracts has only pumped more money into the game, making the salaries of today’s baseball players far beyond the dreams of Curt Flood.

Flood’s actions began the modern professional sport labor union movement. The long-term effects has been to unionize each of the four major sports leagues, creating titanic salaries for a few and pretty good salaries for most everybody. The sports unions have had a contentious relationship with the American public who hated to see “their” players leave for other teams and even go on strike. But ultimately, Flood is one of the great heroes of the American labor movement in the late twentieth century.

This is the 85th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The First Teamster

[ 32 ] December 22, 2013 |

International Teamster, 1949

Wage Theft in the Chile Fields

[ 30 ] December 17, 2013 |

Green chile.

The greatest gift New Mexico has given to the world, when you visit the Land of Enchantment, that chile is found everywhere from the most humble breakfast burrito (breakfast taco is second rate Texans) to the high end overpriced Santa Fe restaurants where tourists from the Upper East Side play Mabel Dodge and wear hoop skirts or buckskin with fringe as they go out to dinner. The smell of roasting green chile in the fall is the single greatest smell on the planet.

Regardless of where you eat your chile, you probably don’t think much about how the chile is produced. Like the rest of agriculture, we do a really good job of separating our consumption from the production of the plant or animal. And that’s certainly true of green chile, where we can hold onto an image of a small family farm surviving for 200 years on acequia irrigation rights than we can for beef or corn or tomatoes or whatever. We are supporting the local economy by eating this product that can only be grown in a few places (although an increasing amount of New Mexico green chile is now grown south of the border). But the reality is that the conditions in the chile fields are bad and wage theft is depressingly common.

In the cool of the early morning, the crew of about 60 workers moves quickly down the rows, rushing back and forth to the crates. Lopez, a big woman, is soon breathing heavily. As the day progresses, the temperature rises, hitting 88 degrees. Exhaustion kicks in, and everyone slows down.

Lopez was told that the crew would work until noon that day. Then 12:30. Finally, at 1 p.m., she calls it quits. “I work until my body says, ‘Stop,’ ” she says. Her legs hurt, her arms hurt; she is spent. She holds out her right hand. It is shaking.

Soon, more workers leave the field. But the tractors keep coming, bringing more empty crates waiting to be filled. No one gets paid until the day’s quota is met, so Lopez waits. At around 2 p.m., there’s a long pause between tractors and she’s convinced she’ll finally get paid. Then another one pulls up. She shakes her head and mutters “pendejo,” a profane word for idiot. By the time she’s paid, she’s lost yet another hour. For filling 55 buckets, she’s paid $46.75. She worked 6.25 hours and waited another two.

She should have earned much more. With rare exceptions for very small farms, state law mandates that when workers are paid hourly—for example, when weeding a field or picking chiles—they must receive the New Mexico minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. If Lopez’s wait time is factored in, her hourly pay falls far below $7.50. That means that, in effect, her wages were stolen.

This is a very strong piece of journalism, demonstrating the many ways that workers wages are stolen, how little most buyers of green chile care one way or another, and how the state of New Mexico simply doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it. It also has a governor that doesn’t care about poor people, which doesn’t help. Of course this is hardly unique to green chile. Wage theft is “as common as dirt” among farm workers generally. With the exception of the late 60s and 70s, when Cesar Chavez was a useful stand in for Martin Luther King among white liberals who wanted to do something for change without dealing too strongly with their own complicity in a racist America, farm workers have always been the forgotten workers of the United States and that’s certainly true today.

The Holy Mother

[ 5 ] December 12, 2013 |

The only known recording of Mother Jones for your Thursday night. This is from an interview on what she claimed was her 100th birthday in 1930. She did exaggerate her age somewhat and when she died that year, it is thought she was actually 93.

This Day in Labor History: December 8, 1886

[ 15 ] December 8, 2013 |

On December 8, 1886, the American Federation of Labor formed at a meeting of union officials in Columbus, Ohio. The most successful labor federation in American history, the AFL has long had its critics on both the left and right, but ultimately its founding president Samuel Gompers understood the realities of Gilded Age politics and how to negotiate the best possible deal for workers in that atmosphere.

