Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "labor"

This Day in Labor History: May 30, 1741

[ 20 ] May 30, 2017 |

On May 30, 1741, Quack and Cuffee, two slaves convicted of a conspiracy to burn New York and start a slave rebellion, were burned to death. Part of the New York Slave Conspiracy, the events of the spring of 1741 demonstrated both the racial and class tensions in New York, as well as the dependency of that city upon slavery.

Although in popular imagination slavery was a southern phenomenon, in the colonial period, New York was a major destination for slaves. In 1741, in the colonies that would become the United States only Charleston had more slaves than New York. The Dutch imported the first African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626 and the first slave auction was held there in 1655. The British expanded the slave presence in the city significantly. By 1703, 42 percent of New York households were slaveholders. In 1711, New York established a permanent slave market at the east end of Wall Street, which operated until 1762. These slaves operated in a number of jobs, including household servants, dock workers, working for merchants, and doing much of the grunt work that went into creating that colonial center of commerce.

In March and April 1741, 13 mysterious fires started in Lower Manhattan, including one inside Fort George, where the colony’s governor lived. The Fort George fire, on March 18, burned several municipal buildings. The city freaked out. Some claimed they saw slaves celebrating the fires. In any case, suspicion fell on the city’s large slave population. The city starting trying slaves, offering leniency and even pardon in exchange for confession. The first slaves were hanged on May 11. These slaves, Caesar and Prince, had been convicted of robbing the home of a prominent citizen. Regardless of whether they even committed the robbery, they became associated with the conspiracy. Then on May 30 were the burnings of Quack and Cuffee. The confessed with the torch about to be applied and named names. There is no good reason to believe these were legitimate confessions; moreover, they were burned anyway. In the many arrests and “confessions” that followed, whites decided that there was a large-scale conspiracy to overthrow slavery in New York that would have led to Caesar being named the king of whatever city followed. They believed that the plan was for individual conspirators to start fires and then kill their masters in an orchestrated event.

By June, the New York population decided that it was bigger than just their slaves. No, their slaves were working in league with Catholics to allow the Spanish or maybe the French to invade the city. Tensions were high between the Spanish and English in the late 1730s and the frequent wars between these powers were real to everyday people, so thinking in these terms perhaps made sense, although how the Spanish would coordinate a campaign of slave arson remains a stretch to consider. So Catholics began to be targeted by the authorities as well. Finally, the star witness, Mary Burton, an Irish servant to a tavern owner who had been arrested for theft and who agreed to expose the conspiracy, began to say such ludicrous things, expanding her ever-increasingly accusations to leading white Protestant New Yorkers, leading people began to question the whole enterprise and the mania to subside.

About 150 slaves were arrested and tried for starting the fires. A few dozen whites were arrested as well, usually poor whites who worked with the slaves. The vast majority almost certainly had nothing to do with it. It’s entirely possible that no one was guilty at all. The weather that winter was very cold, making a wooden city very dry with lots of fires going on to keep people warm. There were always many ways fires started in a city constructed of wood. Slaves were frequently accused of plotting to burn buildings and it’s really impossible to know how true these accusations were. They ranged from entirely made up to very real. Media in the colonies frequently reported on slave uprisings, some of which were very real such as in Antigua in 1736. That the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina took place in 1739 made the slaveholders of New York even more nervous.

Even more relevant was that in 1712, slaves in New York had in fact set buildings on fire and then murdered nine whites fighting those fires. But any time slaves got together, whites saw it is as a threat. That could be in taverns, as was often the accusations in New York, or later it could be in churches such as Denmark Vesey’s or even in slave cabins and forests behind plantations at night in the antebelllum South. Forced labor had the downside of making slaveholders rightfully worried that people without other options would rise up violently to free themselves, or at least kill their oppressors. The visit of George Whitefield to spread his evangelicalism in what became known as the Great Awakening put New York slaveholders further on edge, as by 1740 he was openly arguing for better conditions for slaves, to the point that he was arrested in Charleston in 1741 for his arguments about slavery.

Not everyone thought this was a good idea. On August 8, an anonymous letter to Cadwallader Colden remonstrated him for his actions, comparing them to the Salem witch trials. The anonymous author urged Colden, “I intreat you not to go on to Massacre & destroy your own Estates by making Bonfires of the Negros & perhaps loading yourself with greater Guilt than theirs.” But such words would have little effect on a population paranoid over revolt from their slave laborers.

In the end, the bodies of two supposed conspirators, Caesar and the white cobbler John Hughson, whose tavern the slaves were supposed to have started the conspiracy, were gibboted and their corpses left to rot in public. Several slaves were burned at the stake. Overall, at least 30 blacks and 4 whites were killed. 77 others, both black and white, were deported from New York to Newfoundland, which was the British Empire version of being sent to Siberia, or the death traps of the West Indies.

Slavery continued for a long time in New York. Thousands of slaves followed the British as they left New York during the American Revolution. A New York law for gradual emancipation passed in 1799. The last slaves were not freed from New York until 1827, 51 years to the day after the nation declared independence from Britain.

This post borrowed from Eric Plaag, “New York’s 1741 Slave Conspiracy in a Climate of Fear and Anxiety,” published in the Summer 2003 issue of New York History. I have heard good things about Jill Lepore’s recent book on the issue, but I have not read it.

This is the 224th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


This Day in Labor History: May 29, 1941

[ 60 ] May 29, 2017 |

On May 29, 1941, cartoonists at Disney went on strike. This ultimately successful strike was a critical point in the organizing of Hollywood and also marked the end of Disney’s run as an innovative artistic force, so bitter did it make Walt Disney.

Walt Disney was a tremendously successful man in 1941. His work, particularly 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1940’s Pinocchio and 1940’s Fantasia had made him one of the most famous artists in the world. In the wake of this success, his studio expanded rapidly, from 200 employees in 1935 to 1100 in 1940. Disney was also a notorious right-winger and anti-communist. This put his politics well outside the mainstream for American artists. They were also starkly different than the writers and animators Disney hired.

