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Tag: "labor"

Building International Solidarity

[ 13 ] January 14, 2017 |

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With the overall attack on unions in the United States, the ability of the AFL-CIO to engage in international solidarity actions gets harder and harder, as does its ability to lead the way on working-class issues at home. This is of course the point of anti-union laws. But if we are to tame the horrors of the supply chain, with American companies moving jobs overseas to increase profit and undermine work at home, the American labor movement has to build solidarity with those workers overseas and figure out ways to tame the global exploitation of corporations. Of course for a long time the labor movement worked closely with the government to undermine international solidarity in the AFL-CIA days and it’s a sad irony that the labor movement has finally moved toward helping build social democracy in other nations at the same time it is losing its ability to do so at home.

Anyway, the AFL-CIO has an excellent set of ideas of working toward justice in Bangladesh, where American corporations have targeted workers for death in their supply chains.

Nearly five years after the torture and assassination of Bangladeshi labor leader Aminul Islam, the country’s garment-sector employers and the government continue to persecute workers who try to exercise basic rights. In the three weeks since a December strike to protest the paltry $68 per month minimum wage, garment employers and the government have again shown their hostility toward workers and their rights. At that wage, workers in Dhaka would need to spend 60% of their income solely to rent substandard housing in a slum, leaving little to live on in a city about as expensive as Montreal (where the minimum wage is more than ten times higher).

Initially, employers and the government responded to the strike by closing 60 factories on Dec. 20 and deploying hundreds of police to the area. After the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) ordered owners to reopen factories on Dec. 26, employers fired and suspended more than 1,600 workers for their alleged involvement in the unrest. Labor leaders and activists in Bangladesh and abroad demanded the reinstatement of all workers.

Instead, both employers and government responded with increased repression. Since Dec. 21, at least 15 union leaders and workers’ rights advocates have been detained or arrested and 11 individuals remain in police custody. At least two of these have been beaten, and at least one was threatened with death. Clearly, the BGMEA and the government have the power to end these abuses immediately. Instead, garment employers and their association, exercise their considerable political power (at least 25 members of parliament are garment employers!) to demand that the government repress any worker or labor activist attempting to organize or represent workers’ interests. And the government delivers quickly on this request.

American companies may not be pulling the strings on the repression of the Bangladeshi labor movement. But they are very happy about it and it’s happening with their clear consent. Here is the call to action:

The AFL-CIO calls on the following to act:

The U.S. government must maintain its current suspension of GSP benefits to Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government must stop using national security/anti-terrorism laws to criminalize trade union activity and release arrested trade union activists.
The Bangladesh government must enforce its own laws with regard to registering unions.
The Bangladesh government must convene the minimum wage board and union federations with real representation in the garment industry and must negotiate on behalf of the workers.
The BGMEA and all garment manufacturers must actually negotiate collective agreements with the unions and workers in their workplaces to address wage and other issues.

Finally, the AFL-CIO urges the European Union to seriously review its current GSP program with Bangladesh since its market is the largest for garments from Bangladesh.

This is fine but it doesn’t go far enough. The AFL-CIO also needs to call for American law to restrain American corporate behavior in their supply chains, holding companies accountable for what happens in the production of their products and the creation of trade agreements and international law that allows workers access to courts to fight for their human rights.

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Right to Work a Man to Death

[ 27 ] January 14, 2017 |

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A key reminder that the intellectual founder of the right to work a man to death movement was Vance Muse, anti-Semite, racist, and anti-worker. Of course these things are not unconnected. Neither are they today as Kentucky destroys its unions and Missouri may well do the same, building on the many states to do so in recent years.

Muse had long made a lucrative living lobbying throughout the South on behalf of conservative and corporate interests or, in the words of one of his critics, “playing rich industrialists as suckers.” Over the course of his career, he fought women’s suffrage, worked to defeat the constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor, lobbied for high tariffs, and sought to repeal the eight-hour day law for railroaders. He was also active in the Committee for the Americanization of the Supreme Court, which targeted Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Vienna-born Jewish man, for his votes in labor cases.

But Muse first attracted national attention through his work with Texas lumberman John Henry Kirby in the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution, which sought to deny Roosevelt’s re-nomination in 1936 on grounds that the New Deal threatened the South’s racial order. Despite its name, the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution received funding from prominent northern anti-New Deal industrialists and financiers including John Jacob Raskob, Alfred P. Sloan, and brothers Lammot, Irénée, and Pierre du Pont.

Among Muse’s activities on behalf of the Southern Committee was the distribution of what Time called “cheap pamphlets containing blurred photographs of the Roosevelts consorting with Negroes” accompanied by “blatant text proclaiming them ardent Negrophiles.” Muse later defended the action and the use of its most provocative photograph: “I am a Southerner and for white supremacy… It was a picture of Mrs. Roosevelt going to some n—-r meeting with two escorts, n—–s, on each arm.”

