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Tag: "labor"

Labor’s Southern Strategy

[ 5 ] January 30, 2016 |


Justin Miller reviews labor’s latest southern strategy. Articles like these come out every few years, talking about the latest way the AFL-CIO is going to organize the South. And of course it never happens. Will it happen this time? No, probably not. However, it is still useful both to get at what the AFL-CIO is doing in the South and what its potentials and problems are. Basically, the unions are targeting particular cities with diverse populations to fight locally for change, both the unionization of workplaces but also at the municipal level to pass politically progressive legislation like wage theft bills and higher minimum wages and for public transportation systems that would get its members to their jobs. These are good things. On the other hand, we can look at the Chattanooga disaster, where even with technical Volkswagen support (although a lot of opposition from VW bosses on the ground), the UAW could not win an election to organize that plant. That was an embarrassing and awful loss. And the reason the UAW lost the election was racism. Grover Norquist and the like funded ads playing up that unions equal Detroit and we all know what Detroit really means.

Meanwhile, if you look at what the AFL-CIO is doing here, it’s about mobilizing black and Latino workers. This is a smart, but limited strategy. Unions simply are never going to organize white southerners in any large numbers. It flat will never happen. Racism is ultimately what undermined Operation Dixie in the 1940s and it is what continues to undermine southern unionism. There are related issues as well like evangelical Christianity and paternalistic traditions here too, but race is the fundamental problem. In 1946, it was African-Americans who wanted unions and it’s the same, along with Latinos, in 2016. So focusing (increasingly scarce and soon to be more so after Friedrichs) resources where they are going to pay off. And practically, especially in cities like Dallas and Houston where you have huge non-white populations that are not politically mobilized, this could help lead to increases in voting that would begin to find turn Texas purple. That’s all good. But at the same time, municipal government is a very limited place to make change when you have hostile state governments. And with white supremacy the order of the day last four centuries, voters in most if not all southern states are going to continue electing racist and anti-worker governors and state reps. And even if the numbers of non-whites grow in the South to look like Texas, gerrymandering means that the mountain to climb is even steeper.

So the AFL-CIO efforts in the South are interesting and have value. But they have a limited upside.



[ 93 ] January 30, 2016 |


The H1-B immigration visa is a sticky issue. I of course support immigration and I have no problem with an immigration program targeting highly skilled workers, although I see no reason that they should have preference over the world’s tired and poor either. But when you have outsourcing companies working with Disney and other huge corporations to cut American jobs directly in order to import cheaper labor and then make the American labor train the new workers, well, that’s a huge huge problem.

Even after Leo Perrero was laid off a year ago from his technology job at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — and spent his final months there training a temporary immigrant from India to do his work — he still hoped to find a new position in the vast entertainment company.

But Mr. Perrero discovered that despite his high performance ratings, he and most of the other 250 tech workers Disney dismissed would not be rehired for at least a year, and probably never.

Now he and Dena Moore, another American laid off by Disney at that time, have filed lawsuits in federal court in Tampa, Fla., against Disney and two global consulting companies, HCL and Cognizant, which brought in foreign workers who replaced them. They claim the companies colluded to break the law by using temporary H-1B visas to bring in immigrant workers, knowing that Americans would be displaced.

“I don’t have to be angry or cause drama,” said Ms. Moore, 53, who had worked at Disney for 10 years. “But they are just doing things to save a buck, and it’s making Americans poor.”

Ms. Moore had also trained her replacement. After she was laid off, she applied for more than 150 other jobs at Disney. She did not get one.

Responding to the frustration of American workers, Congress in December renewed and increased a fee on outsourcing companies that it had allowed to lapse. Larger companies employing many H-1B workers in the United States will pay an extra fee of $4,000 for each new H-1B visa — up from $2,000 — and another $4,000 to move an H-1B immigrant who is already in the country to a new employer.

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat who has been openly critical of Disney’s layoffs, offered a bill to reduce the H-1B quota by 15,000 visas a year to 70,000. The issue came up in the presidential race, as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican candidate, introduced a bill with Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Republican hard-liner on immigration, to sharply increase the minimum wage for H-1B workers to $110,000 a year, to discourage outsourcing companies from using the workers to lower wages.

Cruz and Sessions are terrible people. Racism may well be their motive. And $110,000 is too much for an H1-B minimum wage. However, there does need to be curbs on bringing in individual workers with the direct intent of laying off specific American workers. It’s simply inhuman to force people to train their own replacements. The H1-B program helps build a diverse and successful America. In principle, I support it. But between the gaming of the system by big outsourcing corporations and the widespread use of it not to find needed workers but as another way to get a nice quarterly profit report by Disney and other companies, reforms are indeed needed. Well-trained workers from India do have a place in the United States. But this is a bridge too far.

