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Tag: "labor"

Another Example of Poor Workplace Safety

[ 14 ] October 21, 2015 |


The conditions workers face at New York’s B&H Photo Video face are just far too common for low-wage workers in the United States.

In the main B&H warehouse located in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, the walls and ceilings are insulated with fiberglass that fills the air and flecks off onto the worker’s skin, causing rashes, respiration problems and daily nosebleeds, employees say. Inside a second warehouse, on Evergreen Avenue in Brooklyn, employees say they have worked amid asbestos-insulated tubing. “They would tell us to clean the tubes,” recalled maintenance worker Miguel Angel Muñoz Meneses, “but nobody wanted to touch them.”

The men, many of whom are undocumented, testify of suffering from kidney stones, dizziness and fainting after being denied access to water or bathroom breaks. They say there is often a lack of basic safety equipment. “If we ask for gloves, they answer that they do not have gloves, because gloves are too expensive,” said Isaias Rojas, a B&H employee.

One man reported he was badly cut while lifting boxes, and the managers refused to call an ambulance, instead advising him to simply wait until the bleeding stopped. Another said a manager threw hot water on him and slapped his face. Others report those who complain are fired or threatened with deportation.

“They treat us as if we were animals,” Florencio Salgado said. “We are involved in this because we are tired of being abused.”

For many of the men, the most egregious offense occurred on Sept. 5, 2014, when two tractor trailers parked adjacent to the Navy Yard warehouse burst into flames, sending clouds of black smoke into the shipping and receiving section as the workers were inside.

Silverio Cano Alberto, who has worked for B&H for seven years, said he was on the second floor as the flames licked the outside of the warehouse.

“There was smoke and yelling and no one, including the manager, paid any attention,” he said. “Finally, they told us we could leave, but we each had to pass through the metal detectors, which took about a half hour. When I got outside, the parking lot was filled with firemen and police. Imagine — if the fire had spread, we would never have all made it out.”

Pretty terrible. But with so few options for workers today, it’s hardly surprising. The only way this story came out was because one of the workers’ brothers knew about a worker center nearby, reiterating why these non-union efforts by organized labor and community organizers to reach out to low-wage labor are so important. How often do conditions like this happen for years or decades because there is no union or worker centers to contact? Luckily, these workers are on the way to unionization with the United Steelworkers. How many don’t have that chance?


Can the Fight for $15 Turn into a Unionization Campaign?

[ 10 ] October 20, 2015 |


Obviously, SEIU and other low-wage worker unions have hoped that supporting the Fight for $15 would turn into a unionization campaign that would pay off in dues money (unions are complex and expensive organizations after all and need some kind of return on their investment). And there’s little question that these workers involved in this would certainly like to be union members.

The National Employment Law Project, a pro-worker advocacy and research group, recently commissioned a survey of low-wage workers that showed strong support for both thrusts of the Fight for $15, including increased interest in registering and voting if their wage and union rights were clearly supported by at least one presidential candidate.

NELP executive director Chris Owens was impressed by the survey’s findings that half of low-wage workers had heard of the Fight for $15 and that workers were more willing to engage in politics with the right candidate message. “What I feel that’s really different,” she said, “is the heightened awareness that unions could make a difference, and there is also heightened awareness when people see workers like themselves put themselves on the line, take risks for higher wages and a union, there will be more interest in forming unions.”

Sixty-nine percent of low-wage workers favor raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the same fraction thinks it should be easier for them to form a union, while 72 percent approve of unions in general. That’s a higher approval than among the general public, despite an increase in generic approval of unions revealed in an August Gallup poll to 58 percent, up 5 points from last year. Black workers (87 percent approval) showed the strongest support for unions, followed by young workers (82 percent), then Latinos (79 percent), but strikingly 77 percent of low-wage workers in the South, long considered a region hard to organize, favored unions.

But will they actually be able to join unions? There are so many obstacles there.