In 1936, on the heels of the Southern Committee’s failure to deny Roosevelt’s nomination, Muse incorporated the Christian American Association to continue the fight against the New Deal, offering up a toxic mix of anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Communism, and anti-unionism. The Christian Americans considered the New Deal to be part of the broader assault of “Jewish Marxism” upon Christian free enterprise.

The organization’s titular head, Lewis Valentine Ulrey, explained that after their success in Russia the “Talmudists” had determined to conquer the rest of the world and that “by 1935 they had such open success with the New Deal in the United States, that they decided to openly restore the Sanhedrin,” that is, both the council of Jewish leaders who oversaw a community and the Jewish elders who, according to the Bible, plotted to kill Christ.

This “modern Jewish Sanhedrin” – which included people like Justice Frankfurter and NAACP board member Rabbi Stephen Wise – served as the guiding force of the Roosevelt Administration and the New Deal state. Vance Muse voiced the same anti-Semitic ideas in much simpler terms: “That crazy man in the White House will Sovietize America with the federal hand-outs of the Bum Deal – sorry, New Deal. Or is it the Jew Deal?”

By the early 1940s, Muse and the Christian American Association, like many southern conservatives, focused much of their wrath on the labor movement, especially the unions associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The Christian Americans solicited wealthy southern planters and industrialists for funds to help break the “strangle hold radical labor has on our government” through the enactment of anti-union laws.

Muse and his allies continued to claim that Marxist Jews were pulling the national government’s strings, but the membership of this cabal shifted from the likes of Wise and Frankfurter to CIO leaders like Lee Pressman and Sidney Hillman. The Christian Americans, like other southern conservatives, insisted that the CIO – which had become shorthand for Jewish Marxist unions – was sending organizers to the rural South to inflame the contented but gullible African-American population as the first step in a plot to Sovietize the nation.

Nice guy. Perfect for the Republican Party of 2017.

Also, in case any needs a primer on the origin of my term for those laws.

This Day in Labor History: January 6, 1909

[ 7 ] January 6, 2017 |

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On January 6, 1909, oral arguments before the Supreme Court concluded in the case of Moyer v. Peabody. The decision by the Court on January 18 gave official approval for the state militia or National Guard imprisoning people without the benefit of habeas corpus during a time of insurrection, the definition of which was of course left vague. This was one of many anti-worker Supreme Court decisions of the Gilded Age that made it extremely difficult for unions to operate with any sort of effectiveness.

In 1902, the Western Federation of Miners was organizing mill workers in Colorado City, Colorado. One company placed a spy among the organizers. This led the employer to fire 42 union members. Tensions rose at the mill and in February 1903, the WFM called a strike. Colorado governor James Peabody was an anti-union extremist who would use any method to eliminate the WFM, which had outraged employers in 1894 with an overwhelming victory in the state’s mines. Throughout Colorado that year, several strikes took place. Peabody worked with employers and private detective agencies such as the Baldwin-Felts, Thiel Agency, and of course the Pinkertons. Peabody called out the Colorado militia in response to the Colorado City strike, leading miners in Telluride and Cripple Creek to walk off their jobs. Mass arrests of strikers began that fall. Among those arrested was Charles Moyer, president of the WFM. Moyer had done nothing more than travel to Telluride to support the strike and sign a poster denouncing the mass arrests. He was then arrested for desecrating the American flag. This ridiculous charge allowed him to be released the next day, but he was immediately rearrested without any charges.

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The strike was soon crushed by Colorado and Peabody’s forces, but Moyer fought the obviously unconstitutional arrest he faced. He petitioned for a write of habeas corpus to a Colorado court. He received it but the Colorado attorney general refused to honor it. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that his constitutional rights had not been violated by his arrest for supporting a strike. He then appealed to the U.S. District Court based in Missouri. These judges overturned the state court and granted him the writ once again on July 5, 1904. This finally forced Peabody to let Moyer out of jail. Moyer wanted full exoneration so he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It eventually accepted it, with oral arguments taking place on January 5 and 6, 1909. By this time, Moyer had survived the framing of he and Big Bill Haywood for the 1905 murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, thanks to the extremely shoddy case and the defense skills of Clarence Darrow leading to the rare court victory for unions during these horrible years.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision for the unanimous court. The decision completely ignored whether the strike was an insurrection. It gave the governor complete discretion in making this determination, effectively saying that if the governor called out the National Guard, there was in fact an insurrection. He wrote, “But it is familiar that what is due process of law depends on circumstances. It varies with the subject-matter and the necessities of the situation.” And while it makes some sense for law to have limited flexibility dependent upon the particulars of a given situation, in this situation Holmes was giving employers and their bought politicians carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to labor unions. So long as there was an insurrection, then the governor could call out the state militia or National Guard and have them act accordingly. He left open the possibility than an exceedingly lengthy time behind bars might be open to another challenge but that was not what Moyer was after. This decision also avoided any of the sticky constitutional questions–since the states cannot declare war, can the executive of a state declare a state of war to exist? But as was common for Holmes, he found ways to exclude ideological or racial minorities from full citizenship; unfortunately, he was frequently joined in the Gilded Age Supreme Court by his colleagues.

