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Tag: "labor"

Trump and the Labor Department

[ 18 ] February 7, 2017 |

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Tom Perez was probably the most effective Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins. The Department of Labor was unusually integral to promoting a liberal agenda in Obama’s second term. The skies seemed the limit for what might be done. But then the fascist won. To say the least, the culture of the DOL is very depressed right now.

In fact, it could impede the department’s ability to carry out its investigatory duties. Right now—before the freeze has taken its toll—a couple thousand Labor Department investigators are charged with enforcing the laws on wages, pensions and workplace safety on behalf of more than 100 million workers. At the current level of staffing, Lu says, the frequency with which an OSHA investigator is likely to show up at your workplace is probably once every 100 years. “It compromises the safety of workers, compromises workers getting wages,” Lu says. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”

The future of workplace safety looms large in the Obama alums’ concerns. “When OSHA issues a regulation, there’s always controversy and employers who say, ‘we can’t do this.’ And then inevitably they look at the regulation and say, ‘we can do this,’” says Obama’s OSHA director David Michaels. “When OSHA was in process of rulemaking protecting workers in hospitals from blood-borne pathogens, dentists told us that they wouldn’t be able to practice dentistry if they had to wear gloves. How many dentists work without gloves now? Americans have forgotten that the reason there are glove containers in every doctor office is because OSHA requires it. We would never want to go back to that earlier period.”

FURTHERMORE, rumors are swirling about whether parts of the department might just be abolished altogether. A policy proposal from the Heritage Foundation, which has close ties to White House officials, calls for repealing the overtime and conflict-of-interest rules, rolling back Weil’s efforts to root out misclassification, cutting funding for workforce training programs, and completely abolishing the department’s Women’s Bureau, and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. “The [women’s] bureau was created to examine the challenges that uniquely faced women when they entered the workforce,” the report states. “Today, women make up half of the workforce. The challenges facing female employees are now the challenges facing the workforce as a whole.” (It fails to mention that gender pay and hiring gaps persist across nearly every sector of the economy).

The OFCCP is charged with enforcing racial discrimination laws for federal contractors and ensuring that they meet federal Affirmative Action standards. Under Obama, the agency expanded protections to LGBTQ workers, implemented federal contractor hiring goals for disabled workers, and updated gender discrimination rules. The basic principle of the agency is that federal taxpayer dollars must never be used to discriminate, says former Obama OFCCP director Patricia Shiu. “I am concerned about what approach the Trump administration will take to ensure that people across this country not only have jobs, but good jobs. Jobs that are inclusive and reach out to all stripes and colors,” Shiu says. The Heritage paper claims that because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces discrimination laws for all employers, the OFCCP is redundant.

In Congress, Republicans are working to repeal Obama’s Fair Pay, Safe Workplaces order that requires federal contractors to disclose past labor law violations, and labor advocates fear that additional orders that required federal contractors to pay workers at least $10.10 an hour and provide paid sick leave could be on the chopping block, too. Despite reports detailing how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump helped save Obama’s executive order prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination from federal contractors, there’s no such reassurance for the minimum wage or paid sick leave orders The future of the overtime rule, which a federal judge blocked just days before it was supposed to go into effect, is also very much in question. It remains to be seen whether the administration defends the rule in the courts or hangs it out to dry.

But hey, Hillary was the candidate of Goldman Sachs and Trump wouldn’t do what he says he is going to do, right? And I’m sure that the building trades cuddling up to the fascist will totally pay off for them!

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Are Factory Jobs Good Jobs?

[ 105 ] February 6, 2017 |

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No, not unless they are backed up with worker power that ensures a safe workplace, good working conditions, and a decent wage and benefits. It took a century of struggle to make that happen in the United States. Even though industrial unions have been largely crushed in this country, the residual effects of those unions are not reversed overnight. So we talk about good factory jobs today, even in nonunion southern states, because they do tend to pay better than a job in Walmart or McDonald’s. But that’s because unions made them that way and the employers can’t completely reverse that overnight. However, they can slowly reverse it and that brings us to this horrible story out of Alabama, where a dead worker is a window into how everything that made those jobs good is disappearing.