The battle over low-wage worker unionization has unsurprisingly spilled over into Congress and the campaigns, with the Democratic Party already endorsing a $15 an hour minimum wage for its platform. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate are promoting legislation that would overturn a recent National Labor Relations Board decision that franchisors, like McDonald’s Corporation, and franchisees are likely to be considered joint employers with responsibility for workers’ wages and treatment on the job. Democrats, like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), are trying to stop the move.

On Tuesday Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), with support from Brown and other progressive Democrats announced introduction of a new Workplace Democracy Act (much less ambitious than Sanders’ previous legislation under the same title and despite its similarities, even less comprehensive than the Employees Free Choice Act that the labor movement had hoped would pass in the early years of the Obama administration). It would permit workers to gain recognition of their union through either a demonstration of majority signing support or through an election, and it would give either labor or management prompt recourse to mediation and then arbitration if the two parties could not reach agreement on a first contract reasonably quickly.

There’s no way even an extremely weak version of the EFCA passes at this point, not with Republicans determined to crush any vestige of unionism in this country. It’s probably going to take more Democrats in the White House with more NLRB appointees to move this along, which is certainly not the kind of strategy one wants to rely upon in the long term. But you do what you can do when you can.

Dannel Malloy’s Attack on Faculty Unions

[ 49 ] October 17, 2015 |


I always thought Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy was pretty decent, but this attack on the faculty union at Connecticut State University is pretty disturbing.

“In a stark reminder that action speaks louder than words, Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration has dropped a stunningly anti-union, anti-faculty, anti-Connecticut State University proposal on the table as it begins its contract negotiations with the CSU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the union that represents faculty and a variety of education professionals at the four universities of CSU.

“This development comes on top of the news that Malloy’s political appointees on the University of Connecticut’s Board of Trustees have authorized a contract with an extremely controversial, high profile, anti-union, Governor Chris Christie affiliated New Jersey law firm to lead the negotiations against the UConn Chapter of the AAUP. That contract could cost taxpayers and students as much as $500,000 or more.

“The Malloy administration’s approach to the faculty who teach at Connecticut’s State Universities is particularly troubling since there has already been a growing recognition that Malloy’s initiative to merge the Connecticut State University and the Connecticut Community College System into the Board of Regents has been an utter failure.

“In just three years, the first two presidents of the Board of Regents were forced to leave under a cloud and Malloy’s political appointees on the Board of Regents have wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer funds on out-of-state consultants and some of those contracts apparently violated state law.

“Earlier this fall, in an effort to put his Board of Regents program back on track, Malloy had his chief-of-staff, Mark Ojakian, appointed as the [Interim] President of the Board of Regents.

“However, if the move was an attempt to turn over a new leaf and bring stability to Connecticut’s state universities and community colleges, that notion was blown away by the unbelievable anti-union, anti-professor, anti-Connecticut State University contract proposal that Malloy’s administration recently submitted.

“The proposal also includes language that will be of concern to Connecticut’s other public employee unions.

“For starters, it is safe to say that by proposing to insert a major new “agency fee” section into the CSU union contract, reducing release time for union activities and adding language that states, “Use of the Employer’s email system by CSU-AAUP staff or members for the purpose of transacting union business is strictly prohibited,” the Malloy administration’s proposal would be better suited to the likes of right-wing Republican Governor Bruce Rauner who is infamously working to destroy public employee unions in Illinois or Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker.

I know we have a decent number of Connecticut folks who comment and of course a lot of academics. I’d love to hear more about this from anyone in the know. Pretty disturbing from my perspective if this is the whole story.

This Day in Labor History: October 15, 1990

[ 5 ] October 15, 2015 |

On October 15, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, finally providing a path forward for some of the Cold War’s most exploited workers, Navajo uranium miners, as well as other Americans, primarily Native Americans and Mormon farmers, who had been declared expendable by the Cold War military complex and exposed against their will or without knowledge to radiation from nuclear testing and mining. Yet even this act made it very difficult for Native Americans to win claims for compensation. This history signifies just how ignored Native American workers have been throughout American history and how the Cold War saw these people as utterly expendable.