Holmes’ decision in Moyer v. Peabody helped to radicalize the labor movement, especially in areas that had already seen the iron fist of state violence. With Holmes giving governors the right to use violence at will, moderate unionists had a harder time telling workers that capitalism might work for them. The Industrial Workers of the World would build their case for radical syndicalism upon this point, up to the point where the IWW was itself crushed by massive state-sanctioned violence, including the government allowing employers to do what they wanted to unions and with government crushing workers defending themselves against that violence.

The case was so shoddy that the Court largely ignored it. In 1932, it revisited the ability of a governor to unilaterally decide to call a strike an insurrection, when in Sterling v. Constanin, it decided that the governor of Texas doing the same as Peabody was not constitutional. That is until 9/11. Then the Bush administration was all over it because of the possibility to justify indefinite detention whenever the government declares a state of insurrection. It was heavily discussed in the 2004 case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and remains an extremely threatening decision to workers today as Republicans seek to return the nation to the Lochner years. And the Moyer v. Peabody years as well.

Although Charles Moyer eventually broke from Haywood and the IWW, he remained deeply involved in union politics for many years. He was in Hancock, Michigan when the Italian Hall disaster took place in 1913 and rallied the WFM in nearby Calumet to take care of their own, although this had the effect of telling impoverished survivors to not take much needed charity. While in Calumet, he was beaten and deported from the town while bleeding from his wounds. The state did nothing to find who did this to him. He continued to lead the former WFM, now Mine, Mill, until 1926, dying in obscurity and largely forgotten in 1929.

This is the 206th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Uber Workers Are Employees and They Should Be Categorized That Way

[ 36 ] January 2, 2017 |

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I completely agree with Benjamin Sachs that the idea of a third category of employment to cover Uber and gig workers is a terrible idea that would carve out a substandard regulatory framework. Employers would explode this loophole if it existed.

During the last few years of the Obama Presidency, we saw a productive debate over the question of whether changes in the organization of work called for a new legal categorization of workers. In particular, the question was whether we need a third category, intermediate between “employee” and “independent contractor,” to capture the kinds of work arrangements typified by gig economy firms like Uber. Seth Harris and Alan Krueger, in a leading example, called for the creation of a legal category they named “independent worker,” which would grant some – but not all – protections of employment law to workers engaged in these types of work relationships.

The Obama administration, with the Perez/Weil team in charge at the Department of Labor, presented a relatively favorable political context for trying out a third category of worker. Had that administration embraced such a development, it would have worked to ensure – perhaps through veto of any problematic legislation, perhaps through administrative action – a legal category with the best chance of leveling up conditions for workers. Even in that favorable political context, there was robust debate about what the results of a third category would have been. There was genuine disagreement among policymakers and commentators, all committed to improving conditions for those working in the new labor market, over whether a third category made good sense.

But whatever the results might have been in positive political circumstances, it ought to be quite clear what the results would be in the political context that will begin on January 20th: implementing a third legal category of work would almost certainly be disastrous for workers. Should the incoming Congress, or the Puzder Department of Labor, be charged with creating the third category, we could safely predict that it would be constructed in a way that allows employers to shift employees down into the less-protective intermediate classification, and not to enable independent contractors to shift up into the more protective middle ground.

Accordingly, for those interested in protecting the interests of workers, a third category should now constitute a third rail. Instead, our energies should be focused in another direction: on ensuring that as many workers as possible – across the gig economy and in similar work arrangements – get classified as employees, which, in my opinion, is where they’ve belonged all along. The legal definition of “employee,” as complicated as it might sometimes become, is broad and fully adaptable to the new systems of work organization. It allows, for example, charity canvassers – who set their own schedules, are permitted to hold multiple jobs, and who are never directly supervised by anyone – to be classified as employees. In numerous cases, in fact, courts have found an employment relationship despite the fact that the workers controlled the hours they worked, were unsupervised, and enjoyed all the associated indicia of “flexibility.”

The entire idea of “flexibility” is a construct designed to exploit workers. It must be beaten back, not embraced. We should be concerned that the Trump administration will seek to create this through the Department of Labor. Fighting this possibility should be a top priority for all concerned with worker rights.

Imagine a Law Protecting Us From Our Employers. Must Be Those Crazy French Again!

