Longreads.com was not messing around when it chose that name. Sometimes, things are now long reads primarily because the internet makes it possible, as opposed to using the most effective length to get a point across. That’s the case with this extraordinarily long excerpt of Nikil Saval’s new book on the development of white collar labor in the 19th century. Despite (or maybe because of) this, if you want to know about how explicitly white collar labor developed, with a sort of class consciousness of its own, this is a really good place to start. Given how culturally valued white collar labor is over blue collar in 2015 America and how this was very much the opposite before the Civil War, it’s worth exploring this history.
You may well be familiar with the history of the banana companies in Latin America, with their rank exploitation of workers, imperialist treatment of nations, and ability to get the U.S. military to intervene on their behalf. But that story usually ends in our remembered historical narrative with the Guatemalan coup in 1953. Our stories about U.S. imperialism in Latin America after 1959 revolve much more around Cuba, guerrilla movements, and Reagan’s intervention in Central America. But the banana companies have never went away and they are still exploiting workers as much as ever. Diego Arguedas Ortiz reports on a banana strike in Costa Rica:
A strike that has brought activity to a halt since January on three major banana plantations on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, along the border with Panama, has highlighted the abuses in a sector in the hands of transnational corporations and has forced the governments of both countries to intervene.
More than 300 labourers, almost all of them indigenous Panamanians working on plantations for a branch of the U.S. corporation Fresh Del Monte, have been on strike since Jan. 16 to protest harassment of trade unionists, changes in schedules and working conditions, delayed payment of wages and dismissals considered illegal.
“The company laid us off on Dec. 31 and when it rehired us on Jan. 3 it said we were new workers and that any modification of the work applied to us. But according to legal precedent, to be considered a new worker at least a month has to go by,” Federico Abrego, one of the striking workers from Panama, told Tierramérica by phone from the area.
Abrego and most of the more than 300 workers on strike on the Sixaola plantations 1, 2 and 3 belong to the Ngöbe and Bugle indigenous groups, who live in a self-governed indigenous county in Panama across the border from Costa Rica, where many go to find work.
The plantations in Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastal region are the scenario of frequent conflicts between workers and the big banana companies, and the current strike on the Sixaola plantations is just one example. In 2013, Sitepp held a strike to protest poor working conditions and the complaints are piling up in the Ministry of Labour.
In May 2014, an inspection by the ministry revealed a number of violations of the country’s labour laws and ordered the companies to redress them.
For example, according to the report by the national inspection office, “on occasion, company officials use different forms of intimidation against the workers, either through verbal abuse or shouting or practices of labour harassment.”
“After these denunciations were made, they set up a union, tailored to the needs of the company,” the president of Sitepp, Luis Serrano, told Tierramérica. “Through that union they were trying to take over the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement that expired in December. They launched a campaign against us and started to give benefits to the union in alliance with the company, which they created.”
The union leaders complain that despite the binational agreement, they have not yet received food support from the institutions, although the 64 workers covered by the accord were rehired.
A large proportion of the banana industry is in the hands of transnational corporations. Besides Fresh Del Monte, there are branches of other U.S. firms like Chiquita Brands, which controls 24 percent of the country’s banana exports, or the Dole Food Company.
As I continue to say, these workers should have access to U.S. courts to demand redress from these companies. Unless companies can be held responsible in both the nation of corporate origin and the nation of production, the grotesque exploitation of the world’s poor will continue.
By the way, I took that picture of the old United Fruit building in New Orleans. I was very excited.
On March 22, 1914, Mary “Mother” Jones was arrested on a train in southern Colorado for her work in fighting for the coal miners on strike that area. This was her second arrest in this conflict, as she had previously been detained by the state militia in Trinidad and then sent to Denver. Upon release in Denver, she immediately went back to the coal fields, daring the mine owners and their bought police forces to arrest her again. Her work here was typical of the sacrifices this iconic organizer made in the second half of her life as she fought for the miners so badly exploited in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.
