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Tag: "labor"

The Price of Poverty

[ 108 ] December 6, 2014 |

Being poor is horrible for so many reasons. Among them is that life’s little inconveniences for the non-poor can be utterly devastating. Getting sick and missing a couple of days of work means you can lose your apartment. The car breaking down destroys your life. Linda Tirado, from her new book on living in the New Gilded Age:

It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year. For those of you that think in quarters: $65 per quarter in savings. If you deny yourself even small luxuries, that’s the fortune you’ll amass. Of course you will never manage to actually save it; you’ll get sick at least one day and miss work and dip into it for rent. Gas will spike and you’ll need it to get to work. You’ll get a tear in your work pants that you can’t patch. Something, I guarantee you, will happen in three months.

When I have a few extra dollars to spend, I can’t afford to think about next month—my present day situation is generally too tight to allow me that luxury. I’ve got kids who are interested in their quality of life right now, not 10 years from now.

Here’s the thing: we know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at 10 bucks an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive through window. Or how many floors you can vacuum, or how many boxes you can fill.

It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right—and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet. I’ve done well in years that I had a job I didn’t mind terribly and that paid me well enough to get into an apartment that met all the basic standards. I’ve done less well in years where I didn’t have steady work. The trouble’s been that my luck simply hasn’t held out for long enough; it seems like just when I’ve caught up, something happens to set me back again. I’ve been fortunate enough that it’s rarely compounded, and I’ve stayed at under sea level for short periods instead of long-term. But I’ve stared long-term in the face long enough to have accepted it as a real possibility. It’s only an accident and a period of unemployment away.

Of course, the rich will say that Tirado and others are just lazy. Sure. No one knows work like poor people. Because they do it, and a lot of it, whenever they can.

Academic Integrity and Union Busting at the University of Oregon

[ 64 ] December 6, 2014 |

As I discussed awhile ago, the teaching assistants at my alma mater, the University of Oregon, were discussing going on strike over the university’s refusal to provide them paid sick leave. In response, the university threw academic integrity out the window and threatened to allow students to have their current grade be the grade for the course and encouraged professors to give scantron finals. Well, the TAs did go on strike and the university has moved forward with its plans. For one, the university is threatening TAs (or GTFFs as they are called in Eugene) on foreign visas with deportation if they strike. That’s a pretty low blow.

The faculty union has come out in support of their TAs. Here is its statement:

Today, the University of Oregon administration escalated its tactics against the striking graduate employees that will have profoundly negative implications for undergraduates.

The College of Arts and Sciences decreed unilaterally that final examinations and end-of-term assignments will be optional in graduate-assisted courses taught in the Departments of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Ethnic Studies.

If the GTFF strike continues after Dec. 12, the Associate Dean for Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences will assign all grades in the affected courses, based on only a portion of the graded assignments and tests listed in course syllabi. In the Department of Philosophy, the department head and all graduate instructors have been removed as instructors of record. More departments may suffer a similar fate.

This course of action threatens to damage the mentorship between teachers and students, relations of trust among colleagues, and between the university community and the administration. It also interferes with the ability of teachers to do what they do best: to educate students. This harms students who hoped to improve their grades with end-of-term writing assignments and final examinations.

The apparent goal of this attack is to break the GTFF and not, as the administration insists, to maintain “academic continuity.”

Every effort by faculty members and the university senate to deal with the problem of assigning grades during the strike in a manner that upholds the professional integrity of teachers and the expectations set out in course syllabi has been rejected.

Furthermore, because the administration has declared final examinations to be optional, grades will not have the same value for all students.

Such callous disregard for academic freedom and the welfare of students forces faculty and students between a rock and a hard place. Rather than work with faculty to create meaningful options for grades to be delayed, the administration has chosen to compromise the integrity of undergraduate education at the University of Oregon.

I have a bit more information. I was forwarded an e-mail from the Associate Dean of Humanities, Judith Baskin. At the request of the person who sent it, I have redacted the course name this e-mail applies to. It reads as follows:

Dear Students,

I am responsible for ensuring that you receive a timely grade for
the work you have done in [COURSE NAME].

On the Academic Affairs website
(affairs.uoregon.edu/academic-continuity [1]) the Provost has advised
that students in courses taught or supported by GTFs may be given the
option to forgo the final assignment/exam and take their current grade
in the course.

