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Tag: "labor"

The Return of a Racist Union Movement

[ 26 ] March 9, 2017 |

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The relationship between organized labor and immigration is complicated, to say the least. For many decades, far too long, the labor movement was outright opposed to immigration, partially on the ground of a higher population undermining wages and partly on the grounds of whiteness. In recent decades, that has changed fairly significantly. The United Farm Workers, even if it had very little real impact on the lives of workers in the end, helped start that. The growth of immigrant workers in unions such as UNITE-HERE and SEIU made some of our largest labor organizations also some of our largest immigrant rights organizations. This moved the AFL-CIO into supporting smart, sane, humanitarian immigration policy. But of course the AFL-CIO is a complex maelstrom of a lot of organizations. With the decline of the industrial unions, the building trades have reasserted a lot of authority within the labor movement. And while some of the building trades, especially at the local level in immigrant-heavy places, have embraced a diverse workforce, at the international level and in many, many locals, the old desire to keep America white is still very strong.

This helps us understand why many of the building trades have embraced Trump. It’s not just about pipeline construction. It’s about Make America White Again. One of those unions is the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, long one of the most politically conservative unions in the United States. In fact, it did not endorse a Democrat for the presidency until LBJ and while it was technically non-partisan before that, everyone knew that the Hutcheson dynasty that ruled the UBC for generations openly lobbied for Republicans. The actions of Carpenters leaders in Buffalo concerning immigrant workers are, to say the least, highly disturbing and must be denounced by the rest of the labor movement.

Federal agents are not the only ones trying to remove people from the Buffalo area who have entered the country illegally.

If Bill Bing, a carpenters union official, discovers that undocumented immigrants are working at a local construction project, the union tips off authorities.

That information has led to some raids and arrests, he said, although the detention last month of 32 individuals suspected of being in the country illegally and working at projects was not his tip.

“We were not directly responsible for the information on those two raids,” said Bing, the local representative for the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters.

Bing said he is glad to see the enforcement of immigration laws and makes no apologies for when he or other union members tip off federal and state authorities.
The jobs should go to American citizens and that it is not a union-versus-nonunion issue, he said.

“There are very good local union and nonunion contractors who suffer the fallout from dirty business,” Bing said. “This directly affects area living standards, not to mention the tax dollars New York State, Erie County and the local municipalities don’t and won’t see.”

Other trade unions, he said, tip off authorities, “but they are not as proactive as we are. The carpenters union devotes a lot of money and resources to this.”

But even as the uniond supply tips, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say there have been numerous false reports of federal officers conducting law enforcement actions against immigrants.

“Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible,” said Khaalid H. Walls, an ICE spokesman. “These reports create mass panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger,” Walls said. “Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support.”

And how do these random Carpenters members in Buffalo know that a worker is undocumented? The don’t, of course. What they see is a brown-skinned person speaking Spanish. What more evidence do they need? How many people here with documentation are also being harassed by our proto-fascist immigration officials because of openly racist union members?

This is why, as I said in this piece for The New Republic, no one on the left is going to care when Trump signs a bill repealing Davis-Bacon. Even other parts of the labor movement aren’t going to care. Why would SEIU go to bat for the Carpenters over an issue that does not affect them when the Carpenters turn workers into ICE, the American Gestapo, for deportation? They won’t. Losing Davis-Bacon will decimate the building trades as so much of their work is contracted through the government. But that won’t get in the way of their whiteness campaign. I know there are good people inside the Carpenters who disagree with these sorts of policies. But until the international comes out and disciplines local leaders who engage in open racism and until the Carpenters commits itself to alliances with other groups who also care about better lives for workers, the whole union has to be held responsible for actions like what is happening in Buffalo. None of this is to say that contractors aren’t using undocumented workers to avoid using union crews. Of course they are. But the response of the Carpenters needs to be organizing these workers and hiring Spanish-speakers to work in those communities, not seeking to get them thrown out of the country.

Kicking the Chinese out of California in 1882 did not lead to a strong union California and kicking the Mexicans out of Buffalo in 2017 won’t lead to a union town either. The problems are much deeper than immigrant competition. Recognizing and acting upon that fact is the first step to an inclusive labor movement.

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This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1932

[ 12 ] March 1, 2017 |

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On March 1, 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act passed the Senate by a 75-5 vote and was signed by President Herbert Hoover a few days later. This critical act outlawing some of the most loathsome tactics used by employers against workers laid the groundwork for the rapid growth of labor rights over the next several years.