Will Friedrichs Free Union Activities?

[ 20 ] January 28, 2016 |


No, of course not. But that’s not going to stop some labor reporters from trying to make the case, as they usually do with anti-labor legislation or decisions. In this case, Shaun Richman claims it could help unions escape speech restrictions that limit their activities.

Public sector unions, whose ability to function is immediately at stake in the Friedrichs case, are not covered by the federal labor act. Instead, many states passed laws that are modeled on the NLRA. But with a crucial difference: when bosses get to pass laws that apply to their employees (which, if you think about it, is exactly what public sector labor law represents), they’re guaranteed to make it even more unfavorable than private sector rules.

Unsurprisingly, many states make strikes by public sector employees like the CUNY faculty and staff totally illegal, or else severely restrict them. Many states also make many union demands illegal, either by statute or by judicial decisions. The Friedrichs case, by inserting public employees’ 1st Amendment rights into collective bargaining could give unions a very useful tool for reversing many anti-union measures that are on the books.

So, in order to overturn this long-settled precedent the parties behind Friedrichs—egged on by Justice Alito—are lodging a wildly expansive argument that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political. Bargaining demands, grievances, labor-management committees, job actions: all of it, goes the Friedrichs argument, is political, thereby making the collection of agency fees compelled political speech.

Let’s think about some of the implications of this argument. For starters, the Taylor law that tells CUNY faculty and staff that they will be fined and their leaders imprisoned if they strike seems clearly to be a coercive restriction on their chosen method of political speech. If the Professional Staff Congress is hit with any penalties for either planning or going through with a job action, one hopes they can time their appeals to reach higher level courts after the Friedrichs decision comes down in June.

Perhaps most deliciously, the right-wing Friedrichs effort is in direct opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s offensive agenda in Wisconsin. Walker’s anti-union Act 10 did a lot of nasty things to public employees, some of which will continue to stand. It took away payroll deduction and forced unions to annually recertify as the collective bargaining agents for their members.

But what mostly caused union membership to plummet in the state was that certified unions were prohibited from bargaining over anything of substance; not just raises that exceed inflation, but duties, hours and work schedules and every other everyday issue that workers want to have a voice at work about.

If Justice Alito gets his way, then Scott Walker is suddenly massively violating the free speech rights of Wisconsin public employees. I humbly suggest that every union still certified demand to bargain the day after the decision. They could throw their old contracts on the table and sue every school board and state agency that refuses to discuss those items. I’d also suggest that they begin drawing up some new picket signs.

The problem with this is political. It’s entirely likely that the partisan New Gilded Age SCOTUS hacks who would make Stephen Field and David Brewer proud will simply issue a ruling on these issues contradictory to Friedrichs to fit their own political positions. Maybe there’s an interesting precedent here, but these precedents have to be recognized by courts first. I sure don’t see Alito and Roberts doing so. Friedrichs itself is already going to be counter to the Court’s own rulings on corporate free speech. Look at Kennedy’s reasoning in oral arguments:

There is another important distinction between the teachers who brought the new case and investors in companies. The First Amendment is a limit on government power, and it does not directly affect private agreements, whether between companies and shareholders or between private employers and their workers.

But at last week’s argument, Justice Kennedy mused about whether that should be so, at least in the context of labor unions.

“I think that’s correct as a basic distinction,” he said of the difference between the government and private employers. But he told the teachers’ lawyer that laws requiring workers at private firms to pay fees to their unions could also raise a First Amendment problem.

“That is state participation in the very kind of coerced membership and coerced speech that you’re objecting to,” Justice Kennedy said of such laws.

Also, I think Richman misstates what caused union membership in Wisconsin to collapse, for which I think there are a cluster of reasons, including that a whole lot of union members were also Walker supporters and were not active in their union to begin with, along with the unions not being prepared for this and thus being caught unawares.

Richman is certainly right that unions had better have a Plan B. And they do, although how fast its implementation will be remains unknown. But it’s not like they don’t all think they know what is about to happen to them. No one is sitting back and assuming Scalia won’t go along with his Republican colleagues.

Cobalt Workers and the Global Supply Chain

[ 34 ] January 28, 2016 |

Once again, investigators are exposing the horrors of the global supply chain that corporations rely on for their raw materials and much of their production. This time it is the cobalt used in the tech and automotive industries. Bad stuff here:

Cobalt mined by child laborers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be entering the supply chains of major tech companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, as well as auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and Daimler AG, according to an investigation from Amnesty International and Afrewatch, a DRC-based non-government organization.