[ 31 ] January 2, 2017 |

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One of the major problems with many recent technological advances that supposedly save time or create convenience is that they allow employers to demand more time from us. That’s been a huge issue with cell phones. Driverless cars will do the same, as employers will find that time we aren’t driving perfect for doing even more work. This is a real issue that of course does not get taken seriously in the United States. But it does in France.

French workers rang in a new year at midnight — as well as a “right to disconnect” law that grants employees in the country the legal right to ignore work emails outside of typical working hours, according to the Guardian.

The new employment law requires French companies with more than 50 employees to begin drawing up policies with their workers about limiting work-related technology usage outside the office, the newspaper reported.

The motivation behind the legislation is to stem work-related stress that increasingly leaks into people’s personal time — and hopefully prevent employee burnout, French officials said.

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog,” Benoit Hamon, Socialist member of Parliament and former French education minister, told the BBC in May. “The texts, the messages, the emails: They colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

Such a law in the United States would be just common sense. So of course it will never happen.

Why Holding Corporations Accountable for Their Supply Chains is the Only Answer to Global Labor Exploitation, Part 45,018

[ 16 ] January 1, 2017 |

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Yes, another post on trade policy and global labor rights that will be sure to get me into the LGM Top 10 posts of 2017!

This essay on the relationship between migratory labor and supply chain exploitation in the apparel industry, including making links between the likelihood of climate change causing even more possibilities for exploitation because of the huge number of refugees, is basically right on. But I think it does fall short of nailing down a reasonable answer to these problems. Certainly global labor solidarity is absolutely critical and connecting the labor and climate justice movements great. But I continue to maintain that I see no end game to these problems without holding western corporations accountable for what happens in their supply chains. That happens through both trade agreements with legally enforceable labor and environmental standards. It happens through the U.S. and other nations creating import standards. And it happens through allowing workers around the world to use U.S. courts (and other national courts) for enforcement of those standards.

Sadly, there are always going to be migrant laborers. But they don’t per se have to be exploited by the apparel industry. At the very least, we can force the retailers at the top of the food chain to take accountability for their suppliers. That is the single most effective way to do something about this problem and creating the legal framework to regulate that process is more realistic than hoping for international labor solidarity and workplace organizing, which is exceptionally slow and difficult, desperately needed as it is.

This Day in Labor History: January 1, 1935

[ 6 ] January 1, 2017 |

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On January 1, 1935, the Carl Mackley Houses opened in Philadelphia. Built in conjunction with the Hosiery Workers Union, this project represents one of several attempts during the New Deal era to create workers’ housing complexes that combined ideas of solidarity with modern architecture and a futuristic idea about where the working class was headed.

Decent housing for workers in cities was expensive and this is why unions began to become interested in new ideas to solve this problem. This was not the only example of a union-based housing project during these years. The Hosiery Workers’ sister union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, was already working on such a project and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union had worked to create a workers’ cooperative apartment building in the Bronx as early as 1925. Philadelphia had a higher home ownership rate than other cities, but most of this was single-family and the rental market was very tight. So the Hosiery Workers decided to target a union-sponsored housing complex for its members and other workers. It believed that big projects were better for workers and hoped to influence federal housing policy through its housing program.

In 1933, the Housing Division of the newly created Public Works Administration started to offer loans to private companies that would build and manage low-rent residential projects for limited profit. Immediately, the American Federation of Hosiery Workers applied to open a housing complex for its workers. The Hosiery Workers had already articulated a sophisticated housing program. Influenced by Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, the mass leftist housing project erected in the 1920s, it hoped to replicated this in the United States. The Hosiery Workers, based in Philadelphia, was an organization heavily interested in larger left-leaning social and economic questions and hired many radicals. Through strong organizing, it managed to not only survive the Great Depression but actually win good contracts even as consumer demand collapsed, including convincing companies to open its books to the union and working with consumer organizations for union-approved clothing companies.

The union’s leaders also opposed private home ownership. It understood why workers did this. But it claimed that home ownership reinforced the strong privatized nature of American political culture that undermined collective solutions in favor of selfish individualism (a point with which I strongly agree). Leading the project to create a housing project was Hosiery Workers research director John Edelman and Oskar Stororov, the Russian social democratic emigre and modernist architect who in 1970 was on the plane that killed Walter Reuther. When Stonorov heard about the PWA Housing Division, he immediately called its head Robert Kohn, rousted him out of bed, made a pitch, and won the agency’s first loan of slightly more than $1 million.

The union acquired the land and overcame opposition from private realtors and the Philadelphia mayor thanks to its close relations with the city council. It began building in February 1934, with a ceremony attended by Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, wife of Pennsylvania governor and legendary forester Gifford Pinchot. It named the housing project after Carl Mackley, a union member killed in a 1930 strike in Philadelphia who had become a hero to the city’s working classes, when 1500 cars followed the hearse carrying Mackley to his funeral. The complex had nearly 300 apartments, a large swimming pool (the overwhelming recreational desire of the workers who lived there), a nursery school, a basement set up for tenant organizations, and laundry facilities. It was the kind of self-contained community that leftists hoped would spawn working-class consciousness in the American working class.