With the rise of the nuclear state after 1945, the United States needed steady supplies of uranium. Domestic supplies were preferred where possible. The one part of the United States with significant uranium deposits is in the Southwest, particularly in the Four Corners area. Most of this land, at least in Arizona and New Mexico, was on the gigantic Navajo reservation, a deeply impoverished area granted to the Navajo first in 1868 after the disastrous attempt to move them to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and then expanded over the decades. Yet the Navajo did not have full control over the minerals on their land and throughout the mid-20th century, any Native American control over natural resources on their land frequently spurred new ways to steal it from them, including oil deposits on indigenous lands in Oklahoma. In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission took full control over all uranium deposits and announced it would work with private contractors to mine it. It remained the sole purchaser of all uranium until 1971. This led to a mining boom with prospectors seeking riches in Western mining once again. Over 1000 mines opened on the Navajo reservation alone, with many more outside of reservation boundaries. This provided rare economic opportunity for the Navajo, who had really suffered since the government forcibly reduced their sheep stocks during the New Deal, severely undermining their economy and societal structure. Between 3000 and 5000 Navajo began working in the uranium mines, many leaving the reservation entirely for work.

But you know what’s not good for you? Breathing in uranium dust. Dust problems were as bad in uranium mines as other underground mines, with the additional problem compared to coal that uranium was also radioactive. As early as 1962, the U.S. government made concrete connections between uranium mining and cancer among miners. But the first regulations on uranium mine safety did not come until 1969. By this point, two decades of uranium mining had taken an enormous toll on the health of uranium miners. Adding to this was the very poor state of health care in the Navajo Nation, conditions largely shared throughout indigenous America. The people were very poor, no doctor was going to make money serving out there, and cultural and physical isolation also made medical care very difficult. These miners were contracting cancer that went untreated and then they died. Moreover, no one ever actually told the Navajo of the dangers of working in the mines, even after those dangers were well-known. Given that most of them did not speak English in the late 1940s, they had no way of discovering this information for themselves. There was no word in Diné for radiation. These workers were sacrificed for the nuclear state.


Navajo uranium miners near Cove, Arizona, 1952

Native Americans were certainly not the only uranium miners. The Cold War uranium rush in the Four Corners region brought plenty of whites into these mines too. They suffered from the same problems as Native Americans. But they also had access to more attention, including from organized labor. Research I did this summer at the Library of Congress, making up a small part of what may be my next scholarly book, demonstrates that the CIO was concerned with the fate of the white miners. Leo Goodman, the United Auto Workers’ full-time staff member on atomic issues, did some investigations into their problems, although I don’t think it really led anywhere. But there’s no recognition of Native Americans within the CIO. I think that it’s primarily that the union movement simply was not aware of Native American workers and had no way of understanding much of anything about the Navajo Nation. There were a few unionized Navajo miners working in off-reservation mines but the Navajo Tribal Council banned unions on the reservation in 1958, which meant that none of those workers could have access to the labor movement, even if they wanted it.

Not surprisingly as well, conditions of labor were different for white and Navajo miners. After dynamite blasts, Navajo workers were sent directly into the mines, while white workers were allowed to stay back until the dust settled. Navajo miners were of course paid far less, as low as 81 cents an hour in 1949. By the 1970s, there were some growing connections between the Navajo miners and the unions, particularly over the issue of testing as the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers fought to have the Navajo tested for radiation exposure as well as white miners, but this was strictly on the union level without any real connection to the Navajo workers themselves.