The report, released today, lays out how cobalt mined by children as young as seven is sold to a DRC-based subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company. The subsidiary, Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), processes cobalt ore and sells it to companies in China and South Korea, where it is used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for use in smartphones and electric cars. Amnesty contacted 16 multinational companies listed as customers of the battery makers, based on investor documents and public records. Most said they were unaware of any links to the companies cited in the report, while others, like Apple and Microsoft, said they were evaluating their supply chains. Amnesty says that none of the companies provided enough information to independently verify the origin of their cobalt supply.

The investigation is based on interviews with 87 people who work or have worked in informal, artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC, including 17 children between the ages of 9 and 17. Amnesty and Afrewatch obtained photographic and video evidence of the hazardous conditions in which many of the miners work, often without basic protective gear or safety guidelines. The children interviewed for the report said they work up to 12 hours a day to earn between $1 and $2, and typically work above ground, gathering and washing rocks from defunct industrial sites or nearby lakes and rivers.

They carry heavy loads, face physical abuse, and are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals and dust, the report says, risking long-term lung disease and in some cases, death. Prolonged exposure to cobalt dust has been linked to “hard metal lung disease,” which is potentially fatal, and many artisanal mines are poorly constructed and ventilated. At least 80 artisanal miners died in the DRC between September 2014 and December 2015, according to information gathered from a UN-operated radio station, though the report notes that the true figure is likely much higher since many accidents are not reported.

The parameters for a solution here is actually fairly simple–Apple and Samsung and Daimler and the other corporations need to be held legally accountable to international labor standards over child labor, workplace safety, wages, and treatment of workers on the job. The corporations say it would be too hard to monitor these workplaces, but this is of course ridiculous. They just don’t want to do it. It would not cost a lot of money to have one or two people on site that inspected the mines, made sure there were no children there, and told recalcitrant employers that they would no longer accept their cobalt if they didn’t fix the problems. They just don’t want to bother. Yes, to make this effective, we have to have enforcement mechanisms and that isn’t happening overnight. But these problems and the other problems I lay out in Out of Sight are political problems. It takes no great imagination to work out a regulatory regime once the political problem is solved. That’s where we need to be imaginative and put our political pressure. That’s how we stop kids from dying while mining cobalt. I would hope all of us would consider this a political priority. Alas, I do not believe most progressives even care about this at all outside of just a vague “yeah, that’s pretty bad” sentiment. We did have one victory on this when the Dodd-Frank Act required publicly traded companies to at least disclose whether they use conflict materials. That’s information we can use to ratchet up the political pressure.

A Story of Justice and Victory

[ 6 ] January 28, 2016 |


There’s a lot of bad news in the world. Employers treat employees horribly around the world and it is mostly getting worse thanks to the global sourcing of production. Domestic employees are often even more exploited. But sometimes it does get better. Such as in Colombia, where this is a story worth celebrating:

Since Ms. Roa quit her last job as a maid in 2005, she has had remarkable success in getting the Colombian government and ordinary citizens to wrestle with that question and reconsider how domestic workers ought to be treated, as a matter of principle and under the law.

Ms. Roa didn’t set out to become an activist or a labor leader. During her first months of unemployment, she heard plenty of harrowing tales from other maids. When a labor organization interviewed her as part of a research study, she wondered whether it might be possible to form a union.

“We are invisible; it’s as though we don’t exist,” Ms. Roa recalls telling other domestic workers. “If we show the state what we go through, they’re going to realize it’s an enormous problem.”

There were plenty of skeptics, but Ms. Roa got leaders at a coalition of labor unions in Medellín to champion her cause. Their efforts, which included a social media campaign called “Let’s Talk About Domestic Workers,” began getting press coverage and the attention of policy makers.

In 2012, Colombian lawmakers agreed to adhere to an International Labour Organization treaty that set international standards for domestic workers. The following year, the Labor Ministry issued rules that require employers to provide health insurance and other standard benefits to domestic workers. The union Ms. Roa leads serves as an advocacy group, but it does not have formal bargaining authority.

This is a fight that is hardly over. It’s also a huge victory for domestic workers and an important precedent that hopefully can be applied around the world. In all the stories we discuss on the problems of the world, we also need to celebrate the victories, however rare. Those are important.