Cartoonist organizing began in 1936 with the founding of the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG). In 1937, the AFL-affiliated Commercial Artists and Designer Studio won an initial strike at Fleischer. In 1940, the SCG decided to take on the big three animation companies, MGM, Schlesinger (Warner Brothers), and Disney. By May 1941, the first two were organized and the companies had acquiesced. But Disney proved harder, in part because it hired the cream of the crop and some of the animators thought themselves above unions, in the way that some elite workers always see organizing with their peers as a step down for them (this is certainly the case with a large number of very successful professors, for example). And in some ways, Disney animators had it better than others. But Disney himself was highly paternalistic. He set low wages, demanded long hours and refused to pay overtime, and he demanded total submission to his executive authority. He also paid people different wages on a whim, causing a lot of resentment when you knew the person next to you was getting more for no good reason. Cartoonists also did not receive professional screen credit for their work. Disney preferred to take personal credit for everything that came out of his studio. Finally, all of their work was the intellectual property of Disney. Everything they drew belonged to him. This infuriated the cartoonists.

In the fall of 1940, the SCG began organizing Disney. It appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, at this time an openly pro-union outfit in the federal government, to recognize the union. But it demurred and as Disney refused to recognize it and then fired 24 union activists in an open purge, the union members voted to walk out on May 29. This was risky as it only had about half the cartoonists committed. This led to a lot of tension on the lines, with a lot of scabbing going on and the bitterness that creates among those striking. Within a week, the United States Labor Conciliation Service stepped in to mediate. But it did not go well because Disney was so recalcitrant. He personally threatened many strikes and vowed revenge against them by name. He claimed they were communists or communist dupes. He had his own company union, even those they were outlawed by the National Labor Relations Act, and he was determined to keep it. The NLRB issued an unfair labor practice against Disney for this during the strike; Disney’s response was to change its name and nothing else.

Generally, the divided workforce fell along generational lines, with older workers opposing the strike, along with poorly paid women painters. Younger male workers tended to support the strike. But this was not universal. Art Babbit was Disney’s chief cartoonist, the inventor of Goofy, the wicked stepmother in Snow White, and Gepetto in Pinocchio. He was also one of the 24 agitators Disney fired.

The strikers became known for their witty signs, often using the same Disney characters they created, as the image at the top of this post suggests. They published comic strip accounts of the strike in local publications. They received a lot of support from other unions. The Society of Motion Picture Film Editors supported the strike and the processing of Disney films at the Technicolor, Williams, and Pathe labs stopped. Disney workers also went out in support of other unions, including the United Auto Workers strike at North American Aviation. Disney workers picketed in front of the showings of Disney films, which made bigger connections between them and the various Popular Front organizations in Los Angeles, such as Film Audiences for Democracy and the League of Women Shoppers, who sent Disney a notice that they supported the strikers and would spread that endorsement through the nation.

The strike only ended because the government convinced Disney to go on a goodwill tour in South America as part of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. Doing so allowed more reasonable heads at Disney to prevail and the strike to be settled. Even here though, Disney’s position was a problem. South American unions were aware of the Disney strike and were protesting him. Blackie Myers, head of the National Maritime Union, told the government he planned to notify the South American unions in the ports where his members disembarked. The government now mediated the strike more intensely. On August 6, a settlement was reached. However, on August 15, Disney threatened to layoff 207 of the returned strikers, leading to a second two-week strike. Finally, near the end of August, all issues were settled and the strikers returned to work. Everyone on the payroll on May 15 was reinstated, including the 24 fired union supporters. Pay rates were equalized by job, taking away Disney’s personal power to set pay rates capriciously. A system of salaries and classifications was set, severance pay created, draftees into the upcoming war would receive 6 weeks salary, and a grievance procedure was created. The SCG also became the bargaining agent for Disney workers.

Disney was furious at the negative publicity. And he never got over it. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he said the only way his workers had received that much publicity was because of communist coordination. He claimed, in the kind of whining that one is used to hearing today from Donald Trump, a man whom Disney shared no small number of traits, “I even went through the same smear in South America and generally throughout the world all of the Commie groups began smear campaigns against me and my pictures.” Sad!

Disney’s bitterness over the strike undermined his own artistic creations. He reduced staffing at the studio and his personal period of creativity ended. Some of the Disney strikers became radicalized during the strike and became more involved in the Popular Front, producing cartoons not only for the war effort but for left-wing unions and even a cartoon intended to help organize the South during Operation Dixie.

I borrowed from Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century in the writing of this post.

This is the 223rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 17, 1933

[ 17 ] May 17, 2017 |


On May 17, 1933, Rep. Robert Houghton, a North Carolina Democrat, introduced H.R. 5755 into the House. This would become the National Industrial Recovery Act, the first comprehensive attempt to fix the economy of the Great Depression through national planning. While deeply flawed, the NIRA not only was a critical early response to the Depression, but it also spurred tremendous labor activism that laid the groundwork for the more comprehensive labor legislation of the decade.

From the beginning, the NIRA was intended to stabilize the economy by reducing the ruinous competition between businesses in many industries, leading to no one making money. Thus, the Roosevelt administration worked closely with many major corporate leaders who saw how this could work to their advantage. In fact, many New Deal programs tended to promote an oligarchical capitalism of a few companies dominating each industry. The Chamber of Commerce was behind it, as were leading capitalists such as Gerald Swope of General Electric and Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel. The monopoly aspects to it did lead to opposition in the Senate from people such as George Norris and Hugo Black but it passed and Roosevelt signed it on June 16.