Please be advised that should the GTFF strike continue to Dec. 12, I
will enter the grade you achieved in [COURSE NAME] up to December 1 as
your approximate grade for Fall term. This grade will be based on the
grading information given to me by your Instructor. If you wish you
may accept this grade as your final grade. In that case, you need
not complete any further work for this course and the grade I entered
will not be altered.

* If this is your preference please send me an email to that effect
(jbaskin@uoregon.edu) by date XXXX. Be sure to include your name,
student number, and the course number and name; you may include your
understanding of what the final grade would be. I regret that,
given the large number of courses with which I am working, I cannot
give you the grade I will be entering at this time but I assure you
that it will be based on the information your Instructor supplied for
work competed as of Dec. 1.

*

* OR

*

* You have the option to complete the final exam / assignment as
described on your course syllabus and/or by your Instructor. You may
submit that work either to the Department of [BLANK] or electronically (if this was your Instructor’s
preference) by the date and time assigned by your Instructor. At such
time as your work is graded, the approximate grade will be replaced by
a grade based on all your course work, including the final
assignment/exam. If you have any questions, please feel to email me
(jbaskin@uoregon.edu) or contact me via Blackboard.

Judith R. Baskin, Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities

Associate Dean for Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences

So there you have it. “You may include your understanding of what the final grade may be.” Great! Tell me you are getting an A and then I don’t have to bother looking it up. And why even bother taking a final? Just go celebrate the Ducks’ victory at Rennie’s! (a local bar) Now this is some academic integritude!

This Day in Labor History: December 5, 1894

[ 26 ] December 5, 2014 |

On December 5, 1894, Alabama repealed its child labor law in order to convince the officials of the Dwight Manufacturing Company, a textile corporation, to move its mill operations from Chicopee, Massachusetts to its state. Dwight did this, settling in Gadsden. This incident is both an early incident in the history of capital mobility, a phenomenon that plagues workers today, and also shines a light into how the apparel industry was a pioneer in breaking labor resistance through simply closing up and moving operations to a non-union state.

Child labor had long plagued the United States. Of course, children worked in various ways on farms on in the cities but the Industrial Revolution made that work all the harder and more dangerous, with factory owners using children’s small size to hire them in the most dangerous jobs, often around moving and deadly machinery. At the same time, in New England, increasingly restive workers protested against the poor wages and bad working conditions of the textile industry. Moreover, northern states had started passing legislation mandating wages and hours, especially for the female and child workers the textile industry loved exploiting. By the 1903, Chicopee had about 2000 union members in the textile industry and a growing set of state labor laws these unions successfully fought for that today we would see as basic protections for workers.

Stepping into this labor unrest were the southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama, who began to see attracting northern investment in textile mills as part of the solution to its persistent white poverty and an economic move befitting a New South image they pushed. The first cotton mill opened in Alabama in 1832 but the industry remained small, despite that state’s centrality in American cotton production. By the mid-1880s, Alabama legislators decided to encourage northern capital investment, offering tax exemptions and cheap labor to textile corporations.

But in 1887, Alabama also became the first southern state to enact regulations on hours and child labor. This created an 8-hour day for most women in factories, an 8-hour day for children under 14 in most work and banned work for those under 15 in the coal or iron mines. This was supported by the Knights of Labor, which was briefly prominent in Alabama, as it was in much of the nation. But with the Knights’ decline in the aftermath of Haymarket, the political will to keep these laws in place quickly waned.

In 1894, the Dwight Manufacturing Company announced it was going to build a southern factory to get away from its restive workers and “oppressive laws” guaranteeing them some rights, as their executives called them. It put itself up to the highest bidder. Dwight didn’t like that it couldn’t employ children. Alabama repealing their child labor law thus made it the winner of Dwight’s race to the bottom. The original law simply excepted Etowah County, where the factory was to go, but 12 days later, Governor William Oates signed another bill repealing it for the whole state. The company refused to transfer workers to Chicopee in order to keep the union traditions away from its new home. About this repeal, Samuel Gompers wrote, “I was horrified by this outrageous piece of legislation…this crime that had been committed by that legislature in sacrificing young and innocent children to the greed and rapacity of the profit mongers.” By May 1897, 17 of the 162 employees in the Dwight spinning department were 10 years of age or younger.