In the Lochner era, a misnomer that uses a single court case to represent a doctrine of work that had already existed for more than a half-century before that 1905 decision, there was a widespread belief in the sanctity of the contract between employers and workers. In other words, if a worker agreed to work on a job, it was inherently implied that said worker agreed to the conditions of work the employer set. If the employer created conditions where the worker did not want to sell his or her labor, that worker could quit. Of course, this completely ignored power dynamics. The idea that a single worker in the Gilded Age held equal power as the employer was beyond absurd. But employers and politicians held on to this ideology with great tenacity. In the years after Lochner, it began to be chipped away, such as the Mueller case, where the Supreme Court revised Lochner to create exceptions for some women workers. But the overall framework held strong well into the 1920s. Courts routinely ruled that unions were unlawful combinations and that strikers were illegal conspiracies that halted interstate commerce, while of course allowing monopolies to do whatever they wanted in ways that actually were unlawful combinations and illegal conspiracies to limit interstate commerce except in ways that helped corporate bottom lines.

One of the ways that employers took advantage of this ideology was the so-called “yellow-dog contract.” This made it a condition of employment that a worker not be a union member. This was an outrage for both workers and for the Populist movements that had briefly taken power in many states during the late 19th and early 20th century and outlawed them. New York was the first, in 1887. Congress did the same nationally, at least for railroad workers, with the Erdman Act of 1898. The Supreme Court routinely struck against these laws. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Coppage v. Kansas that a Kansas law banning the yellow-dog contract was unconstitutional. In 1917, the Supreme Court, in Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell, expanded upon the previous decision, ruling that yellow-dog contracts were enforceable by law. This disgusted not only labor activists but a lot of Progressives, who believed that unions should at least be legal, even if they did not believe in the closed shop or other elements of labor solidarity.

After Hitchman and in the wake of the Red Scare shortly to follow, employers increased their use of the yellow-dog contracts and their political opposition grew. Moreover, aggressive uses of injunctions, also increased by Hitchman, led to courts effectively outlawing the United Mine Workers in West Virginia. By the late 1920s, the movement against the yellow-dog contract had grown. In 1930, the Senate rejected Hoover’s nomination of John Parker to the Supreme Court because he had upheld yellow-dog contracts as a judge. As the Great Depression deepened and the overwhelming demands of workers for dignity became impossible to ignore, the momentum for labor law reform became hard to stop. This wasn’t per se because of a great rush to support unions, but rather because the yellow-dog seemed an anachronism of the violent anti-union days that the middle-class of the 1920s, much more interested in soft anti-union power such as company unionism, increasingly found embarrassing. Behind this reform was two of the great progressive Republicans of the period, Nebraska senator George Norris and New York congressman Fiorello LaGuardia. The roots of the bill came in the late 1920s, as pro-labor senators used language coming recent court cases, including from William Howard Taft, that noted the contract ideology that dominated the workplace made no sense when government and business combined to make the idea that workers and employers had equal power in agreeing to work completely antiquated, even as it in fact had been for many decades by this point. Said Harvard labor economist Carroll Daughtery in the Harvard Business Review yellow-dog contracts were “among the greatest strongholds of individualism” in an America where the economic reality made laissez-faire individualism “outmoded and outworn.” The final bill outlawed the yellow-dog contract, established the principle that unions are free to form without employer interference (although it had no real enforcement mechanism for that principle), and prevented federal courts from issuing injunctions in nonviolent labor strikes, which had been a classic strategy of employers to bust their unions in the past half-century.

Organized labor was somewhat ambivalent about Norris-LaGuardia because it undermined the voluntary nature of unionism that had been dear to craft unionists since the 19th century. American Federation of Labor-affiliated unions saw themselves as private, volunteer organizations outside of government regulation. Norris-LaGuardia bean to change that in ways that would become much stronger in a few years. 1932 was a major year of transition for the AFL around these issues. It was only in that year when union leaders faced a rank and file revolt over unemployment insurance that the AFL finally came around to endorsing even a program that would directly help its members because it reeked of government involvement with unions. It did ultimately support Norris-LaGuardia, even though it wanted greater protection from injunctions than the bill provided. AFL head William Green testified for the need to eliminate the yellow-dog. Business of course opposed the bill.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act was a law passed at a time when the federal government was still in a nascent period of reform and when the discomfort with much government interference in the economy was still strongly felt in both parties. It would take much, much more, including strikes, the murder of workers, and groundbreaking labor law within a new conception of the state, to create real rights for workers in the United States. However, Norris-LaGuardia is a key early moment in this struggle.

Norris-LaGuardia only applied to private sector workers. Government workers, especially teachers, were forced to sign yellow dog contracts into the 1960s and it was only when the government opened up the public sector to organizing that this finally ended. Much of the anti-injunction power of the bill was regained by employers with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

I borrowed a bit of this post from Ruth O’Brien’s Workers’ Paradox: The Republican Origins of New Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935 as well as from Daniel Ernst, “The Yellow-Dog Contract and Liberal Reform, 1917-1932,” published in Labor History in 1989.

This is the 211th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Trump’s Appeal to the Working Class

[ 417 ] February 18, 2017 |

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I would hope that the horrors of Trump would have moved workers against this anti-worker fascist president who attempts to name utterly horrible humans as Secretary of Labor. But with the Democratic Party having no answer on industrial jobs, if anything, even more union members are finding him appealing.