Marijuana and Labor

[ 8 ] January 26, 2016 |


Most people don’t care about labor law. Most people don’t care about union politics or strategies either. That includes most progressives. But there are occasions where the intricate details of labor strategy do see the light of publications because of the industry. The best example of this is in the professional sports unions, because people are fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers far more than they are fans of U.S. Steel. It provides an opening for a more nuanced and detailed discussion than usual. Among certain circles, this is also true of the newly legalized marijuana industry in the four relevant states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. So how could marijuana workers unionize? Raymond Hogler:

One union strategy is to ignore federal law and engage employers through a cooperative strategy modeled on the employee representation plans popular in the U.S. in the early 1900s. The ERPs, as they were known, featured elected employee delegates who dealt with the employer on workers’ behalf. The landmark example is the plan created by John Rockefeller Jr. and MacKenzie King following the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Rockefeller’s ideal of industrial democracy created a national template for employment relations until the New Deal and led to a vast expansion of company unions.

Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), the author of the NLRA, viewed ERPs as incompatible with the macroeconomic function of collective bargaining and outlawed them in Section 8(2) of the NLRA. In Wagner’s view, those entities could not effectively raise wages for workers and overcome the effects of the Great Depression. The ban is still in place, and it explains the highly publicized union drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. The auto manufacturer agreed to union participation in its works council, but it insisted that the United Auto Workers win recognition as a representative under NLRB procedures. Volkswagen eventually accepted the union based on authorization cards and established a formal relationship. The UAW soon thereafter released a statement describing its “new vision for the future of unionization” through the works council.

Given the ambiguity of our labor law, cannabis workers and the UFCW might approach employers with a similar scheme for representation. The strategy would not require certification at the state or federal level, and it could be formalized through a memorandum of understanding setting forth the basic rights of the parties. The agreement could contain provisions for arbitration to resolve any disputes about its terms. The cigar manufacturing firm of Straiton & Storm developed such a program in the 1880s, and company president George Storm a few years later testified before a congressional committee about the virtues of the system for both labor and management. ERPs could easily be used the same way in the cannabis industry.

A second innovative approach is to bring the sale of cannabis under direct state control and treat workers as public-sector employees with collective bargaining rights conferred by the state. Don Stevens, the mayor of North Bonneville, Wash., created a public development authority under state municipal law to fund a retail marijuana outlet. Stevens believes that his town drug store is unique in the country, if not the world (his business cards are titled the “The Marijuana Mayor”). The operation has repaid its initial financing and will soon be making a profit that can be dedicated to improving parks, roads, schools and other municipal functions. As government employees, the store’s workers are eligible to unionize under state law if they want. Stevens says they have the same wages and benefits as other municipal employees and, as a result, are more than satisfied with their jobs.

In other words, these are options available to a wide number of workers, but it’s useful to think about them in terms of this newly legalized sector. The idea of making weed workers state workers is also enough to make any conservative head explode.

This Day in Labor History: January 24, 1848

[ 26 ] January 24, 2016 |


“California Gold Diggers, Mining Operations on the Western Shore of the Sacramento River,” lithograph published by Kellogg & Comstock, circa 1850

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, near modern Sacramento. Over the next few years, 300,000 people from around the world descended upon California in hopes of striking it rich. From a labor history perspective, the interesting story about this is not the process of panning for gold, but the way this story reflected the intersection of race, gender, and labor that helped define 19th century America.

When white Americans reached California to pan for gold in 1849, they were not expecting to see racial diversity. In many ways, California was the first time when Americans really dealt with racial diversity. But they weren’t the only people coming to the gold diggings. That word spread around the world and there was faster ways to get there than walking across the California Trail if you lived in Asia or Latin America. There were Native Americans already living in California. There was the local Mexican population too. On top of that, thousands of Mexicans came north, as well as Peruvians and Chileans. French and Germans arrived from Europe. Australians and New Zealanders crossed the Pacific from faraway. Most significant was the many, many Chinese arriving every day. All of this shocked white Americans.

On top of this was another issue–the lack of women. Early California had almost no women, outside of prostitutes and of course the indigenous and Mexican population. There certainly was not enough women to do the work women did in normal white Anglo-American 19th century households. Who would cook? Who would clean? No one really knew. At first, basically men lived like slobs in tents and in the growing city of San Francisco. But this was not really desirable. So these men tried to group together to share the domestic tasks. While white men predominated, enough other men remained around early on to exchange some cooking techniques and the like, but by and large, the domestic world was grim for these miners. Despite being in ecologically fertile California, some miners came down with scurvy because they simply could or would not replicate women’s labor in the kitchen or even go pick the abundant wild fruits. Sometimes, one man took over the cooking while others did the mining labor and proceeds were split. Said future governor Lucius Fairchild, when writing to his family about his work in a hotel, “Now in the states you would think that a person…was broke if you saw him acting the part of hired Girl, but here it is nothing, for all kinds of men do all kinds work.”