030-ss-11-mfrede_lg

Northern unions did not take this lying down. The National Union of Textile Workers began trying to organize the southern mill workers, fighting for northern standards in order to undermine the threat of capital mobility. Factories such as Dwight used the standard anti-union procedures–firing unionized workers, kicking them out of company towns, threatening to replace them with black labor, the blacklist. The NUTW and other unions struggled mightily to organize the mills, which were largely seen as public benefactors by many white Alabamans. The labor movement outside the textile industry in the state did however start fighting immediately for new labor legislation. After several failed attempts, a 1903 compromise bill banned child labor under the age of 12 except for some exemptions such as orphans and children of widowed mothers who could be employed at the age of 10. The textile companies, including Dwight, fought against this, but it did pass.

However, it lacked any meaningful enforcement mechanism. With the rising Progressive Era, even in Alabama the continued use of child labor sparked increased concern, and a somewhat better law passed in 1907. The Dwight Mill received a significant amount of negative publicity throughout this fight, including from the Massachusetts State Federation of Labor who had it in mind when it blamed the lack of labor law in the South on “attorneys of Northern capitalists who have large investments in the Southern mills.” Despite this new law, in 1910, Alabama mills still employed 2903 children between the ages of 10 and 13.

By 1927, Dwight had closed its Massachusetts operations and had moved to Alabama full time. While the southern textile operations slowly killed the industry in the northeast, it was not immune from the same problems. In 1934, textile workers around the nation, including in the South, struck over low wages and bad conditions and after World War II, the apparel industry began experimenting with moving their operations overseas. For the Dwight Company, their workers had organized even before 1934 and continued fighting for unionism through the 30s, despite continued firing and blacklisting from the company. Dwight openly defied the National Labor Relations Board and challenged the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, even after the Supreme Court found for its constitutionality in 1937. Because of Dwight, The Nation‘s Maxwell Stewart called Gadsden, “the toughest [antiunion] city in the United States,” although there was plenty of competition for that honor. Finally, when their Alabama workers struck in 1959, the company shut the mill down and threw 2100 people out of work.

By the 1980s, companies like Dwight were leaving the United States entirely because of too many labor laws like the Wagner Act, what with its minimum wages and guaranteeing of collective bargaining rights. The southern mill towns suffered the same fate as did New England. As does any place today that tries to give workers right or pass legislation protecting labor or the environment. Apparel manufacturers pioneered capital mobility and continue to aggressively search for the cheapest and most exploitative labor today, even if over 1100 workers die in a single factory collapse in the process.

This post is based on Beth English, A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry, a book I found very useful in conceptualizing Out of Sight.

This is the 127th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Bourgeois Pig

[ 123 ] December 4, 2014 |

Chicago just passed a minimum wage increase that will take it to $13 in 2019. Quite reasonable. Business owners are not happy. Shockingly, as business owners have said with every piece of labor legislation in American history, they are claiming it will cost jobs. But sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up:

Mason Green, the owner of Bourgeois Pig Cafe, 736 W. Fullerton Ave., said the raising minimum wage comes at a time when his restaurant and coffee house already is struggling since the closure of Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“I’m already charging $9 for a sandwich. I can’t be charging $11, $12 for a sandwich,” Green said. “No one’s going to pay that.”

Green said he is considering switching from counter service to a full-service restaurant so employees would be eligible for the lower minimum wage paid to waitstaff and rely on tips.

Green said most of his 25 employees make $8.25 an hour and the highest-paid employee earns $13 an hour plus a small amount of tips left in the jar at the counter.

He is also considering extending hours and applying for a liquor license to close the gap.

Business at the cafe, which has been open since 1993, has dropped 30 percent over the past three years after the closure of the hospital, Green said.

So the owner of The Bourgeois Pig opposes a decent minimum wage for workers. Huh. It’s one thing to wear your ideology, but this is ridiculous. Plus if you want a cutesy capitalist name, you set yourself up for these jabs. But seriously, the higher minimum wage is not going to require raising sandwiches by $2 an hour. If that’s the case, 2 sandwiches per worker per hour make up for those wages. And if you aren’t selling 2 sandwiches per worker per hour, you are not going to stay in business anyway. I’m sure the hospital closing doesn’t help this guy, but that’s the reason for his problems, not paying workers a little more. Not to mention that all the other workers in earning less than $13 would have more money to spend on his sandwiches.

The Sexiest Thing You Can Have

[ 21 ] December 2, 2014 |

luther_union_card

Above: The greatest aphrodisiac known to humanity, the union card.

