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This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1865

[ 58 ] April 14, 2016 |

HH 152

This post should have gone up on April 9, but sometimes, a professor can become so convinced of a piece of trivia like a date that said professor doesn’t actually look it up and then finds out it is wrong. Speaking of a friend of course.

On April 9, 1865, the traitor Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to U.S. general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. But while this might have ended the war, the slave labor system the Confederates committed treason to defend was already crumbling. That’s because the slaves, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward A History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, had already committed a general strike by walking away from the plantations. That general strike is the subject of this post.

Slaves wanted freedom from the moment they were enslaved. Whether committing suicide on the slave ships by jumping into the ocean, engaging in open rebellions like Nat Turner or the Stono Rebellion, running away, or just dreaming of a free life, slaves always wanted freedom from the hell of their lives. They took any change to get it. During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, thousands of slaves fled to British lines because of the promise of freedom. Many thousands more would have fled if they could have reached the British.

The Civil War provided another opportunity for that long-cherished freedom. As soon as U.S. troops marched south, slaves began fleeing to their lines. This most famously became an issue for the American armies to deal with when three slaves reached Fort Monroe, Virginia, which was controlled by the U.S. and where General Benjamin Butler was in charge. When the owner came back and demanded the slaves back (by the way, the sheer temerity of Confederates to complain that the U.S. was violating the Fugitive Slave Act, as they did throughout the war, is amazing), Butler refused, classifying the slaves as contraband, although he never used the word. This received the approval of Republicans in Washington, who soon passed the Confiscation Act, which stated that if the Confederacy recognized slaves as property, that the United States had the right to confiscate that property in order to win the war.

But really, even without the Confiscation Act, slaves were going to take matters into their own hands anyway. Slaves like Robert Smalls would take enormous risks for freedom, in his case stealing a boat in the Charleston harbor while dressed as a Confederate ship captain, then picking up the families of the men with him who were at a waiting point, then fleeing north until they ran into an American ship. Smalls became famous for his bravery. Many fled to McClellan’s armies in the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. Planters quickly realized the danger and attempted to move slaves into the Confederate interior, especially western states like Texas and Arkansas. Perhaps most importantly, the slaves forced American officials and the Lincoln government to take the question of slavery seriously. Much to abolitionists’ frustration, Lincoln did not use the outbreak of war to end slavery. Union was his more important issue. But the slaves self-emancipating changed that. Faced with a fait accompli that slaves were going to flee on their own, Lincoln moved toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. I do think that Lincoln would have eventually done such a thing anyway, but certainly not in the fall of 1862. Slaves’ desire to flee slavery and then fight for the United States was an overwhelming argument for Lincoln and it shows how slave agency is absolutely central to our understanding of the decline of slave labor as an American institution.

Often, they completely overwhelmed northern armies that were marching in the South. That was especially true of that of William Tecumseh Sherman marching through Georgia and South Carolina. These slaves were often very poor and in terrible health. With the Confederacy going hungry by 1864 generally, slaves were getting less food than ever. But their sheer determination to win their freedom moved Sherman, who was no racial radical. These people were truly starving. Later they remembered scouring the ground to find nuts, roots, or wild greens to get something in their stomachs. Sherman marching through Georgia actually made slaves more hungry, but it also gave them the opportunity to win their freedom. Thousands of refugees were following Sherman’s armies by the time he got to Savannah in December 1864. That doesn’t mean that the officers wanted them. Some embraced the self-freed slaves, others wanted rid of them by any means necessary, but the now freed people were going to do whatever it took for obtain and keep that freedom.

Many of these slaves wanted to join the American military and seek to then fight for their own freedom and that of their loved ones. For example, John Boston fled from the plantation where he was a slavery in Maryland in 1862. He joined the military and later he was able to write to his wife, still stuck in slavery. He wrote, “My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take to let you know Whare I am i am in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day I can Address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare freedom Will rain in spite of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from all the Slavers.”

