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Tag: "labor"

Harry Potter and Working Conditions

[ 17 ] September 17, 2013 |

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

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

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

FLSA Extended to Home Care Workers

[ 11 ] September 17, 2013 |

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

$10

[ 9 ] September 15, 2013 |

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

Your Republican Party–Too Extreme To Accept Company Unions

[ 143 ] September 12, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: September 10, 1897

[ 7 ] September 10, 2013 |

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

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

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

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

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

Strikers near Lattimer, PA

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

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

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

Philadelphia Inquirer depiction of the shooting, September 12, 1897

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: September 9, 1919

[ 59 ] September 9, 2013 |

On September 9, 1919, the police force in Boston went on strike, the most aggressive action to date by American public sector workers. The harsh response from the government of Massachusetts both set back public sector unionism and changed American political history.

The police had basic demands. They wanted union recognition, a pay raise, and improved working conditions. Boston police had not received an effective pay raise since 1854, with the starting salary for new officers the same as it had been 65 years earlier. Cops made only about half an average worker’s salary in 1919 and had to pay for their own uniforms. They worked between 75 and 90 hours a week and did not get paid for time they spent in court. Police stations were dilapidated and unsanitary. In other words, it was a bad job.

The officers’ first response was to petition to join the American Federation of Labor. The AFL first accepted police officers in June 1919 and cops around the nation immediately signed up. Soon, there were 37 police locals around the nation.

As the Boston police began talking about a strike, a key question was one that still dominates discussion of public unions today. Can public workers go on strike? This was not the only issue, as the state was fighting with the police over their right to affiliate with the AFL. But this is a central question of public sector unionism. It is still often debated, with the most resounding position from a politician taken by Ronald Reagan with the PATCO strike in 1981. Today, some states allow public employees to strike, while most do not. On this blog we’ve had debates about whether BART workers should go strike because it inconveniences San Francisco commuters.

The forces of order also worried whether unionized police would continue to break strikes upon orders from their superiors. The police commissioner and Boston Chamber of Commerce argued that police could not be unionists because it would create “divided loyalty,” a phrase clearly demonstrating their fear that the cops would no longer be a force dedicated to defending the interests of capitalists and busting the heads of those who challenged those interests. The Boston Police Department responded to its police joining the AFL by ordering them to disassociate with it. When the officers refused, the police moved toward a strike. After the police commissioner suspended 19 men on September 7 for union activity, the police responded by voting to go out on strike on September 9. By a vote of 1134 yes, 2 no. They were all fired on September 13.

Boston police officers on strike

The police going on strike at this particular time was especially incendiary. The wave of strikes that year no doubt emboldened the cops to take this unprecedented action, but it also helped ensure a belligerent response. Right in the middle of the Red Scare, with Eugene Debs serving time in prison, activists like Emma Goldman about to be deported, and the Centralia Massacre just around the corner, the forces of order were in no mood to respond rationally. Instead, they blamed it on the Bolshevism that threatened the United States. The New York Sun claimed that unionized police would lead to “virtual Soviet rule” while the Newport Daily News wrote that the “whole movement was the very essence of Bolshevism.”

The strike also put the American Federation of Labor in a sticky situation. The AFL had encouraged these police unions after World War I. But this was a new thing. The AFL had rejected applications from police going back to at least 1897. Gompers was trying to build on his close relationship with the Wilson Administration he developed during World War I to expand the AFL into the heart of American life, a plan that would fail miserably in the coming years. He wanted to start organizing public sector workers and began referring to them as fellow workers to the private sector. At the same time, the AFL was nothing if not an organization dedicated to public order and a strike that portended spikes in crime was nothing that Gompers wanted any part of, especially if it portrayed labor’s interest as opposite to the public’s interest.

And what would happen if cops went on strike? Would anarchy result? The answer was sort of. There was a rise in assault, public gambling, and robbery. Moreover, the poor of Boston saw the strike as the class warfare it was, attacking the property of the rich and stoning a group of reserve police with chants of “Kill them all.” After the second night, state police opened fire on a crowd, killing 9.

In response, Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge called out the state guard to restore order in Boston and urged the Wilson Administration to prepare to send troops if needed. The guard busted the police strike and Coolidge fired all 1147 striking cops. Coolidge had opposed the police union from the beginning and completely rebuffed efforts from the police officers before the strike started to help mediate the situation.

Calvin Coolidge

Gompers and the AFL really struggled to respond to this strike for the reasons laid out above. Gompers told Coolidge that the federation did not support public sector strikes, even if it did support public sector unionism. But the ability of the AFL to control the workers federated with it was always pretty limited. Plus there was plenty of labor support for the strike. The Detroit Labor News wrote that policing “may be a sacred trust but the landlord will not accept it in lieu of rent, nor does the grocer consider it a medium of exchange.”

The strikers hoped to be reinstated to their jobs and placed their hopes in the 1920 Massachusetts election for governor, with Coolidge running for reelection against Democratic candidate Richard Long. Long pledged his support for reinstatement and the fired police officers worked for him, but Coolidge won reelection despite losing Boston.

Not surprisingly though, the strike did win real gains for the replacement police. The minimum yearly pay for patrolmen jumped to $1400 a year (still only about $17,000 in 2012 dollars). But the strike devastated public sector unionism around the nation. Even as the government grew, total numbers of unionized public workers declined with remaining unions fearful of even thinking about striking. Public sector unions would always have to be watchful about using the confrontational tactics of private sector workers, a conundrum it continues to face today. The strike’s failure and overwhelming repression also almost certainly delayed collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. The private sector gained those rights during the New Deal, while the public sector had to wait until the 1960s to begin that process. Overall then, crushing the strike was a huge victory for governments who sought to keep their employees union-free.

Coolidge received the Republican vice-presidential nomination for his actions in suppressing the strike and of course became president in 1923 when Warren Harding died, winning election for himself in 1924.

For more, see Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900-1962, by our valued frequent commenter Joseph Slater.

This is the 75th post in the series. The rest are archived here.

Labor Day IX

[ 5 ] September 2, 2013 |

An appropriate song to end this exploration of labor and song is this piece on deindustrialization, Tom Russell’s “U.S. Steel.” I hope you enjoyed this set of labor music.

Labor Day VIII

[ 5 ] September 2, 2013 |

Sure it might be a cliche, but Charlie Haden at least believes that the people united will never be defeated. Besides, we need more leftist jazz.

Labor Day VII

[ 2 ] September 2, 2013 |

Talib Kweli on what working people have to do to get by.

Labor Day VI

[ 1 ] September 2, 2013 |

Richard Thompson on love and strikes.

Official Troll of Labor Day

[ 74 ] September 2, 2013 |

Scott Walker.

Labor Day V

[ 0 ] September 2, 2013 |

Run-DMC reminds us of the hard economic times of African-Americans during the Reagan years.