Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "labor"

World Cup Labor

[ 41 ] November 8, 2014 |

That Qatar World Cup is really setting a new standard for labor rights:

Thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea are toiling for years on construction sites in Qatar for virtually no pay – including on the vast new metropolis that is the centrepiece of the World Cup – in what may amount to “state-sponsored slavery”.

According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.

They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”

Shouldn’t there be some sort of international boycott of the event if it relies on slave labor. Obviously, FIFA doesn’t care, nor Qatar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise a stink.

A World Without Jobs

[ 270 ] November 7, 2014 |

Technological advances are going to take away basically all of our jobs. This workless future should frighten all of us. It certainly worries Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla. To say the least, Khosla’s solutions section is really murky because he can’t get past basically being a technofuturist libertarian, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot on. In part:

While the future is promising and this technology revolution may result in dramatically increasing productivity and abundance, the process of getting there raises all sorts of questions about the changing nature of work and the likely increase in income disparity. With less need for human labor and judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology. In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.

Let’s look at the scale of change that the new machine learning and data revolution may bring and why it potentially could be different than prior technology revolutions like mobile phones, accessible computing and automobiles. Just in the Khosla Ventures portfolio alone, entrepreneurs already are trying to use machine learning technologies to replace human judgment in many areas including farm workers, warehouse workers, hamburger flippers, legal researchers, financial investment intermediaries, some areas of a cardiologist’s functions, ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialists, psychiatrists and many others. Efficiency in the business world generally means reducing costs, which results in using fewer well-paid but highly skilled minds and the technology they develop or capital to replace lower paid and less skilled workers.

In past economic history, each technology revolution—while replacing some jobs—has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different. Economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality, but if basic drivers of job creation change then outcomes may be different. Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor. Education was one method for humans to leverage technology as it evolved and improved. However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge relevant to a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.

Machines with unlimited and rapidly expanding human-like capabilities may mean there will no longer be as much need to leverage human capabilities. In fact, there may be little for humans to augment or amplify even as productivity per human hour of labor increases dramatically all while far fewer people are needed for most tasks. This is not to say all human functions will be replaced but rather that many, and maybe even a majority, may not be needed.

What if machines, which may soon exceed the capability of human judgment, do most jobs better than humans even if people receive additional training? The magnitude of the problem of displaced workers and increasing income disparity especially in the face of abundance (increasing GDP) may become substantially larger. It is possible that this particular technology revolution does not allow for human augmentation and amplification by technology to a large enough degree and that education and retraining are not solutions at all, except for a very small percentage of the workforce. As Karl Marx said, “when the train of history hits a curve, the intellectuals fall off”. Extrapolation of our past experiences, a favorite technique of economists, may not be a valid predictor of the future—the historical correlation may be broken by a new causality. Efforts at estimating the number of jobs that are susceptible to computerization underestimate how technology may evolve and make assumptions that seem very likely to be false, similar to past “truths” (like the waning correlation between productivity and income growth for labor). Even with this underestimate, researchers concluded that of the 702 job functions studied, 47-percent are at risk of being automated.

If climate change is the greatest challenge faced by the human race, I would say that the elimination of work is the second greatest challenge. I know the usual critique, including among many commenters here, is to call any criticism of technology Luddism and continue in our blind faith in technology. But this is very real problem. There is no future for work in this machine-driven society. If machines can replace not only blue-collar but also white-collar work, what do we do to eat, to house ourselves, to live a decent life? We have already seen the impacts of mechanization on the American working class and the result is not pretty. We are able to ignore the endemic poverty and societal instability the loss of jobs has created because the white-collar, professional class has largely been unaffected. But that is changing very rapidly. Outsourcing jobs only adds to this. Is there any reason to pay Americans to do accounting work? Why shouldn’t that all be sent to India? Assuming we need any humans at all?

Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.

I know this post sounds apocalyptic. But it’s not just me saying this is coming. It’s the business leaders ensuring it is happening.