The complex opened on January 1, 1935. The union made sure that a majority of the tenants were not Hosiery Workers’ members because it feared a strike could bankrupt the housing project. But in fact the costs of the apartments were fairly high and so it ended up attracting a lot of white-collar workers. The PWA loan payments were steep and thus the rents were 20 percent more expensive than anticipated. The tenants did receive good value for their rent, but it was simply pricier than most workers’ housing. The Hosiery Workers asked the PWA to renegotiate the terms of the loan but the agency refused.

But some workers did live there and the residents, working-class or middle-class, generally appreciated the project. The social space around the pool was highly valued by the residents and some workers moved in precisely because of that pool. One worker signed a lease, hoping it would be Bellamyism in action. The union itself did not really shape the communal life in the Mackley Homes as it hoped to, largely because it was fighting for its own survival through the 30s and 40s and the housing complex took a secondary role in the larger union strategy. But an open atmosphere of organizing was quietly encouraged and residents took advantage of that. Some residents put on a performance of “Waiting for Lefty,” while others took art classes, went to fundraisers for the left in the Spanish Civil War, or heard lectures about the need for socialized medicine (tell me about it). The nursery school sought to provide support for women even if they did not work outside the home, bringing progressive ideas about childrearing to the complex. This all scared PWA administrators, who worried about being attacked over the political nature of life at the Mackley Houses.

Leading urban planners such as Catherine Bauer believed the Mackley Houses were the beginning of something much bigger, or as she wrote, “the first step in an movement which may sooner or later change the face of the country.” Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Postwar housing plans would promote suburbanization and white flight, dooming most urban housing complexities to decline thanks to a funding model for public housing that assumed paying renters and not the poor, while private housing models now avoided these sorts of complexes. The experimental politics and nature of the Mackley Homes declined with the Hosiery Workers’ decline after World War II, but the nursery school remained open until 1964 and as late as 1985, the tenets held a celebration to mark 50 years of this amazing complex, even though the commemoration barely mentioned its union background.

I borrowed from Gail Radford, Modern Housing in America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era for the writing of this post.

This is the 205th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1970

[ 14 ] December 30, 2016 |

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On December 30, 1970, a coal mine exploded on Hurricane Creek, near Hyden, Kentucky. Thirty-eight miners died that day, yet another example of the terrible safety conditions of coal mining, even at a late date. This was the worst mining disaster in the United States in two years. That this happened after major federal legislation to prevent these accidents and in the face of indifferent or even hostile union leadership to fixing these problems fed into the larger democratic unionism roiling the United Mine Workers and many other unions during the 1970s.

One miner survived the explosion. A.T. Collins was thrown out of the mineshaft by the force of the blast. Eighteen miners died instantly. Twenty others were deeper in the mine and died before they could be rescued. The dead were brought out and taken to the nearest school gymnasium so they could be identified.

This accident happened one year to the day after Richard Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act into law. The law mandated greater safety standards in the mines, thanks to inspections conducted by the Bureau of Mines in the Department of the Interior. The Bureau was supposed to close mines where workers’ lives were in danger. But it did not. It had found many violations at the Hurricane Creek mine in the previous months but had taken no meaningful action, thus leading to the death of the 38 miners. On November 19, an inspector visited the mine, finding large amounts of coal dust in the air and a lack of trained personnel for maintaining electrical equipment. The mine owner was ordered to fix the violations by December 22. But with the holidays, no one showed up to make sure they had been fixed before December 30.

But the ultimate responsibility for the law’s lax enforcement came from the top. Richard Nixon, the World’s Last Real Liberal Unlike that Neoliberal Sellout Barack Obama, only signed the law reluctantly. He had no interest in regulating the mines and believed the states should do it. Mine owners constantly complained that the Bureau of Mines was too aggressive in enforcing the new law, even though it did very little. Given the indifference of Nixon and his administration, the law was ineffective in its first year, leading to the deaths outside of Hyden.

Angry miners also faced a lot of problems in their own union. Earlier in the year, UMWA president Tony Boyle had ordered the murder of his rival Jock Yablonski. In addition, Boyle had been utterly indifferent over workplace safety and health, both in terms of mine accidents and in fighting black lung. He relied upon retired miners having full voting rights, as well as open corruption, to stay in power. This had already led to the growth of the Black Lung Associations in 1969 to put pressure on both the West Virginia statehouse and the federal government to pass new legislation. It also openly challenged Boyle and pushed for the election of Yablonski.