It is a bit hard to talk about the American Federation of Labor in 2013. Samuel Gompers has a pretty bad reputation among progressives. Some of it is deserved. For instance, Gompers openly lied to Congress about Industrial Workers of the World sabotage and supposed connections with Kaiser-led Germany during World War I because he wanted the government to crush the rivals to the AFL. Gompers created an organization that would not organize Asians, blacks, women, children, or the people of the new industrial factories, i.e., the burgeoning American workforce. Gompers’ AFL considered itself a movement of the elite skilled workers, making a mass movement of American labor impossible. His craft unionism meant that when factories were organized, it was into 10 or 12 different unions in the same workplace, each with its own agenda, as opposed to the later industrial unionism that would finally challenge the AFL fifty years later. Gompers supported anti-immigration legislation, from extending the Chinese Exclusion Act to ending Japanese immigration to the Immigration Act of 1924.

Samuel Gompers

Hard guy to love.

But we can set all this aside for a minute and at least focus a touch on what the AFL did right?

First, we need to understand the milieu the AFL grew out of. 1886 was notable for 2 major events in American labor history. The first was the collapse of the Knights of Labor after the Haymarket Riot. The Knights had very quickly transformed from a fraternal organization into a massive social movement due to the 8-hour day appeal. But the Knights not only had no ability to manage its suddenly huge constituency, but it had few concrete ways to achieve these gains. The 1880s was a period where Americans were struggling to even comprehend the rapid growth of industrial capitalism and many sought highly simplistic one size fits all solutions like the Single Tax, Chinese Exclusion, or the 8-hour day. The AFL understood the complexities of modern capitalism much better and took a different strategy of working toward concrete, if limited, improvements in the conditions of working people. And they achieved a great many victories through the union contract, especially considering the open hostility of employers and the government through much of its early history. The AFL actually was a splinter movement from the Knights. When the latter organization attempted to find a way to make itself financially stable through encouraging local unions to withdraw from their internationals and become direct affiliates of the Knights. Although some locals agreed, the internationals revolted and thus the AFL began.

Second, Samuel Gompers was not a dictator. Just like the AFL-CIO today, he oversaw an organization made up of constituent unions that often disagreed with one another. That he supported a craft union model made this worse, yes, because it encouraged division rather than unity. But he couldn’t dictate this one way or another. This is also true of the racial and immigration problems of the AFL. Was Gompers at fault? Or was it the white supremacy of the American working class. Let’s not forget that the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory of the American labor movement and that it came in 1882, four years before the AFL formed. It wasn’t a top-down movement that led to the massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885. Blame Gompers for his share of the problem, he deserves it. But also blame the endemic and violent racism of the United States in 1886. Or 1936. Or 1966. At each time, labor was deeply divided by race.

We might also want to reconsider the AFL’s “pure and simple unionism” in our time of organized labor struggles. He and his supporters (especially P.J. McGuire of the powerful United Brotherhood of Carpenters) said labor should only care about itself and improvements in pay, hours, and working conditions, rejecting larger political agendas to transform society. If a politician was labor’s friend, labor would support him no matter the rest of his positions. If a politician was labor’s enemy, he was the enemy. Gompers eschewed federal intervention in the workplace because he did not believe the government could be counted on to protect workers. Only the union contract would. He even opposed parts of the welfare state we value today, including workers compensation, because that system as developed in the 1910s took power away from workers to sue their employers for much money in court than they would get from the government. Gompers would likely look at today’s labor movement, embedded within the Democratic Party but getting very little out of that investment, and confirm everything he believed. Not saying I agree here, but this situation is more or less what Gompers feared.

The AFL also did a tremendous amount for the American working class, or at least part of it. Its unions won major gains throughout the Gompers years (he died in 1924). They weren’t always long-lasting; ultimately, the AFL needed the New Deal as much as those fighting for industrial unions did; despite Gompers (and then William Green’s) theoretical non-partisanism (although this began to fade after about 1908 as the Democratic Party became more openly pro-labor), it actually did need to elect politicians in order to create semi-permanent victories. The AFL started slowly, won some good gains in the 1890s, took a big blow from employers in the 1900s, had major wins during World War I, and then got punched in the gut over and over in the bad 1920s. But while other social and labor movements came and went, the AFL maintained itself and its members with a solid, if sometimes uninspiring, philosophy of the union contract.