On June 18 2016 — a Saturday — a robot that Elsea was overseeing at the Ajin USA auto parts plant in Cusseta, Alabama, stopped moving. She and three colleagues tried to get it going, stepping inside the cage designed to protect workers from the machine, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When the robot restarted abruptly, Elsea was crushed. She died the next day when she was taken off a life-support machine, with her mother, Angel Ogle, at her side. After an investigation, Osha concluded that the accident that killed Elsea was preventable.

The life and death of Regina Elsea points to a national predicament as President Trump seeks to “make America great again” by increasing industrial employment. With automation on the rise and unionisation on the decline, manufacturing jobs no longer guarantee a secure middle-class life as they often did in the past. Much of the new work is low paid and temporary. Staffing agencies sometimes supply factories with workers who have little training or experience — and who can quickly find themselves in harm’s way.

Elsea’s factory status was indicated by the colour of her clothing. Although she worked at Ajin, a Korean parts maker that supplies Hyundai and Kia and is Chambers County’s largest private employer, Elsea was not an Ajin employee. She wore the blue shirt of Alliance Total Solutions, which along with another labour agency, Joynus Staffing, provides roughly 250 of the nearly 800 workers at the plant.

Starting in early 2016, Elsea worked Mondays to Fridays, her family says. But the demands increased. In her last weeks, she worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, hoping to qualify for a full-time position and an hourly wage of about $12. The only respites were a half-hour for lunch and sometimes an eight-hour shift on Sundays. Otherwise, she was on her feet all day. “She was always tired,” says her mother, who lives near the parts plant. “She would come over here and take her shoes off and I would rub her feet. She said her feet hurt.”

Elsea’s death came less than a year after David Michaels, the assistant US labour secretary for Osha, warned Hyundai and Kia officials during a 2015 visit to Korea about hazardous conditions at their suppliers. Osha records show that accidents at Hyundai and Kia parts makers in Alabama and Georgia in 2015 and 2016 resulted in 12 amputations — one of a worker’s foot, the rest involving all or parts of fingers.

In December, Osha levied a $2.5m penalty against Ajin, accusing it of 23 violations of federal safety rules, most of them “wilful”, in Elsea’s accident. Osha alleged that Ajin failed to put in place the proper controls to prevent machinery from starting up while being serviced or when workers entered robotic cells. Elsea’s family has also filed suit, seeking damages from Ajin and Joynus.

This is the type of job that Trump talks about when he goes MAGA. These aren’t good jobs. They are terrible jobs. They are also the only even halfway decent jobs in the rural South. Because of capital mobility and the inability of unions to organize southern industrial plants (which may be changing but we will see), these jobs are unsafe and they are getting worse, not better. The lack of any real industrial policy in the United States for a half-century combined with the desperation of American blue-collar workers to take anything they can get these days contributes to this situation. There aren’t any easy answers either except to fine the living hell out the suppliers, the subcontractors, and the auto plants who buy supplies from these factories. Of course, that’s not going to Make America Great Again so you can forget that for the next 4 years.

But we need to remember is that there is nothing inherently good about a factory job. What makes any job a “good” job is a union or at least competition with unionized workplaces. Whether it is McDonald’s or Kia suppliers, only a union can protect workers. Promoting union workplaces needs to be the left’s primary goal, not creating specific types of jobs except in areas that already having a union presence that would make their creation automatically a pretty good job.

A General Strike?

[ 56 ] February 6, 2017 |

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There’s been a lot of talk on the left about a general strike in the last 2 weeks. Color me extremely skeptical. It has seemed to me that this is being pushed by people who want to shut shit down and, well, that’s kind of it. I haven’t seen any convincing discussion of tactics or goals and it seems completely disconnected from where the actual working class is in this country. Given where we are at and what we are facing, I am open to the possibility of nearly any tactics, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. If by general strike we mean a bunch of protestors shutting down American’s transportation network and forcing mass arrests, then that’s one thing. If we mean actual workers walking off their jobs, then I think this is totally disconnected from reality. So let me wholeheartedly endorse this Alex Gourevitch essay debunking the idea. As he points out, the history of massive worker resistance in this country has led to arrests, deaths, and repression much more than it has liberation. In fact, that’s really the story of why the American labor movement is so tepid compared to other similar nations–employers and the state generally haven’t combined to bust heads in Europe to nearly the extent as in the U.S. If this is an actual goal, there needs to be A LOT of work done ahead of time. Gourevitch:

In the past, workers stayed out on those strikes, even fighting the state, in part because of dense, historically developed, cultures of solidarity; established traditions of militancy; organized, if not always recognized, unions; and long connections with left-wing organizers. These days, the appetite for fighting the state is next to nil, there is no tested public sympathy for labor actions, and there are no clear organizations standing ready to lead.