What is sexier than union membership? Nothing of course:

Who knew that a union card was a turn-on?

Well, that might not be literally the case, but a new study finds that for men, union membership can boost their chances of getting hitched.

Research shows that for men, income correlates with marriage rates: The decline in marriage is more pronounced for men in middle and lower income groups. This basic relationship caused sociologists Daniel Schneider and Adam Reich to wonder: Would union membership—which is supposed to lift a person’s wages—also lift a person’s chance at being married?

Using 25 years of data from a cohort of men and women from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, they found evidence that union membership is positively associated with marriage for men, though the relationship was not statistically significant for women in unions.

“We argue that membership in a labor union may increase the marriageability of young men and women either by helping to secure economic benefits in the present or by sending a signal to potential mates about the stability and certainty of future economic prospects,” they write. “We find that men covered by collective bargaining have a significant advantage in first marriage and that this relationship remains after adjusting for possible confounding characteristics such as age, education, region, and attitudes.”

Given that I am a member of 2 unions, I should be irresistible.

This Day in Labor History: December 2, 1984

[ 32 ] December 2, 2014 |

On December 2, 1984, a gas leak in a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India killed somewhere between 3787 and 16,000 people. Perhaps the worst industrial disaster in world history, the Bhopal disaster shows the criminal negligence by which American corporations treat people of the developing world and why corporate leaders choose to site production facilities in poor parts of the world.

Union Carbide had one of the longest histories in India of any American company, going back to a battery plant opened in Calcutta in 1924. In 1969, Union Carbide opened its first pesticide plant in Bhopal, part of the Indian government’s Green Revolution program that would rely on massive chemical inputs to grow unprecedented tons of crops. By 1983, Union Carbide had 14 plants in India, making chemicals, batteries, pesticides, and other dangerous and highly polluting products. At its Bhopal plant, it produced a pesticide named Sevin. A brand name for carbaryl, Sevin is the third-most sold insecticide in the United States, used by home gardeners, agribusiness, and foresters. Carbaryl contains methyl isocyanate, an extremely toxic substance. What is poisonous to insects is often poisonous to humans in large doses.

On the night of December 2, 1984 and into the next morning, between 200,000 and 500,000 of the city’s 800,000 residents were exposed to 93,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals after water entered a side pipe and mixed with the chemicals. The use of non-stainless steel pipelines to save money allowed this to happen. A chemical reaction quickly raised the heat and pressure of the chemicals and the emergency venting of the tank was undertaken. This sent a poisonous cloud spreading southeast from the plant over the city of Bhopal. We don’t know how many people died. The official release said 2259. The local government said 3787. Others put the total at up to 16,000, including those who died later from the illnesses they contracted after exposure. Who knows.

Union Carbide could have easily prevented this leak. But it shut off some of its safety systems in order to save money, sacrificing safety for profit. Operating manuals were in English but most workers read only Hindi. Local officials worried about processing these chemicals in a big city like Bhopal, but Union Carbide executives overrode their concerns because they wanted to centralize production at that facility and sell it to other Asian nations. The limited pollution prevention system in the plant was completely overwhelmed by the size of the factory, with UC putting no money into ensuring such an event did not happen. Between 1980 and 1984, UC laid off half its safety employees in the plant in order to save money.

Not surprisingly, the plant had severe workplace safety issues as well. A 1976 accident blinded a worker. A 1981 leak killed one worker and injured two others. A leak in 1982 nearly killed 28 workers, although none died in the end. There were many more similar incidents. A 1982 safety audit suggested major changes but there is no evidence UC implemented any of them.

Real accountability to Union Carbide officials was never going to happen. UC claimed India forced it to produce the chemical in Bhopal because it wanted domestic production, but this is a) quite possibly a lie and b) says nothing about the lack of safety procedures in the plant. After the disaster, Union Carbide sought to escape all responsibility. It claimed without evidence that someone must have sabotaged the plant. When an Indian court ordered the company to pay $270 million in damages, Union Carbide continued appealing the decision, allowing it to delay payments. In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in compensation but little of this money reached the affected people and what did hardly paid for the long-term health problems faced by the survivors. The deal was so minimal that UC stock rose $2 a share the day of the announcement.

