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This Day in Labor History: March 18, 1871

[ 10 ] March 18, 2015 |

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.”

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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.

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Paris Commune barricade after its capture by the French army.

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.

Labor Relations in the Marijuana Industry

[ 13 ] March 17, 2015 |

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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.

Abolish the Tipped Minimum Wage

[ 39 ] March 16, 2015 |

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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.

The White Supremacist Origin of Right to Work Laws

[ 14 ] March 14, 2015 |

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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.

Tom Cotton Loves Child Labor

[ 27 ] March 13, 2015 |

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The man who makes Ted Cruz look sane loves him some child labor in agriculture and from the beginning of his political career has advocated repealing child labor law.

Why Refinery Workers Are Striking

[ 10 ] March 12, 2015 |

Refinery workers with the United Steelworkers have now been on strike since February 1. The main issue in the strike is workplace safety. Let’s take a refresher on the terrible working conditions of the refinery industry by looking at the daughter of a man killed on the job:

Her father was killed by burns sustained in an accident at the then-British Petroleum Texas City refinery in September 2004. Gonzalez lived in the hospital for weeks after the accident and for a long time, Rodriguez and her two sisters and their mother hoped that Gonzalez would pull through. But eventually his body began to fail and his organs started shutting down. The family was together with him at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when they turned off all the machines.

After that, Rodriguez couldn’t even stand to talk about what had happened to her father, but she started researching the industry that employed him for most of his adult life. Only then did she begin to understand what it was really like behind the refinery fence. While he never said a word in front of his daughters about the dangers and the near-misses that were a part of life at the Texas City refinery, Gonzalez would tell his wife about the burns and how careful workers had to be at the refinery, her mother later told her. “He kept that from us because he didn’t want us to worry. If we had known we would have worried all the time,” Rodriguez says now.

An accountant by trade, Rodriguez coped with her grief through research. She learned everything there was to know about how refineries worked and who the companies were answerable to if something went wrong. Rodriguez comforted herself with the thought that at least safety would improve at the refinery. Even in the dangerous world of oil refineries, deaths make the national news and trigger investigations led by USW, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board. Professionals would look at the accident that killed her father, figure out the cause and make sure it wouldn’t happen again, she told herself.

But less than six months later, on March 23, 2005, there was a bigger explosion at the Texas City refinery. BP lawyers had been pushing back on a settlement agreement with the family and contesting the OSHA fines, but the day of the explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 100, they stopped fighting and paid.

Preventing these sorts of incidents is central to this strike. Yet unions continue to be broadly painted as only about wages. That’s not true at all. They are about dignity and representation on the job. That is often represented by money but it is often not the primary issue. Sometimes it is about staying alive.

Right to Work in Wisconsin

[ 67 ] March 11, 2015 |

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I am obviously dismayed by Wisconsin passing a right to work bill and Scott Walker signing it. Of course, Walker had said he wouldn’t sign such a bill last year but there was no reason to believe him since he is governing, if one can call it that, with the sole purpose of appealing to Republican primary voters and caucus participants in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. I think I’m even more dismayed that the news was just taken with a giant shrug by most progressives; outside of labor people, hardly anyone gave it more than a notice. That’s sad, not only because of Wisconsin’s great union tradition, but because right to work bills are seen as pretty much so unstoppable now that there’s hardly reason to comment on them. It’s just another step in the inevitable decline of American labor. Even more dismaying is that whereas the original Walker anti-labor actions lead to enormous protests while by 2015, Madison is seeing some protests over yet another unarmed black person murdered by the cops (and I’m glad people are protesting this. Also, see Sarah Jaffe’s essay connecting the two issues.) but there’s barely a whisper of organized protest against Walker signing the bill.