This is the promise of freedom. This is how African-Americans self-emancipated. They simply walked away. When Confederate power faded, as it did with the arrival of American armies near plantations where male authority was waning as the war went on because of military service, they took their lives into the own hands. They effectively stopped growing cotton and rice, stopped working in the house, stopped supporting the plantation system. They followed the American army to freedom. They wanted more–primarily land, education, and eventually, the vote. Most of that would be temporary or denied or granted and then repealed in the case of Sherman’s Special Order No. 15 that gave slaves 160 acres of confiscated plantation lands between Charleston and the Florida border. The promises of emancipation would not be fully implemented. But whatever happened, slavery was dead. And it was dead in no small part because the slaves themselves decided they wouldn’t be slaves any longer.

And, not surprisingly, the now-freed slaves joyously rubbed their freedom in their masters’ faces when they could. The brilliant letter from ex-slave Jourdon Anderson to his ex-master Col. P.H. Anderson when the latter wrote to ask him to come back to work on the plantation after the war is the best way to conclude:

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

This is the 175th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


Uber, An Employer

[ 52 ] April 12, 2016 |


Uber and Lyft run their whole model on assuming their “employees” are independent contractors, meaning that the companies get to rake in the profit without assuming most of the risks and costs of the operation. This is of course dubious and hopefully the courts will find in this way. Alex Rosenblat sums up her research on whether Uber is in fact an employer:

Last year, my colleague Luke Stark at NYU and I spent nine months studying how U.S. Uber drivers interact with the platform. We analyzed online driver forums, where tens of thousands of drivers share advice and compares notes on their experiences and challenges with the Uber system. We also conducted in-depth interviews with seven drivers to explore worker experiences of the on-demand economy.

We found that through Uber’s app design and deployment, the company produces what many reasonable observers would define as a managed labor force. Drivers have the freedom to log in or log out of work at will, but once they’re online, their activities on the platform are heavily monitored. The platform redistributes management functions to semiautomated and algorithmic systems, as well as to consumers.

Algorithmic management, however, can create a deal of ambiguity around what is expected of workers — and who is really in charge. Uber’s neutral branding as an intermediary between supply (drivers) and demand (passengers) belies the important employment structures and hierarchies that emerge through its software platform.

Uber sets the rates. Uber has full power to unilaterally set and change the fares passengers pay, the rates that drivers are paid, and the commission Uber takes. While Uber’s contract with its “partners” outlines (section 4.1) that the fare Uber sets is a “recommended” amount (drivers technically have the right to charge less, but not more, than the pre-arranged fare), there is no way for drivers to actually negotiate the fare within the Uber driver app.

Uber sets the performance targets. Uber’s three main performance metrics are the driver’s rating, how many rides the driver accepts, and how many times they cancel a ride. Generally, Uber requires drivers to maintain a high ride acceptance rate, such as 80% or 90%, and a low cancellation rate, such as 5% in San Francisco (as of July 2015), or they risk deactivation (temporary suspension or permanent firing) from the platform.

Uber’s system enforces blind acceptance of passengers, as drivers are not shown the passenger’s destination or how much they could earn on the fare. While this could deter destination-based discrimination, and Uber markets this as a feature of its system, whenever Uber drivers accept a ride, they effectively take a financial risk that the ride will only cost the “minimum fare,” an amount that varies by city. In Savannah, Georgia, for example, the minimum fare is $5 for uberX, which drivers perceive as unprofitable, because Uber takes a $1.60 booking fee (formerly a “safe rides” fee) off the top, plus their commission of at least 20% on the remaining $3.40. That leaves the driver with $2.72, not accounting for any of their expenses, such as gas.

There are also sections on how Uber acts as management and plays a major role in “suggesting” drivers’ schedules. The conclusion:

In many ways, automation can obscure the role of management, but as our research illustrates, algorithmic management cannot be conflated with worker autonomy. Uber’s model clearly raises new challenges for companies that aim to produce scalable, standardized services for consumers through the automation of worker-employer relationships.