NPR: Unionbuster

[ 10 ] November 6, 2014 |

Our valued commenter Bruce Vail has an important piece at In These Times on the Baltimore NPR station hiring a notorious unionbusting firm to ensure its workers do not have a voice

Jonathan Rogers, Chair of the WYPR Board of Directors and an executive of Merrill Lynch, the stock brokerage unit of Bank of America, told In These Times that the board had approved the hiring of Jackson Lewis but denied it was an attempt to defeat the union.

“We felt it was in the best interest of the station to ensure that the concerns of the organization were heard,” in the course of the NLRB process, Rogers says. Asked whether he was opposed to recognizing the union, Rogers replied, “My personal feelings are irrelevant.”

Marc Steiner disagrees. A former WYPR executive who now hosts a program for a competing radio station in the Baltimore market, Steiner was ousted from the station in 2008 after a showdown with current WYPR President Anthony Brandon over control at the station. He counters that the personal feelings of the board members are very relevant.

“The Board is made up of corporate executives and wealthy people, most of whom do not understand public radio,” Steiner says. “It is really run, or at least it was when I was there, more like a commercial station.”

Steiner says that WYPR workers he has spoken with wanted a union in part “to ensure a firewall between those corporate interests and programming. Unless things have changed [since I worked there], programming is under constant pressure to mold what is heard on the airwaves to interests of underwriters.” He also reports hearing consistent complaints about heavy-handed management techniques and substandard pay levels—many complaints revolve around Brandon’s perceived autocratic style of management. on the job.

Look, we hired this union busting firm but not because we wanted to stop our workers from unionizing. We wanted to make sure our corporate voice was heard through the kind of legal shenanigans that only a union busting firm can provide. Now please give us more money during the next pledge drive.

This Day in Labor History: November 2, 1909

[ 26 ] November 2, 2014 |

On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World called a free speech strike in Spokane, Washington. The free speech movements would highlight what the IWW did well and where is struggled, as the organization exposed the hypocrisy and brutality of Gilded Age capitalism and exposed to the nation the terrible lives of working people while at the same time failing to build on a major early victory when it won this battle.

The IWW was founded in 1905 to give power to the millions of industrial workers who lacked it in Gilded Age America. With the American Federation of Labor largely unwilling to organize women, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, farmworkers, children, or the giant industrial workplaces developing during the late 19th century, there was a tremendous vacuum for someone willing to organize the masses. The IWW would step into that vacuum.

Conditions in northeastern Washington were as bad as the rest of the nation. This was farming and logging country and both industries relied on itinerant labor. Working and living conditions were terrible and pay was poor. What really made workers angry was the employment agency scam. Companies and farmers would contract out with employment agencies, forcing workers to use them for a job. Workers paid for this service. If a job wasn’t there when they arrived, no money back! Return to Spokane and try again. Same if the job just lasted a couple of days. This was rank exploitation of the poor.

These conditions made Spokane an early IWW organizing hotspot. By mid 1909, the city and surrounding region had up to 1500 dues-paying members and a nice headquarters. It expanded its presence through street speaking. This is the literal meaning of “get on your soapbox” in action here. In angry speeches denouncing the exploitation workers faced, Wobbly speakers attempted to convince the workers passing through Spokane from job to job to fight back. As 1909 went on, the Spokane police began cracking down against this. In March, the city council passed an ordinance banning public speaking to all “revolutionists.”

anit-IWW cartoon from Spokane Spokesman Review 1909

Anti-IWW cartoon from Spokane newspaper

As arrests grew, the IWW moved toward a larger action. When local Wobbly leader Jim Thompson was arrested for speaking without a permit on October 25, the IWW demanded his release and threatened to send speakers from around the country to city and flood the jails. Spokane called the IWW on its bluff and the IWW began its first major free speech fight on November 2. Spokane police began arresting everyone who tried to speak. Soon 400 people were in jail, overwhelming the prison system. As the members cycled out of jail, often after a 30-day sentence, they got themselves rearrested. Conditions in the prisons were terrible. Overcrowded and cold, the prisoners were intentionally underfed and forced to take ice-cold outdoor showers in the winter.