Dodging responsibility certainly did nothing for the people of Bhopal, who suffered (and continue to suffer) long-term respiratory problems and lung disease. The chemicals also created severe liver, spleen, and kidney problems for many survivors. By 2001, no more than half of survivors’ compensation cases had been processed. The factory closed in 1986. Union Carbide, later purchased by Dow, has taken no responsibility for remediation of the factory site, while 91 percent of people living in a resettlement colony near the factory site use water contaminated by its legacy. Meanwhile, when Union Carbide’s West Virginia plant that also produced Sevin released a toxic plume of aldicarb oxime and methylene chloride in August 1985, sending 135 people to the hospital, it led to Congress passing the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. This law provided local governments with information about toxic chemicals in order to support emergency planning measures. No such act came to India. In 2010, 8 Indian workers at the plant were convicted of crimes connected to the incident and the seven still living were given 2 years in prison, but no Union Carbide executive faced any legal consequences. Using the Alien Tort Claims Act, the survivors attempted to sue in U.S. courts in 1999 to hold the company accountable for both the victims and the remediation of the site, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

It is precisely that companies can poison workers in India or kill workers in Bangladesh without real consequences that they move away from the United States. The West Virginia incident created an additional layer of accountability for Union Carbide and other chemical companies. With increasingly mobile capitalism, there is no reason for companies to accept such a thing. Easier to just move to a country where people won’t have access to the power structures necessary to create meaningful accountability over wages, working conditions, or pollution. The lives of poor people are meaningless for Union Carbide, Wal-Mart, Target, or thousands of other American corporations involved in the exploitation of the developing world today.

Between 120,000 and 150,000 people in Bhopal today still struggle with the impact of the chemical leak that transformed their lives thirty years ago today. Long term birth defects are another result of the massive contamination that remains on and near the site, including in the drinking water for thousands. Said a recent report on Bhopal’s legacy:

“There is a very high prevalence of anemia, delayed menarches in girls and painful skin conditions. But what is most pronounced is the number of children with birth defects,” said activist Satinath Sarangi from the Bhopal Medical Appeal which runs a clinic for gas victims.

“Children are born with conditions such as twisted limbs, brain damage, musculoskeletal disorders … this is what we see in every fourth or fifth household in these communities.”

But of course there has never been an in depth study to prove the connections. Just a coincidence, no doubt.

There is of course a great deal of material on Bhopal. A bit of this I took from my upcoming book, Out of Sight</a>. I also relied upon Ward Morehouse’s 1993 article “The Ethics of Industrial Disasters in a Transnational World: The Elusive Quest for Justice and Accountability in Bhopal.”

This is the 126th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Black Friday Strikes

[ 5 ] November 28, 2014 |

While you are engaging in America’s most consumerist day of the year, a real feat given the competition, remember the workers struggling to make ends meet that serve you. Especially remember the Wal-Mart workers. Some are engaging in Black Friday strikes, the 3rd consecutive year of these protests:

Kicking off the third consecutive year of protests, Walmart workers in six states have formally submitted strike notices to their bosses ahead of the Black Friday shopping frenzy, calling for higher wages and better hours, according to OUR Walmart, the group representing the workers.

OUR Walmart did not provide an estimate on how many workers planned to take part in the strikes this year. It did, however, say that workers in Wisconsin, Louisiana, Florida, California, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have already delivered notices, and it anticipates workers in Illinois, Minnesota, Texas and Pennsylvania will do so as well.

Charles Brown, an OUR Walmart member who unloads trucks at a Walmart in Newport News, Virginia, said he plans to miss three shifts this week to take part in the demonstrations. Brown said he joined the group in September to demand a greater say in scheduling as well as “more respect” from management.

“Some [other workers] may want to do a strike as well but are hesitant,” said Brown, 27. “They need to know they don’t have anything to be afraid of. If we don’t stand up, no one else is going to stand up for us.”

Black Friday has become an annual rallying cry for the anti-Walmart crowd, with labor activists and other progressives pillorying the world’s largest retailer over its wages and scheduling practices for store employees. It also marks the most contentious week of the year between the Arkansas-based retail giant and OUR Walmart, which is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that’s been working to organize Walmart employees for years.

The $15 minimum wage and full-time work are among the major demands, although it depends on the worker and the store.

Worker Power on Thanksgiving

[ 36 ] November 26, 2014 |

Last year, Whole Foods was one of many companies to force employees to work on Thanksgiving. The employees were very angry about this and seven went on strike at a store in Chicago. In response to the negative publicity, Whole Foods stores in the Midwest are now allowing workers to sign up if they want to work on Thanksgiving and will pay them double wages to do so. That’s a victory. A bigger victory would be for Whole Foods to just close on Thanksgiving and allow its workers to have the holiday with family or friends. But it’s something.