L.A.’s Sweatshops

[ 6 ] April 11, 2016 |


In Out of Sight, I discuss how consumers need to understand how their clothes are made and the tremendous costs of not knowing that information. Of course, much of this is because clothing production has been outsourced to the Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, etc. But as I point out in the food chapter, there’s plenty of hidden production within U.S. borders too that we don’t emphasize. Although most apparel production and all the apparel unions have been eliminated from the United States, there is still clothing being made here that we could do something about. It’s in the sweatshops of Los Angeles, many of them operating underground. We don’t do anything. It’s not part of our national conversation about inequality and exploitation at all. That has to change. This podcast will help you contribute to that change. Listen and propagate.

Right to Work: Unconstitutional

[ 8 ] April 9, 2016 |


A Wisconsin judge ruled Wisconsin’s recent right to leech work bill unconstitutional, agreeing with unions that it is an unconstitutional seizure of property because unions have to represent the leech workers without them paying for it. I am of course no lawyer but this seems a solid legal strategy for unions going forward. Of course Scott Walker and his minions are going to appeal and the ultimate question will primarily be decided by judges’ poliitcal leaning rather than any meaningful interpretation of the Constitution. So we’ll see. But good news in the short term anyway.

Why Form Unions?

[ 23 ] April 7, 2016 |

This is one good reason:

This is what unions are for:

Alain Sherter reports that two unionized mine workers in West Virginia were very unhappy with a company-sponsored bonus plan that the union had opposed as unsafe. So the workers returned their (paltry) bonus checks to the company inscribed with special messages for CEO Robert Murray (pictured above): “kiss my ass Bob,” and “eat shit, Bob.”

They were fired.

But then their union appealed their firings and the National Labor Relations Board reinstated them, ruling that their words were legal “expressions of protest.”

If you want to tell your boss to kiss your ass, unionize.

Pretty much.

The Politics of the Individual vs. The Politics of Solidarity

[ 153 ] April 2, 2016 |


The comment thread for yesterday’s Chicago Teachers Union strike post was typical. Inevitably during any strike, especially a public sector strike, people who claim to be liberals find their sense of solidarity with working people ends precisely at the point where they might be personally inconvenienced. They put aside the great common ground they should have with the strikers to create policies that would benefit all and instead engage with a politics of personal short-term selfishness. That’s sad. When BART workers go on strike for better wages and working conditions, it absolutely makes things harder for commuters. On the other hand, if the city wants to make life miserable for BART employees, that is going to therefore lead to tired drivers, long-term service deterioration, and the general decline of the system. Not to mention that better paid employees place more money into the economy, which stimulates the city, allows a middle-class to still exist (very important in a place like San Francisco), and creates a principle of paying working people dignified salaries. Is all of this worth a few days of not having the BART system operational? I would certainly think so, but many people struggle to think outside of their own current situation at a given time.

Similarly, the Chicago Teachers Union is striking because of the general failure to invest in education at the city and state level, the attacks by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner and on unions generally (he’s nothing more than 1-issue governor and that issue is union busting), Rauner’s unwillingness to pass a budget, not to mention the larger issues of police violence and injustice in Chicago. These issues affect every person in Chicago. But if taking an action to fight for these issues is a bad thing because for one day I have to deal with child care, a day that is basically like a snow day except that you time to prepare for it, then there’s no really no hope for any kind of coalition to fight for broader issues of racial justice. Sure it makes life harder for parents for one day or one week. That sucks. But life is far longer than one day or one week.

What is solidarity? There are many definitions but I think at the core is the willingness to accept and embrace personal inconvenience in order to support larger causes of justice. Rather than focus on just how such an action affects me on a particular day, you need to take yourself out of the equation and evaluate a particular action based upon whether you would support it if it does not affect you at all. If a Black Lives Matter protest decides to blockade I-93 through Boston when I am driving up there and I am delayed for an hour, I might be frustrated. But I also have to remember that the broader cause of justice is far more important than whatever I have going on in a given day. It is my duty as a human to support whatever action is necessary to end police violence against people of color. That’s far more important than the talk or band I want to see. Moreover, what cause has been advanced without inconveniencing the public? Protests block streets, strikes take money out of the economy, ACT-UP made people feel uncomfortable, the Black Panthers scared whites, environmentalists threaten entire industries to save the planet. Direct action is disruptive. If you can’t support it whenever it might possibly affect you in some way, you don’t really have the right to think of yourself as someone supports justice.