Mr. Trump summoned the heads of the building and construction trade unions, most of which supported Mrs. Clinton, to discuss infrastructure spending three days after his inauguration. “It was a substantial meeting about good middle-class jobs,” said Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, adding that Mr. Trump was the first president to invite him to the Oval Office.

Some of Mr. Trump’s other early moves, like his presidential memorandums giving the go-ahead to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and his announcement that he would quickly seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, were clearly conceived with a similar objective.

They appear to have had the desired effect. Dennis Williams, head of the United Auto Workers union, which endorsed Mrs. Clinton, has professed eagerness to meet with Mr. Trump to discuss how they might undo Nafta and protect American jobs.

“He’s the first president that has addressed this issue, and I’m going to give him kudos for that,” Mr. Williams said at a round-table discussion with reporters in Detroit on Thursday.

Other unions may also have reason to do business with the White House. Consider the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which also endorsed Mrs. Clinton. Some portion of the union, namely its freight railroad workers, is heavily dependent on coal, and union officials say members in that sector voted heavily for Mr. Trump because he refused to foreclose on its role in the national economy.

If you need work or you see a recent past where you had more economic security than you have now (which is probably not a myth), it’s pretty easy to see why you might not pay attention to any of the facts that Trump is your enemy and embrace the idea of building a border wall, of building infrastructure in projects corrupt and ineffectual, of wanting to see pipelines built.

There’s no way around it–this is a response to the utter failure of Democrats to have a real jobs program for working people. As I have said for a very long time, people want WORK. They want jobs. Americans wrap dignity up in work. The lack of work is embarrassing. This isn’t new. The Great Depression and 25 percent unemployment didn’t lead the U.S. working class toward revolutionary ideology. It led them to leave their families and live in shame. Democrats became the party of the working class because they promised and delivered on jobs and then on working class security through the FHA, the GI Bill, and other core legislation of the postwar period that turned the white working class into the middle class, while offering the black working class at least more than the Republicans did.

The Democrats however embraced capital mobility and the growth of financial capitalism with a gusto nearly that of Republicans. Beginning under Carter and then Clinton and Obama, they never had a good answer for the working class. Job retraining for lower-paying jobs, reeducation assistance, and telling people to move to Texas are not answers. Economic destabilization makes both racialized nationalism and lies about job creation increasingly appealing to the white working class. Until we have answers about how there are going to be good jobs for people in the places where they live, we are really going to struggle holding on to the union members still voting for Democrats, especially the white ones, many of whom live in states that Democrats narrowly lost in 2016.

Another Union Loss in the South

[ 58 ] February 18, 2017 |

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The International Association of Machinists had hopes to organize Boeing’s plant in South Carolina, which exists precisely because Boeing executives wanted to bust the unions in their Seattle plants. It did not end well.

Organizers with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers failed to persuade a majority of about 3,000 union-eligible Boeing workers in the state to vote for the union amid enormous pressure from management.

Boeing said 74 percent of the more than 2,800 workers voting rejected the union.

Many analysts say that Boeing decided to put its second Dreamliner aircraft assembly line in the state to reduce the leverage of the machinists’ union, which represents Boeing’s work force in the Puget Sound region of Washington State and has used work stoppages to exact concessions from the company in the past. South Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country.

Hoyt N. Wheeler, an emeritus professor of business at the University of South Carolina who taught labor relations and employment law, said in an interview before the vote that a victory would be “highly significant” because “one of Boeing’s motivations for coming to South Carolina was to escape the union.”

The election took on added significance because of the emphasis President Trump has placed on domestic manufacturing, and on Boeing in particular. The president has called out the company over the cost of the new Air Force One program it is developing, and he recently sought to pit Boeing against Lockheed Martin to hold down the cost of the F-35 fighter jet.

74 percent. Holy moly. That’s not even close. I’m surprised the IAM even went to a vote with that low level of support. There is some speculation that it’s because they fear Trump NLRB appointees. And they had already canceled one vote. So I guess they had to go through with it.

Organizers who work in the South hate to hear this, but the reality is that the South is basically impossible to organize on a large scale. It has always been thus. The failures of the textile strike of 1934, Operation Dixie in 1946, the UAW campaigns of the 1990s, the Volkswagen vote in 2014. Again and again, large-scale organizing has failed in the South. This has been one of the core defining issues of the American labor movement. Southern white workers resist unions. Employers started moving down there quite explicitly because of not only the lack of a union tradition, but traditions of white solidarity that would divide workforces and long traditions of paternalism. From the moment unions started to organize in the South, they were portrayed as scary outsiders, first often as Jews and communists, then as black institutions that would destroy the South.

There simply is no good answer for this. Until the American labor movement can organize the South, it can’t become a force again. But given that it has never been able to organize the South, there’s not any real hope that they will succeed. It’s a heck of a problem. And the problem is most accurately portrayed, as it has always been, that the white working class chooses racial solidarity over class solidarity over and over again.

General Strikes

[ 6 ] February 16, 2017 |

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I have an interview in the Denver-based publication Denverite, presumably in no way connected to our Bronco fan commenter, about this idea of general strikes. Again, I’m skeptical.