This was not quite the first free speech fight, but it was the first to become a national story. Major radical speakers like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived. Flynn was nineteen and pregnant. She was arrested as well, after chaining herself to a lamppost to avoid it. When she was in prison, she had a story published in Industrial Worker that the Spokane police were using the prison as a brothel. The police went ballistic and attempted to confiscate all copies. The intense resistance of the IWW surprised Spokane and overwhelmed its ability to deal with the crisis of its own making.

labadie23

The IWW won a pretty complete victory in the free speech fight here. All the unconstitutional restrictions on their activities were taken away and the free speech prisoners freed. It could hold outdoor meetings without the police harassing them. And during the strike, the employers gave up the contract labor system in order to take away part of workers’ reason to be angry. But the employers could have held out. Most of the arrested strikers were out of town revolutionaries and the IWW leadership was having trouble finding more. The IWW actually approached the Spokane city government for a deal because it knew it would lose soon.

What I find fascinating about the IWW response to Spokane is how rapidly the conditions of work in Spokane disappeared from the pages of Industrial Worker, the most important IWW newspaper, once this struggle became about free speech. Instead of the hellish lives experienced by the rank and file, the fight was about free speech, heightening the contradictions of capitalism by forcing mass arrests, and the potential for revolutionary change. But the actual conditions of work became secondary, basically disappearing from Wobbly documents. That might make sense in the short term. But when the strike ended, Spokane itself faded from view. The Wobblies moved on to the next big national struggle. The focus on conditions in Spokane that was common in the paper before the strike was completely gone after it was won.

Even after the strike was won, the conditions of labor were still terrible. But the IWW as a national organization really failed to build upon this victory. It could have really doubled down in Spokane and started pushing further improvements to the lives of the loggers, agricultural workers, and urban workers (who were really the same people since people switched work in this economy all the time). But it did not. The loggers would still remain active IWW members and northeastern Washington and northern Idaho the heart of Wobbly radicalism in the Northwest timber industry. But it would take another decade, more strikes, and government intervention to solve the labor unrest caused by the terrible exploitation of the timber industry.

I don’t necessarily blame the IWW here for its failure to build on the free speech fights, a problem it would have throughout its history. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of the victory in Spokane. This was a young organization with the struggles that new groups have. It was very good at certain things, such as throwing the hypocrisy of the capitalists back in their face, creating public displays, and promulgating powerful cultural images. It also managed to make strong connections some of the nation’s poorest workers. It was not good at understanding how to build a long-term struggle, nor would it ever be. For many IWW leaders and intellectuals, ideas of revolution and struggle had more appeal than the day to day organizing needed to build long-term worker power. For an organization so dedicated to the struggles of the nation’s poorest, a lot of its leaders and famous speakers could abstract the working class at the same time as providing material assistance to it at its hardest times.

I think the real relevance of this story today is in the tricky connections between free speech and long-term organizing. The commitment of American radicals to free speech as a principle has waxed and waned over time, but today, like a century ago, it’s high on the radical agenda. And fighting for the spaces and rights for that speech against what can be a coercive state is a major demand, like a century ago. So I guess I see Occupy Wall Street and the IWW free speech fights as having certain similarities. Demanding the soapbox is a vital principle, but it’s awfully hard to build on that to other issues that connect directly to everyday people’s lives. This went far to undermine Occupy and proved a barrier for the IWW as well. The free speech fights were noble, but in the end they didn’t do a whole lot for empowering the rank and file to control their own lives.

This is the 124th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Racism in the Restaurant Industry

[ 17 ] October 29, 2014 |

This probably won’t surprise you, but Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, the labor organization fighting for labor rights in the restaurant industry, has released a report showing the vast racial disparities between whites and African-Americans in the restaurants of several cities:

The study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, based in New York, concluded that workers of color in New Orleans who have the same qualifications as white workers receive “living wage opportunities” 62 percent as often as white workers.

It found 61 percent of minority servers and bartenders earn less than twice the poverty level, while 48 percent of white workers fall to the same level. A quarter of black workers in the industry and 23 percent of Hispanic workers are unemployed while only 3 percent of white workers are left out of jobs, the study said.

The group used federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data to count a total of 57,000 restaurant workers in New Orleans, Metairie and Kenner and conclude that six of the 10 lowest paid occupations in the metropolitan area are restaurant jobs.