As for individual strikes, we don’t necessarily have to support each and every one, although if you claim to be a liberal or on the left, the burden is on you to say why you can’t support it. There are two fundamental scenarios where it makes sense not to support a strike. The first is when it’s about a turf war between two unions. At that point, it’s dependent on the situation. The second is when the strike is aimed at hurting the broad cause of justice rather than defending it. Thus, while police absolutely should have the right to unionize and collectively bargain a contract, the NYPD engaging in a slow down because Bill DeBlasio wants to do something about their open racism and use of violence is not something we should support. Unfortunately, it makes many on the left engage in open union-busting that would do nothing to stop police violence instead of fighting the evil at hand. Otherwise, while one can question the wisdom and strategy of given actions, anyone who makes claims to be liberal needs to be showing at least some support for the principle of collective action by workers to both maintain the middle class and fight for larger issues of social justice, as the CTU did on its strike yesterday.

It’s funny to me that people say the labor movement is antiquated, unimaginative, ineffective, etc. And that it needs to use new tactics or more aggressive tactics in order to force change to society. And then when they use those tactics, large swaths of the general public, including those who claim to wish for a stronger labor movement, judge the strike entirely based upon how it affects themselves on the given day of the strike. That’s not the politics of solidarity. That’s the politics of the empowered narcissistic individual. And it’s at that point where people start supporting the position where they would have supported Reagan firing the air traffic controllers. The public supported the firing not because PATCO was engaging in an illegal action. They supported it because by doing so, they shut down the airlines and got in the way of people’s travel plans. The politics of individual desire defeated the politics of solidarity in 1981 and it continues to do so today.

CTU Strike

[ 126 ] April 1, 2016 |


The Chicago Teachers Union, which in 2012 had one of the biggest and most important strikes of the last decade, is back on the picket line today for a 1-day strike. Like the 2012 strike, this is about more than just a contract. This is a political strike with broad if somewhat vague demands about the treatment of teachers and students, the racial injustice of Chicago, and of course the CTU’s archenemies, Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner. The legality of this strike is questionable, although I’d be surprised to see Emanuel do too much with that. However, the CTU has deep roots in the Chicago community and is receiving a lot of community and labor support. Micah Uetricht explains what is going on.

The union is walking a fine line between the narrow issues they are legally permitted to strike over and those “bigger issues.”

“This [strike] is a call for revenue for funding the schools and social services in this state appropriately,” CTU President Karen Lewis recently told Chicago Tonight, shortly after explaining they were striking over the “steps and lanes.”

The union says that school closings and round after round of budget cuts and teacher layoffs have meant that many schools aren’t able to accomplish their most basic tasks.

“We’re not able to function with this low level of funding,” says Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Academy. “And the board says they’re going to make more cuts.”

The strike comes amid a longstanding budget battle between Illinois’s Democratic-controlled State House and Senate, and Gov. Rauner. A former private equity mogul and near-billionaire, Rauner has refused to pass a budget for the state without new rules restricting public sector workers’ union rights and has enacted deep budget cuts that have caused numerous social service agencies in the state to close down or drastically reduce services. Illinois is currently the only state in America without a budget.

The union’s demands for increased revenue — a tax on millionaires, a tax on financial transactions like futures and options trades, and a progressive state income tax (Illinois is one of the few states that has a flat income tax) — can’t be won in contract negotiations. Some would require state constitutional changes. That makes a union victory hard to define.

“Victory will be showing a united force — not just teachers and parents and students, but actually creating a movement with other workers from around the city and the state,” Chambers says.

Still, the fact that an American union is going on strike alongside other unions and community groups with broad political demands is almost unheard of.

“[Such strikes] happen pretty much everywhere but the US,” says Professor Bruno. “They’re very common in France, they’re common in Germany and Central and South America. It’s only in the US, because of the historical evolution of labor law, that you can only strike legally under the narrowest of conditions. And a political strike over larger policy issues is clearly prohibited.”