Mother Jones is one of the most fascinating characters in American history. An Irish housewife who had little connection to political activism for much of her adult life, she emerged in middle age as a fiery agitator after her husband and all four of children died of yellow fever in Memphis and her dress shop burned in the Chicago fire of 1871. She quickly became the voice of the mineworkers, especially in the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She bridged generations of activism, being extremely close friends with Terence Powderly while also hailing the rise of the United Mine Workers and radical activists that Powderly could barely understand at his peak in the 1880s. She said she was much older than she actually was, which had both rhetorical powers and helped cement her in our historical memory, as she claimed to be 100 years old the year she died when she was probably 93.
By 1897, she was known as Mother Jones, wearing out of style Victorian black dresses and using the mantle of motherhood as central to her organizing prowess. Calling her “mother” both established her as a maternalistic figure among the miners but also centered her emphasis on childhood and motherhood in organizing. For instance, she opposed women’s suffrage and ultimately believed that women should be taking care of their children rather than getting involved in politics. Her own life story made this stance not hypocritical. She also used children in her organizing, including the 1903 Children’s Crusade, a march of miners’ children from Pennsylvania to Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York where the children carried signs reading, “We want to go to School and not the mines.” Roosevelt refused to meet with them. She worked for the UMWA but attended the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of World in 1905 and worked as an organizer for the Socialist Party in the late 1900s, returning to the UMWA as a paid organizer in 1911.
Though all of these actions, Mother Jones became known as “the most dangerous woman in America,” a title given to her by a district attorney in West Virginia by the name of Reese Blizzard. During a 1902 trial where she was charged with ignoring injunctions against miners’ union meetings (1st Amendment in the coal fields indeed!), Blizzard pointed at her, saying “There sits the most dangerous woman in America. She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.” That wasn’t true and served the interests of the owners to say that their employees were actually good people but stupid and easily led astray by outside agitators, instead of admitting their employees had a bloody good reason to go on strike. Anyway, the nickname stuck and this attitude from employers was something Jones reveled in.
In the fall of 1913, a 76 year old Mother Jones traveled to Colorado to participate in mine workers’ organizing in the coal fields in the southern part of that state. Conditions in the coal fields were all too typical of the time: complete industry control over a workforce that was polyglot and desperate. Working conditions were horribly dangerous. Between 1884 and 1912, 1708 workers died in Colorado coal mines (out of a total of over 42,000 nationwide). Companies controlled not only the mines but housing, stores, and education. Union organizing was met with brutality and murder. Effectively, the coal companies controlled workers’ lives in Colorado as they did in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. These were Mother Jones’ people.
Jones’ presence was not welcomed by the mine companies. She was thrown off company property several times. She was arrested twice. After the first arrest, she was placed in a comfortable hospital for a month. After all, she was an elderly woman and a bit harder to crack the whip on than the miners themselves. But on March 23, 1914, she was arrested again. This time, the companies were less kind. They threw her into the Huerfano County jail in Walsenburg. This was no nice hospital. She was forced to spend 23 days in the jail.
The United Mine Workers tried to capitalize on Jones’ arrest. They issued a pamphlet describing (and perhaps exaggerating a bit) the conditions this old woman had to suffer through as she lived her faith of defending the miners. The pamphlet discussed the filthy conditions, the rats in the cell, the snow pouring in a broken window, a guard jabbing her with a bayonet. On the other hand, the mine owners and their friends accused Mother Jones of having been a prostitute in a Denver brothel in 1904 and said her support for Coxey’s Army had consisted of procuring women for sex. On both sides, Mother Jones elicited strong opinions.
After her second release, Mother Jones went to Washington, DC to testify on the conditions in the coal country. A few days later, the Colorado coal wars would see their most violent incident, with the Ludlow Massacre. Between Ludlow and the aftermath when enraged miners went on a rampage against anyone associated with the coal companies, up to 200 people died in this strike, possibly the most deadly in American history. John D. Rockefeller Jr. agreed to meet with her about the conditions of the miners as part of his public relations effort when we was savagely attacked for his role at Ludlow.
Mary Jones died in 1930. Earlier that year, on the day she turned 100, Mother Jones was filmed with sound about workers’ rights.
The key book on Mother Jones is Elliott Gorn’s The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Read it. The most important history of the Colorado coal wars is Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Read it too.