Erik Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and his areas of study include the American labor movement.

The first thing he told me is that he’s pretty skeptical about Friday’s general strike, in large part because it’s directed by activists and radicals, not workers, and doesn’t seem connected to existing worker movements.

“They seem to be saying, ‘Let’s shut things down,’ because that’s what they want to do anyway,” he said.

Loomis wrote about the most famous American general strikes — in Seattle in 1919 and in Oakland in 1946 — for In These Times back in 2011 when Occupy Oakland was calling for a general strike. Both of those strikes were incredibly threatening to people in power and were crushed. The Oakland strike started with a strike by department store clerks for better wages and working conditions, and in December of that year, members of the typically more conservative American Federation of Labor joined them.

AFL workers from 142 unions around Oakland walked off their jobs — bus drivers, teamsters, sailors, machinists, cannery workers, railroad porters, waiters, waitresses, cooks. For over two days, Oakland shut down. Over 100,000 workers participated in the strike.

The strikers controlled Oakland. All businesses except for pharmacies and food markets shut down. Bars could stay open but could only serve beer and had to put their juke boxes outside and allow for their free use. Couples literally danced in the streets. Recently returned war veterans created squadrons to prepare for battle. Union leadership took a back seat to rank and file actions.

Loomis said the term “general strike” calls up radicalism, but the goals of the Oakland strike were not particularly extreme. They wanted the department stores to meet the demands of the striking clerks, and they also wanted to break the Republican political machine that controlled Oakland at the time, which had close ties to the department store owners.

On the other hand:

On Monday, thousands of people in Milwaukee held a “Day without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees” rally to protest immigration crackdowns by Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., an outspoken supporter of the president. People then called for a national “Day without Immigrants” shutdown on Thursday, with immigrants, regardless of legal status, staying home from work and school, not opening their businesses and not spending money in any way.

Dozens of prominent restaurants in Washington, D.C., plan to close. In Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Austin and other cities, workers have said they’ll stay home, and restaurant owners are closing their doors out of necessity but also solidarity for their largely immigrant workforce.

There’s not a lot of evidence online of immigrants in Denver planning to participate, and a few activists I spoke to hadn’t heard much either. But it’s also not the kind of thing that requires a Facebook group to organize. So we’ll just have to see what happens today.

Loomis said this protest — if a lot of people participate — would have more in common with a general strike than the events calling themselves general strikes.

Why?

“The workers themselves are leading it,” he said.

Immigrants as a group share common interests and common vulnerabilities, and working together to make the impact of their absence felt, they have collective power, Loomis said.

“It’s very organic,” he said. “It’s very real to those workers. They’re saying this is an expression of our power and our interest. It’s not a bunch of radicals telling people what to do.”

Iowa Public Safety Union Solidarity

[ 26 ] February 14, 2017 |

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When Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans pushed through their draconian anti-public union law, one of the ways they succeeded is to cleave the police and firefighter unions off of the other public sector unions. This is the also the plan in Iowa. But the Iowa cops and firefighters aren’t going to play the patsy, even though they are as conservative as other cops and firefighters.

And although the legislation would exempt public safety workers like firefighters and police officers from some of the law’s broadest changes, many public safety workers showed up in uniform and rallied alongside the hundreds of other union workers who filled the Capitol.

“It’s not very popular to attack us these days,” said Jon Thomas, a police officer and a member of Teamsters Local 238. “I’m a Republican. I have very conservative values. Most of my coworkers in public safety are Republicans, and there’s plenty of union members who are Republicans. But we didn’t vote to get stabbed in the back while we protect and serve our communities. … The truth is, though, police and fire don’t want (to be) carved out. We stand with our teachers, our snow plow drivers, our public works personnel, our correctional officers and nurses.”

Of course, this is just one officer who is mentioned and I don’t know how deep the police support for resisting this is. But the bill itself is truly horrible, a Wisconsin level that would only allow bargaining over wages. Given how states work, where wages are often the one thing that public sector unions can’t really bargain over, this is the death knell of public unionism in Iowa. And that’s of course the point.

Say what you want about any police officer who votes Republican and then is outraged by Republicans doing what they say they will do, they aren’t any more low information voters than most other voters. The point is to pressure these politicians not to do this. We want the police on our side for this. Stripping the police of collective bargaining rights, as has been the response on much of the left to racist police violence isn’t going to help stop said racist police violence and will take away the one possible path of solidarity between the police and the left.

This Day in Labor History: February 14, 1940

[ 8 ] February 14, 2017 |

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On February 14, 1940, a group of Navajos named Scott Preston, Julius Begay, Frank Goldtooth, and Judge Many Children wrote a letter of protest to their congressman, John Murdock of Arizona, against the livestock reduction program pressed upon them by Commission of Indian Affairs head John Collier. Noting how the program would radically transform their economy, driving them into greater poverty, they wrote, in part:

The Navajo Indians are not opposed to grazing permits as such, in fact we believe they heartily approve them if the manner of issuance is fair and the limits are sufficiently high to permit the family to exist.