That makes today’s strike “extraordinary.”

The action “hearkens back to the ’30s and ’40s, when organized labor was using the strike to make larger economic and political points and trying to pursue broader economic and social goals,” Bruno says. “We don’t have much precedent for it.”

See also Uetricht’s interview with CTU activist Sarah Chambers.

One of the biggest tragedies of modern politics is Karen Lewis coming down with cancer before taking on Rahm Emanuel. She would have crushed him.

Life for Garment Workers in India

[ 20 ] March 31, 2016 |

The global production economy is obviously great for workers. Thank you Walmart, Gap, and Target for providing these workers in India jobs by contracting production out to the lowest bidder who have every incentive to beat and rob workers at every point of the process.

Rahul was earlier being paid Rs. 5813. However, he says, the working hours are rarely limited to eight. “Generally, we work for 12 to 14 hours per day,” said Prajapati. Money for ‘overtime’ is paid but rarely according to official rates which should be double the usual wages. For someone getting Rs. 7600 as salary, money for per hour of ‘overtime’ should amount to around Rs. 60 (with the daily pay being Rs. 250 approximately, the per hour rate would come to around Rs. 30). Prajapati said that workers like him got anywhere from Rs. 27 to Rs. 30 as payment for overtime, in gross violation of the official guidelines.

Virender Ram is a tailor, a higher-up in the hierarchy of garment factory workers. He came to work here two years ago, from the plains in Nepal. Although he is getting the newly revised salary of approximately Rs. 9000, he is still not entitled to any paid leaves or regular weekly offs, nor does he get the payment for “overtime” according to the official rates.

Ajay Kumar came to Udyog Vihar looking for work a decade ago. Initially, he received Rs. 2600 as salary for his work as “helper”. He continued at the same factory all these years and is now getting paid the revised minimum wage. He told me that while he was getting payment for “overtime” at the official rate – double of the usual rate – the behaviour of the supervisors in the factories in Udyog Vihar left much to be desired. “They are often abusive,” he told me.

Other workers corroborated the allegation. “The lower level of management treats workers badly,” said a worker on condition of anonymity. The reasons for the ire of the supervisor can often be a small delay in finishing lunch or having the tea within the stipulated time – they are allowed half an hour for lunch and fifteen minute breaks for tea twice a day. “Especially those in the housekeeping department, like sweepers for example, are treated the worse. They can be fired for the smallest of reasons, and that too only on the basis of suspicion sometimes,” said Rithik Kumar who has worked as a sweeper among other odd-jobs in these factories. He told me he had worked in several factories in Udyog Vihar and physical abuse was a recurring feature everywhere. “If they abuse us verbally, we also respond at times. If you have hands, so do we,” he said, explaining how fights took place. He added that no one was happy working in these factories. “People return to their villages as poor as when they came to work here,” said Rithik.

Rithik and other workers also claimed that while money for Provident Fund was deducted from every worker’s salary, hardly anyone received it. “They even throw you out if you fall sick a couple of times in quick succession,” another worker added.

Others pointed to the open drain near which many workers live as an important source of occurrence of illness. It traversed the entire length of the colony on one side. Flies and other insects hovered above its dirty water, with garbage rotting on its sides.

“What can be worse than this? Kids are playing next to the open drain. It is filthy here,” said one of the workers. “We are also human beings. But the way we are treated in these factories, I am afraid to set foot in them,” Rithik told me. Other workers added that even going to the loo was highly restricted and controlled, with workers expected to do it as quickly as possible.

India has different workplace and environmental standards and I guess that’s OK! Those workers should be thankful when they are beaten or when their kids get sick from the poisons around the factory! Yay capitalism! Obviously opposing this system of exploitation is a sign on my own immorality in denying these workers these wonderful lives they are now leading.