The white Americans had no intention of letting the Chinese or the Mexicans into the diggings. They routinely forced these miners out, often violently. Oddly, they did not like the French either, although the Germans and Australians were generally fine. Quickly taking over the government in the face of U.S. control over California after the Mexican War, the white American miners created mining districts where foreign citizens could not work. Miners bragged about stealing claims from the French and the Chinese, arguing that “coloured men were not privileged to work in a country intended only for American citizens.” In 1850, California instituted a foreign miners tax directed at Mexicans and French. That was soon repealed, but a new one was implemented in 1852 that was directed at the Chinese. This hefty tax moved the Chinese out of the mines and into the laundries, replacing that female labor white miners so missed.Mexican miners actually resisted the mining tax, but this led to huge parades of armed American miners intimidating the foreign miners into giving up.

So most of the foreign miners lost out, even though some continued to try and work and fight Anglo dominance. There are a number of reports of white miners being killed after the passage of the foreign miners tax, although the veracity of the stories are impossible to verify. However, that didn’t mean they had no role at all in the California labor hierarchy. The Mexicans and especially the Chinese could then fill that female role of work. This is basically where the tradition of the Chinese restaurant and the Chinese laundry in the U.S. begins. In the male-dominated West, where women usually lagged well behind men, often into the 1910s and 1920s, the Chinese played that female labor role.

The Chinese did continue trying to mine, often buying up stakes that whites thought would not play out. But the foreign miners tax, combined with the daily racism they faced, would largely force them out of the diggings entirely. With the Chinese finding a more stable economic place picking up the female labor, white miners increasingly found themselves disappointed by the gold explorations. It did not take long for the easy diggings to pan out. Corporate mining soon took over, with the use of hydraulic hoses that required significant capital to get at the gold under the ground. The ideal of the white miner finding the huge nugget and yelling “Eureka!” ended by the early 1850s. While white miners who stayed (many hoped to return to eastern states and often did) wanted to create a white man’s paradise, which helps explain why California completely rejected being a slave state after the Mexican War, in fact, it would quickly become a corporate run state, with the mining companies leading the way until the railroads took precedence after the Civil War.

For the broader trajectory of American labor history, the story of how labor in early California is most significant in thinking how it both reflected and helped shape racialized and gendered labor roles through the 19th century. By 1848, ideas about race, gender, and labor were well set. Perhaps this is less surprising with gender, as the eastern United States had even gender ratios and thus fairly stable gender roles in the household and on the job. But in terms of race, with the exception of African-Americans and to a lesser extent Native Americas, the northern states of the U.S., where by far most although certainly not all whites migrated from, had relatively small populations of anyone not white. What happened in California was a combination of resentment that anyone competing with whites would even be there with the necessity for someone to take over that gendered labor that white men felt was not their place to do. Certainly the gender ratios in California eased over time, but by the 1880s, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and anti-Chinese violence was common across the West, men still vastly outnumbered women. Yet that resentment managed to outpace the need for those laborers, at least among the common workers of the West.

I borrowed much of the information for this book from Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush.

This is the 170th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 13

[ 3 ] January 23, 2016 |

This is the grave of Sidney Hillman.


Hillman was born into a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1887. He was training to be a rabbi, but fell in with political radicals, joined the Bund, and fled Tsarist anti-radical oppression in 1906, coming to the United States. He was 19 years old. The next year, he arrived in the United States and moved to Chicago. He found work in the garment industry, which was dominated by women. It would be the last manual job he would ever hold. In 1910, Hillman helped lead a strike of 45,000 garment workers against not only their employers but the conservative AFL-affiliated United Garment Workers, which the workers split from when it tried to settle the strike without granting the workers’ demands. Out of this came the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Hillman, who had briefly moved to New York to work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and who was not enjoying his new job, came back to Chicago to head the ACWU, where he became of labor’s most progressive leaders, even as his union remained small.

He became a great admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. Supporting the mass organizing of the industrial shopfloor that the AFL continued to resist, Hillman became one of the founding leaders of the CIO. He helped Robert Wagner write the National Labor Relations Act and worked very closely with Frances Perkins to lobby congressional support for the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Hillman went on to be labor’s man in the White House during World War II, working within the Roosevelt administration as the head of the labor division of the War Production Board. This included trying to stamp out wildcat strikes during the war from workers desperate for a raise. He was the first chair of the CIO Political Action Committee in 1942, rallying support for Democratic candidates. Hillman’s role in the Democratic machine became so great that by 1944, Thomas Dewey and other conservatives were leading the charge that FDR had to “clear it with Sidney” before choosing Harry Truman as vice-president, setting the framework for the anti-labor redbaiting campaigns of postwar Republicans and southern Democrats.