For instance, in our own district (No.3) the sheep unit is set at 282. If a person has 5 horses, that would be the equivalent to 25 sheep; 1 head of cattle is the equivalent of 4 sheep. A Navajo family will consume 150 head of sheep or more per year depending on the size of the family. In addition to this amount, it is necessary to sell for their staples enough to keep the family from starvation. Then each family must be prepared to meet natural losses. We understand the families with smaller than the maximum are not permitted to raise that limit, but those above must be reduced.

282 sheep units is not sufficient for even the bare existence of a moderate size Navajo family without additional income, and such a policy will mean the impoverishment of the entire Navajo tribe.

The creation of Navajo sheep culture was already a response to the forced transformation of Navajo work culture around raiding and hunting in the face of white domination in 1860s, a phenomenon faced by many tribes during these years. Many tribes faced allotment under the Dawes Act, forced into small farming economies they were not equipped for and losing their lands to whites as part of the larger strategy to dispossess indigenous people of their land, culture, and work traditions.

The Navajo had begun integrating sheep into their work culture in 1598, as Spanish flocks wandered north out of Mexico into what is today the American Southwest, along with other domesticated animals that transformed what was possible for Native American life. While sheep and weaving became very important to Navajo life, it was originally another animal, the horse, that primarily redefined their work culture. Engaging heavily in raiding well into New Mexico, where they, along with the Comanches, made the Spanish colony and then Mexico, as well as the Puebloan peoples who lived there, reside in constant fear, the U.S. put a stop to this when, in 1864, the Navajo were rounded up and forced on the Long March to the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. There they were dumped for four years and about 25 percent of the population died. Reports of the conditions at the Bosque Redondo went public at the same time that the nation was engaging in Reconstruction and there was enough outrage in that rare moment when white Americans cared enough about people of color to do something to help that the Navajo were allowed to return to a large chunk of their lands, in no small part because it seemed to have no economic value to whites. But in doing so, they had to give up their raiding and horse culture ways. Sheep and weaving became ever more important to Navajo work culture after this.

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. For most tribes, this was a breath of fresh air. Collier rejected the corrupt and genocidal policies of the past, attempting to treat indigenous Americans as relative equals and respect their cultural heritage. Collier and New Deal land managers, heavily influenced by the Dust Bowl, saw Navajo sheep herding practices as incredibly destructive to the land and completely unsustainable. They noted the erosion transforming the land, the gullies turning into deep canyons, and the impossibility of this continuing for long. By 1931, the Navajo owned perhaps one million sheep on land with a carrying capacity of 500,000; they had only owned about 15,000 in the 1870s, but their population had also exploded from 8000 people in 1868 to 39,000 in 1930. So Collier acted, even though the Navajo themselves were not brought on board. Collier respected the Navajos, but felt he needed to save them from themselves. In 1934, the first of the sheep and goat slaughters took place. By 1935, the Navajos were actively resisting. People refused to sell their livestock to anyone who would kill them. By 1937, in the face of this resistance, Collier and the Department of the Interior issued a new plan setting a cap on the amount of livestock each extended family could own.

Weaving and harvesting the sheep provided about half the cash for the Navajos and nothing was done to replace that. Much of this loss was gendered. Weaving was the source of women’s income in a matrilineal society. It had provided women with economic authority even as the pre-1864 Navajo economy was forcibly terminated. They controlled their own means of production. Collier and the other New Dealers did not see this at all. Men handled the relationships with whites and so the New Dealers never even spoke to women, nor did they think of asking about them. With control over the means of production stripped away, masculine economic and political dominance was reinforced and the gendered norms of Navajo work and life were transformed.

The irony of this is that Collier was right. The Navajo were vastly overgrazing the land and they refused to admit it. It was absolutely not sustainable. But in the tradition of white northerners pushing their ideas of free labor upon African-Americans in the days after slavery without asking the ex-slaves what they wanted, Collier shoving his reforms down the throats of the Navajo without their consent resulted not only in a transformation of the intersection between work and culture, impoverishing many already poor people, but also created a long-term resistance to environmentalism still powerful on the Navajo Nation today.

The stock reduction program ended as the nation went into World War II and the government had bigger fish to fry. But it also happened in the face of widespread resistance, such as the letter that opens this post. In 1940, the Navajo Rights Association formed to lead the resistance to continued stock reduction. The government started threatening the Navajo with police power if they refused to hand over their livestock, which broke the resistance. John Collier started realizing that there was a problem with his program only in 1941, which was far too late. He relaxed some of the restrictions, but the damage to Navajo work and life was already done. An already poor people were made more impoverished. After World War II, many men would seek to escape that poverty through uranium mining, which would have enormous implications of its own on the health of the miners and work culture of the Navajo people.

The letter that opens this post was taken from Peter Iverson, ed., Dine Letters, Speeches, & Petitions, 1900-1960. You can read the whole letter here. Many of the other details come from Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country.