Outsourced Oreos

[ 94 ] March 30, 2016 |


It’s no wonder that growing number of Americans would be attracted to either socialism or fascism when economic stagnation and working-class decline are the reality for millions of people. A key part of this of course is outsourcing industrial production to other nations, which destroys the ability of working-class people without college educations to live a dignified life. Given that the core Trump supporters are working-class whites, this is an issue that we need to take seriously and try to fix or stop if we want social stability within the United States. Thus when Nabisco decides to outsource Oreo production to Mexico, it drives more Americans into economic crisis.

On Chicago’s South Side, about 1,200 workers have been baking chocolate wafers and mixing the cream filling for Oreo cookies for decades at a plant on South Kedzie Avenue. The whole neighborhood smells fantastic.

Last summer, managers held a companywide meeting. The workers expected to hear updates for a planned $130 million upgrade to the facility.

Instead, the company demanded its workers swallow $46 million in wage and benefit cuts. Otherwise, the investment would go south of the U.S. border, said Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez International, which owns Nabisco. Rosenfeld received almost $200 million over the past eight years in pay and benefits.

This is how CEOs use a bad trade deal as a club to beat workers.

Sure enough, at the end of July, managers announced a plan to shift some production from Chicago to a factory in Salinas, Mexico.

And once that facility begins to make Oreos and other treats, 600 employees in Chicago will lose their jobs, said managers at Mondelez, the global food giant.

The above is by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union president David Durkee. They damn the trade agreements such as NAFTA for destroying working-class jobs, note how Nabisco’s corporate giant could save money other than union-busting and outsourcing, and argue they will defeat the TPP. I’m awfully skeptical of the latter claim, but of course they should try because NAFTA and the TPP are disasters for American workers. I don’t doubt that such agreements are great for the American elite, corporations, and maybe foreign policy. But for the American working-class, they are terrible, unmitigated disasters. And they are an important part of the reason why the white working-class is attracted to the fascism of Donald Trump.

This Day in Labor History: March 30, 1930

[ 32 ] March 30, 2016 |


On March 30, 1930, the Hawk’s Nest tunnel project near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia began. This tunnel was designed to divert the New River to help Union Carbide increase its energy efficiency at a downstream plant. However, this mountain contained an unusual amount of silica. The largely African-American workers were not given any protection. While in normal cases, it takes years for silicosis to develop and kill a worker, of the 3000 workers, perhaps up to 1000 died of silicosis, some within a year. This is one of the more horrifying workplace safety disasters in American history, one heavily conditioned by racial prejudice.

To build this project, Union Carbide contracted with a Charlottesville, Virginia construction company to recruit labor. As was common for hard labor projects, most of the workers were African-American, and they came from around the southeast. As was also common, African-American workers labored in more dangerous conditions with fewer safety protections and were housed in segregated housing. The company didn’t expect there to be this much silica in the rock. When the high silica rates were discovered, the company was thrilled because the deposits were dense enough they could be sold commercially for steel production. Thus, the radius of the tunnel was expanded to pay for the project. Drilling and blasting were the standard ways to create tunnels. It can be done with a lot of water. Wet drilling reduces the dust and thus the silica. But this did not happen at Hawk’s Nest. Moreover, the workers were immediately sent into the mine to gather the blasted rock instead of allowing the dust to settle. Once again, the employers simply did not care because these were largely black workers.

After 6-day weeks of workers breathing in silica-laden dust, their health deteriorated quickly. The tunneling work ended in September 1931 and the entire project was completed in 1934. It did not take long for workers to being dropping dead, which began happening as early as the first half of 1931. The survivors, many of whom were also horribly sick, began to file lawsuits against their employer in 1932. By mid-1933, the contractor faced lawsuits with a total liability of $4 million. It agreed to settle out of court, paying a total of $130,000, half of which went to the attorneys. The compensation was much higher for the relatively small number of exposed white workers than it was to black workers. The judge determined that a single black man would receive only $400 and a married black man $600 while a single white man got $800 and a married white man received $1000. During this whole process, there is significant evidence that the contractor worked to bribe witnesses and tamper with juries. However, this story is hard to be precise about because the contractor destroyed all the records, including any information about the afflicted workers.