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions.

Not to mention, there had better be a recognizable goal. But what is the point of the proposed general strike? To say down with Trump? What, so we can have Pence?

Or is the point just a generalized ‘No’? A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.

On one version, the point of the strike is to affirm a grab-bag of demands: no to the immigration ban, yes to universal health care, no to pipelines, no to global gag rule and, inexplicably, a final demand that Trump reveal his tax returns. These demands show no evidence of thinking about what the immediate interests of workers might actually be – no mention of proposed national right-to-work legislation, $15 minimum wage demands, or even Trump’s terrible Labor Secretary pick. Trump’s nationalist and deeply inegalitarian economic ‘plan’ at least acknowledges the need to address bad employment prospects and stagnant wages.

It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Moreover, even moderately effective general strikes don’t emerge, willy-nilly, like miraculous interventions into national life. They are intensifications and radicalizations of already existing patterns of resistance by the working class. This demand for a general strike looks less like that intensification and more like an attempt to leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work that goes before.

At least some of those arguing for the general strike seem to sense that there is an element of bad faith here. For instance, Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those “who can do so without being fired” should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.

Believe me, I’d love to see a real general strike, a serious attempt at restructuring society, not just lopping the head off the Republican hydra. But there is no royal road to revolution, or even to a true mass movement for social change.

Yes. Also, yes.

The Building Trades

[ 60 ] February 6, 2017 |

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I was very unhappy when the building trades met with Trump and then gloated about the reopening of the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines. So I wrote about it in The New Republic. Basically, the building trades are aligning with the wrong side on issues for the millionth time and their hostility to the rest of the left means no one will care when Trump signs off on eliminating the Davis-Bacon Act. I also place this in the context of how the rise of industrial unions was how the labor movement came to represent the real interests of all working people and how their decimation due to capital mobility means that the building trades once again have outsized power in the labor movement. An excerpt.

Corporations regained their hold over the nation’s politics by decimating the industrial unions. They closed factories, busted unions, and moved jobs overseas.The United Auto Workers is a shell of its former self. The United Steelworkers has tried organizing in different fields, but its numbers have also fallen precipitously. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the descendant of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers, has decent clout with some grocery chains, but has been unable to penetrate Walmart and the other retailers that have transformed the food industry. Most of the old industrial unions—the United Rubber Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and so many others—are gone, along with the jobs.

The broad-based social policies these unions fought for are now in the process of being repealed by an emboldened Republican Party. Public sector unions such as SEIU and AFSCME have filled some of that political vacuum, fighting for health care, higher minimum wages, and other economic justice programs. But the public sector unions are incredibly diverse, ranging from professors to home health care workers. They lack the common working class culture that would be needed to replicate the mass movements of the New Deal era.

As a result, the building trades once again hold an outsized amount of power within the labor movement. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is the most politically progressive labor federation leader in American history, with the possible exception of Reuther, but he is beholden to his constituent unions when shaping policy. He cannot take a strong stand in support of protesters stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline without alienating powerful people like McGarvey and O’Sullivan.

In Rhode Island, where I live, there is currently a major political battle over the siting of a power plant that is to use fracked natural gas and diesel oil. The state’s environmental community has come out in force against this project, urging the state to adopt a clean energy future. LIUNA has not only vigorously supported the project, but its members have also stood outside meetings and openly jeered environmentalists. After the meeting with Trump, labor journalist Cole Stangler recalled a previous conversation in which he asked McGarvey if he was concerned about the environmental impact of fracking. McGarvey said no, and Stangler could hear laughter in the background at the question.