Sidney Hillman died of a heart attack in 1946.

And yes, I did it clear it with Sidney before posting this.

Sidney Hillman is buried in Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson New York.

IWW History Project

[ 9 ] January 23, 2016 |


If you have a few minutes, checking out the IWW History Project at the University of Washington is well worth your time. It contains a lot of great visuals, maps, timelines, etc. The labor historian James Gregory:

The IWW History Project is now live. Based at the University of Washington, the online project reveals in new ways the rich history of the Industrial Workers of the World during the formative years, 1905-1935. The project has many dimensions, but at the center are interactive maps and datasets that show the geography and density of IWW activism.

One set of maps locates more than 1,800 strikes, campaigns, arrests and other acts of persecution, allowing us to see year by year or month by month where the IWW was active. Another set of maps and charts shows the locations of more than 900 local unions. The maps are linked to chronological yearbooks of events that are based on data collected from the Industrial Union Bulletin, Industrial Worker, Solidarity and other sources.

These visualizations bring surprises and invite new understandings about the radical organization. The scope of activity is one surprise. IWW local unions were found in more than 350 towns and cities, in 38 states and territories of the United States and five Canadian provinces. We are familiar with some of this geography–the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, the Northeastern textile belt—but seeing the density of activity in Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, and Ohio is eye opening. So is the IWW’s place in New York City which hosted dozens of unions and many strikes, including one by the Macaroni Workers Industrial Union No. 301. The city was also home to seventeen IWW affiliated newspapers published in seven languages.

Macaroni Workers Industrial Union No. 301 would a pretty good band name.

This is a really great resource. I look forward to using it myself.

This Day in Labor History: January 23, 1973

[ 2 ] January 23, 2016 |

On January 23, 1973, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers went on strike against Shell Oil. This strike gained unusual supporters. Environmentalists came out hard against Shell and in support of OCAW. This came about in part because of the progressive leaders of OCAW leaders, particularly Tony Mazzocchi, OCAW legislative director. This case shows the very real potential for alliances between labor and environmentalists when the two movements have meaningful conversations and act in solidarity with one another.

By the late 1960s, many unions responded to growing scientific literature about the health effects of industrial labor by demanding federal action and demanding action from employers to clean up their workplaces. On the federal level, this led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Companies resisted doing anything about these workplaces. The AFL-CIO under George Meany generally was typically indifferent, but a number of industrial unions, including the United Steelworkers of America, took the lead on making environmental demands. No union led on this issue more than the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Tony Mazzocchi and his assistant Steven Wodka believed that inspiring rank and file activism on environmental issues was key for unions to keep workers safe. This was especially important for the OCAW because its members were exposed to radiation and reports were coming out during these years about just how unsafe those radioactive workplaces were. It started to reach out to other unions working on environmental issues, like the nascent United Farm Workers, fighting over pesticide exposure.

Said Al Grospiron, OCAW president:

Organized Labor must emphatically support environmental efforts and must never get into the position of opposing such efforts on the grounds of economic hardship. Our position must be that nearly all polluting facilities can be corrected without hardships to the workers and that in those few cases where corrections are not possible new job opportunities or compensation must be provided for the workers.

The OCAW also worked with environmental organizations. Calling for the workplace as the first line of defense for the environment certainly got the attention of greens. Environmental Action worked with unions to get OSHA passed. Other environmental organizations were however only tepidly in support, frustrating the OCAW. They reprinted a Stewart Udall editorial in the union newspaper, lambasting greens. Udall said, “Environmental groups act act as if the blue collar worker does not exist. Their lack of concern for the workplace–their failure to even recognize it as an environment–is the most glaring defect in their young movement.”


OCAW and other unions felt OSHA far too weak and continued to push for worker-led safety and environmental committees that would go farther than the weak and slow government oversight the law created. This continued to help build relations with environmental organizations. Shell Oil had long animosity toward both unions and environmentalists. OCAW decided to target Shell because of the company’s power and the union’s need to stand up to the biggest bully on the block. But it knew that it could not defeat this company alone. It needed consumer help. For that, it build on its relationships with environmentalists, arguing that if Shell didn’t care about polluting workers’ bodies, it wouldn’t care about polluting the environment.

