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Tag: "labor"

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

[ 31 ] January 2, 2017 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ 16 ] January 1, 2017 |

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: January 1, 1935

[ 7 ] January 1, 2017 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1970

[ 14 ] December 30, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ 35 ] December 27, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

What do these workers want?

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

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

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

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

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

How reassuring.

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

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

When Unions Don’t Help Their Members

[ 74 ] December 23, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Broken Record on Supply Chains

[ 20 ] December 23, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day In Labor History: December 21, 1919

[ 54 ] December 21, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: December 19, 1907

[ 12 ] December 19, 2016 |

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On December 19, 1907, the Darr Mine near Smithton, Pennsylvania, caught fire and exploded. 239 people died, many of them children. This was the largest workplace disaster in Pennsylvania history.

The Darr mine, located southeast of Pittsburgh, was typical of the Appalachian mining country during the early twentieth century. The workforce was a polyglot group of workers from around Europe. While native born Americans made up a percentage of the workforce, many were from Europe, particularly from what are today Greece, Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. Smithton was a small town that developed around coal mining and related industries like coking. The workers there faced similar terrible conditions to miners around the region. Long days meant that workers only saw the light most of the year on Sundays. Pay was low and workers had little control over their lives

About 400 workers labored in the Darr mine under unsafe working conditions that put workers lives at risk every day. As this series has explored in detail, coal mining was an incredibly dangerous profession. A mere few days earlier, the nearby Naomi mine had exploded, killing 34 workers. Many of the unemployed workers from that mine quickly found jobs at the Darr, unfortunately as it turned out.

At about 11:30 a.m. on December 19, 1907, the Darr mine exploded. It absolutely destroyed everything and everyone in the mine. The report of the Pennsylvania Department of Mines in the aftermath noted, “Persons in the vicinity of the mine describe the explosion as an awful rumbling followed by a loud report and a concussion that shook the nearby buildings and was felt within a radius of several miles…. The explosion had been so terrific in its force that the inspectors were convinced upon a superficial investigation that it would be impossible for any of the entombed workers to be rescued alive.”

The official cause of the explosion was that miners had entered a location that the fire marshal had cordoned off the previous day while carrying open lamps. In fact, it’s hard to know just what happened. But in any case, 239 miners died, the worst mining disaster in Pennsylvania history. The only reason more workers did not die was that the Greek miners took the day off to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas. Otherwise, the death toll likely would have cleared 400. Over half the dead were native English speakers, an unusual occurrence during this period, more typical of 19th century mines, although again, this is in part because the sizable population of Greeks had all taken the day off. Town residents rushed to the mine, but there was not much they could do except dig out the bodies, a process that took days. One worker survived, a miner named Joseph Mapleton who was near the entrance. He had only minor injuries and took place in the failed rescue attempt that followed.

Of course, many challenged blaming the miners for the explosion. Some blamed the lack of inspections, others the general lack of safety and specifically the lack of ventilation. One theory was an accidental dynamite blast. But in any case, the fundamental reason was that early 20th century mine owners simply did not care about workplace safety. Nor did they have any reason to as they rarely if ever suffered any meaningful consequences if workers died on the job. This was the Gilded Age after all and employers could do almost anything they wanted to their employees. Wage slaves indeed. The coal company did ban the head lamps in the mine. But they were not held liable for the deaths. In fact, nothing meaningful happened because of these deaths. Critics of mine safety did issue a report that was deeply critical of the lack of ventilation in the mine, as well as most mines throughout the bituminous country, but again, nothing concrete came of it. Later experimentation showed high levels of damp in the mine, even after the explosion.

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The temporary morgue for the dead miners

As was so typical of the many coal mining disasters of this period, a couple of hundred dead workers didn’t change many hearts, even as it slowly led to reforms. Rural Pennsylvania was far away from centers of power and wealthy people didn’t much care about people they couldn’t see. It would take Triangle to start getting Americans to take workplace safety seriously, but it would take a whole lot more than that to create even moderately effectively regulations for coal mine safety. Even in the very recent past, negligent employers such as Don Blankenship have murdered workers.

The Darr fire was simply one incident in the deadliest month in U.S. mining history. In December 1907, over 3000 miners died on the job. Darr was only the second largest single incident, as over 300 miners died in the Monongah mine in West Virginia on December 6. Many more died in ones and twos and by the dozens, thousands of workers in one industry perished in one terrible month.

Ultimately, this region of Pennsylvania would see many of the worst events in American labor history, from the Homestead strike outside of Pittsburgh to the Donora Smog of 1947, where U.S. Steel murdered people through pollution a mere 15 miles west of the Darr mine site.