After the original Walker protests, a book came out called Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America. It was one of these occasional books that come out combining labor historians, journalists, and activists to think about the future of American labor. The essays were written in that sweet spot right after the Madison protests and before Occupy. So they reflected that moment in time. I reviewed it in a long-form, multi-book review you can read here if you have access to a university library. What bothered me about this was all the quite esteemed historians making direct reference to the anti-Walker protests as an example of how Americans were revolting over the treatment of public sector unions and how it was a harbinger of things to come.

Um, no. Those essays were dated as soon as they were written. They look even more dated now as Wisconsin joins the majority of the states that are eviscerating public sector unions through right to work laws. I fully expect a national right to work law to be signed by the next Republican president and moves toward reversing the major provisions of the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act over the next decade or two. That’s a much more realistic projection that thinking every moment of protest is going to lead to something larger. Maybe it happens one day. I’d like to think so too. But I’m not feeling great about that right now.

Also, naturally Walker signs the bill at a firm notorious for outsourcing Wisconsin jobs overseas.

Respecting Women Means Closing Sweatshops

[ 41 ] March 10, 2015 |

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Too much of the talk around women at work these days revolves around wealthy women like Sheryl Sandberg. As Janey Stephenson argues, if we want International Women’s Day to mean something, that requires the closing of sweatshops worldwide. That will only happen if we create legal regimes that force companies to acquiesce to international labor law in their factories and that grants the rights of these usually female workers to sue in corporate nations of origin for real financial damages against their employers or the companies that contract with their employers. Without closing the sweatshops, the international exploitation of women by American corporations will continue and without empowering women and ending the race to the bottom, that international exploitation will never end.

This Day in Labor History: March 10, 1925

[ 31 ] March 10, 2015 |

On March 10, 1925, the New York Times first reported the story of the so-called Radium Girls, as U.S. Radium Company employee Marguerite Carlough had sued her employer for $75,000 for the horrific health problems caused by her work with radium that would soon kill her. The story would garner national headlines and would demonstrate both the awfulness of working conditions in the early 20th century and the failures of the workers’ compensation system to deal with health problems caused by poisonous work.

The 1910s saw the development of two phenomena that would come together in horrible ways for workers. The first was the wristwatch, invented during this decade. The second was the entrance of radium into the marketplace. Because radium glowed in the dark, it became a popular method of painting watch faces, since it made the watches useful at night. For soldiers in World War I, these watches were a godsend and this made them popular nationwide.

The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation (later U.S. Radium Corporation) plant in Orange, New Jersey caused a lot of problems in the neighborhood. Residents complained the company’s emissions turned their drying clothes yellow. For the workers, the radium was as much a delight as it was to the consumers. With little health research into its effects on the workers, the young dialpainters suffered heavy exposure to it. They were taught to hold the paintbrush with their mouths as they worked, wetting it with their tongues and thus ingesting the radium that way. They also played with the radium paint. They’d paint the fingernails with it. One woman had a date with her beau. So she painted radium on her teeth so her smile would glow in the dark when they were alone that night.

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Advertisement for radium watch.

As early as 1922, workers began falling sick. The dialpainters were the first industrial victims of radium poisoning. Katherine Schaub and her cousin Irene Rudolph started working in the new dialpainting studio at the Radium Luminous Materials plant in 1917. They were both 15. In 1920, both Schaub and Rudolph quit, finding nonindustrial jobs, although Schaub would briefly return to dialpainting the next year. By 1922, they were both 20 years old. That year, Rudolph had mouth pain. She had a tooth extracted. The socket never healed. Her jaw begin to fester with rotting bones. Other dialpainters began coming down with the same problems. Randolph died in July 1923 after a year and a half of suffering. Schaub started to have health problems in November 1923. By this time, other dialpainters such as Amelia Magggia, Hazel Vincent Kuser, and Marguerite Carlough had died or were dying. Schaub’s continued mouth problems began to be known as “radium jaw.”

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Workers at U.S. Radium, 1922 or 1923.