The NIRA created the National Recovery Administration and the Public Works Administration. General Hugh Johnson was placed in charge of the NRA and Harold Ickes the PWA. The NRA would be more important in terms of implementing the act. The Blue Eagle was created as the NRA’s symbol, with compliant companies getting the official seal of approval. But from the beginning the NRA did not work well. There were hundreds of industry codes approved and thousands of business practices outlawed. The pages of legal opinions about implementation ran to the tens of thousands or more. It was only a 2-year program before it needed to be renewed and it became fairly clear early on that renewal was unlikely.

Section 7(a) was the most controversial part of the legislation. It read, in part:

employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents, in the designation of such representatives or in self-organization or in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection; [and] (2) that no employee and no one seeking employment shall be required as a condition of employment to join any company union or to refrain from joining, organizing, or assisting a labor organization of his own choosing.

Some industry captains thought there might be a place for “responsible” unions in helping to regulate these industries because stable decent wages that were enforced across industry would undermine that devastating competition. Since business couldn’t stop competing with each other, some at least wanted government and even unions to do it for them. This led to the insertion of 7(a). The needle trades actually openly relied on the Amalgamated Clothing Workers led by Sidney Hillman to enforce the industry code against cheaters in one of the worst industries when it came to devastating competition. The retailer Edward Filene stated, “Our labor unions have a better understanding of what is good for business today than our chambers of commence have.” AFL president William Green definitely agreed and saw the NRA as the ticket to rebuilding a movement absolutely devastated by the anti-union sentiment of the 1920s and one that was carefully watching its left wing as well to prevent its model of business-friendly conservative unionism from being challenged.

FDR and Johnson assumed 7(a) would be self-regulating and so created no meaningful enforcement mechanism. That did not work. It soon created an ad-hoc National Labor Board after the fact to mediate disputes and it had good people on it–William Green, John L. Lewis, Robert Wagner among them–but it was winging it. Meanwhile, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, most employers absolutely refused to accept unions in their workplaces. The oil and chemical industries simply ignored anything the NRA said about labor. The Chemical Alliance told its members to ignore NRA wage standards. In fact, the NLB’s decisions alienated Hugh Johnson as well. After it ruled against Weirton Steel and Budd Manufacturing in a couple of cases that pushed labor rights, both the employers and the NRA itself simply ignored the rulings.

Workers thought that 7(a) explicitly said that the government wanted them to organize. That wasn’t really true; FDR had not gone that far. But it barely mattered. The NIRA gave workers an opportunity to shape their own history. Incredibly angry over their treatment on the job, the continued repression of their unions, and desirous of making serious change to their lives and the country, workers believed that the NIRA was a message from the president telling them he wanted them to join a union. Of course, this is not what Roosevelt said or meant. He had no major problem with unions and believed they had a role in regulating the nation, but he was not overtly pro-union at this point. In the first six months of 1933, the economy lost an average of 603,000 worker days to strikes per month. In July this went up to 1.375 million days and in August to 2.378 million as workers tested just what the NRA would do for them. Then, in four great strikes in 1934–at the Auto-Lite plant in Toledo, the docks in San Francisco, in the trucks and warehouses of Minneapolis, and throughout the textile belt in the South and New England, workers walked off the job to fight for the rights they believed Roosevelt had granted to them.

The NIRA was declared unconstitutional by an outraged Supreme Court in Schechter Poultry Corporation v. U.S. in 1935. By this time, business had turned against the NRA very sharply. Charles Evans Hughes wrote the decision for a unanimous court. The actual impact of this was limited. By this time, Roosevelt himself saw the weaknesses in the plan. Congress was unlikely to reauthorize it anyway as it had been so disastrous in practice. So he moved on to his so-called Second New Deal, a period that included the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, following closely upon the Court’s decision. The latter finally granted workers the explicit right to organize. The NLRB grew out of the NLB, which had renamed itself the National Labor Relations Board in 1934 and would be legally enshrined the next year.

I borrowed from Colin Gordon, New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920-1935 in the writing of this post.

This is the 222nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 12, 1878

[ 10 ] May 12, 2017 |


On May 12, 1878, Catharine Beecher died. This is a moment to discuss the incredible importance of Beecher’s 1841 book Treatise on Domestic Economy, its influence on housework for middle class women, and the general rise of housework as a modern middle class phenomenon that transformed the nation.

Born in 1800 in East Hampton, New York, Beecher was the daughter of the famed minister Lyman Beecher and the sibling of such luminaries as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. Like her siblings, she played a critical role in the creation of middle-class Victorian culture. She ran a school where she experimented in the new food reforms of the time such as the Graham diet, which she did not give up until her students asked to dine at a real restaurant with her, after which she realized that food maybe should taste like something. She opposed Indian Removal and she focused her energies on building educational facilities in the West and South.

Modern standards of household cleanliness were basically unknown in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both in terms of personal cleanliness and modern housework, Americans still lived basically medieval lives. This became a more serious problem as American cities grew rapidly with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The upheaval around that event began to create the social tumult that opened room for new ideas like those movements the Beecher family supported and pioneered, in addition to temperance, women’s suffrage, free public education, and the unusual religious movements associated with the more extreme elements of the Second Great Awakening. Both the economic and social tumult also began to create the beginnings of the middle-class, which included a series of social values that would be strongly associated with both the personal standards that class would demand of themselves and the reform mission work that it would use to attempt to impose these ideas on a broader society. Women would play a central role in all of this, including everything from serving as Christian missionaries to China to temperance. This is the world into which Catharine Beecher entered on the issues of cleanliness and middle-class household standards, redefining women’s work in the home.

In 1841, Beecher published A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. In this book, Beecher went far to create modern housework standards. For her, the home was not only the refuge of women (a standard feature of 19th century middle class reform thought) but also a place of labor. She believed housework was a legitimate profession and thus women should be educated for it like they would be educated to be teachers. She believed the English were “distinguished for systematic housekeeping, and for a great love of order, cleanliness, and comfort.”