Over the decades, Navajo uranium miners extracted about 4 million tons of uranium for the government. This health toll was incredible. A 1995 report by the American Public Health Association discussed, “excess mortality rates for lung cancer, pneumoconioses and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners. Increasing duration of exposure to underground uranium mining was associated with increased mortality risk for all three diseases… The most important long-term mortality risks for the Navajo uranium miners continue to be lung cancer and pneumoconioses and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases.” This also led to a general pollution in the problem in the area. Rates of stomach cancer in areas near the uranium mills remain up to 15 times the rate of the normal population.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provided up to $50,000 for downwinders, primarily those Paiute Indians and Mormon farmers exposed to atmospheric nuclear testing, $75,000 for those exposed by actually participating in atmospheric nuclear testing, and $100,000 to uranium miners. But even here, it would be extremely difficult for the Navajos and other Native Americans to collect. They needed medical evidence, but there are almost no traditional doctors on the Navajo reservation, record-keeping was shoddy, and so many had died already that widows had very little to go on to collect. The Clinton administration was somewhat receptive to these problems and made adjustments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to grant Navajos a better chance of receiving compensation, but for many, financial redress remains elusive.

As of this year, about $2 billion dollars have been awarded to around 32,000 survivors and their families under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

This is the 160th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The End of Two-Tiered Contracts in Auto?

[ 23 ] October 10, 2015 |


Between 2007 and 2009, the American auto industry was on the verge of collapse, with GM and Chrysler requiring government assistance to stay afloat. The industry took advantage of this situation to force two-tiered contracts on the United Auto Workers that set a new wage scale for new workers significantly below that of older workers and without any way for workers to ever reach the old wage scale. The UAW didn’t have much choice but to agree for two reasons. First, the auto industry had already outsourced so much production–to Mexico, to the nonunion South, to nonunion parts suppliers–that the threat to just bust the union and outsource most everything was real. Second, the companies were genuinely in real trouble and the UAW feared lost jobs. Some argued UAW president Bob King was a sellout, etc., during this period, but other than a massive strike that would have accomplished nothing and possibly led to the end of the union and which the UAW was simply not prepared for, I don’t see any other real choice it had at the time.

But the UAW, both leadership and rank and file, hated the two-tiered contracts. As the auto industry’s fortunes began improving, especially after 2011, it became a lot harder to justify these contracts. Of course the car companies loved them and had no intention of giving them up. But rank and file pressure from the UAW seems to have done the trick, or at least started the rollback. Last week, the UAW and what is now FiatChrysler agreed to a new contract that kept the two-tiered system. Except that the membership than rejected the contract pretty overwhelmingly and prepared to strike. I don’t know if this was the UAW plan from the beginning, in order to convince the auto companies this had to end, or whether it was a real rank and file rebellion. Maybe a little of both. In any case, in going back to the bargaining table, the UAW and FiatChrysler agreed to a second contract that rolls back the two-tiered contracts.

On Friday the UAW’s Chrysler council voted in support of the new proposal, but final approval depends on the general membership of the union’s general Fiat Chrysler branch. Negotiators reached a tentative agreement the day before, narrowly averting a planned strike at several Midwestern plants.

UAW workers overwhelmingly rejected another proposed Fiat Chrysler contract a week ago, in part because it would have left the tiered wage structure intact. Under the most recent contract between UAW and the carmaker, unionized workers hired after 2007 can earn a maximum of $19.28 per hour, whereas the first-tier workers, hired before the cutoff, earn closer to $28.50 per hour.

The UAW released details of the more recent proposal after the Chrysler council vote. Under this deal, all second-tier workers could earn up to $28 per hour after seven years of employment and what it termed a “traditional wage” by year eight.

Fiat Chrysler is not the only major auto company to have a tiered contract. General Motors and Ford, the others in Detroit’s Big Three, also inked tiered deals with UAW in 2007, when the whole industry was under severe economic pressure. First-tier workers at the Big Three account for 10 percent of autoworkers in the United States; 4 percent of autoworkers are second-tier workers in the Big Three, according to an analysis by the labor publication Labor Notes. Together, the contracts cover about 137,000 workers — including a lower-wage second tier that makes up 45 percent of the workforce at Chrysler, 25 percent at Ford and 20 percent at General Motors, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

I talked to Ned Resnikoff about this in the linked article above. It’s a big deal precisely because Chrysler relied so heavily on the contracts, far more than GM or Ford. If the UAW can push back on this with 45 percent of the workers at Chrysler on them, the argument that Ford and GM need to keep this arrangement is heavily undermined.