Medical researchers began to pay more attention to these sick women. So did the New Jersey Consumers’ League, the largely women-led industrial reform movement of the Progressive Era. That era had ended, at least in the years as it is classically classified by historians, but the national and state level organization still existed. The sole paid employee of the New Jersey branch was Katherine Wiley, but she was effective. In 1923, she had successfully lobbied for a bill banning night work for women. After hearing the legendary industrial reformer Alice Hamilton talk about workplace health, Wiley began exploring this in her home state. She soon found the dialpainters. In 1924, Wiley went to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Dr. Andrew McBride. He was furious that these meddlesome women were getting involved in these cases and denied that the radium companies had anything to do with the women’s illnesses.

Working with Hamilton, Wiley began trying to access the medical research. At Harvard, researchers working with U.S. Radium had done initial studies on the substance’s health effects. Wiley and Hamilton sought to acquire that data. The main researcher was loyal to the company and refused to release most of the information. But Frederick Hoffman, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Labor, did find at least some connections, although he was pretty sympathetic to the company too. All of this work did lead to the state labor department closing U.S. Radium, although it just moved to New York. Katherine Schaub kept pushing, convincing Hoffman to write to U.S. Radium about her condition. The company had her visit one of their doctors, who promptly told her that none of her illnesses had anything to do with radium.

Based on this research, in 1927, Schaub joined a dialpainters’ lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Consumers’ League in the state Supreme Court. But this was a difficult task. Not only had the statue of limitations passed since all these workers had quit several years earlier, but the dialpainters needed to prove both that U.S. Radium had caused their illnesses and that the company was negligent in their actions. The lawsuits were a struggle because workers’ compensation generally did not cover health related issues. The workers’ compensation came about as a way for corporations to cut their losses and enter a rational system for dealing with workplace health and safety because after 1890, workers were increasingly suing them successfully for compensation, a slow rejection of the doctrine of workplace risk established early in the nation’s industrial period.

Similar cases were happening at the Waterbury Clock Company in Waterbury, Connecticut (I can’t drive past this factory on I-84 without thinking of dead radium workers) and at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Workers at all three plants struggled to achieve compensation. But in New Jersey, all the bad publicity convinced the company to settle with most of the workers in 1928, although it also made it very difficult for workers to prove any corporate culpability. In more conservative Connecticut, women played a much smaller role in state politics and despite a longer statue of limitations provision in the workers’ compensation law of 5 years, business controlled the state. Workers here received only relatively small settlements, even if Waterbury Clock admitted it had caused 10 deaths by 1936. In Illinois, the workers compensation system was such a mess that not a single sufferer received a cent until 1938.

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Newspaper article publicizing plight of Illinois radium poisoning victims.

In the 1980s, high levels of radon were discovered in homes near the old plant in Orange. The company had long ago been purchased by Safety Light. Homeowners and the current corporate owners of the old plant sued Safety Light. In 1991, the New Jersey Supreme Court found U.S. Radium “forever” liable for the radium near its old factory. Workers laboring with radium however continued having problems, even as safety nominally improved. In the 1970s, radium workers in Ottawa, Illinois were found having radiation levels 1666 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved levels.

This post is based on Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.

This is the 136th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A Match Made in Hipster Labor Heaven

[ 19 ] March 8, 2015 |

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It does seem that bike shop workers and the modern IWW fit together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Somewhat OT, I have been perplexed by the establishment of DIY bikeshops and anarcho-leftist organizations over the last ten years. If learning how to fix your own bike is a step on the way to revolution, I may not be prepared for that new society. I know this is a different kind of bike shop and thus the need for a union.

Also, the IWW continuing to avoid contracts as it did a century ago means that even if tens or hundreds of thousands of workers joined it, it would still run into the same problems it faced at Lawrence and other places where it had initial victories, i.e, the inability to consolidate and institutionalize any gains for workers in a situation where the employer really knows how to consolidate and institutionalize its gains.

Tennessee Funding Higher Education on the Backs of Its Workers

[ 8 ] March 8, 2015 |

Michelle Chen reports on how Tennessee has received kudos for offering a free community college program that has influenced Obama’s proposals. But how is this being funded? By cutting benefits for the workers at Tennessee universities.