But the trade unions seem incapable of realizing that the Trump administration is not their friend. In the meeting with Trump, they asked him to pledge not to repeal the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. This law requires the federal government to pay contractors a “locally prevailing wage,” as determined by the Department of Labor. It serves to ensure that those workers building American infrastructure are paid a fair wage. Republicans dislike it and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has introduced a bill to overturn the law. Trump will almost certainly sign this bill. Trump has routinely refused to pay the contractors he has hired, and has never supported unions except when they can help him. Sadly, the building trades believe that supporting Trump’s projects will pay off for them.

The repeal of Davis-Bacon will be sad. It will hurt workers and hurt unions. On the other hand, what have the building trades ever done for any other progressive group? With some exceptions, the trades have failed to understand the value of solidarity. In doing so, they are facing a situation in which they will have few allies in the fight to keep Davis-Bacon in place. Their short-sightedness is even greater considering the Muslim ban the Trump administration imposed last week. Any organization not fighting for our most vulnerable residents will not receive support from the left for its own goals.

And yes, it is nice to be at the point in my life where something can make me mad and then I can write about it in a magazine. Perhaps I can start writing New York Times op-eds about ketchup next.

The Government Workers’ Revolt

[ 60 ] February 5, 2017 |

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It’s not only State Department workers revolting against Herr Trump. Labor Department workers are doing the same.

You can now add the Labor Department to the growing list of US government agencies where workers are speaking out against their new leadership.

Politico’s “Morning Shift” newsletter reports today that “current and former” Labor Department employees are circulating and adding their names to an open letter asking the Senate not to confirm Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary. (It’s unclear how many signatures the letter has at this point.) Puzder, you may recall, is coming directly from a position as the CEO of Hardees and Carl’s Jr., where he became famous for speaking out against wage increases and hailing the coming of automation that would reduce his own human work force. Now, the very people he would supervise if he gets confirmed are speaking out against his business practices, his treatment of his own employees, and even his personal conduct.

Puzder is a truly reprehensible human being, whose nomination may legitimately be in doubt given how slow he has gone in preparing even basic records to pass on to Congress and his reputed dissatisfaction with having to go through a confirmation procedure. But if he is confirmed, I’m sure he and the rest of this New Gilded Age crew will seek to sweep out the Labor Department and replace these people with cronies and hacks. Of course, the people signing the letter see the writing on the wall and evidently are going to go out with principles instead of meekly. And this kind of internal pushback is great and a critical part of the larger protest over the rise of fascism.

That’s an open act of insubordination that will likely get all these people fired, as the Trump administration joins the rest of the Republican Party in legalizing corruption and turning the Pendleton Civil Service Act moot.

The State of the Unions

[ 12 ] January 27, 2017 |

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Predictably terrible! The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its annual report on union density. And who knows, maybe for the last time as the Trump administration continues its war on information. Anyway, the Center for Economic Policy and Research put together a report summarizing it. And union density continues to decline, sometimes by up to 2 percent in some states. Obama’s labor record as far as within the Department of Labor was pretty solid, but all of that meant nearly nothing for actually organizing unions. But hey, Trump named a new NLRB chair and I’m sure that will help!

Building Trades Allow Themselves to Be Played Like Fools

[ 168 ] January 24, 2017 |

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Emperor Tangerine invited the building trade union leaders in for a meeting yesterday and boy were they excited.

At a meeting with the leaders of several construction and building trade unions, President Trump reiterated on Monday his interest in directing hundreds of billions of dollars to infrastructure investments, some of it from the federal government, union officials said.

“That was the impression I was taken away with,” said Sean McGarvey, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, an umbrella group, on a call with reporters after the meeting. “That the American citizenry and the American Treasury will be invested in building public infrastructure.”

Mr. McGarvey added that Mr. Trump clearly felt that much of the money should come from the private sector and that some of the investments could take the form of public-private partnerships, an idea the president floated as a candidate.

The meeting included roughly half a dozen union leaders and a similar number of rank-and-file members, as well as senior White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence; Reince Priebus, the chief of staff; Katie Walsh, the deputy chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist; Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor; and Sean Spicer, the press secretary. It took place in the White House and ran for well over an hour.

The presence of so many senior aides suggests that the Trump administration sees a political rationale to courting the building trade unions, many of whose members appear to have voted for Mr. Trump last fall.