So a week after OCAW went on strike, on January 30, 11 of the nation’s largest environmental organizations announced their support for the strike and urged a nationwide boycott of Shell. This included the relatively conservative Sierra Club, which had by this time kicked the radical David Brower out of office and reverted to its traditional moderate stance. But the radicalism of the time had caught up to Sierra Club, which was concerned about attracting new members. It held two conferences with labor in the early 1970s, which helped create connections that convinced it to join the boycott. It took until March for Sierra Club to join and that included the threat of unions creating an anti-environmentalist coalition, which was already happening in the building trades. But join it did, putting its significant muscle behind the action.


This alliance did not come that easy in the rank and file of both labor and greens. A lot of environmentalists had absolutely zero interest in working with unions. Particularly during these years, environmentalism was seen as above politics and unions were most certainly not. Middle-class greens might well oppose unions and they didn’t see why their dues money should be spent working with workers. Sierra Club especially saw many angry letters from its members who opposed the boycott, saying the workplace was not an environmental issue. But Sierra Club leadership held to its position.

By April 1973, Shell sales in the U.S. had dropped 20-25 percent. But ultimately, OCAW did not have the resources to win this strike. It was paying out large sums in strike benefits and was rapidly losing money. Many rank and file workers wanted to end the strike. A Texas local negotiated an independent settlement, defying OCAW leadership. It included a few tokens for the union, including morbidity statistics the union wanted. There was no way the international could stand up to this and the strike ended on June 4.


The strike was not exactly won. But OCAW’s new contracts following it almost all had much stronger health and safety clauses. The strike also helped solidify the coalition with environmental groups. Many groups now claimed a long-term commitment to workplace health and safety. In the spring of 1975, labor and environmentalists formed Environmentalists for Full Employment that fought for the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. During the Carter administration, blue-green alliances reached their peak, as I discuss in the lumber industry in Empire of Timber. On workplace health, pollution, and other issues, labor and environmentalists worked together in exciting ways.

At the same time though, deindustrialization was destroying the American working class and their unions. Companies began openly claiming that if environmental laws were passed, they would close company doors and move to a new state or out of the nation. Often these were lies, but sometimes companies followed through. Job blackmail began to turn the declining unions against their green allies because the rank and file was so scared for their jobs. The OCAW resisted job blackmail to a significant event, as did the International Woodworkers of America until 1987. But many unions did not. In the early 1980s, the OSHA/Environmental Network, an attempt to unite labor and greens against Reagan’s attacks on both, had some local successes in rebuilding coalitions, but mostly it quickly faded, as did the conversations between the two movements. There have been periodic attempts to revive these alliances to the present. But as we have seen over coal mining and the Keystone XL Pipeline, when workers feel their jobs under attack, especially in the absence of good jobs for working people throughout the United States, they will attack environmentalists. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Ultimately though, the more we understand about attempts to build these coalitions, the better chance we have to build them in the future over issues such as pollution, green energy, and climate change.

The information for the OCAW strike comes from Robert Gordon, “Shell No! OCAW and the Labor-Environmental Alliance,” in the October 1998 issue of Environmental History. Other parts of the post come from my own research and writing.

This is the 169th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 12

[ 18 ] January 22, 2016 |

Time for the next installment in the internet’s least important historical series.

This is the grave of Samuel Gompers.


Gompers, an English immigrant from a Jewish background, immigrated to the United States in 1863. He became involved in the nascent American labor movement in 1864, when he was 14 and working as a cigar maker. He was elected president of his local in 1875 and rose quickly after that. Although he never actually was president of his international, he became the most important person in American labor in the 1880s, heading the American Federation of Labor from its founding in 1886 until his death in 1924. Today, Gompers is often an object of disdain among radicals. Some of that is for good reason. He was violently anti-radical, and knew more about communism than any government official by World War I because he kept such close tabs on potential rivals. He wouldn’t organize most immigrants, women, black people, Asians, or children. He wouldn’t organize shop floors or the new industrial factories, yet worked hard to destroy unions who then tried to do that very thing. He held onto an older vision of independent male laborers working in skilled positions, which was totally unrealistic in the industrial economy developing around him.

This is all true. But it’s also worth noting that Gompers’ positions represented the feelings of millions of American workers who wanted that vision of the proper American worker to come true. He was not a dictator within the AFL, but rather was the head of a federation of unions, some of which, especially the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, that had a ton of power in the organization and which he had to represent. He also moved the American labor movement ahead significantly, creating a space for its legitimacy in a nation where employers wanted to crush all unions, especially in the aftermath of the Knights of Labor.