Her book attempted to teach these qualities to American women. She focused on practical advice around childcare, cleaning, training servants (the Irish of course who for a nativist like Beecher needed a lot of training), cooking, sewing, nursing, gardening, and other skills a proper middle-class woman needed to create a new generation of moral Americans. She called for a redesign of houses to create an architecture of cleanliness. Every room would have a fireplace, a kitchen needed a good sink, and wells or cisterns must be located nearby so that the constant amount of laundry that needed to be done in this brave new world of housework could get accomplished. While her book mostly avoided the subject of bathrooms, she did emphasize bathing and rejected the common idea that dirt was healthy. She encouraged full body bathing, fresh air, and exercise.

Of course, it’s not that Beecher was wrong about some of these issues. Americans were shockingly filthy and unhealthy in 1841 and those two issues were related. Cholera epidemics were striking with disturbing regularity and the nation would see just how disastrous public health ideas could be during the Civil War. The lack of bathing did lead to disease and Beecher’s own experiences at health resorts grounded her in the benefits of cleanliness. She noted that horses received more attention to their cleanliness than horse owners gave to themselves. Beecher was not alone in her quest. Beecher would later publish works on the need for women to exercise as part of her larger crusade. During the mid-19th century there were many middle-class reformers making similar arguments, including Sylvester Graham, William Alcott, and Beecher’s sister-in-law Eunice Beecher, who wrote about furniture and domestic arrangements within the context of cleanliness and health in the middle-class household. Catharine Beecher was perhaps first among equals and her book went through several editions. The overall impact of this movement was to transform middle-class ideas of cleanliness by the time of her 1878 death, ideas that then began to be pressed down onto the rapidly growing urban working class and onto the still sizable number of rural dwellers in the nation. All of this had a deeply moral aspect to it. For Beecher, who was by no means a feminist, women had a moral role to play in civilizing men and educating the next generation. Women were to play a decidedly subservient role in the household, yet that role was absolutely crucial for developing the nation and she believed they should embrace by making their homes citadels of cleanliness.

The modern creation of housework during the mid-19th century always had the theoretical side of freeing women from drudgery. But the reality was that most of the technologies created to save women work while keeping up proper standards created more work for women. There were some exceptions. The invention of the electric washing machine in 1910 obviously was easier for women than the horrible drudgery of washing clothes over an open fire that required hauling water. But the idea of proper housework only led to increasingly higher standards over what a properly clean house meant. With all of this work done by unpaid female labor (or sometimes paid female labor, but always for someone else’s house and this declined dramatically after 1910 or so), it vastly increased the daily labors of millions of women.

I originally wanted to write this post using the exact date of the publication of Treatise on Domestic Economy. If anyone has access to this information, I would appreciate it. I could not find it and had to use her death date instead.

I borrowed from Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness in the writing of this post. Kathryn Kish Sklar’s 1976 biography of Beecher is also a standard of the early women’s history, but I have never read it.

This is the 221st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Blast from the Past

[ 4 ] May 11, 2017 |

Working on my next book today, I stumbled across this New York Times article from 1979 on the fresh new look Lane Kirkland was going to bring to the AFL-CIO. That turned out well!

Four weeks ago, Kirkland was back at the White House, announcing a turnaround, a triumph for the labor team that had eluded Meany himself the year before. It was a “national accord” with President Carter that came closer to making labor a partner in determining national economic policy than anything ever negotiated in this country, even in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Kirkland made his trip to the White House just after learning that he would almost surely be elected president of the A.F.L.‐C.I.O. at the federation’s biennial convention in Washington to be held in mid‐November. Meany, now 85 and ailing, had made it clear to Kirkland, whom he designated his heir apparent by promoting him to the number two job in 1969, that the convention would mark the end of his own quartercentury reign as “Mister Labor.” Over

A.H. Raskin, for many years chief labor correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, is now associate director of the National News Council. the last 25 years, the former plumber from the Bronx had established himself as the living symbol of the union move- ment. Kirkland’s only rival for the post, J. C. Turner of the Operating Engi- neers, who had planned to run as an up- from-the-ranks mechanic, pulled out of the race after Meany told him he thought Kirkland had proved his right to the job.

Once Meany’s protective arm is re- moved, how successful will the gentle- voiced egghead be in shoring up labor’s sagging public image? Will he be able to still the power drives of restless re- formers in a movement long wedded to the tradition that the only worthwhile training grounds for union leaders are the shop floor and the picket line?

Kirkland, who trained in college for a diplomatic career and served his union apprenticeship at a researcher’s desk in federation headquarters, will not lack for early tests, inside and outside the movement. Labor’s ark is leaking. Only one worker out of four in the non- farm work force now belongs to a union. When all wage earners are counted, the ratio drops to one out of five. The union heartland in the North- east and Middle West is losing facto- ries, offices and jobs to the “right-to- work” states of the Sun Belt. Low‐wage sanctuaries in the Far East and Latin America are swallowing up tens of thousands of American union jobs.

There are no easy answers for those problems, in 1979 or 2017. But then Kirkland never really tried to come up with any either.

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1837

[ 6 ] May 10, 2017 |


On May 10, 1837, New York City banks announced they were suspending specie payments. This began the Panic of 1837, the first of the nation’s many major periodic economic collapses that would culminate in the Great Depression nearly a century later.

The economic crisis of the 1830s had many factors. First and foremost was the terrible economic policy of Andrew Jackson that culminated in the veto of the Bank of the United States renewal and the subsequent Deposit and Distribution Act that placed federal money in state banks that were absolutely horribly regulated. Combined with the Specie Circular that demanded that federal lands be purchased in coin and the Jackson administration had really set the table for a disaster, policies fully approved of by the new president, Martin Van Buren. All of this forced the reduction of lending out of New York banks, which was exacerbated by British lending policies that forced higher interest rates, all of which meant that the price of cotton declined 25 percent in the first months of 1837. As the South was highly dependent on stable cotton prices, this undermined the nation’s largest economic sector. In addition, many states, taken with the canal craze that swept the nation after the success of the Erie Canal had invested heavily in expensive and profit-poor projects, creating high levels of state debt that would be increasingly hard to pay off.