“We have a common bond with the president,” Mr. McGarvey said. “We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

Mr. O’Sullivan was previously the chief executive of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company, and he said that during his tenure there the company invested in some of Mr. Trump’s projects and had a good relationship with him.

Mr. McGarvey said he worked on a Trump project in Atlantic City in the early 1990s and had always been grateful for the work. “It was the middle of a recession; no one had jobs,” he said. “He made investments to expand at the time Trump Plaza. I got that job after being unemployed for six months.”

The two union leaders said they had discussed a number of specific projects with the president and his aides, including the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export and storage facility in Oregon. More broadly, they discussed possible investments in building and repairing bridges, schools and hospitals.

Certain projects, like the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, have divided the labor movement, with the building trades supporting them as a source of jobs with good pay, and other unions, like the Service Employees International Union, opposing them on environmental grounds, and out of concern for desecrating sacred Native American lands.

The shorter version of this is that Trump is going to undo Obama’s decision on the Dakota Access Pipeline and run it right down those savage Indians’ throats. And nothing would make Terry O’Sullivan more excited. Because JOBS!!!! The type of job, irrelevant. Do the Laborers or the other building trades have nonwhite members? Yes they do. Does McGarvey or O’Sullivan prioritize the civil rights of those members? Evidently not. Do they prioritize a livable planet? No. Do they think they need allies in the rest of the labor movement or the broader left movement? No. Do they wish it was 1910 again? Yes. Do they hate hippies? Yes. Do they have tremendous power within the AFL-CIO? Yes, very much so. Are they acting in their members’ best interests? No. Do their members see it that way? Largely, no.

And then there’s this:

At the meeting, Mr. McGarvey raised one point of possible discord between the labor leaders and the Trump administration: the so-called Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the federal government to pay contractors and subcontractors “locally prevailing wages,” as determined by the Labor Department, on most construction or renovation projects.

Many conservatives contend that the act inflates the cost of infrastructure projects, and on Tuesday, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, is proposing a bill to suspend it for federal highway construction contracts.

Mr. McGarvey said he had told Mr. Trump that Mr. Flake’s bill would undercut wages and undermine the president’s campaign goal of producing good middle-class jobs.

The president was noncommittal in response, he said. “He said he knows the Davis-Bacon proposal well, understands how it works,” Mr. McGarvey said, but avoided taking a position.

In other words, my offer to you is nothing.

The building trades are going to have no influence on issues that matter even to their most backward-looking leadership. Davis-Bacon is going to get destroyed. And they will still vote for Trump in 2020.

There’s a few things going on here that are important for us to understand. First, if the Democratic Party or the left wants to “solve the white working class problem,” there’s a case study we can focus on. It’s called “solving the LIUNA problem.” The old adage about the Laborers is that they would build their own prisons if they got union scale to do so. Terry O’Sullivan has been an absolute dinosaur on climate issues, bullying other unions into not saying anything about climate change or other environmental issues. No one in the labor union has done more to damage relationships with the progressive community in recent years. But then these are the white working-class people Democrats need to reach to win those critical Midwestern states. Can they? Rather than focus on this in the big picture, can they win LIUNA members and other building trades members?

The difficulty of figuring this out is the difficulty of the white working class issue generally, which is the enormous cultural baggage that gets in the way of cross-movement alliances over the last few decades. A good bit of the intense focus on DAPL and Keystone is that these workers hate hippies. They see themselves as the working “real Americans” and anyone who gets in the way of that is their enemy. There is no question that environmentalists have failed to reach out to these unions effectively, and it’s a must that they create a union-centered program of green energy infrastructure. That has to be part of solving the LIUNA problem. But there are deep cultural divides here–many of these rank and file members want to see immigrants kicked out, Muslims kicked out, gay rights repealed, etc. That might be expected–it’s not like that’s not the case in every union. The problem is that McGarvey and O’Sullivan and some of these other union leaders aren’t trying to educate their workers on these issues. Instead they are encouraging them to see this as a culture war. Right now in Rhode Island, there’s a battle over whether a gas liquefaction plant will be built. At a recent city council meeting debating it, LIUNA members were outside jeering environmentalists as they walked in. That’s incredibly counterproductive.