This is the 202nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Trump’s Lies to Workers

[ 121 ] December 9, 2016 |

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Donald Trump’s absurd attacks on USW Local 1999 president Chuck Jones gives him the opportunity to respond and note Trump’s lies to working-class Americans, as well as why Trump appealed to union members through those lies.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Trump got involved. He sat down with Carrier leaders. Afterward, he announced that 1,100 jobs would be saved. When I first heard the news, I was optimistic. But I began to get nervous when we couldn’t get any details on the deal. I urged caution, but our members got their hopes up. They thought their jobs had been saved.

When I met with Carrier officials last Thursday, I realized that that wouldn’t be the case. Though Trump said he’d saved 1,100 jobs, he hadn’t. Carrier told us that 550 people would get laid off.

Trump didn’t tell people that, though. When he spoke at our plant, he acted like no one was going to lose their job. People went crazy for him. They thought, because of Trump, I’m going to be able to provide for my family.

All the while, I’m sitting there, thinking that’s not what the damn numbers say. Trump let people believe that they were going to have a livelihood in that facility. He let people breathe easy. When I told our members the next day, they were devastated.

I was angry, too. So I told a Washington Post reporter the truth — that Trump’s 1,100 number was wrong. When Trump read my comments, he got angry. Last night, he tweeted:

And we know what Trump tweeted.

Jones concludes:

What I can’t abide, however, is a president who misleads workers, who gives them false hope. We’re not asking for anything besides opportunity, for jobs that let people provide for their families. These plants are profitable, and the workers produced a good-quality product. Because of corporate greed, though, company leaders are racing to the bottom, to find places where they can pay the least. It’s a system that exploits everyone.

Of course, the media’s response to this has been terrible, as outlets like Politico and CNN and others are referring to Jones as a “union boss.” This pejorative is inaccurate. Jones is an elected union leader with accountability to his members. This is the equivalent of Trump attacking Frank Sobotka and national media outlets then calling him a union boss.

I do think Jones really gets at why Trump’s lies are so appealing to wide segments of the white working class. Not only does he make them feel good for being white, he tells them what they want to hear when it comes to their jobs. It doesn’t much matter that these are lies later. If someone tells you that they will allow you to feed your family through a dignified job, that is an incredibly appealing message. And everyone who says that economic anxiety wasn’t an issue for white working class Trump voters in the Midwest has to reckon with that fact. Of course, it wouldn’t work for black and Latino working class voters because Trump’s message is racist. But the economic anxiety felt by all members of the working class is very, very real.

More on Workers and Environmentalists

[ 21 ] December 7, 2016 |

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My New Republic essay on how environmentalism needed to get in touch with working-class concerns came out on the day that protestors forced the Obama administration to reroute the pipeline away from the Standing Rock reservation. That was a total coincidence. But the aftermath of this is a good window into a number of related issues. First, it’s well worth noting how the work of the wonderful Bill McKibben has accomplished a great deal of bringing environmentalism back toward a mass movement, making connections with a lot of other left-leaning groups, if not necessarily a lot of organized labor. McKibben has a good essay placing the pipeline movement in the larger context of indigenous activism as well as thinking about what this means in Trump’s America:

Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia. If we manage to slow down the fossil fuel juggernaut before it boils the planet, groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth will deserve a great share of the credit. Right now, for instance, Canada’s First Nations are preparing for “Standing Rock North” along the route of two contested pipelines out of Canada’s tarsands. But in the Dakotas it’s been particularly special: they’ve managed to build not just resistance to a project, but a remarkable new and unified force that will, I think, persist. Persist, perhaps, even in the face of the new Trump administration.

Trump, of course, can try and figure out a way to approve the pipeline right away, though the Obama administration has done its best to make that difficult. (That’s why, instead of an outright denial, they simply refused to grant the permit, thus allowing for the start of the environmental impact statement process). But if Trump decides to do that, he’s up against people who have captured the imagination of the country. Simply spitting on them to aid his friends in the oil industry would clarify a lot about him from the start, which is one reason he may hesitate.

In any event, though, time is measured somewhat differently in the dispute between this continent’s original inhabitants and the late-coming rest of us. For five hundred years, half a millennia, the same grim story has repeated itself over and over again. Today’s news is a break in that long-running story, a new chapter. It won’t set this relationship on an entirely new course – change never comes that easily. But it won’t ever be forgotten, and it will influence events for centuries to come. Standing Rock, like Little Big Horn or Wounded Knee, or for that matter Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, now belongs to our history.