So I’d like to think there is still a lot to learn from the American Federation of Labor, and not just things not to do. This was the most successful labor movement in the history of the United States, it’s relationship with politicians in the early decades maintained labor’s independence and ultimately maximized its political strength, and its understanding (even if that was an acceptance) of capitalism meant maximizing its ability to squeeze real benefits from employers that made workers’ lives better and avoided quixotic and simplistic solutions to what ailed the working class. The AFL’s social, racial, and anti-radical positions means that it is probably nobody’s idea of what the modern labor movement should look like. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t create a lot of positive change that the entire working class benefits from today.

This is the 84th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Fast Food Strikes

[ 281 ] December 5, 2013 |

Today is the largest mobilization of fast food workers in history, with workers across the country engaging in a one-day strike. The basic demand is a $15 an hour wage. SEIU has played a major role in spurring this movement, even though it has little to gain immediately since the chances of a union contract that would pay dues is low to nonexistent in the near future. But this is the kind of forward thinking leadership that labor needs to take with non-union workers in industries away from their base (in SEIU’s case, health care and government) that won’t necessarily build the dues structure. The recent populist push for higher wages, coming out of Occupy and seen most concretely in the Sea-Tac $15 minimum wage passed last month, is a good sign that people are uniting around a specific concrete goal as a first step. Rep. Raul Grijalva is pressing Obama to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers covered by government contract, which he can absolutely do but almost certainly won’t. But it is more concrete pressure from the left that combined with people on streets, can and I think will move more Democrats toward making meaningful changes in the national wage laws.

Greenhouse’s piece linked above cites economists claiming a higher wage would lead to a lot less employment, but I am skeptical of this and don’t see any real evidence as to its truth. If mechanization is cheaper, it’s going to be cheaper at $7.50 too and a few bucks an hour to the few workers in a fast food joint isn’t going to make or break that process. It’s certainly possible that an employer could try to staff with less workers, but that’s another problem that workers can organize around. It’s also of course worth noting that employers and their lackeys make these arguments about every improvement in the conditions of workers and have since at least the Civil War.

This is How a Meaningful Third Party Movement Begins

[ 65 ] December 5, 2013 |

My criticism of most 3rd party political campaigns are well known. I see them, personified by the Nader campaigns, as quixotic attempts every four years to show left-wing anger with the Democratic Party but completely lacking any legitimate political strategy, movement-building skills, or long-term plans. They appear and disappear and nothing happens during the election off years. They don’t organize locally, they don’t try to challenge the Democratic Party on the city and county levels. Essentially, they are spasms of self-righteous anger that occasionally do enough damage to elect Republicans, which then makes life for the 99% much worse. Also, thanks for Iraq, Ralph.

But here is an alternative. Lorain County, Ohio is a Democratic dominated county. The split there is between unionists and centrist anti-union hacks. When the Democratic Party overturned a Project Labor Agreement that guaranteed union jobs, labor took matters into its own hands. The Central Labor Council ran its own set of candidates for City Council and won most of the races.

This isn’t a full-fledged third party movement. But it’s exactly how labor and third party activists should operate. You start on the local level, you organize, and you win. You then build from there. What the CLC will do going forward is unknown. But not only have they sent a message to the Democratic Party that they can win elections if the Party doesn’t fall in line behind labor, they have provided a guidebook for how those to the left of the Democratic Party can reject the party and still make a difference.

If only the Green Party activists and Nader defenders would learn from this.

This Day in Labor History: November 30, 1999

[ 31 ] November 30, 2013 |

On November 30, 1999, protests began in Seattle, Washington against the World Trade Organization. The WTO meetings offered unions, environmentalists, and various social and economic justice activists from around the world a forum to voice their rejection of the neoliberal free trade agreements of the late 20th century that had undermined American unionism, allowed corporations the mobility to flee meaningful labor agreements or environmental restrictions, thrown millions of farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands as cheap American agricultural goods flooded world markets, and stripped people around the world of the ability to influence the economic conditions of their nations and the social and economic safety nets created in the twentieth century to provide people with a modicum of dignity. These protests raised an important hue and cry against this injustice, but became most known for the violence that took place on the streets.