This is the 210th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1837

[ 18 ] February 13, 2017 |

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On February 13, 1837, the Equal Rights Party, better known as the Loco Focos although that was a pejorative from the city’s Whigs, held a rally in City Hall Park in New York City to protest the high cost of living. This led to the Flour Riot, where workers raided flour mills to gain what they thought what rightfully belonged to them at a much lower price than they paid. This brief moment of labor agitation is a good window into both the problems early 19th century urban workers faced, as well as their nascent labor organizations.

The Loco Focos were a faction of the New York Democratic Party that defined itself as being anti-Tammany Hall. Many of them were former members of the Working Men’s Party that existed between 1829 and 1831. That was one of many nascent workers’ parties that developed in this period, with a platform of land reform, government confiscation of inheritances, and opposition to monopoly. The Loco Focos held to similar ideas, promoting the legal protection of labor unions, and against paper money and state banks. In short, this was a grassroots movement of white working men who distrusted the burgeoning system of capitalism growing especially fast in their city and the booms and busts that went with it such as the devastating Panic of 1837, soon to follow the Flour Riot. Food prices skyrocketed as well, with a barrel of flour rising from $7 in September 1836 to $12 in February 1837.

The faction’s influence began to grow and started shaping the economic policies of Martin Van Buren, founder of the Democratic Party and New York’s most powerful politician in these years. He was just about to take over the presidency when the Loco Foco riot occurred. The Working Men’s Party and Loco Focos that followed were highly concerned about their ability to earn enough to support their families. Self-identifying as husbands and fathers in their rhetoric, they saw the rise of financial capitalism as undermining the self-sustaining male economy they valued. Their rhetoric focused heavily on paternal duties, on providing children what they need to grow into the next generation of independent workers, and to provide decent housing for their families at reasonable rates. They built upon a quasi-religious message, bringing spirituality into their movement without being explicitly denominational and certainly without falling toward the growing alternative religious movements popping up during this time. All of this was responding to the desperation working men felt about a politics they did not feel they could control, even as white male democracy was in the ascendant. Said William English, a Philadelphia worker who was involved in labor politics at the same time that the Loco Focos formed in New York:

Once a year they call us men; once a year we receive the proud appellation of freemen; once a year we are the intelligent, virtuous, orderly working men. But then they want our votes, and they flatter us; they want our interest, and they fawn upon us; and it grinds them to the very soul, to have their delicate fingers clenched in the friendly gripe of an honest hand, but they dare not avow it then. There is contamination in the very touch of a man who labours for his bread

For the Loco Focos, the banks were at the heart of their loss of control. One Loco Foco named Clinton Roosevelt, serving in the state house in Albany, stated, “banks decrease the wages of mechanics and others when they appear to rise” because they manipulated the supply and type of paper currency in circulation that workers used to pay their bills so that they could play the market on the discounted bills that marked early 19th century paper. Bosses would frequently pay workers in paper currency worth less than its stated value. With the price of this currency often declining daily, it took money away from workers because they assumed they were being paid in face value. Given that much of this unregulated currency was developed for speculation in western lands the middle class engaged in, the Loco Focos also rightly claimed that their landlords were passing along their own debts from this system to the working class through raising their rents. This angered them tremendously because a hard-working artisan should be able to support his family. At a March 6, 1837 rally, a Loco Foco committee stated that workers should not face such high “prices of provisions, rent, and fuel,” given that they had “not been unusually wasteful or lazy.” As would often be the case in American labor history, workers also blamed immigrants for their low wages, saying that Irish and German migrants were undercutting their labor power to set wages.

To rally people to their February 13 protest against all these problems, Loco Focos put out handbills that demanded “Bread, Meat, Rent, And Fuel! Their prices must come down!” They protested that “every article of necessity—bread stuffs, flesh meats, fuel and house rents, are at exorbitant rates; and an increase is demanded beyond the means of the working and useful classes of the community.” They had no interest in blaming the flour merchants. Rather, the focus of the Loco Focos was the bankers and their nefarious discounted paper money. At the rally, they called for taxing the wealthy and prohibiting bank notes larger than $100.

However, the crowd quickly got rowdy, as was not uncommon during these days where street protests frequently turned violent. As soon as the official rally ended, about 1000 protestors went to nearby flour processors, broke down the doors, and looted the flour and wheat. This food riot went on for a few hours. Fifty-three people were arrested, but none of them were known Loco Focos. Generally, the Loco Focos avoided displays of riots, preferring to work through the political system. So they largely ignored the criticism they received in aftermath of the Flour Riot. In fact, they built upon this action to continue to demand an end to monopoly and the banks. Later that year, their rallies attracted up to 40,000 people. By the end of 1837, Tammany Hall agreed to adopt most of their program and the Democratic Party was reunited in the city. The Loco Focos disappeared as an organized political movement, although the Whigs would not let it go, simply using Democratic Party and Loco Focos as synonyms, lasting all the way into the early days of the Republican Party.