So when the mine exploded, there was significant discontent at the grassroots and attention at the national level. Ralph Nader called for a congressional investigation into the missed December 22 safety inspection. The Bureau of Mines filed a report noting that high levels of coal dust and the improper use of explosives caused the disaster. It vaguely claimed that it would seek to file charges against unnamed parties. But the miners believed it was the Bureau that held the ultimate responsibility. UMWA Local 5741 wrote to Congressmen Carl Perkins of Kentucky that this was proof that small mines “get away with murder.” It went on:

They holler that they don’t have enough Inspectors, FOOEY [sic], They inspected this mine [Hyden] and found severe violations, didn’t they? Why wasn’t it corrected before he was allowed to operate again. If they had a MILLION INSPECTORS it wouldn’t help any, if, after an inspection and severe violations were found and nothing was done to correct them

The Labor Subcommittee in the House of Representatives generally agreed with the miners, noting in its report that the Bureau:

should have been on notice as to the dangerous atypical conditions in the mine, should have inspected it with greater frequency, carried out more complete inspections and perhaps most importantly, been present to insure that cited violations were actually abated when required.

The miners then pushed for a new black lung bill, but Nixon resisted this strongly, believing it would cost too much. But the pressure did create more urgency in the Bureau of Mines to do its job and inspect the mines. In 1971, the number of mine inspectors increased from around 250 to around 1000 and mine accidents fell compared to the year before. With Tony Boyle now under indictment for his many crimes, the angry miners involved in protesting the Hurricane Creek explosion turned to Miners for Democracy to reform their union. MFD made rank and file concerns like mine safety and black lung central to its platform, running Arnold Miller to be union president against Boyle, still fighting to stay out of prison. But while Miller did win, his administration did not really fix the health and safety issues to the extent rank and file miners hoped it would. This was for two primary reasons. First, Miller wasn’t all that good at his job and second, the real emphasis of MFD was rooting out the corruption in the UMWA that extended back to the beginning of John L. Lewis’ long presidency. The newly reinvigorated union did put more pressure on the companies, who complained, noting their long-friendly relationship with Boyle on these issues. But there wasn’t that much it could do to truly transform safety in the coal mines.

In recent years, with the UMWA a shell of what it once was and automation combining with the widespread move of the coal industry to Wyoming, it can do little about these health and safety issues. Mine owners like Don Blankenship murder workers without concern and only get prosecuted if they leave an extreme level of evidence, as he did. Coal mining remains a tremendously dangerous job today.

This mine explosion was memorialized in Tom T. Hall’s song “Trip to Hyden,” off his outstanding In Search of a Song album from 1971.

Long before I ever heard of this mine disaster, I drove through Hyden. This was the late 90s. The entire town was literally festooned with memorabilia from its most famous resident, Tim Couch, savior of University of Kentucky football and the Cleveland Browns. Not so sure that’s the case there today.

This post borrowed heavily from Richard Fry’s article, “Dissent in the Coalfields: Miners, Federal Politics, and Union Reform in the United States, 1968-1973,” published in Labor History in 2014.

This is the 204th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Bangladeshi Workers Sure Are Thankful That Our Beneficent Corporations Are Providing Them Great Jobs!

[ 35 ] December 27, 2016 |

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Why it’s almost like we should ask Bangladeshi workers what they want and fight to help them rather than talk about all the great benefits western companies bring to Bangladesh through their low wage, exploitative jobs!

Bangladesh garment manufacturers have sacked at least 1,500 workers, police said Tuesday, after protests over pay led to a week-long shutdown at dozens of factories supplying top Western brands.

Tens of thousands of workers walked out of factories in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia that make clothing for top Western brands like GAP, Zara and H&M earlier this month, prompting concerns over supply during the holiday season.

Police branded the protests illegal and said they had arrested 30 workers including seven union leaders as well as a television reporter covering the unrest.

On Tuesday, they said factory owners had sacked around 1,500 workers and resumed operations, a week after shutting down to try to contain the protests.

What do these workers want?

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has rejected the workers’ demand for their pay to be trebled from the current minimum monthly wage of 5,300 taka ($67).

Babul Akhter, head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, accused authorities of using a controversial military-era law to shut down the protests.

“They used (the) Special Powers Act to detain union leaders and workers,” he told AFP.

“Up to 3,500 workers have been sacked and 50 leaders have gone into hiding.”

The Ashulia police chief said only those involved in violent protest had been arrested.

How reassuring.

It’s very easy to sit in the United States or Britain or another wealthy world nation, look at Bangladesh from 30,000 feet and say “The apparel industry is bringing so much to this poor nation!” But doing so also allows westerners to ignore the massive oppression these workers face, painting globalization not even as complicated, but as a moral good, with those who question its value demonized as inhuman monsters.

Instead, what we should do is recognize some of the benefits of globalization while also demanding that American companies accept the basic rights that Bangladeshi workers are fighting for, such as a living wage. Moreover, we need to demand that these companies pay living wages throughout their supply chains no matter where they move. Otherwise, those companies may well respond to rising wages in Bangladesh by moving to some other nation, as they have done over and over and over again, especially in the apparel industry. These workers have actual demands. Let’s try to ensure that the products we buy are made in decent conditions that empower workers.