The new budget would impose major “reforms” to the healthcare benefits of career civil servants. The cutbacks for retired workers and the newest hires, according to Commercial Appeal, include “ending eligibility for pre-age-65 retiree health insurance to state employees and school-district employees hired after July 1, 2015; ending eligibility, after July 1, for state health insurance for part-time state employees.”

The budget also proposes so-called “flexibility” for the state to offer current workers a more limited defined-contribution retirement health plan, instead of the traditional, typically more stable, defined-benefit scheme. The state may also seek authority to tweak the healthcare subsidy formulas for active employees.

And lest you think this is just taking some retirement money from well off professors, think again. As the United Campus Workers state, this is going to hurt the poorest workers–the housekeepers, the janitors, etc–more than the professors.

The United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 3865 union (UCW) is galled that the cutbacks have been proposed amid the governor’s boasts of making higher education affordable for all. Will their kids get free tuition while parents pay more for basic healthcare? Doubling the irony is that the target population of the new expansion of Tennessee Promise—the new funds are aimed at adult learners with a few college credits already—are perhaps the type of folks who might work a campus custodial job and take classes on the side at night: will they see the new tuition boost offset by shrinking benefits, or have to forgo community college courses to take on a second job?

The students campaigning in solidarity with the UCW recognize the fact that the tuition break is just one piece of the promise—one that the state seems to have bargained for on the backs of public servants. Student organizer Lindsey Smith tells The Nation via e-mail:

we are struggling to understand how Gov. Haslam can put money into such a plan, but completely ignore the campus workers’ pleas for better working conditions and higher wages. His plan is to supposedly help traditionally marginalized, working class students to get a higher education degree…but what happens to those students when they graduate? Not to mention, what about the people that are already in the workforce?

Like so many plans around higher education today, this is about short-sighted political gain that ignores the structural issues around employment in this country. Cutting tuition by cutting benefits makes about as much sense as provosts promoting international studies programs while cutting positions for language professors. Or worrying about the children up to the age of 6 and then underfunding their schools and throwing them in prison for smoking pot at age 15. Education without good jobs is just education. If this is supposed to be about giving people the skills they need to get good jobs, good jobs have to exist. Cutting benefits for those jobs to fund the education does not make sense.

This issue has a bit more meaning for me than most labor issues because I was on the ground floor of organizing what became the UCW at the University of Tennessee back in 1999 and 2000. I had just finished a master’s degree at the school and was involved with a group of students working on economic justice issues. We had a lot of connections with local labor unions and, probably most importantly, with the Highlander Center, which has served as a center of left-leaning southern activism for eighty years now. We held a labor teach-in and through our connections we were able to get Richard Trumka, Bill Fletcher, Elaine Bernard and other great speakers. We put up flyers around campus to see if we could get workers to come out. We received a call from some of the housekeepers. I went to speak to them. What I didn’t expect was to walk into a room full of angry, passionate workers ready to go to the mat after employers who had treated them like garbage for years. They were ready to walk off the job at that moment. It was all pretty incredible.

From that came the UCW, which is now affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. By that time, I had moved to Albuquerque to start my PhD program. But I maintained connections with the union for years, sometimes editing newsletters and the like. Technically, I’m still a sort of honorary member and I pay them monthly union dues. Public workers in Tennessee still don’t have collective bargaining rights and no contract is ever going to come out of that union. But it serves as a voice for the workers of the Tennessee higher education system, from cooks and janitors to library workers and full professors, lobbies in Nashville, and provides power to workers. That this truly grassroots union has survived and flourished for 15 years in the face of the anti-union wave dominating the country is quite remarkable and the implications of it for the modern labor movement is something I should write more about, but I’ll stop reminiscing for now.

Contracts

[ 56 ] March 6, 2015 |

In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.

So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.

This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.

No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.

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