I borrowed from Joshua Greenberg, Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840, for the writing of this post.

This is the 209th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Radio

[ 3 ] February 12, 2017 |

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Talking general strikes (extremely skeptical) and building trades’ snuggling with Trump (sigh) with Joshua Holland.

This Day in Labor History: February 11, 1903

[ 11 ] February 11, 2017 |

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On February 11, 1903, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association formed to build racial solidarity among workers against sugar beet farmers near Oxnard, California. This was the first major cross-racial, non-white agricultural union in California. The following strike and victory was a sign of the possibilities of cross-racial organizing in the United States, but the aftermath and its eventual defeat a sad story about how white racism within the labor movement has undermined labor organizing in American history.

On the West Coast, and especially in California, a complicated labor situation developed soon after the United States stole it in the Mexican War. With the discovery of gold, white men rushed to what soon became a new state. But so did other people from around the world. This created immediate tension, as the white working class preferred to labor for themselves than do the hard service labor required, but also deeply resented any competition to them in what they saw as a white man’s state. So while the Chinese and Mexicans soon became banished to service labor and the most dangerous labor such as building railroads, the state’s burgeoning union movement wanted to eject Asian labor from the state entirely. They succeeded with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. But employers, especially in the state’s growing agricultural sector, quickly found other sources of cheap labor, both from Japan and Mexico.

Japanese workers soon gained a reputation for breaking contracts to force wage increases. One farmer complained to an investigator with the Department of Labor, “Every Japanese gang is a trade union; they come and quit together.” When one farmer hired a group of Japanese to pick his almonds in 1901, he thought he had a great deal because he hired them for $1.25 a day when he was paying whites $1.50. But after being on the job for two days, the Japanese demanded a raise to $2.50 and had to find a new labor force for that year, switching to hiring Japanese contractors in the future so he didn’t have to deal with it. As a whole, Japanese laborers found themselves earning steadily higher wages each year after 1900.

In response, the farm owners formed their own organization to collectively push down wages. The Western Agricultural Contracting Company sought to take control of the labor situation by undermining the Japanese contractors, forcing them and all other non-white contractors to subcontract through the WACC. They had a Mexican Department and a “Jap Department” to do this with the individual racial groups. This was effectively a racist labor monopoly. The prices paid for the thinning of the sugar beets were reduced from $5-6 an acre to $3.75. The promised $1.50 wage a day the reality became a brutal piecework system. It was this that spurred the organization of workers, not only the Japanese, but the smaller number of Mexican workers caught up in this system.

On February 11, 500 Japanese workers and 200 Mexican workers formed the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. They named Kosabura Babo, a Japanese labor contractor, as president and then had a Japanese and a Mexican secretary for each ethnic group. The union soon grew to 1200 members. Their primary goal was eliminating the WACC. Believing the employer labor monopoly artificially suppressed wages, they wanted the end of the subcontracting system as it required workers to pay both the contractor and the subcontractor to work and they wanted to be paid in cash instead of company scrip, always a classic way employers sought to steal from their workers in rural areas. The one thing the workers had going for them, as farmworkers always do, is that crops must be planted and/or harvested within a short and very specific amount of time, before they go bad. In this case, the critical thinning of the sugar beet seedlings was just around the corner.

On March 23, white farmers struck back, as they would against organized labor so many times in their sordid history. A group of them shot into a crowd of strikers, killing a Mexican worker named Luis Vazquez and wounding four other workers, two Mexican and two Japanese. The media blamed the JMLA for this, even though the workers were innocent. The Los Angeles Times, ever an anti-union outfit in these decades, wrote that “agitation-crazed Mexicans and Japanese” had attacked “independent workmen.” Charles Arnold was soon arrested for Vazquez’s murder but even though he was obviously guilty, the all-white male jury was not going to convict him. So the JMLA upped the ante, engaging in more aggressive actions to win the strike. In one action, 50 Mexican strikers wearing masks went to a scab camp, cut down their tents, and forced them to leave the farm. They also managed to win a lot of the scabs being brought from elsewhere over to the strike by just talking to them.

In the aftermath of the violence, with the JMLA showing continued success and the beets needing their trimming, the farm owners finally agreed to a deal, which the union made more likely by threatening to take all their workers out of the county if they did not agree. On March 30, they signed the agreement. The wages for thinning were reset to $5 and then up to $6 an acre. The JMLA won union recognition and the right to represent workers on 5000 acres of farms through Ventura County, excluding only one large farm. Japanese and Mexican contractors retook control over the hiring process.