Meanwhile, while environmentalists need to do much more to connect with workers, it’s not as if the unions involved in the pipeline construction are bathing themselves in glory. Of course, these tensions have a historical context that I tried to address in the New Republic piece, but in the present, it’s fine if you don’t want to support the Laborers or Teamsters position on the pipeline. The IBT and LIUNA reactions are very disappointing:

The Teamsters union warned good jobs are at risk Monday over a decision by the Obama administration to stop construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

After twice defending its approval process in court, with victories in both cases, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed course when it announced Sunday that it would not approve construction permits needed to finish the project. The Teamsters argued the decision will hurt working Americans.

“The decision will have a direct and negative impact on the hardworking men and women—including Teamsters and other union members—who have invested their lives in building the infrastructure that makes this country run,” the Teamsters said in a statement provided to InsideSources. “The Teamsters Union looks forward to moving past this disappointing decision toward the eventual approval of this easement and completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters claim the nearly completed pipeline runs too close to sacred tribal burial sites and could affect the tribe’s water supply, though the pipeline never crosses onto tribal land. The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) argues the Obama administration is “appeasing environmental extremists.”

“Blocking the final portion of construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline after it is 93 percent complete and fully reviewed is a short-sighted, gutless, and irresponsible decision,” LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement Sunday. “It only serves to prolong the conflict that is dividing communities in North Dakota.”

This is ridiculous. The Obama administration did not kill the project. It just sought to change the route. Yes, this means there are delays. But the work is going to happen. On the other hand, I do get the deep necessity of these unions to find work for their members, many of whom are chronically underemployed. The plain fact is that there is not enough good work for working-class people anywhere in this country. But these unions, who desperately need allies to survive in the Trump years, are also acting out of cultural biases and disdain for the hippies and Indians involved in the protest and are doing themselves no favors. In the end, most of the left will barely care if LIUNA is demolished in the next 4 years. And while some of that is on the left activists from various movements who are indifferent or even hostile to collective economic action, a lot of it is the consistently antagonistic positions many unions, particularly in the building trades have taken toward other social movements.

American Unions: An Extinction Level Event

[ 92 ] November 27, 2016 |

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Above: The federal response to a strike in 2018.

Harold Meyerson’s election post-mortem for organized labor is exactly as grim as it should be.

As Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that once were the stronghold of the nation’s industrial union movement – dropped into Donald Trump’s column on election night, one longtime union staff member told me that Trump’s victory was “an extinction-level event for American labor.”

He may be right.

A half-century ago, more than a third of those Rust Belt workers were unionized, and their unions had the clout to win them a decent wage, benefits and pensions. Their unions also had the power to turn out the vote. They did — for Democrats. White workers who belonged to unions voted Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, and there were enough such workers to make a difference on Election Day.

That’s not the case today. Nationally, about 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, which gives unions a lot less bargaining power than they once had, and a lot fewer members to turn out to vote. The unions’ political operations certainly did what they could: An AFL-CIO-sponsored Election Day poll of union members showed 56 percent had voted for Hillary Clinton and 37 percent for Trump, while the TV networks’ exit poll showed that voters with a union member in their household went 51 percent to 43 percent for Clinton, as well. In states where unions have more racially diverse memberships, Clinton’s union vote was higher (she won 66 percent of the union household vote in California).

In states where union membership is predominantly white, Trump did better – actually winning the Ohio union household vote with 54 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 42 percent The very economic and social wreckage the unions had warned against when they had opposed NAFTA and permanent trade relations with China ended up diminishing their own numbers and that of Democratic voters, and helped spur Trump to victory.

Of course, the very combination of real economic anxiety and racism that sent white union members into the Trump camp is going to just cause more economic anxiety for them. But hey, it will cause terrible things for black people too so win! I guess. But it’s not like Trump is going to craft policy that will pay off that union support. He hasn’t named his Secretary of Labor yet, but given the rest of this nightmare fascist plutocratic Cabinet, there is no reason to think of this as anything but nightmarish. That doesn’t mean that the history of struggle among the American working class will end. Workers will always fight for a better life for themselves, even if they get killed by the military for doing so. But it may well mean that 80 years of progress are repealed in the next 4 years. Unfortunately, in this case, Democrats hold plenty of blame too for not taking the impact of globalization and automation particularly seriously for the last 50 years, assuming that other gains in the economy would make up for these hard-hit communities. Well, these hard-hit communities have hit back hard. Even if it ends up a self-punch too.

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