This is the 138th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
The next front in Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republican Party’s war on labor is to abolish the state law that mandates one day off a week. I assume the chances of this bill passing is approximately 100 percent.
Mental health at work absolutely should be something covered by OSHA standards. Workplace happiness is key to overall happiness. If terrible bosses, absurd working hours, and high stress is causing people to die on the job through suicide, that should be the government’s concern and investigations of workplace conditions should be taken as seriously here (understanding that OSHA is underfunded and things are not taken seriously enough) as when a tractor overturns or a worker falls off scaffolding.
New York University, supposedly a bastion of education and academic freedom and whose president John Sexton came on strongly against BDS because of academic freedom issues, made a deal with the United Arab Emirates to open a campus in Abu Dhabi. The reason was obvious: cash. And NYU, supposed bastion of education and academic freedom, is willing to compromise on every mission other than making cash to make this happen. First, there was the terrible wages and working conditions of the migrant labor used to construct this campus. Now, the United Arab Emirates is banning NYU professor Andrew Ross from even entering the country because he reported on those labor issues! What do you think the response of NYU will be? Oh I think we all know the answer–cash another check.
This report shows just how unsafe working conditions are in the fast food industry. 79 percent of fast food workers were burned in the last year and 58 percent received multiple burns. Given the relatively open kitchen of the fast food restaurant, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why as there is a lot of open vats of oil and not a lot of protections for workers. 67 percent of workers were cut, 34 percent were hurt lifting heavy items and 23 percent fell. Perhaps more disturbingly, a full 12 percent of workers claimed they were assaulted on the job last year, although the report does not explore this in much follow up detail. Moreover, employers do a terrible job of dealing with these injuries, especially the burns, where employers give the equivalent advice of “shake it off and keep working.” 33 percent of burn victims reported managers suggested rubbing condiments on the burn instead of getting burn cream.
On March 18, 1871, the French military attacked the worker movement in Paris with the aim of retaking the city for the nation’s government. Workers foiled the military’s invasion and ten days later they formed the Paris Commune. This socialist workers movement controlled Paris for two months and was the first revolutionary challenge to European government in the industrial age (which 1789 really was not in France). It would start the long tradition of revolutionary movements based upon working-class radicalism that would help to define the next century around the world.
The Paris Commune came about as a result of political crisis in France. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 led to embarrassing losses for the French and Napoleon III. This led to the French abolishing their monarchy and replacing it with the Third Republic. The workers of Paris, already radicalized and far to the left of the rest of France, feared that the new government would not truly embrace republicanism and instead just be another form of oligarchic rule by the powerful. They also held the creation of this kind of order contemptible because they had already organized themselves to defend the city against the Germans with little help from the elite. Workers began establishing their own government as a challenge to the new national government. Urban French workers, especially in Paris, had grown increasingly radicalized over the nineteenth century. Socialism was much more accepted in the French working class than in the United States and the French workers were working out its tenets at the same time Karl Marx and others was figuring out its theoretical basis.
Of course, the Third Republic was not going to let a bunch of radical workers supersede its power. When the army came into Paris, the national guard refused to hand over their weapons. The government was forced to flee to Versailles. Obviously this situation was untenable but in the mean time, things got very interesting in Paris. The workers tried to run an alternative government. Louis-Auguste Blanqui, an early communist, headed this government. It abolished conscription and created a citizens’ army, which also granted the right to bear arms to all citizens. It reestablished the calendar of the French Revolution, building connections with that earlier revolutionary movement. Interest payments on debt were suspended. It issued a lot of radical statements, especially empowering radical women to play a central role in the struggle. Paule Mink (born Paulina Mekarska) had a long history of radicalism in Paris, including publishing anti-Napoleon III newspapers. When the commune began, Mink jumped into the fray to demand gender equality, arguing that all workers deserved deliverance from the oppression they faced but that was especially true of women who faced both gender and class oppression. She set up an ambulance service during the commune and also traveled to other cities around France to try and spur the movement there. One leading radical woman stated, “The social revolution will not be realized until women are equal to men. Until then, you have only the appearance of revolution.”