Over the next five years, the economy bounced back and forth. It looked like it would recover in 1838, but then collapsed again in 1839. It was not until 1843 that the economy sufficiently recovered to be out of the depression, although some economic indicators suggest that parts of the economy had grown during these years while others contracted. That the states had largely independent, if interconnected economies, meant that the Panic of 1837 affected them differently. New Hampshire was barely impacted as it lacked permanent debt to service, while Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware were devastated. Pennsylvania’s debt grew to $40 million by 1841, with $2 million in annual interest payments, a situation made worse by the fact that New York had won out the region’s internal trade due to the Erie Canal. The Keystone State doubled its tax base by raising taxes but it was so small to being with that this did not come close to servicing the debt. It defaulted in August 1842, even after grabbing whatever assets from the now closed BUS it could. The high level of debt among southern planters threw many of them out of business, but even here it varied by state, with Georgia and Florida able to put off dealing with the consequences until about 1840.

The impact on the nation’s growing urban working class was profound. The sailors who worked out of New York had no work as exports from the U.S. collapsed. Said Sailor’s Magazine, “The large number of ships lying at our wharves for months unemployed, have borne melancholy testimony of the complete stagnation of trade. Thousands of seamen have been cast on shore with but a few dollars in their pockets, scarce enough to pay a fortnight’s board.” Unemployment probably rose to about 8 percent. In the modern context, this doesn’t sound like it’s too bad, but understand that the sizable majority of white people were farmers during these years and unless they were bound up in high levels of debt, which was only true of a relatively small number of southern slaveholding planters, this didn’t really affect them too much, except for perhaps a decline in grain exports out of a nation that consumed most of its agricultural products locally during these years.

But in the cities such as New York and Philadelphia, the growing working class responded with low levels of protest. Probably 1/3 to 1/2 of the northern urban working class suffered at least one period of long-term unemployment between 1837 and 1842. Just before the Panic was the Loco Foco-inspired Flour Riot in response to the rapidly rising rate of flour in New York over the past year. Tammany Hall responded to this working class protest by adopting most of the anti-bank measures demanded by workingmen, even if these did not do much to solve the unemployment problem the workers faced. That prices declined by 35 percent in some areas probably helped alleviate some worker anger as their meager earnings did buy a little more.

In the long run, the Panic of 1837 itself is not that significant in the larger trajectory of American labor history. It did not lead to any large-scale movements or immediate social protest. The urban workingmen’s economy was too marginal to the rest of the nation’s workforce to create massive political upheaval. But not only was it an early moment when the poorly regulated American financial situation showed how it could create havoc in workers’ lives, but it also was an important moment in the laissez-faire ideas of government relationships with the economy that would dominate the next century. With so much of the problem caused by state investment in infrastructure, the lesson for many was that the state should stay out of economic regulation. This allowed employers to seize the rhetorical and legal playing field against their workers who would start demanding better lives and wages in the years after 1837 and provided a powerful political base to crush those workers’ movements.

However, if you extend the time frame a bit, you can see the Panic of 1837 helped spur eventual movements from below that also provoked government at all levels into the overly charged fears of revolt that would mark its response to worker political movements from Shays’ Rebellion to the Great Depression. This included the Dorr War in Rhode Island that challenged the state’s archaic and reactionary political institutions and led to the declaration of martial law by the governor, the anti-rent war in the Hudson Valley against the old Dutch patroons who still held power and which was cracked down upon in 1845 (although the landlords would finally give up the fight by 1850), and the 1844 Kensington Riot in Philadelphia, which was a battle between Irish immigrants and nativists. None of this happened directly because of the Panic of 1837, but the economic upheaval caused in cities by this started processes that led to various sorts of working-class movements in the coming years.

I borrowed from Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 in the writing of this post.

This is the 220th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1959

[ 6 ] May 8, 2017 |


On May 8, 1959, Local 1199, the union of New York hospital workers, went on strike. This action, while not really successful, played a critical role in not only organizing hospital workers and expanding collective bargaining rights, but also in pioneering multi-racial organizing coalitions among service workers who were becoming an increasingly sizable part of the American workforce.

Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as the Pharmacists Union of Greater New York after merging several smaller unons. From its beginning, it both took on segregation and used industrial tactics to organize the hundreds of pharmacies in the city. 1199 was led by Leon Davis, a Russian-born drugstore clerk and ex-communist, taking on the name in 1936 when it received that number within the Retail Clerks International Association. It bolted the AFL for the CIO in 1937, one of many tiny unions to do so. It’s leftist leadership and anti-racist politics meant was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s but largely escaped unscathed, in part because it was so small. It found a home in the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union in the late 1940s, previously known for very little except being the union that Montgomery Ward resisted so stringently in World War II that the Roosevelt administration nationalized the store’s headquarters. 1199 also pioneered a union-led health care plan for its members in 1945 that provided employer paid hospital, disability, and life insurance. This was later expanded to be union-administered in 1948 and to include prescription drug benefits in 1951.

By 1957, it had organized about 90 percent of New York’s drugstores. It then set out to organize the city’s hospitals, wanting to extend its excellent benefits to other workers in the city’s rapidly growing but poorly paid health care industry. Nationally, there were 2.5 million workers in health care by the late 1950s, more than steel and railroads combined. But like today’s emphasis on industrial and coal mining work as the real union jobs as opposed to the vastly more numerous service sector jobs, there was little attempt to organize these workers. The hospital workers were a highly racially diverse lot with large numbers of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, but this fit 1199’s long anti-racist politics. It won an early success in 1958, organizing Montefiore Hospital after it cut a long-standing benefit that allowed workers to eat in the cafeteria for very low cost that would be deduced from their paychecks. That hospital already had good conditions for organizing because it housed a lot of the workers onsite and thus the black and Puerto Rican workers already knew each other. They built a culture of standing up for each other even before 1199 started organizing. Organizers reported that the African-American workers were easier to organize than the Puerto Ricans but by the summer of 1958, a majority of both groups carried union cards. Montefiore settled in December 1958, granting a $30 a month increase in pay, overtime pay, grievance procedures, sick leave, and vacation time.