On top of this is the fact that the changing makeup of the union movement has reinforced the power of the building trades. One of the impacts of deindustrialization and capital mobility was the decimation of the industrial unions. It was always those unions who pushed for the widespread social democratic policies that typified the New Deal and Great Society. The building trades never played an important role in the New Deal coalition and they have never articulated big social policy. But with the UAW and USWA shells of what they once were and many of the other unions like the International Woodworkers of America no more, the building trades have become more powerful within the labor movement than any time since the creation of the CIO. The public sector unions have countered this to some extent, but with SEIU out of the federation, their ability to do so is more limited. Richard Trumka is, with the exception of Walter Reuther, by far the most politically progressive labor federation leader in American history. But he can only do so much when so much of his membership is made up of very conservative building trdes.

The other thing to note is that it’s pretty clear at this point that many of the building trade leaders would have no problem returning to the labor movement of the late 19th century, where you had tiny numbers of union members in the skilled trades with no impact on government and the vast masses of workers unorganized. I don’t see how they see this as good for them, but by meeting with Trump, they are basically endorsing this position. And you can see it from the look on Trump’s face. They are being played for fools. And they largely are fools.

This Day in Labor History: January 20, 1920

[ 10 ] January 20, 2017 |

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On January 20, 1920, Filipino sugar workers on Oahu, Hawaii, went on strike to demand higher pay. Japanese workers soon joined them and this multiracial strike led to minimal victory for workers and, even rarer, a cross-racial strike with significant solidarity that helped create that victory.

Hawaii became a target of U.S. imperialism from almost the moment that American missionaries arrived there in the early 19th century. Often from middle class families from the Northeast with close ties to early industrialism, the missionaries wrote home to their families, suggesting they invest in Hawaii. Soon, capitalists like Sanford Dole were dominating the Hawaiian economy, leading to declining power for the Hawaiian monarchy, the displacement of the islands’ indigenous people, and the growth of American imperialism. After the Civil War, the move to get the U.S. government to annex Hawaii grew. In 1893, the planters overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and assumed they would become part of the U.S. But Grover Cleveland opposed annexation and so they had to wait until William McKinley became president. Finally, Hawaii became an American colony in 1898.

All of this required a much larger labor force than the indigenous Hawaiians could provide. So labor contractors began to look abroad to import labor. At the same time, thousands of Japanese were migrating to the United States. Many of them ended up in Hawaii working in the sugar plantations. The Filipinos, which had no tradition of migration to the U.S. while it was a Spanish colony, became a major target for agricultural contractors, especially after the combination of whites in California freaking out about Japanese immigration combined with Japanese imperial ambitions to shut off Japanese migration with the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907. With the Chinese Exclusion Act ensuring that no Chinese came into the U.S., west coast and Hawaiian farmers looked to the Philippines for their new source of cheap Asian labor. Smaller numbers of Portuguese also arrived to work in the sugar fields, and native-born Hawaiians also worked there, as well as small numbers of Chinese, Spaniards, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Koreans.

Conditions on the plantations were hard. Until 1900, many of the workers were prisoners. There were also disparate wage rates due to race, with Portuguese and Puerto Ricans receiving higher wages than the Japanese. There was a 1909 strike by the Japanese workers for equal wages. It was after this that the planters started actively recruiting the Filipinos. Workers were often not paid their wages until after the harvest, a common tactic used to reduce labor mobility.

The polyglot plantations worked well for the planters. With the workers divided by ethnicity, cross-racial solidarity, not to mention basic communication, was hard. When one group went on strike, the others were there to use as strikebreakers. But during World War I, conditions got worse. Rising prices because of the war without rising wages led to widespread destitution among the workers. The Filipinos and Japanese began to organize together, although in separate organizations. But by late 1919, the Filipino Labor Union and the Federation of Japanese Labor were working closely together. Led by Pablo Manlapit, a plantation worker who had arrived in Hawaii in 1910, the Filipinos realized they would not succeed without uniting with the Japanese. The Filipinos led the strike, walking out on January 20. The Japanese followed on February 1, although many Japanese workers struck earlier. They demanded wage hikes, an 8-hour day, and regular bonus payments for higher production that would pay 75 percent of it each month, with only 25 percent withheld until the end of the harvest. The planters did grant them the bonus plan but refused to address the other conditions. The workers had already decided that if the planters did not meet all their demands, they would strike. Soon, there were 8300 workers on strike. About 5000 were Japanese and 3000 Filipinos, with 300 from the other nationalities.