By the time the tunneling was done, many of the workers were too sick to return home and they died nearby. The contractor threw their bodies into unmarked graves without identification, hiring a mortician at twice the normal rate for paupers to deal with the problem quietly. Even when families were around, the bodies were immediately buried. George Robison later testified, “I knew a man who died about 4 o’clock in the morning in the camp and at 7 o’clock the same morning his wife took his clothes to the undertaker to dress her dead husband and when she got there they told her the husband had already been buried.” In 1972, a highway project in the area uncovered 45 of these graves. Between 750 and 1000 people died of silicosis on the Hawk’s Nest project in the years after it. About three-quarter were African-American, with the rest made up of local whites.

This tragedy was so profound that even though it was mostly black workers involved, it received national attention. A few local newspapers had begun reporting on the deaths in 1931, but Union Carbide intimidated the journalists and squashed the story. But it received attention when somehow Albert Maltz, a screenwriter later blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, became aware of the story and wrote a successful short story about it in New Masses that featured a white (unsurprisingly) worker who got sick in the tunnel. This brought it broadly to the attention of the left and then the nation. The People’s Press reported on the incident, trying to raise money for the survivors. It wrote in 1936:

In the name of greed, 476 men—at least—are dead. Another 1,500 are doomed of whom 200 probably are dead in other places.

The dying are unable to get state or federal relief.

The doomed who can still work cannot get jobs. Employers know they are doomed.

The wives and children of the dead, the families of the dying and the doomed live at the edge of the starvation line.

Greed put them there.

In the name of humanity, the People’s Press asks you to help them.

Any sum, large or small, $100 or 1¢ will make life a little easier for this Town of the Living Dead.

They will not get help from the millionaires who kill 2,000 men for a few dollars. That we know.

So we urge you to help them. Everything given will go directly to these people in desperate need.

Josh White, performing under the pseudonym Pinewood Tom, also recorded “Silicosis Is Killin’ Me,” about the dead Hawk’s Nest workers, in 1936.

That same year, a congressional committee launched an investigation. There it was revealed that the engineers and bosses knew there was a severe risk of silicosis. They protected themselves by wearing masks. But they of course gave no masks to the workers, even though this is an incredibly inexpensive form of protection. The committee was deeply critical of Union Carbide and the contractor. But they took no action against the perpetrators. The worried mining companies did what timber companies, railroads, and other employers in dangerous workplaces had done since 1911, which was lobby to include their workers under state worker compensation programs. Those programs largely existed to protect employers from lawsuits and liability, providing very limited compensation to workers that fell far below the money they made on the job. West Virginia added tunnel diggers in 1935 with relatively long employment periods that excluded short-term workers so that companies would not have high liability rates in the future.

This would not be the last time Union Carbide was involved in a massive industrial disaster.

Silicosis is still a problem in the American workplace. The Department of Labor’s recent regulations hope to move closer to solving that problem.

Much of the material for this post came from Martin Cherniack, The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster.

This is the 174th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Labor of Spring Break

[ 180 ] March 26, 2016 |


Party on dude, it’s Spring Break! Time to go to Florida, drink to oblivion, puke everywhere, and have some great stories to tell to our bros back home!

But of course, there’s a labor side to Spring Break. What do you think it’s like being a housekeeper in one of these hotels? Pretty bloody awful, as Michelle Chen writes in this fantastic article.

Among them is Adelle Sile, a Haitian-born housekeeper with cherry-hued corkscrew curls, a compact frame, and deep-set eyes. Around this time of year, thanks to the influx of spring break and Easter break vacationers, the time she has to clean each room during her eight-hour shift gets squeezed as guests stretch their mornings to the final minutes before checkout. When she does finally get in, she sometimes opens the door to find vomit, empty bottles, crack pipes, marijuana buds, and makeshift mattresses of cushions and blankets strewn about—the season’s bacchanalian detritus.