Now, there’s a lot of details to be hashed out and I have no doubt that Chrysler is going to try and keep these arrangements in some way. The very slow timeline to fix this problem and get workers on the top wage scale is less than ideal and extends beyond the end of this contract. But this is a real victory and deserves to be recognized as such.

Pesticide Protections for Farmworkers

[ 12 ] October 8, 2015 |


One of the most important and underreported stories over the last few weeks was the EPA setting new pesticide protections for farmworkers.

The new rules, announced by EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez, include the following stipulations:

All pesticide applicators will be required to be at least 18 years old, rather than 16;

Whistleblower protections, including for undocumented workers, must be implemented so that farm laborers can safely file complaints over workplace abuse;

Workers or their representatives must be allowed easy access to records involving hazardous chemical exposure.

These are the first new regulations designed to promote farmworker safety since 1992. One reason for that is that the new pesticides developed to protect consumers from pesticide poisoning strike hard and fast, but don’t persist. That means that their entire human impact is on the farmworkers, but consumers were safe. That basically ended the pesticide exposure movement among foodies (the organic movement is different but related, but both focus almost entirely on consumers) and left farmworkers high and dry as far as effective allies go for protecting them from pesticides. We’ll see how effective they are; my guess is an improvement but a lot of workers will still get sick.

Agribusiness is of course furious, with all the expected stated reasons being used to hide the real reason, which is that they don’t mind killing farmworkers if it increases their profits.

I’ll also note how the United Farm Workers, despite being a non-entity among unions and that includes those actually organizing farmworkers, remains the historical touchstone that centers them in narratives of farmworker protection in the present as well. If I was an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee or Coalition of Immokalee Workers, this might annoy me.

The Waitress Life

[ 72 ] October 4, 2015 |


Waitresses: combining low wages and sexual harassment with the gendered pay gap for a very, very long time.

The low wages compounded by the gender wage gap breeds a system of living paycheck to paycheck, which means women cannot do anything to jeopardize receiving their next one – not even report the discrimination or harassment they are experiencing. Unlike workers in other professions, tipped workers depend on the consumer directly for their wages. A tipped worker’s bottomline depends on soliciting and earning good tips from customers, but at what cost?

We need to value women’s work and put our money where our mouths are. There are many ways to do this. We can support federal legislation like the Healthy Families Act or the Raise the Wage Act. Alternatively, you can also vote with your wallet. Apps like the Roc National Diners’ Guide, developed by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, allow diners to find out if their favorite restaurants treat workers ethically. At a minimum, employers should pay their employees a livable wage for their area of residence, provide them with proper health insurance, offer them paid sick days, and give them opportunities for promotion. If you find out they don’t, why not speak up about it?

This is a group of workers that never receives enough attention, with the assumption by most that our tips are allowing them to live good lives. Meanwhile, waitresses struggle for basic survival, thanks to the absurd tipped minimum wage and structural sexism.

Domestic Workers and the Legacy of Slavery

[ 22 ] October 3, 2015 |


Training future domestic workers, Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, Bordentown, New Jersey

Premilla Nadasen has an exciting new book out on the history of domestic worker organizing. I’m looking forward to reading it. Jake Blumgart has an interesting interview with Nadasen, where she explains the connection between domestic workers even today and the legacy of slavery:

What was the legacy of slavery in the domestic labor sector, especially in the first half of the 20th century?

After the end of slavery, African-American women increasingly became paid domestic workers. The image that came to dominate their labor in this occupation was the figure of the mammy, an African-American woman loyal to the family for whom she worked and happily served. The image of the mammy becomes essential in the early 20th century to justify an unequal racial order in the South and as an apology for slavery, with its assumption that African Americans were content to serve white families.

The reality is that their work was not treated as real work. They were very often framed by their employers as “one of the family.” That meant they would work longer hours and take hand-me-downs instead of payment because the assumption built into the “one of the family” phrase was that they were working out of love. But Carolyn Reed, an organizer in New York City, put it best when she said “I don’t need a family, I need a job.”