Bangladesh: No Corporate Responsibility

[ 5 ] November 25, 2014 |

In 2012, the Tarzeen Fire in Bangladesh killed 112 workers. It’s been slightly forgotten in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1100, but was certainly horrible in its own right–remember, Triangle killed 146 so Tarzeen was nearly as deadly. Of course, it’s hardly coincidental that all three of these incidents were in the apparel industry, which has long thrived on an extremely exploitative model that sought to protect department stores from responsibility for production. Such was the case at Triangle and such is the case at Tarzeen. Of the 16 clothing firms linked to production at Tarzeen at the time, only 2 have paid any compensation to the survivors or the families of the dead. Neither are American firms. The American firms contracting to have apparel made at Tarzeen: Dickey’s, Wal-Mart, Disney, and Sears. None of these companies have paid a cent. They continue to profit off the long-established system of apparel worker exploitation and dead workers are an acceptable cost for those profits. Only with mandatory compensation and legal recompense for the affected will these companies be held to account. And that is what we need to be fighting for, as I argue in Out of Sight.

This Day in Labor History: November 25, 1865

[ 36 ] November 25, 2014 |

On November 25, 1865, Mississippi created the first of the Black Codes. Designed to recreate slavery in all but name, this signified the white South’s massive resistance to the freeing of their labor force and the lengths to which it would go to tie workers to a place under white control.

The impact of slavery’s end is hard to overestimate. But the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves immediately and the ratification of the 13th Amendment did not take place until well after the war’s end. The federal government was woefully unprepared, both in manpower and ideas, for ensuring that the rights of ex-slaves were respected after the war. Sure, slavery might be effectively dead as of April 14, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but was the U.S. military there to enforce freedom on the plantations? Largely, no. The immediate months after the war were filled with violence as whites killed newly freed people in the countryside, especially as they began to flee for cities like Memphis and New Orleans. For cotton planters, this black flight was a real threat. They prospered on owning black labor. If they couldn’t own that labor, planters at least needed to keep it on the land to pick the cotton that might allow them to rebuild their economic base.

The Black Codes thus intended to trap black labor in place. The plantation elite’s top goal immediately upon emancipation was to corral black labor, whose core goal was to avoid the plantation labor system, preferably replacing it with small farms they owned. The Black Codes intended to prevent this. Building upon the slave codes regulating black behavior, and especially black movement, before the war, the Black Codes was the South’s statement to the North that the end of the war did not mean the end of white supremacy. Blacks would have to show a written contract of employment at the start of each year, ensuring they were laboring for a white employer. At the core of the Mississippi code and copied around the South was the vagrancy provision. “Vagrancy” was a term long used in the United States to crack down on workers not doing what employers or the police wanted them to do. In this case, it meant not working for a white person.

Mississippi did not allow blacks to rent land for themselves. Rather, all blacks in rural areas must labor for a white under 1-year contracts. They did not have the option to quit working for that white person. If a black person in the countryside was found not working for a white person, the state would contract that worker out to a private landowner and receive a portion of their wages. If a black person could not pay high taxes levied on them by the state, they would be charged the vagrancy and the same process would result. As during slavery, any white person could legally arrest any black person. A Fugitive Slave Act-like provision was included that made it illegal to assist a black person from leaving their landowner with real punishments for whites who did so. That provision also stated that blacks caught running away would lose their wages for the year. Children whose parents could not take care of them, as defined by the whites of Mississippi, would be bonded to their former owners. Other forms of black behavior were also criminalized, such as preaching without a license or “insulting” language toward whites. Interracial marriage, it goes without saying, was banned as well.

In other words, Mississippi reinstituted slavery.

Other southern states quickly built on Mississippi’s black codes. South Carolina barred blacks from any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they played a very steep annual tax that sought to pauperize the large free black community in Charleston. Virginia included in its vagrancy law anyone who refused to work for the “usual and common wages given to other laborers” in order to eliminate whites competing for black labor. Florida’s Black Code allowed whites to whip those who broke their labor contract and then be sold for a year. Texas and Louisiana mandated that women and children who could work be working in the fields.