“My back [is] hurting me. Picking up trash, picking up trash, trash everywhere, like this, like this,” Sile said recently, demonstrating the scene in her modest, pleather-upholstered living room in her working-class immigrant neighborhood in North Miami. By the end of the day, she said in a Creole-inflected drawl, “My body dead.” (The Fontainebleau declined to comment for this article.)

Compared with even lower-paid work in retail and fast food, hotel jobs are considered a decent way to earn a living in Miami, offering one way for poor immigrants to work toward living wages and benefits after a few years. Though tourism service jobs start at poverty pay scales, the fast-growing sector offers a narrow path out of drudgery. But the annual pilgrimage of college students for spring break coincides with a sharp rise in both complaints and grievances—complaints from guests about poor service and grievances filed by workers in disputes with managers over working conditions or contract rules.

“Spring break is all about partying, getting drunk, acting wild. … And the housekeepers, they’re the ones that have to do the cleaning up after,” said Kandiz Lamb, an organizer with the hospitality workers union Unite Here, which represents workers at a handful of area hotels and casinos. “It’s all kind of stuff that happens. People getting so drunk [they’re] like almost drowning in pools, falling asleep in hallways, aggressive, getting into fights in the hallways.”

Of course for the guests, the workers are not even worth thinking about. I wonder how many of them leave any tip at all at the end of their stay. And while being young and stupid is a rite of passage for college students, the hotels are not providing the extra staffing necessary to deal with this, even as they jack up their room rates for the onslaught. Like in every other industry, the desire for maximum profit comes on the backs of the workers, usually women, who are also subject to sexual harassment and sexual assault by guests.

Just another terrible job in a service economy that provides no dignity for working-class people.

Silicosis Rule

[ 69 ] March 25, 2016 |

Silicosis 1

Another day, another great move by Obama’s Department of Labor.

The Department of Labor is issuing a long-awaited and controversial rule Thursday aimed at better protecting workers from inhaling silica dust.

The new rule dramatically reduces the allowed exposure limits for workers in a slew of industries, from construction to manufacturing to fracking.

About 2.3 million people in the U. S. are exposed to fine grains of silica on the job; inhaling the dust is one of the oldest known workplace hazards. Silica, which is basically sand, scars the lungs, causing diseases like silicosis and cancer.

Secretary of Labor Tom Perez says the existing rule that limits a worker’s exposure to silica dust hasn’t been changed since the early 1970s. And even back then, he adds, research showed the exposure limit didn’t offer adequate protection.

“We’ve known for over 40 years that it needed to be strengthened, and it has taken 40 years to strengthen it,” says Perez. “Many people who are going to work right now and breathing unacceptable levels of silica dust are in for a brighter future.”

He says the current rule for construction sites caps exposure at 250 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air.

“And the science says we need to be at 50,” says Perez. “So that’s what the final rule will say.” That same updated exposure limit will apply to general industry as well, he adds, which will cut the current exposure limit in half.

Of course, we know there really isn’t any difference between the two parties and voting is a consumer choice anyway, so why even bother if Bernie Sanders isn’t the nominee, unless you think that we can heighten the contradictions with a Trump presidency……

Incidentally, I love this trial balloon of Hillary naming Secretary of Labor Tom Perez as her VP candidate. I think that would be great. No, he’s never been elected to office. But that never hurt Chester Arthur! He’s tremendously competent, is a really strong progressive, is Dominican-American and speaks fluent Spanish, and has a lot more concrete accomplishments than Julian Castro. My wife, a historian of Latin America with very deep roots in Mexican immigrant communities and therefore who knows far more about these things than I do, assures me that Latinos won’t really care that Castro can’t speak Spanish and that’s it would be an aspirational assimiliationist story more than a liability. But it certainly isn’t going to hurt that Perez is fluent in Spanish. We all know that barring naming someone who turns into a huge liability like Tom Eagleton or Sarah Palin, VP candidates don’t really shift elections. But given the likely significant increase in Latino voting because of the open Republican war against them, reinforcing that Democrats are the party of Latinos by naming a very skilled Dominican to the ticket is certainly not going to hurt. Plus it would be nice if organized labor actually got a big prize for all its support for once.

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