In the beginning of the book you talk about communists and other radical activists who tried to organize with domestic laborers. How successful were those 1930s efforts?

Considering that the occupation was so difficult to organize, I think they were enormously successful. They were isolated employees who often worked alone in a home and were invisible from the public eye and labor organizers. When communists, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Urban League all decided to organize domestic workers, they actually brought these women together in a collective space. Sometimes they reached out to them in the “slave markets,” the name that Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke gave to these street corners in New York City where African-American women waited to be hired as day workers. The Bronx Slave markets became sites of organizing. Then domestic workers and their supporters developed hiring halls where domestic workers could be protected from exploitative employers.

Figured this would be of interest to many readers.

This Day in Labor History: September 28, 1874

[ 31 ] September 28, 2015 |

On September 28, 1874, the U.S. military defeated the Comanche in Palo Duro Canyon, south of modern Amarillo, Texas, largely by stealing their horse herds. This forced the Comanche to the reservations where they had refused to live by taking away the technology that defined their lives and their work. This was essentially the end of an entire way of labor for the Comanche and indicative of the importance of work to the conquest of Native Americans.

The Comanche were, up until the late 17th century, a relatively small tribe living primarily in Colorado and Kansas. This all changed with the advent of the horse. The Spanish had introduced horses into North America when they defeated the Aztecs after 1519. It became clear to Native Americans very quickly the huge advantage for both battle and work that horses could provide. The horses began moving north, largely following Spanish colonial expansion, but increasingly from horse thefts. That the Spanish largely left the horses to roam on their own made that easier. Certain indigenous cultures began valuing them for work and for war, others less so. One that truly committed to horse pastoralism was the Comanches, a group that split off from the Shoshones around 1500. The first time they appear in the written record was in 1706 when the Spanish recorded a group called the Comanches attacking Puebloan peoples.

The Comanches, like other peoples after them such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow, made a conscious decision to change their life and work cultures upon the acquisition of large horse populations. They became horse cultures, with this technology redefining their work, culture, and social structure. The horse allowed the Comanches to commit full-time to bison hunting, warfare, and raiding to replenish their population lost in war. But they weren’t operating in a vacuum. Like many indigenous peoples, the Comanche took to the Euro-American market economy keenly, seeking to offer their goods–bison skins–in exchange for the other things they needed, including guns, the food they no longer grew because they were in constant motion, pots, horses, etc. They also traded horses for these things, as their growing skills in horse-breeding made then desirable by everyone they traded with, including the Native Americans peoples to the north who began to do much the same as the Comanche had become horse cultures.

A new, gendered system of work developed with the transition to horses. By 1750, Comanche herds had grown large enough that they began moving around specifically to care for them. This meant they needed a large territory strictly for horse foraging, especially because the lack of water and need for wintering grounds limited the number of destinations that could sustain large herds, even for a short time. They began to look more like the Mongolians than other tribes in the United States. As is common in pastoral societies, strongly gendered notions of work developed. The daily herding of the horses was the world of teenage boys. Each boy, according to an 1849 account of a Comanche village, herded about 150 horses, with the most valuable of them rounded up each evening for a night watch and the others left to roam. Men were responsible for the decisions around the pastoral economy, such as when to move. They also were the warriors, which they saw specifically as an act of production, fueling a market-oriented pastoral economy with the necessary raw materials of horses, women, and children.


George Catlin painting of Comanches hunting bison

The status of women declined in Comanche society with the new emphasis on war and horses, both male realms. Women were responsible for raising children, cooking, processing bison meat, and constructing tipis. That grew to processing the bison skins for the Euro-American market and helping out with the horse herds. The practice of polygyny, a marriage system where men have multiple wives, grew rapidly with the horses as wealthy men began to acquire large horse herds and then needed women to process the bison and herding. In other words, marriage became a way to enlarge the labor pool (observers at the time noted that these wives were really servants) as well as introduced a sort of class-based division into Comanche society, as obviously not all men could do this. In many ways, Comanche polygyny and Southern slavery both were responses to labor shortages arising from market production that rested upon patriarchal systems that reduced women to objects of male honor and militarism. Of course, the Comanche also took slaves, and although their system of slavery was much more fluid than the chattel slavery of the South, it was brutal nonetheless (rape and torture with the intent of destroying their will and American/Spanish/Indian cultures and making them docile workers) and again was related in part to their entrance into the market.