The organizing quickly spread because the wins unionized hospital workers had accomplished created a huge gap in conditions with non-union hospitals. A unionized 1199 pharmacist made $120 for a 40-hour week with benefits where as Beth Israel dietary workers made $29 a week for a 48-hour week and an orderly at Mount Sinai reported making $17 after taxes. Many non-union hospital workers were on welfare to make ends meet. 1199 announced it would organize the city’s 35,000 workers in hospitals and nursing homes. After a bit of a hiccup when it got overstretched, it focused on six hospitals where it had high support, largely Jewish hospitals such as Beth Israel, Beth David, and Mount Sinai. The vote in those six hospitals to strike was 2258 to 95. Hospital officials obtained a restraining order but could not serve it to Davis or the other union leaders as they went into hiding to avoid it. The strike started on May 8 at 6 am and nearly all of the 3500 workers went on strike. They received great support from New York’s other unions, who told their members that they needed to support the strikers regardless of race. Said one local to its members, “These strikes are human beings, no matter what their color or country of origin.” 175 union locals provided active support for these workers, with donations pouring in that allowed these impoverished people to maintain their strike.

On March 19, New York mayor Robert Wagner tried to negotiate a settlement, but details are vague today about his offer, the workers overwhelmingly voted to reject it, and 9 more hospitals saw their workers join the strike. The hospitals won injunctions against Davis and other leaders, who were put in jail. It did not matter. In fact, this only increased the contributions from Democratic political clubs around the city. The president of the New York NAACP sent out a press release on May 17 calling on those “who are of Latin-American descent or African descent to rise up in protest and demonstrate your objections to this type of injustice that is now being imposed on our brothers and sisters.” Black and Latino leaders around the city, including Adam Clayton Powell, organized a march on the hospitals on May 24 to demand union recognition for the workers. People such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bayard Rustin, and Reinhold Niebuhr then endorsed the strike.

On June 22, after 46 days on strike, Wagner again intervened. He sat both sides down and hashed out an agreement that was only a very partial victory for 1199. It did not grant them union recognition and instead created a committee that would arbitrate future disagreements. But the organizing continued internally and a year later, 3000 hospital workers would be represented by collective bargaining agreements. 1199 constantly submitted demands to this committee while realizing that true victory would not be achieved until New York granted workers collective bargaining rights.

1199 continued its aggressive organizing and soon spread beyond New York City. In 1962, Davis was imprisoned for 30 days during a strike to organize El-Beth Hospital, which led not only to a union victory but to New York extended collective bargaining rights to non-profit hospitals, necessary because the National Labor Relations Act had excluded hospital workers because those were largely black workers and it required southern support to pass. That was won in no small part because A. Philip Randolph played a crucial role in organizing the strike and his stature was so great that he commanded enormous respect. By 1964, it expanded to New Jersey and eventually throughout the region, although an attempt to organize hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina in 1969 ran into a freight train of anti-unionism combined with hatred of the civil rights movement.

In 1984, 1199 left the Retail Union and remained independent for awhile. In 1998, 1199 merged with the Service Employees International Union, helping to make SEIU the nation’s most powerful and important union in the twenty-first century.

I borrowed from Frederick Douglass Opie’s Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office, in the writing of this post.

This is the 219th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 1, 1899

[ 14 ] May 1, 2017 |


On May 1, 1899, Florence Kelley began her work for the National Consumers’ League. Not only was the Consumers League a critical organization in the fight against child labor, but Kelley established herself and middle-class women more broadly as key allies in the struggle for dignified labor in the United States and made labor feminism a major part of the broader women’s movement.

Kelley was born in 1859 in Philadelphia to an abolitionist family. Her father William Kelley was a founder of the Republican Party and he served in Congress from 1861 until his death in 1890. Growing up in the waning reform movements of the Gilded Age, Florence spent her childhood being read books about child labor by her father. She entered Cornell at the age of 16 and wrote her thesis on impoverished children. She dedicated her life to this issue. She read Marx, studied in Zurich, and advocated for socialism. In 1891, she joined Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago. There, she took on child labor with aplomb, expanding the already activist nature of that institution. Her 1892 investigation of the labor conditions in Chicago’s garment sweatshops led the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics to hire her. She became the state’s Chief Factory Inspector in 1893 and fought for Illinois to pass the nation’s first 8-hour day law for women and prohibit the employment of children under the age of 14, which happened the same year.


In 1899, she moved to New York to head the newly founded National Consumers’ League. Addams and Josephine Lowell chartered the organization to use the power of women’s activism to press for women’s issues on the job. Lowell had founded the Consumers League of the City of New York in 1891 to help consumers understand which products were produced ethically. In 1899, they decided to take this nationwide. Addams hated to lose Kelley from Hull House, but she was the best person for the job. Living at the Henry Street Settlement House from that point until 1926, she continued the fight with her indefatigable energy. She made the Consumers’ League the top opponent to the sweatshops that dotted New York City, employing thousands of low-paid and easily exploitable immigrants, especially young women. Between 1903 and 1905, it focused primarily on child labor laws, but then expanded its mission significantly. It produced a series of publications setting out both the conditions of labor and publicizing what was happening in the states. For instance, in 1906, it published “Handbook of Child Labor Legislation.” Written by Josephine Goldmark, another critically important labor feminist of the era, it laid out the different laws in the states around the issue. It established the Code of Standards to lobby consumer efforts in service of decent labor standards. Using a consumer campaign called the White Label Campaign, Kelley sought to let consumers know which factories were making clothing in safe, healthy working conditions that did not horribly exploit workers or hire children. To make this effective, it had to inform consumers that they must demand manufacturers agree to it in order to pressure them. This was probably the first organized consumer campaign in favor of labor rights in American history.