In addition to compiling labor and Census data, the study included sending equally qualified white and black testers to apply for jobs in 90 “fine-dining” establishments in New Orleans. Researchers also interviewed workers and employers and visited restaurants to observe “visible occupational segregation.”

My wife, who has deep connections in the Mexican migrant community in her home area, attests to this very issue in restaurants there. She notes to me repeatedly that servers and cooks are chosen primarily by color, where the whitest Mexicans are out front and dark Mexicans are in the back. This is just one of many areas where race and work intersect to make the lives of darker skinned people in this nation harder.

This Day in Labor History: October 28, 1793

[ 29 ] October 28, 2014 |

On October 28, 1793, Eli Whitney submitted a patent for his invention known as the cotton gin. Perhaps more than any technology in American history, this invention profoundly revolutionized American labor. Creating the modern cotton industry meant the transition from agricultural to industrial labor in the North with the rise of the factory system and the rapid expansion and intensification of slavery in the South to produce the cotton. The cotton gin went far to create the 19th century American economy and sharpened the divides between work and labor between regions of the United States, problems that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

People had long known of the versatile uses of cotton. This plant produced fibers that could be used for many things, but most usefully clothing, which in the 18th century was often scratchy and uncomfortable for everyday people who could not afford finer fabrics, including cotton. The problem was the seed inside the cotton boll, to which the plant’s fibers stuck. Thus, the labor it took to process it made it a luxury good. The cotton gin solved that problem by mechanically separating the fibers from the seeds. This made cotton a universal product and the production of it an international business that would radically change the entire United States and transform work.

Whitney, from Massachusetts, became interested in the problems of cotton production while visiting a plantation in Georgia. Helping out the plantation’s owner (the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene), he created the cotton gin. On October 28, he send his patent application to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. He hoped to make a lot of money on it but American patent law was weak at the time and others copied him. Quickly the invention spread around the South.

49824_cotton_gin_lg

The cotton gin immediately transformed the South. By 1815, cotton became the nation’s leading export, tying the Southern elite to the factory owners and investors of Great Britain. By 1840, it was worth more than all other American exports combined. The system of chattel slavery that had under-girded the colonial tobacco economy had become heavily strained during the 18th century. Declining soil fertility and the expansion of tobacco production around the British empire meant that the plantation owners were not making the money off of slavery that they did 100 years earlier. The lack of an economic imperative for the institution went far toward the abolition of slavery in the North after the American Revolution. In the South, it combined with Enlightenment ideals to at least make plantation owners question the institution. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both admitted the institution was bad but could not imagine freeing their slaves because of the lives of luxury the system provided them. Others were slightly less selfish and either freed their slaves in the 1780s or freed them upon the master’s death, such as George Washington. The general assumption though was that slavery was going to disappear, even if Georgia and South Carolina wouldn’t like it much. As Oliver Ellsworth said at the Constitutional Convention, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”

The cotton gin ended this equivocation on slavery among the plantation elite and destroyed the myth of disappearing slavery in the North. Combined with the conquest of rich land in the hot climates of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana over the next few decades, the planters found new ways to make money using slaves. The southern discussion of slavery transformed from a “necessary evil” to a “positive good.” Thus we would enter the “classic” period of American chattel slavery, replete with the large plantation agriculture you probably think of when envisioning slavery. The lives for slaves were terrible under this system, with rape, beatings, whippings, murder, and the breaking up of families normal parts of life. Further advances in cotton farming created breeds that incentivized working slaves as close to death as possible while keeping them just alive to pick more. As the nation moved toward the Civil War, the southern labor system wrought by the cotton gin was becoming only more entrenched and more brutal for the laborers. Slaves would resist this in any number of ways–breaking tools, running away from masters, even revolt, such as Nat Turner’s revolt or Denmark Vesey’s supposed conspiracy. But by and large the system of racialized violence that kept the labor force in place doomed slaves to miserable lives. In 1787, there were 700,000 slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were 4 million and rising. Around 70 percent of those slaves were involved in cotton production.

index-php

In the North, the revolution caused by the cotton gin was just as profound. Samuel Slater had opened the United States’ first modern factory, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a couple of years earlier. The textile industry would explode in the next several decades with all the newly available cotton. By the 1820s, New England had already undergone a massive economic shift toward textile mills that moved this region from rural to urban, with courts and politicians serving the interests of the industrialists over workers, farmers, and fishers. At first, this transformation was along the region’s copious waterways–at Pawtucket, Lowell, and Manchester. But further technological advances would for steam power meant owners could build factories anywhere and they dotted the region after the Civil War.