But the Paris Commune also struggled to consolidate power and alienated most of the remaining power structure from the old Paris. It also angered most of the rest of France. Having limited connections with workers outside of Paris and almost none the still largely rural peasantry that made up much of France, this was a urban-based revolution without consent from the majority of the theoretically governed. The communards also lacked any real way to even spread their message to the provinces, relying on vague hopes of working-class revolt than a meaningful plan.
The Commune was also incredibly fractured ideologically. Some called themselves Jacobins and directly connected themselves to radicals of old. Followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wanted a loose federation of communes. Blanqui’s communists wanted to use violence to create a revolutionary state. If anything held them together, it was anti-clericalism. All church property in Paris was confiscated by the revolutionary government. The Commune captured the Archbishop of Paris and executed him on May 24.
The French government was not going to tolerate this radicalism in its capital. Finally, the army marched from Versailles. But retaking the city would be very difficult. On April 2, troops started the attack but the communards held out for several weeks. The revolutionaries had built 600 barricades around the city that had to be cleaned out one by one. The French army entered Paris on May 21 and crushed the movement by May 28. The small commune movements in other French cities were also decimated by this time. Along the way, much of Paris burned, some claim by the radical feminists of the Commune although it seems more likely that most of the fires originated from the general chaos of a civil war. The French army claimed about 887 dead; estimates of Parisian citizens killed usually revolve around 20,000, although some recent totals suggest more like 10,000. At the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the army lined up and executed 147 Commune members. About 6000 communards fled as the fighting doomed their experiment, fleeing to surrounding nations.
In the United States, the Paris Commune itself did not have a major impact on American workers, but scared the capitalists, police, politicians, and journalists of the nation as it entered the Gilded Age. During the next decade, any workers’ movement in the U.S. was darkly compared to the Paris Commune as the future if these workers continued to organize. For example, the response to the unemployed organizing in New York’s Tompkins Square Park was completely disproportional with the threat these workers posed. Only wanting to march to the meet with the mayor, they were beaten by the cops while journalists screamed about the Paris Commune coming to the United States. To put this into perspective, the head of this movement was Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, even at its founding one of the most conservative unions in the United States. One can argue, as the sociologist Kim Voss has, that what placed the United States on a more anti-union path than western Europe was not anything about the American character and instead was about American employers busting heads and organizing themselves into anti-union organizations much sooner than in Britain or France. How they took the smallest American workers movement, compared it to the Paris Commune, and called for its violence repressions suggests evidence for the thesis.
In Europe, the story of the Paris Commune was one of possibility, not failure, as it provided evidence that workers could act collectively to build an alternative society, as well as the use of political violence to defend that society against counterrevolutionary forces.
This is the 137th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
The more the marijuana industry becomes ensconced in the regulatory lap of the American state, the harder it is going to be make it illicit again. That marijuana workers filed charges against employers with the National Labor Relations Board that the NLRB chose to consider is a piece of this; even if the case is non-binding, it brings the industry closer to a normal business. The case, brought by the United Food and Commercial Workers and over retaliation against workers organizing against pesticide exposure, was settled last week. That federal labor law now applies to the marijuana industry, regardless of its legal status from a federal perspective, is really important.
Massachusetts is trying to do something about its tipped minimum wage. It raised it in a recent bill all the way to $3.75 an hour by 2017. To say the least that’s not good enough. A new bill has been introduced in the state legislature to eliminate the tipped minimum wage by 2022. That’s a positive step but still isn’t good enough. The tipped minimum wage should be abolished immediately. I’d sure like to see some statement from the Obama Administration about tipped minimum wages. Not sure what power it would have to eliminate these discrepancies without a bill passing Congress (which of course would never happen), but the tipped minimum wage needs to end.
Vance Muse is the founding father of the right to work movement. Not surprisingly, he was also a virulent racist, saying, among other things about unions:
“From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
Meanwhile, right to work gets rejected for this legislative session in West Virginia, but it probably won’t be much longer given the types of politicians West Virginians now vote into office. I feel terrible about the declining work freedoms in West Virginia, but at the same time, given how hard right and racist the state has gone, in a sense voters are going to get what they asked for, even if not in 2015.