It urged consumers to boycott clothing that did not have this label and was effective enough to get many companies to comply. Of course, many did not. Among those were the Triangle Shirt Waist Company, where 146 workers would die in 1911. It was precisely this type of company the Consumers League targeted, as it initially focused on women’s underwear manufacturers. It then focused on waitresses, as well as artificial flower and canning companies, both major exploiters of female and child labor.

In 1907, Kelley played a critical role in creating the arguments that would lead to Muller v. Oregon, the pioneering case to allow work hours limitations on women. She and the League contributed heavily to Louis Brandeis’ famous brief that explained the real conditions of women workers to the Supreme Court. While Kelley was primarily concerned by the conditions faced by women and children, she hoped that such a decision and the laws that she fought to pass would be a chink in the armor of the contract doctrine that defined the Lochner decision. Unfortunately, Kelley’s labor feminism would be opposed by other sides of the feminist movement, most notably by Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, who first claimed that laws that protected women also oppressed women by making them different than men but then simply opposed all labor laws as the New Deal developed. The Consumers League wrote minimum wage laws for states to pass. It supported the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. It also won the creation of the Children’s Bureau at the federal level in 1912, where for years it was run almost entirely by women, many of whom had worked directly for Kelley and the Consumers League. She was a mentor to Frances Perkins, who would be the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, when she served as Secretary to Labor from 1933-1945. Among the other women to work for Kelley was Eleanor Roosevelt, who started work there in 1903 and became a major player in the White Label Campaign.

Kelley continued with the Consumers League until her death in 1932. She kept up the fight, pursuing justice in the Bunting v. Oregon case, where in 1917, the Supreme Court upheld a ten-hour day law for both men and women. She and the Consumers League also played a critical role in the passage of the Keating-Owen Act of 1918, which banned child labor nationally for workers under the age of 14. She also worked for the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act that created the first national program to fight childbirth mortality, funding health care clinics around childbirth in poor parts of the nation. In addition, Kelley strongly believed in racial justice. She was a co-founder of the NAACP and became friends with W.E.B. DuBois.

In 1943, the Consumers League moved its offices from New York to Cleveland, where it lobbied for such issues as rights for farm workers who were excluded from New Deal labor legislation, equal pay for equal work for women, better workers compensation laws, and the expansion of Social Security to cover disability. Beginning in the 1960s, the League began shifting its emphasis slightly away from labor and toward protecting consumers from the many unregulated problems in American products. The Consumers League remains around today, although it is not a major player in labor issues, even as it still has quite a bit of support from unions. It is presently headed by Sally Greenberg and it works primarily around consumer safety issues, although still with some emphasis on issues such as child labor.

This is the 218th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Donald Trump: Truly a Man Who Loves the Working Class

[ 23 ] April 25, 2017 |


The building trades getting into bed with Trump sure is paying off!

President Donald Trump, who assured labor leaders earlier this month that they will “always find an open door” at his White House, is close to nominating a bona fide union-buster for one of two open seats on the NLRB, POLITICO’s Mel Leonor reports. Doug Seaton, a Minnesota “lawyer for employers,” is one of three candidates on the administration’s shortlist to fill two empty positions on the labor board.

“Starting with Ronald Reagan,” Leonor writes, “Republican presidents have often named stridently anti-union executives and attorneys to the NLRB. But labor and management sources queried by POLITICO couldn’t remember a previous instance when a president placed on the NLRB a ‘union avoidance’ consultant or ‘persuader,’ an occupation known colloquially as union-buster. The Labor Department requires union-busters to disclose their anti-union campaigns publicly. Seaton has done so on six occasions, most recently in May 2016.” At the moment Seaton’s leading a seventh persuasion campaign to decertify the Service Employees International Union from representing Minnesota’s 27,000 home health care workers.

Unions are none too pleased that a union-buster may soon sit on the labor board. ‘That is way out of line,” said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a written statement that Seaton’s nomination “would be the latest example of Trump turning his back on workers.” Seaton “has spent his professional career fighting workers’ effort to join unions and gain a voice on the job,” she said. “He has no place on a board whose sole mission is to empower and protect working people.” (The preamble to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which created the NLRB, commits the United States to “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.”)

Joe Schmitt, a management-side lawyer in Minnesota who worked with Seaton in the 1990s, told Leonor, “I’m on the same side as Doug, but he is one of the most extreme management-side lawyers I know. I’m not a big fan of unions, but Doug is much less of a fan.” For his part, Seaton rejects the label “union-buster.” Unions often “fudge” and “misrepresent” what unionization is, he said. “We are simply brought in to explain. There’s always another side to the story. Here it is.” A White House spokesman told Leonor:“We don’t comment on personnel issues.”

I’ve written on the problems of an increasingly partisan NLRB before. If Trump chooses this individual, it will be another major step, but one that probably any Republican would make at this point. I don’t think President Cruz or President Walker would be any different on these issues. It’s a reminder that the problems we face are about 20% Trump, 80% a fireeating Republican Party that just doesn’t care anymore.

The Greatest Neoliberal in All Neoliberalland

[ 159 ] April 20, 2017 |


That Tom Perez, he sure is a neoliberal sellout!

The move is one of many small shifts that Perez has undertaken to steer the Democrats slightly more to the left. Already, Perez is sounding more like the president of the AFL-CIO than DNC chairs of past years.

“I mean, there is an unmitigated assault on the labor movement. It’s an assault that just got a big weapon in the form of the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Now there are five votes on that court to make it very, very hard for public-sector labor unions to collect dues,” Perez tells me as we sit in the lobby of the Louisville Hilton.