The response in the North to these laws was largely one of outrage. After all, what had they just fought this war over? While at the beginning of the war, northern whites could legitimately argue the war was about restoring the union and not slavery, no one could make that argument by the end of the war, for so it was so clearly about both. When word of this got out, the North, unclear what path toward Reconstruction it would take and still reeling from the death of Abraham Lincoln six months earlier and the ascendance of his successor, Andrew Johnson, was finally moved to take more decisive action against increasingly recalcitrant ex-Confederates.

Quickly after its passage, General O.O. Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, declared the Black Code invalid. Congress met just a few weeks later for the first time since the end of the war. At this Congress, the South also sent ex-Confederate leaders such as former vice-president Alexander Stephens to represent them. Taken together, this led to the rise of Congressional Reconstruction and the war between Congress and Johnson. As the Southern elite did during the 15 years before the Civil War, its aggressive overreach created northern white backlash that then led to a significant commitment to black rights. That might not have lasted very long, but it did ensure that as unfair as postwar labor relations would become, they would look nothing like slavery. Congressional Reconstruction would void the black codes and put off the violent suppression of southern black labor for several years, opening at least the possibility of a future that provided the freed slaves dignity, although it was not to be.

In the end, it was sharecropping that would define the postwar southern agricultural labor force, not bonded black labor. There are a number of reasons for these complex arrangements that would still strongly exploit African-American labor, but it still provided ex-slaves more control over their lives than desired by the white plantation elite, who would largely be unable to recreate their economic dominance after the war.

As with all things Reconstruction, the work of Eric Foner is a great place to start, and some of this post is borrowed from his books.

This is the 125th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Black Friday Strikes

[ 25 ] November 24, 2014 |

Why do Wal-Mart workers keep using one-day strikes as a protest tool? Largely because they don’t have any other tools that are likely to work:

One-day strikes don’t shut down the workplace like iconic strikes of yore did (and some workers, like Chicago teachers, still can). But if done right, they can accomplish some of what those walkouts did: Embarrass companies, estrange them from their customers, and engage fellow workers and the broader public by disrupting business as usual and creating a public spectacle. Instead of halting production, they anchor broader campaigns of political, media, legal, and consumer pressure aimed at getting management to budge. “It’s showing them that enough is enough,” says Venanzi Luna, one of about 60 employees who joined a Nov. 13 California walkout backed by OUR Walmart, the non-union workers group closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. OUR Walmart insists its protests are paying off, pointing to a series of announcements by the retailer that address policies—from minimum-wage pay, to part-time scheduling, to accommodations for pregnant workers—that have been rallying cries for the campaign.

It’s entirely possible (I’d say probable) that this pressure is what is causing Wal-Mart to slightly move the dial toward a dignified life for its workers. But the end game is really hard to see for this movement. A wide-scale strike is really not possible without 100 times more active support for Wal-Mart workers than it presently has, in no small part because there are so many locations and workplaces. Even if everyone in one store went on strike, if the other nearby stores didn’t follow, Walmart would easily swat it away. Given this situation, the 1-day strike makes a lot of sense with continued pressure throughout the year that keeps the Wal-Mart workers’ situation in our consciousness and hopefully leads to some sort of eventual larger transformation of workers’ lives. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when Wal-Mart embarrasses itself.

In other words, these actions are indicative of both the problems American workers face in 2014 and the potential organizing actions to alleviate those problems.

How to Embarrass Yourself as a University Administration

[ 74 ] November 22, 2014 |

Graduate students at the University of Oregon are threatening to strike over the university not giving their demand of paid family leave. You can read the details of the bargaining in quite a bit of detail here. It is nearing the end of the quarter at UO, so the graduate students have as much power as they are going to have because all the grading needs to get done. So how did the university administration respond? Pretty much in the most embarrassing way possible, sending deans and directors this leaked memo concerning what to do if they had to give the finals without their TAs.

1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.

2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.

3. Provide students with the following options:

a. Forgo the final and take the grade they had going into the final

b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded

Give everyone Scantron exams! Now that’s education. Let’s not even get into the issue that students forced to take multiple choice exams do significantly worse because there is no partial credit (which is why it is basically impossible to fail a history course unless you don’t turn assignments in or never show up). In fact, let’s just forget about education entirely. Give the students their current grade without a final! Hire some scabs to serve as TAs! Make a mockery of your entire pedagogy!

Really, shouldn’t the University of Oregon just allow students to choose their own grade? That’s only fair way to deal with a labor conflict.

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