In other words, Gompers was a tremendously complex individual and our view of him should reflect this.

Samuel Gompers is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Life in the Factory

[ 3 ] January 18, 2016 |


What is life like in a Bangladeshi garment factory for women workers? It’s not good.

“What happened when you formed the union?” asked the interviewer from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Aleya Akter, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), employed at Lufa Garments, responded:

I was severely beaten when I tried to bring together workers to make them understand why it’s necessary to form a union. I was beaten on three separate occasions from 2006 to 2007, once inside the factory conference hall, once in a meeting room with the presence of the police, who observed and did nothing, and once in front of the factory.

Shobita Byapari, a sewing machine operator, 28 years old was asked, “What do you think stands in the way of progress for Bangladeshi garment workers?” Her answer: “Police, thugs.”

Ritu Khan, a helper, 40 years old, was asked the same question, and responded, “Police, thugs, the supervisor, the line chief. These are the biggest problems.” The exchange continued:

What does the police do?

Suppose the owner got a cop to harass me, or they got a thug to beat me.

How about the supervisor?

Suppose if I did something. In the office, they…

Do they lay a hand on the girls?


So the girls don’t say anything about that?

What will they say? For the fear of losing our job, no one says anything.

Sabina Ara, a sewing-machine operator, who believes she is 25 or 26 years old, was asked “Suppose you asked for a salary increase. What would happen?” She answered:

They threaten us with many things. They threaten us with the police. Then there are local politicians; they threaten us with them. There are landlords; they threaten us with them.

Apostles of free trade and the current system of global capitalism laud these factories as great for workers–how freeing!–without examining anything about what these workers lives were like before they worked in the factories, why they are forced to work here, etc. A deeper examination shows the role of agricultural centralization and global food policy throwing workers off their land as a key part of creating this workforce. What’s worse is the rhetoric of freedom globalization promoters use. In using that rhetoric, they–implicitly or explicitly–accuse critics of this work and these conditions as actually the ones opposed to workers’ having better lives. And given how many of these workers are women, they accuse people like myself of even being anti-woman. This is, of course, facile, an argument easily made when one doesn’t bother actually listening to the words of workers themselves.

The Garment Liberation Theory of Global Development and Women not only misses the harsh reality of inadequate wages. It also overlooks the grim interaction among the culture of the nation, the factory, and the household. Claeson notes that 79 percent of a sample of women studied by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity “reported giving their husbands their wages every month.” Sixty-three percent of the 27 unmarried women in the study “lived with their parents and reported giving their earnings to their father or mother. The rest of the unmarried women reported sending 2,000 to 2,500 taka (US$ 25-32) to their parents in the countryside every month. Only the single mothers retained full ownership of their earnings, being solely responsible for their own and their children’s livelihood.”

The regime of gender subordination also works on the factory floor. The testimony of Taslima Sultana, sewing-machine operator, 31 years old, typifies much of the testimony in the report:

Inside the factory no one can really abuse a male operator the way they do to women. We don’t protest very much so that’s why they do that to us. And besides, they don’t even hire men very much anymore. And this is why they don’t take men. For example, the end of the workday is supposed to be at 7 p.m., but they don’t give us leave until 8 or 9 or 10 p.m. They wouldn’t do that with a man, would they?

It’s not that work can’t liberate women from their families. It’s that this work liberates no one. It is terrible. Moreover, it’s a sexist work system that seeks to exploit women, the core of the garment industry since it’s development at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Who can we hold responsible for these conditions? That’s an easy answer–the big wealthy world department stores.

The report concludes by making unmistakably clear that the power to improve the workers’ lives resides at the top of the supply chain, with the Walmarts and the Gaps, should they truly choose to exercise it. As Aleya Akter of the BGIWF puts it, “If the buyer says, ‘I will not give work if there is no union,’ even the government’s Dad doesn’t have power to stop it.”

This is why it is our responsibility to stop these conditions. We can’t say, “oh, let the Bangladeshis demand better laws if they want them” while we buy clothing produced by women making peanuts and working in unsafe factories. First, the Bangladeshi Parliament is dominated by the clothing manufactures. Second, when they do stand up and demand change, their organizers are beaten or killed. Third, if they did win those changes, Walmart, Gap, and Target would just move to some other country. It’s American and European companies setting the standards here. We need to hold them to higher standards and take away their incentive to move by setting universal rules to which they must apply no matter where they move, with inspections mandatory.

Unfortunately, this is not an issue even most people on the left take remotely seriously. Meanwhile, more workers are exploited and dying.

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