The impact upon northern workers was truly revolutionary. The agricultural economy certainly did not disappear but it soon became secondary to the textile factories in much of the region. The wealth spawned by textiles created other industries and new transportation technologies like the steamship, canal, and railroad, and by 1860, the growing northern industrial might had reshaped the nation. It took workers out of the farms and small shops that defined 18th century work and into giant factories. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution that the cotton gin brought to the U.S. meant that workers would lose control over their own labor, the ability to set their own hours of work, the possibility of drinking on the job, and the artisanship of American craft labor. Replacing it would be the factory floor, the time clock, and the foreman. This is largely in the relatively distant future from 1793, but the transformations began soon after.

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0

It also brought women into the economy in new ways. Supposedly because of their nimble fingers but really because employers could pay them less, women became desirable workers in the cotton factories. This upended gender roles and when American women resisted the treatment they faced in the factories, spurred the migration of immigrants from Ireland and then eastern and southern Europe to fill these low-paid jobs. In the early factories, work was hot, stuffy, and exhausting, with 14-16 hours days not uncommon. The creation of textile work as women’s work and thus highly exploitative never ended and continues today in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, and many other nations. The fight to tame the conditions of industrial labor wrought, in part, by the cotton gin, remains underway today.

This is the 123rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Fast Food Wages

[ 98 ] October 27, 2014 |

Why it’s almost as if fast food companies are lying when they say they have to keep wages low in order to survive!

On a recent afternoon, Hampus Elofsson ended his 40-hour workweek at a Burger King and prepared for a movie and beer with friends. He had paid his rent and all his bills, stashed away some savings, yet still had money for nights out.

That is because he earns the equivalent of $20 an hour — the base wage for fast-food workers throughout Denmark and two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States.

“You can make a decent living here working in fast food,” said Mr. Elofsson, 24. “You don’t have to struggle to get by.”

With an eye to workers like Mr. Elofsson, some American labor activists and liberal scholars are posing a provocative question: If Danish chains can pay $20 an hour, why can’t those in the United States pay the $15 an hour that many fast-food workers have been clamoring for?

“We see from Denmark that it’s possible to run a profitable fast-food business while paying workers these kinds of wages,” said John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington.

And if those fast food companies are less profitable in Denmark than the U.S., well, good! Companies should have lower profits if that money is going into the hands of workers. This seems self-evident to me, but I know even many liberal Americans have so internalized the logic of modern profit ideology that the idea of lower profits in exchange for better lives for low-paid workers makes many people uncomfortable.

Romanticizing the IWW

[ 124 ] October 27, 2014 |

obu

This is as good a time as any to announce what I think my next book project is going to be, or at least what I am starting to work on. I want to write a new history of the Industrial Workers of the World that evaluates the union’s successes and failures in terms of what might be useful for modern activists in their own struggles. I am interested in this because the IWW basically exists in leftist memory as a romantic alternative to bureaucratic unionism, the promise of the revolution never achieved thanks to state repression, the AFL, corporate media, name your reason. Especially in an era where activists often don’t see the state as part of the solution, nor 20th century versions of socialism and certainly not the AFL-CIO, the free-flowing, culture producing, decentralized IWW seems an ideal. That the IWW promoted worker participation, bottom up organizing, democratic unionism, and all the other things that modern left critics of labor wants to see makes their vision of it, however accurate or not, powerful.