George Catlin painting of a Comanche village, 1834

This new culture made the Comanche the dominant empire on the 18th and early 19th century Great Plains. At their height, around 1850, the Comanchería extended from the edge of the southern Rockies into central Texas and central Kansas. They raided much further, especially into Mexico, where they frequently went as far south as Durango to take captives and horses. This went far to shape the region. The Spanish and then the Mexicans wanted to move north but could not defeat the Comanches. The need for a buffer zone helped convince Mexico to invite Americans into Texas, who then became the victims of Comanche raiding. But the lack of Mexican settlement meant that the U.S. could easily take the northern half of Mexico during the Mexican War. But they then had to conquer the Comanches, which was extremely difficult. As late as 1860, white expansion in Texas was quite limited due to Comanche raiding.

This system of work and culture made the Comanches very difficult for the American military to defeat. To do so, post-Civil War military planners went to a more sophisticated strategy developed in the second half of that war by generals such as Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan: total warfare. Rather than defeat these small, fast bands, undermining their way of life through the American industrial machine made more sense. Thus, the military decided to exterminate the bison. Bison populations plummeted in the years after the war, starting with the southern herds that sustained the Comanche economy and moving north. Market hunting was a piece of it, but this was a military strategy first and foremost. Without the bison and the work in hunting, processing, and trading them, the Comanche could not sustain itself. The second part of this strategy was to take away the Comanche’s horses, the transportation tool that facilitated this way of life. This strategy was tremendously successful, albeit increasingly controversial as the 1870s went on and total warfare against Native Americans outraged eastern reformers. Starvation and warfare decimated Comanche numbers, reducing them to about 8000 by 1870. They began relying on the U.S. government for rations, giving the U.S. much power over them. They refused to stay on the reservations that developed in the late 1860 and early 1870s, but leaving also brought warfare that was harder for the Comanche to sustain with the decline in bison, horses, and people. Finally, after the battle in Palo Duro Canyon, isolated badlands in the Texas panhandle, the Comanche largely moved to the reservations for good. The bison were gone anyway.

Undermining traditional ways of work would remain central to the post-conquest strategy of dealing with Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 served to both alienate reservation land from Indians while also forcing them into the subsistence farming lifestyle white Americans had decided was appropriate for Native Americans. By 1920, there were only 1500 Comanche left in the wake of the destruction of their culture through conquest, land dispossession, Indian schools, and the despair all of this created. Like most other tribes however, Comanche numbers grew after that and continue to grow today, although with a very different set of cultural traditions and work life than that of the past.

I borrowed liberally from Pekka Hämäläinen’s prize winning book The Comanche Empire in writing this post. You should read this book.

This is the 159th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Immigrant Workers, Sexual Assault, and Law Enforcement

[ 4 ] September 27, 2015 |


If you want to start your Sunday morning with a truly horrific story, here’s one on how a Florida tomato packing employer used his workers as a harem of women to rape on the job, how the police ignored the women’s complaints, and how it took a lawyer filing an EEOC complaint and using newspapers to get the story out to get any justice at all, justice that ultimately will be denied because there’s no way to collect the money from the now defunct employer. Meanwhile, the rapists walk free.

Aguilar didn’t realize it at the time, but she was far from the only worker victimized by the Moreno brothers and their foreman, a Mexican-born man named Javier Garcia. In fact, just a few days before she was fired, three other women from the plant had driven to LaBelle, the capital of Hendry County, and told deputies the trio had been systematically raping and harassing women.