The general story of what went down on the streets is pretty well known. A loose coalition of people opposed to free trade agreements decided to target the WTO meeting in Seattle as a general point of protest. The protest was supposed to be nonviolent, but as is usually the case, there wasn’t much of a mechanism to ensure that it actually was so. The idea quickly caught fire and at least 40,000 people came to the protests, making it the largest international protest against free trade in world history. I don’t want to spend much time focusing on the idiotic black bloc anarchists who decided to break Starbucks windows during the protest and undermine the nonviolent mission of the protests without permission from the other stakeholders. I also don’t want to focus on the fascistic police response by the Seattle Police Department, which should allay any mythology that the police will ever be on the side of working class protest, unless it is very much in their own interest to do so. I’d rather focus here on the role of the labor movement. But by the evening of November 30, the streets of Seattle were at war and the labor and environmental organizations who had planned the thing found their message swamped in a sea of violence and the media coverage of it.

Labor’s involvement in the protests came in the wake of the federation increasingly realizing that the good old days were no longer true. There was a lot of denial and trying to ignore the problem of labor’s collapse in the 90s, although the defeat over NAFTA and the ascendance of John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO were clear signs that at least some people were trying to take it seriously.

The first moment of the protests, and really more accurately the weeks before the protest, saw an uptick in conversations about how labor was finally reaching out to other social organizations. “Turtles and Teamsters” was the phrase used to describe this phenomenon, an apt one as this came just a few years after the resolution of the ancient forest campaigns and spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest that saw environmentalists and labor at each other’s throats. But environmentalists and labor had long had much in common and had for the last three decades had off and on alliances over specific issues. So this was not unprecedented but was meaningful at this point, particularly in its public nature. And at the protests, Steelworkers and Earth First members were making many of the same points–that free trade agreements undermine both good working conditions and environmental standards, that workers breathe in the same air as environmentalists, and that without meaningful protections on labor and environmental standards, a race to the bottom would ensue around the world, which is of course exactly what has happened.

After the protests, recriminations were everywhere, particularly against the Seattle city government and police, as well as the anarchists. Organized labor’s role in the whole event was largely forgotten. Left leaning discontent quickly moved on to the Nader campaign, while 9/11 changed the course of the nation’s history, or at least so popular culture likes to believe. But in the narrative of the left, 9/11 is what killed any chance of meaningful continued actions against unfair trade.

Even without the black bloc protestors and 9/11, we can legitimately question whether any real movement would have developed out of Seattle that would have led to meaningful alliances and a program for change. I am skeptical. It was immediately clear that this was a moment where various people could protest against something but that what would come next was a question no one was prepared to answer. That isn’t denigrating the moment, but everything that happened at Seattle was the easy part. That’s why I’m a little skeptical about the 9/11 claim; it seems like a cop-out for the fact that there wasn’t really any meaningful alliance building going on that would lead to an obvious next step. Once host cities and countries isolated the protesters from the function of the meetings, there wasn’t much else the various movements could do because there wasn’t any other plan. It’s possible that had the AFL-CIO and environmentalists placed the repeal of NAFTA and other free trade agreements as the one and only thing on their agenda and fought like the devil to make it happen–well–it probably still wouldn’t have worked given the overwhelming dominance of neoliberal ideology among the Republican and Democratic Party at the time. But that was probably the only concrete place where such alliances could have really made a difference where it counts–in the law. And in any case, such an alliance was not really feasible. I don’t disagree that on a national activist scale, 9/11 and the War on Terror dropped economic concerns from a high priority–and even today, look at so many of the people progressives claim to love and how little many of them ever talk about economic issues–but honestly, there’s not a whole lot of evidence from the last 40 years that what passes for the non-union left in this country has had much real impact on the nation’s trajectory.

But that doesn’t mean that commenters of the time didn’t hope it was so. The WTO protests was the first time I remember labor writers and activists and historians make statements that I’ve seen over and over again since–at the Wisconsin protests, during Occupy, after the Chicago Teachers Union strike–that this is the moment when labor will turn it around. This is almost entirely wishful thinking and it places a big burden on those trying to build a movement, but once people started realizing that the American labor movement was in very real trouble, they began hanging enormous expectations on whatever pocket of labor uprising popped up at a given moment.

So what to make up the WTO protests for labor? Ultimately, it’s not much. It is an important moment in public perception. But the ultimate effect of these protests upon the American working class was basically zero and the odds were long against it ever becoming something more than zero, even if the protests and the aftermath nationally took an entirely different course.

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