It’s an attack that has Perez deeply worried.

“And they aren’t gonna stop at public-sector unions,” says Perez. “The way to take down the progressive movement is to attack those community pillars, whether it’s Planned Parenthood or the labor movement. This is not coincidence—who is getting attacked.”

Critics on the left continue to criticize Perez for being a tool of the Democratic Party’s corporate wing, following a contentious DNC election in which he beat progressive stalwart and Bernie-backed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). Now, Perez has attempted to distance himself from that label by getting involved in labor struggles.

It’s almost as if Tom Perez was never in fact a tool of Democratic Party’s corporate wing, what with being arguably the most best Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins.

In Perez’s first week at the DNC, he declared his solidarity with the historic 5,000-person “March on Mississippi” against Nissan, an event organized by the United Auto Workers in Canton, Miss.

Perez says that he was inspired to get involved in the struggle by a meeting he had with a Nissan temporary worker, who he later invited to an event at The White House.

“Robert was his name, but I don’t recall his last name,” says Perez. “He’s what they call a ‘permatemp.’ That’s an oxymoron—it should be an oxymoron. How can you be a permanent temporary employee? He is a second-class citizen in the Nissan plant.”

Perez’s pace of speech begins to pick up rapidly as he’s agitated by the issue.

“He has had the indignity of training permanent employees, who make much more than him,” says Perez. “He has to work something like 55 hours to make what someone doing identical work makes in 40 hours. That’s not right, that’s not who we are. Nissan is making a tremendous amount of money and they don’t need to make money on the backs of their workers.”

Yep, pretty clear that Tom Perez only serves the Al Froms and Rahm Emanuels of the world!

The Democratic Party: Labor’s Frenemy

[ 119 ] April 18, 2017 |


I have a long piece in the Boston Review on the complicated relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party. The basic thesis is that unions have no real choice other than working within the Democratic Party even when the Democratic Party does not pay off that support. In the end, what other choices does labor have? The political wilderness. An excerpt that starts by considering the paradox that despite the Obama administration doing a lot for workers in the second term, unionization rates still declined in the last 8 years:

This mixed bag for American workers suggests both the possibilities and limitations of labor unions’ integration into the Democratic Party. Nothing in American labor history suggests unions can succeed if the government opposes their causes, but unions have consistently failed to further a pro-labor agenda within the Democratic Party. And without a realistic alternative—the Republican Party, after all, has waged a multi-decade war on workers—unions have no choice but to keep working within the Democratic Party.

Historically unions have faced three fundamental challenges within the Democratic Party. First, and perhaps most importantly, they are politically isolated, thanks to geographical limitations. Unions only ever held significant power in a handful of states in the Northeast and Midwest, with smaller numbers on the West Coast. This meant that politicians throughout the South, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain states could ignore unions, attract companies to their states by claiming they would remain non-union, and pay no political price for hostility to organized labor.

Second, the Democratic Party has lacked a coherent industrial policy for the last half-century that would foster union growth. Both Democrats and Republicans have helped companies move their union factories to overseas locations while having no realistic job plans for those workers left behind.

Third, and as a result of the other two issues, the labor movement has remained a junior partner in the Democratic Party, unable to be the kingmaker it hoped to be after World War II. Without meaningful input or control of the Democratic agenda, it remains reliant on the goodwill of national Democrats and the few allies it does manage to cultivate to promote its agenda.

I go on to discuss how the failure of unions to organize the South in face of widespread racebaiting and anti-Semitism meant that Democrats like Carter and Clinton rose to power owing basically nothing to unions and how that, combined with the lack of a meaningful industrial policy or any real plan to deal with globalization, deindustrialization, and automation, means that Democrats have a lot of responsibility for the problems workers face today. Yet, what else is there for unions to do but to keep trying to make the Democratic Party better? Not much.

I also argue that the progressive politics of the small, grassroots donor is basically a consumerist politics that privileges middle class white people over workers and the collective action that only unions can provide.

The reality of the post–Citizens United world even further marginalizes organized labor within the Democratic Party. Democratic candidates are increasingly reliant upon both corporate grandees and small donors to run election campaigns. But while progressives mostly like the small donor model, which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, what this really means is that legions of middle to upper-middle class white donors will be funding grassroots Democratic campaigns. Without a strong union influence over candidates, union workers, who are increasingly African-Americans and Latinos and who lack the resources to donate to candidates individually, will be shut out of the process. Such a model might be good for progressive initiatives such as gathering support for minimum wage hikes, but significantly less so for union-specific legislation such as passing card check legislation or reversing a national right-to-work bill if Trump were to sign one. If unions could not reverse legislative setbacks during the Johnson or Obama eras, it seems even less likely that they will be able to the next time Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress.

And yes, this may be the first ever political article or at the very least article about labor unions to use the word “frenemy” in the title. I feel like getting that title through the editors is a victory for 21st century language.

Made in the USA

[ 132 ] April 18, 2017 |


Sure, I roll my eyes at companies saying they can’t actually make their products in the United States because they can’t get their supply chains here. Well, you can always make the parts yourself. But despite this, it’s true enough that one of the biggest problems with Made in the USA rhetoric is that what consumers actually want is whatever is cheapest and they don’t care how many workers die producing the goods because they won’t ever know about it. So if production is moved back to the U.S. and everyone wants the cheapest goods possible that means only one thing–automation. This sort of economic nationalism won’t actually help bring many good jobs back to the working class. The problem however is that the anger of the working class toward a lack of good jobs is not only legitimate but also a major point of social upheaval that is not going away. This is why the left needs a real economic program to deal with these problems that starts with a revived original draft of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act that makes the government the employer of last resort. Because if you liked the 2016 election, you will love what continued desperation and anger loves to our future.

Page 2 of 10112345...102030...Last »