When Unions Don’t Help Their Members

[ 74 ] December 23, 2016 |

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This is unfortunate. The Rocketts are being dragooned into performing at Trump’s inauguration, an event that is becoming a hilarious embarrassment for Emperor Tangerine because no one will participate. Many of the Rockettes members don’t want to perform. The job of their union in this situation should be to help them in their goal. Or at the very least, stand up for them publicly. Unfortunately, the union is just telling the members to do what the boss says.

BroadwayWorld has obtained and confirmed the authenticity of an email sent from the American Guild of Variety Artists to what appears to be Rockettes in its membership as a response to the announcement that some Rockettes do not want to participate in the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.

The email reads: “We have received an email from a Rockette expressing concern about getting “involved in a dangerous political climate” but I must remind you that you are all employees, and as a company, Mr. Dolan obviously wants the Rockettes to be represented at our country’s Presidential inauguration, as they were in 2001 & 2005. Any talk of boycotting this event is invalid, I’m afraid.”

“We have been made aware of what is going on Facebook and other social media, however, this does not change anything unless Radio City has a change of heart. The ranting of the public is just that, ranting. Everyone has a right to an opinion, but this does not change your employment status for those who are full time.”

“This has nothing to do with anyone’s political leanings (including AGVA’s), it has to do with your best performance for your employer, period. I will reiterate that if Hillary Clinton was the President-elect, nothing would be different, and there would probably be those who would not want to be involved because of her. It is a job, and all of you should consider it an honor, no matter who is being sworn in. The election is over and this country will not survive if it remains divided.”

“Everyone is entitled to her own political beliefs, but there is no room for this in the workplace.”

The email continues in bolded, underlined font: “If you are not full time, you do not have to sign up to do this work. If you are full time, you are obligated. Doing the best performance to reflect an American Institution which has been here for over 90 years is your job. I hope this pulls into focus the bottom line on this work,”

This is pretty gross, as it not only tells members their union will do nothing for them, but pulls the strings of patriotism to make their case. The idea that it is up to the Rockettes to pull the country together in a spectacle is utterly ridiculous. This is a union not doing what a union should do. In other words:

My Broken Record on Supply Chains

[ 20 ] December 23, 2016 |

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Yes, I’ve said this 1000 times before. And I will say it 1000 times in the future. The only way to stop the exploitation of the world’s poorest in the global supply chain is to create global labor standards that hold the western companies buying the material legally accountable for everything that happens in those supply chains. The reason for that is that it’s the only way to stop things such as child slavery in the apparel industry. Even if India banned that child slavery, if Pakistan allows it, the contractors are just going to move there if it’s cheaper. That’s not acceptable. And the working conditions and lives of these young workers are very, very, very bad.

India is one of the world’s largest textile and garment manufacturers. The southern state of Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills, employing between 200,000 and 400,000 workers. Traditionally the dyeing units, spinning mills and apparel factories have drawn on cheap labor from villages across Tamil Nadu to turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes, most of it for Western high street shops.

Most workers are young women from poor, illiterate and low-caste or “Dalit” communities, who often face intimidation, sexually offensive remarks and harassment. ICN said in more than half of the mills it researched, workers were not allowed to leave company-controlled hostels after working hours. Only 39 mills paid the minimum wage and in half the mills, a standard working week involved 60 hours or more of work.

“Supervisors torture girls to extract work beyond their capacity,” ICN quoted an 18-year-old former worker as saying.

Another teenage girl, Kalaichelvi, who earned around 8,000 rupees ($118) a month, told researchers she was forced to work for 12 hours straight with no breaks for lunch or to use the bathroom. She said she suffered from burning eyes, rashes, fever, aching legs and stomach problems due to the working conditions.

About a third of the yarn produced by workers like Kalaichelvi is used in export factories in Tamil Nadu that produce garments for many global brands. Citing poor enforcement of labor laws and “superficial audits” by buying brands, the ICN called on the industry and government to map supply chains and publish sourcing details. It also called for factories that upheld standards to be rewarded.

Moving ahead with the sort of solutions in this report make sense and are more pragmatic than mine, but are ultimately not nearly enough. If Walmart or whoever doesn’t want to pay fines, it needs to make sure its clothing is not made by children, needs to ensure its contractors are paying a basic wage, and enforce standard dignity in working conditions. It’s not that hard. Even if the United States is likely to become more like India in the next four years than the other way around.

This Day In Labor History: December 21, 1919

[ 53 ] December 21, 2016 |

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On December 21, 1919, the anarchist Emma Goldman was deported from the United States to the Soviet Union as part of the larger crackdown against radicals under the Alien Act and other World War I laws that sought to suppress dissent. This shameful moment in American history is both an excellent time to examine Goldman’s life and to remember the historical suppression of free speech during a period where attacks on the free speech of leftists are rising again.