The planters responded by evicting everyone from their company houses, over 12,000 Filipinos, of which over 4000 were children. By this time, the Japanese generally lived in independent housing.The Japanese were better prepared for the strike as the union had built up a fairly sizable savings to buy food. The Filipinos assumed their community would feed the strikers but that did not work out well. The Japanese then used their money to help the Filipinos, another example of the cross-racial solidarity that marked this strike. To make things worse, the Spanish Flu whipped through the strike, affecting a lot more people than it usually would have because they were in crowded conditions in tents. About 140 strikers died during the strike.

It was a hard strike. Whites worked with Japanese elites to attempt to undermine the strike. Happening during the Red Scare, the U.S. government worried about radical communist agendas and red-baited the strikers, as well as fearing it as an extension of growing Japanese imperialism that threatened their own imperialist possessions. They tried to split the workers. Rev. Albert Palmer, leader of the anti-strike movement, called it, “a nationalistic Japanese movement, using the Filipinos as tools, but aiming at Japanese control of the sugar industry and the islands.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin called for racial revenge, writing “Americans do not take kindly to the spectacle of several thousand alien Asiatics parading through the streets with banners flaunting their hatred of Americanism and American institutions and insulting the memory of the greatest American president since Washington.” Said banners had pictures of Abraham Lincoln, as the strikers were claiming Americanism for themselves and comparing themselves with black slaves. Manlapit did call for an end to the Filipino strike on February 9. Perhaps he was bribed. But the rank and file stayed out on strike. About 1000 of the strikers eventually went back to work. And the planters were able to hire 2000 strikebreakers. Still, they lost $12 million during the strike.

The workers finally won the strike on July 1, when the planters agreed to a 50 percent pay raise and greater benefits, although the full pay and benefits would not start for another six months, leading to disappointment to many workers. And in fact, it was only a moderate victory for the workers, as they were suffering serious losses in morale and in keeping labor out of the fields after April 1. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable strike among people who had not worked together in the past.

I borrowed from Moon-Ho Jung, “Revolutionary Currents: Interracial Solidarities, Imperial Japan, and the U.S. Empire,” in Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor & United States Imperialism, in the writing of this post.

This is the 207th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Modern Day Yellow Dog

[ 26 ] January 17, 2017 |

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The yellow dog contract was common in early 20th century work. These entailed employers forcing workers to sign a contract that explicitly stated they could not join a union as a condition of employment. In the 1915 case of Coppage v. Kansas, the Gilded Age Supreme Court ruled this legal. Finally in 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act banned them.

The New Gilded Age Supreme Court has decided to take up the modern version of this, the binding arbitration contract.

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether companies can use employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues.

The court accepted three cases on the subject. They follow a series of Supreme Court decisions endorsing similar provisions, generally in contracts with consumers. The question for the justices in the new cases is whether the same principles apply to employment contracts.

In both settings, the challenged contracts typically require two things: that disputes be raised through the informal mechanism of arbitration rather than in court and that claims be brought one by one. That makes it hard to pursue minor claims that affect many people, whether in class actions or in mass arbitrations.

I think we know where this is going and why Merrick Garland is not on the Supreme Court. Republicans saw a real threat to their plan to bring us back to the Gilded Age. And they were going to stop at nothing to kill that threat, ranging from unprecedented destruction of norms concerning confirming justices to approving of massive Russian interference in our election to allow Emperor Tangerine to take the throne despite his massive lawbreaking and impeachable offenses.

If the Roberts court, presumably up to 5 members thanks to Trump outsourcing his selections to Jim DeMint by the time oral arguments occur, there is almost no way it does not rule in favor of employers. To do so would take away one of the only tools workers have without unions to ensure some sort of rights on the job. Forcing mandatory arbitration returns the workplace to the Lochner era of the Gilded Age, where workers and employers were legally assumed to be equals in power on the job, inevitably resulting in the utter crushing of workers. Going back to this point is not the policy of Donald Trump. It’s the policy of the entire Republican Party.

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.

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.

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