That criminal case went nowhere. Neither Omar nor Oscar was ever interviewed by police about the allegations, and in May 2012, Hendry County Assistant State Attorney Jill Cabai recommended dropping the case because she “did not feel as though there was enough information present to support charges,” according to a police report.

But that wasn’t the end. With the help of Victoria Mesa, a South Florida attorney, the women filed a civil complaint with the EEOC and then reached out to Aguilar, who agreed to help. In all, three former workers, including Aguilar, would testify that either one of the Moreno brothers or Garcia had raped them on the job; two others testified the men had attempted rape.

It then took nearly two years before the feds filed a civil complaint against Moreno Farms. By then, the plant had already shuttered. The Moreno brothers and Garcia were nowhere to be found.

Other than the awful details, there are larger policy issues here. First is how the police not only ignore women’s complaints over sexual assault generally, but especially when they come from undocumented immigrants. The second is just how vulnerable undocumented immigrants are on the job generally, with few if any tools to fight against that exploitation because they fear deportation. Unless the police actually do something when rape or other illegal forms of exploitation take place, there’s almost nothing that can be done about them and even in a case like this where a jury does rule for the victims, the ability to close businesses to avoid payment makes enforcement a real problem.

Terrible stuff.

4679 Dead American Workers

[ 16 ] September 26, 2015 |


Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor released its preliminary numbers of deaths in American workplaces. 4,679 workers died in 2014, a number that will almost certainly be revised higher (which always happens). That rate is the same as 2013, but the raw number is higher because of a growing workforce. Who is dying? Workers in the oil industry, especially in the Bakken oil boom of North Dakota; immigrants working dangerous jobs and who lack the English skills for rapid communication in emergency situations, and older workers. For the latter group, death on the job 9 percent, probably because they were too poor to retire thanks to the structural changes in the American economy brought on by NAFTA, the lack of an economic safety net for older workers, long-term debt issues, etc.

But these numbers do not tell the whole story because they do not include the number of people who died making products that ended up back in the United States. If 4679 dead workers in a nation this size doesn’t seem all that high really, that’s because we’ve exported much of our dangerous work and our employers have exported the dangerous work precisely because they didn’t want to make their factories safer in the U.S. and deal with the pesky unions who would force them to have safe workplaces. Workers dying in the textile industry, such as the 1129 dead at Rana Plaza making goods for the American market should be counted in the death toll of American workplaces because they are American workplaces, even if they are overseas. The same of workers in electronics, mining, steel, and other industries who are either owned by American companies or are using contractors for American companies.

It’s impossible then to really know what the human toll of the American workplace really is, but it’s a whole lot higher than it should be.

Meat vs. Rice

[ 51 ] September 22, 2015 |


How are you all this morning? Enjoying yourselves? Well, that’s nice and all, but let’s change the mood by delving into the legacy of American racism. Here is the 1908 pamphlet by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and Herman Gutstadt, “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Will Survive.” And really, the title says most of what you need to know. And the pamphlet has most everything you need to teach about anti-Asian racism. You have the Chinese compared to cancer, pretending like Americans care about Filipinos by comparing them favorably to the Chinese horde, fears of the Chinese outcompeting whites, comparing the Chinese to African-American slaves, fears of the Chinaman and his horrible living standards, not to mention his sweet, sweet opium; sections of the pamphlet titled “Do Asiatics Have Morals?” (short answer, no!), etc. Not to mention the utterly bizarre although expected to the historian of the period equation of food and race.

And of course, the most important person in the American labor movement being involved with this (I don’t know to what extent Gompers wrote this as opposed to signed his name to it, I’d guess he wrote none but endorsed all) is just wonderful. Worth remembering yet again the the American labor movement’s first national legislative victory was the Chinese Exclusion Act. White solidarity almost always trumps class solidarity in the United States, then and now.

Good times.

Starting next year, I am finally going to get to teach U.S. Labor History since the (quite great) individual teaching it forever is retiring). I am wondering to what extent to expose them to this kind of thing. Not sure.

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