Born in what is today Lithuania in 1869, Goldman immigrated to the United States in 1885, at the age of 16. Already exposed to radical thoughts in Russia, she threw herself into politics when she entered the United States, especially after the Haymarket Riot and repression of anarchists that followed. She met her lover and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman. They moved to Worcester, Massachusetts and ran an ice cream shop. Goldman came to public attention for the first time in 1892, when she helped Berkman plan the assassination of coal executive Henry Clay Frick after the plutocrat busted the Homestead Strike. The failure of Berkman to kill the unarmed Frick may tell us why we can’t trust anarchists to ever accomplish anything. But it also made Goldman famous. Police raided her apartment but did not find any evidence and she was not prosecuted for her involvement.

She built upon her fame from Homestead over the next nearly three decades, fighting for an array of social justice causes, especially women’s rights and especially women’s control over their own bodies. She was first prosecuted for inciting a riot in 1894, organizing citizens for economic justice in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893. She was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. After serving 10 months, she was released to thousands of adoring followers at a post-release event in New York. She then went to Europe to study midwifery and meet with leading international anarchists. In 1901, Leon Czolgosz claimed he killed William McKinley in her name, an act which she distanced herself but did not denounce, causing a rift between her and fellow anarchists who were revolted by the assassin. She disappeared from public action for a couple of years before returning. In 1906, she and others started the radical journal Mother Earth, which Berkman edited after his release from prison in 1907. For the next decade, she traveled the nation giving radical lectures about both anarchism and birth control. In doing so, she drank fairly heavily (I saw a paper at a conference earlier this year which quoted her talking about much she liked California because the wine was “cheap and strong.”), fell in love with Ben Reitman who followed her on her speaking tours and openly cheated on her the entire time, and became a strong supporter of Margaret Sanger after she faced legal problems for her birth control advocacy. Goldman herself was arrested for violating the Comstock Laws as late as 1916, preferring to work at hard labor rather than the pay the fine.

Through these travels and experiences, Goldman developed a sophisticated ideology. Although an anarchist, she was close enough to the experiences of lived people to understand much about them. When challenged by an elderly worker about her talk of revolution and dismissal of incremental change because it was all he had to hold onto, she rethought her positions and accepted shorter hours and higher wages as steps toward a broader revolution that helped people in the present and laid a path for the future. Yet like most anarchists she did not believe the state had any role to play in making a better future. The state was inherently a coercive force that needed to be destroyed, not seen as a tool that would ever help workers. But to be fair, Samuel Gompers basically believed the same thing, except that of course he completely rejected the anarchist solution to this problem. And given the open warfare the federal government is about to launch against workers’ organizations, it’s a position perhaps worth revisiting.

When the United States entered World War I, Goldman, like most radicals, was revolted, believing it a capitalist war to divide the world’s profits. In this, they were not exactly wrong. They began acting to resist the draft and the war. The Wilson administration, although the most sympathetic presidential administration to organized labor to date, had no tuck for radicalism. It pressed through Congress a raft of new anti-radical laws. The most famous is the Espionage Act. This is what led to the arrest and imprisonment of Eugene Debs for organizing draft resistance. Goldman was arrested under the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917. She was sentenced to two years in prison, during which she worked as a seamstress and met many other leftist activists sentenced to prison for the same crime. She was released in September 1919. But a very nice young man named J. Edgar Hoover was cutting his teeth in prosecuting radicals. While she was in prison, Congress passed and Wilson signed the Alien Act, which provided for the deportation of any immigration who identified as an anarchist. Hoover had Goldman immediately rearrested under this law, writing of her and Berkman that they “are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm.”

Goldman was an American citizen and thus stated that she did not qualify under this law. But for Hoover, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and other anti-radicals, this did not matter. They were determined to cleanse the nation of scary people who talked about class conflict. She refused to fight what was a lost cause.

Goldman and 248 radical immigrants were deported on December 21, 1919 and sent to the Soviet Union. Goldman was initially optimistic about finding a better society in the there. But like many foreign radicals, she soon became disillusioned over the lack of free speech in the revolutionary state. She supported the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921 and when the Soviet government cracked down, Goldman and Berkman, no longer a couple but still close friends, decided to leave. They first went to Riga and then lived in Berlin for a few years. They were not accepted in Berlin because time had passed them by. With leftists turning to communism as the hope for the future, Goldman’s anti-Soviet message was rejected, while the city’s liberals hated them for being too radical. She left Berkman in Berlin and traveled to London. A local radical married her to stabilize her life and allow her to have a British passport to avoid deportation. Based on this, she traveled to Paris and then settled in Toronto, where she died in 1940.

This is the 203rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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