So this is a happy story, right? They even won union recognition at a time when that was pretty rare, especially for low wage, low skill workers. Nope. That’s because Samuel Gompers denied their AFL charter since the organization would not allow Japanese members. After the JMLA’s victory, J.M. Lizarras, secretary of the Mexican branch of the new union, petitioned the AFL for a charter. This would have made the JMLA the first agricultural union in the AFL. The California AFL was extremely anti-Asian. This was only a couple of years before the San Francisco population, including many unions, went ballistic over the idea of Asians going to school with white children and tried to institute a Jim Crow system of segregation that forced President Theodore Roosevelt intervene to avoid an international crisis with a growing power, leading to the Gentlemen’s Agreement that ended Japanese immigration. So the willingness of California white workers to accept even the idea of unionized workers of color was pretty fleeting. Some labor councils were better than others and the Los Angeles County Council of Labor adopted a resolution to favor the unionization of all unskilled workers regardless of race or nationality, even at the same time also opposing further Asian immigration. But most would not go this far. Neither would Gompers. He turned them down after heavy lobbying against them by the San Francisco Council of Labor. Without that official support, the JMLA declined quickly and there is little evidence of it existing even by the end of 1903. There was more agitation over labor exploitation in 1906, but no documents mention the JMLA. Once again, racism got in the way of an effective American labor movement.

This would be far from the last time the different races in the California fields and other agricultural sectors of the U.S. organized to help each other, although as the marginalization of the Filipinos within the United Farm Workers demonstrates, such cross-racial solidarity was never easy to maintain. It would not be the last time by any means that California farmers would resort to violence to bust a strike. It would also be far from the last time that white unionists hurt their own economic interests by opposing the unionization or employment of people of color.

I borrowed from Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West and Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California for the writing of this post.

This is the 208th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

How’s Embracing Trump Working Out for the Building Trades?

[ 64 ] February 10, 2017 |

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I and many others have excoriated the building trades for embracing Trump. Not only is it betraying the rest of the left and betraying the interests of many of their own members who are black, Latino, and/or Muslim, but it’s not even going to work out for them. Trump is going to sign a bill repealing Davis-Bacon if it gets past the Senate. And now he’s brought the former head of the construction industry’s chief lobbying group into the Department of Labor.

Last month, President Donald Trump hosted the chiefs of several building trades unions at the White House in a meeting notable for how friendly it was given that they had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the campaign.

In a particularly glowing statement after the meeting, Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said Trump “has shown that he respects laborers who build our great nation, and that they will be abandoned no more.” That was in response to the administration’s effort to restart two controversial pipeline projects.

But the recent hiring at the Department of Labor of Geoffrey Burr, the former chief lobbyist of the construction industry’s trade group, has worker advocates alarmed.

It also highlights the dilemma of the building trades unions, the segment of organized labor that has been most friendly to Trump: They largely support his agenda on infrastructure and trade even as he is assembling a Department of Labor team that is hostile to unions and cherished wage standards on government contracts.

“What does it mean that we are putting people in charge of the Department of Labor, which is meant to be the strongest advocate for workers within the administration, who built their careers around advocating dismantling protections for workers?” asked Karla Walter, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Burr, now a member of the Trump beachhead team at the Department of Labor, spent seven years as the vice president for government affairs at the Associated Builders and Contractors.

The group is a fierce opponent of the law that gives workers on government construction contracts the right to be paid in line with local prevailing wages — a rate determined by the Department of Labor. The idea of the Depression-era law, called the Davis-Bacon Act, is to protect workers from being undercut by lower-paid, less-skilled workers from other areas of the country.

But hey, the Laborers will get to build the Dakota Access Pipeline before their union is destroyed!

Uber: “Maximum Evil Is Our Goal”

[ 27 ] February 10, 2017 |

Uber

Oh Uber. Whenever it comes up in the news, you know it’s going to be because they are doing something awful again.

Late last month, Uber sued the city of Seattle, challenging the city’s authority to implement a landmark law allowing drivers in the gig economy to unionize. It was an opening shot in what is likely to be a long and costly legal battle.

Uber’s legal challenge comes at an awkward time for the ride-hailing juggernaut. The company recently named 2017 “the year of the driver” and has said it will devote energy and resources to improving its relationship with the hundreds of thousands of people who drive on its platform. But the company’s bungled response to a taxi strike during the recent JFK protests led to a grassroots #DeleteUber campaign that saw 200,000 riders canceling their accounts. This latest situation in Seattle may further complicate Uber’s attempts to reverse the negative effects of that campaign.

After its passage in December 2015, Uber and Lyft declined to challenge it outright, instead supporting a lawsuit brought by the pro-business, anti-union US Chamber of Commerce. But then in August, a judge tossed the chamber’s lawsuit, calling it premature until the city moved forward with implementation.

That implementation began in December, when Seattle’s department of Finance and Administrative Services published rules online that cover issues like which drivers get to unionize, working conditions subject to bargaining, and how an organization gets certified to represent drivers exclusively.

Shortly thereafter, Uber filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s rulemaking authority, calling it “arbitrary and capricious” and inconsistent with “fundamental labor laws,” according to court documents. “The City must follow a lawful rulemaking process and adopt rules which properly consider the facts and circumstances of drivers and the industry, and labor law precedent,” Uber argues in the suit.

LGM has exclusive live coverage of Uber headquarters.

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