Theoretically, that should be fine. People are going to use whatever pasts they choose to inform their present. But there are problems. First, the IWW couldn’t actually win anything. Part of that has to do with the conditions in which it organized with a hostile state. But no small part of it was with problems in the IWW organizing model that almost made long-lasting victory impossible. The modern left stance toward the union also leads to cheerleading for a past movement at the expense sometimes of analyzin it. Even professional labor historians are guilty of this, sometimes worse than anyone. When the 2013 Labor and Working Class History Association meeting was coming up, I noted to one of the organizers that it was taking place in New York on the 100th anniversary of the Paterson Strike Pageant. So I was lucky enough to then moderate the panel remembering the event. Before the panel, one of the participants, a major labor historian, was openly talking about how this event should be a celebration.

Well, why? Should any historians be rooting for our protagonists? Does that help? Or is hard-headed analysis pulling no punches about both failures and successes more useful? I’d say the latter. The Paterson Strike Pageant was a complete disaster. The IWW’s cultural production may be appealing to modern leftists, but in this case, it actually split the workers with jealousy since only some workers could participate. It also drew workers away from the actual strike, allowing the factory owners to bring in strikebreakers. It was a horrible decision that doomed that strike (which probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway). It also basically killed the IWW in the east. After 1913, the Wobblies focused almost exclusively on western resource extractive labor for its campaigns.

But the modern left loves the pageant. Why? Because it brought together workers and culture in fun and radical ways that seem to portend a bread and roses culture that is a dream today. Take this essay, which led me to write this post. It’s well researched and well written, yet seems to present a really heroic view of the strike. I haven’t read the book where this is excerpted, but while a People’s Art History of the United States is cool and all, don’t we have to talk about all the ways the Paterson pageant failed miserably? In this case, isn’t the people’s history of the Paterson pageant that it turned workers against one another? If we want to learn lessons from the IWW, shouldn’t they be the right ones? Isn’t the goal to organize workers and win? And if that is the goal, shouldn’t we think about how the IWW did that well and how it did that poorly, without sweeping the latter under the rug in favor of vague notions of solidarity?

So basically what I want to do is write a decidedly unromantic history of the IWW that considers their actions in the context of thinking about usefulness for modern activists. What should we learn and is there anything they did a century ago that might give us pause today? Moreover, I want this to focus more on the rank and file and less on ideology and leadership. Unfortunately, for all the left loves to talk about “the people,” leftists love their Great Man history more than anyone. Joe Hill. Frank Little. Big Bill Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But what about everyday loggers, miners, textile mill workers? Did the IWW work for them? How did they respond to the Wobblies? What did they want and how did the IWW succeed or fail in providing that to them? By exploring these questions, I hope to peel away some of the romance and provide people a more useful past than I think most writers on the IWW give. Even if some people will be mad that I am far from a partisan for the organization.

A This Day in Labor History post next week will expand upon these ideas in the context of a single incident.

This Day in Labor History: October 27, 1948

[ 25 ] October 27, 2014 |

On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.

Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.

The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.

In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.

DonoraSmokeStacks

Pollution in Donora (credit here)

The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.

DonoraSmogAtNoon

The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.

The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.

U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.

So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.

The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.

The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.

For decades now, anti-fluoridation nutcases have used the Donora Fog as one of their cases to prove that fluoride is the world’s greatest evil and the government is covering it up.

I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.

This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Himalayan Labor Exploitation

[ 64 ] October 21, 2014 |

Sherpas are poor. So they take what jobs they can get. Those jobs are carrying stuff for rich white people around the world who want to climb mountains. Serving as a beast of burden might feed these workers but it also places them in one of the most dangerous working environments in the world, especially when those who hire them want to try less trodden paths. Sherpas die all the time, but it receives only a smattering of attention compared to the deaths of climbers.

Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers

[ 41 ] October 20, 2014 |

Last year, New York City passed a law protecting pregnant workers from getting fired. Unfortunately, employers are trying to ignore it and are firing workers when they get pregnant. There is hope for those workers. For workers who get pregnant in most of the country, they can be fired with impunity. That’s discrimination and it needs to be illegal.

Title VII

[ 0 ] October 20, 2014 |

Over at LaborOnline, we are opening the pages of Labor: Studies of Working Class History of the Americas so that the public can read and discuss the forum several leading labor historians took part in on the legacy of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Please feel free to read and comment.

Page 2 of 5812345102030...Last »