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This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1908

[ 21 ] February 24, 2015 |

On February 24, 1908, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Muller v. Oregon. This landmark decision upheld the idea that, at least for women, laws restricting the hours of work were constitutional. This would be a major victory in the long fight to bring working hours down to eight hours nationally, a dream that had already extended for more than two decades and would not be realized for another thirty years. It also created gender inequities in labor law with implications that continue today.

In 1903, Oregon had passed a law limiting the hours of women to ten hours a day and sixty hours a week. Curt Muller, a laundry business owner in Portland, sued the state. Muller believed, for good reason given the predominant legal climate of the time, that he signed legal contracts with individual workers when he hired them and that those workers freely agreed to the terms of hours and wages when they took the job. Yet, these ideas were increasingly challenged during the Progressive Era, as activists sought to create a more fair America that protected basic rights of workers to a decent life. This was especially true for women workers, who many Progressives saw as both uniquely exploited and mothers responsible for raising the next generation of Americans. Progressives argued that whatever the merits of the freedom of contract interpretation of labor legislation, the state had a unique interest in excepting women from that principle. Progressives were especially prominent in states like Oregon, as well as Wisconsin and Washington, which would see the first workers’ compensation legislation a few years later. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the the state’s law and Muller then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Muller-v.-Oregon

Laundry workers

Supporting Oregon’s case was Louis Brandeis, who filed a lengthy brief, mostly created by his sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, an activist with the National Consumers League, about women’s working conditions and lives, helping to sway the case. Brandeis employed this paternalistic ideal of women as mothers to justify upholding the law because the state had an interest in the health of future generations of Americans. He used four specific arguments. First, women were physically different and weaker than men. Second, damage to women’s health on the job might affect their reproductive capacity. Third, the health of children might be damaged if the mother was overworked. Fourth, long workdays deprived family members of their wife and mother.

225px-brandeisl

Louis Brandeis

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the law’s constitutionality. David Brewer wrote the opinion. Part of the reason this was such a landmark decision was its partial repeal of Lochner v. New York , decided just three years before. Lochner invalidated state laws on the hours of bakers and thus hours legislation nationwide based on the idea of the liberty of contract that it read into the 14th Amendment. But Brewer was clear that this was no rejection of Lochner. Rather women were different than men and thus deserved protection:

That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

In short, the justices had a gendered construction of freedom of contract. They held to the Gilded Age belief that individual male workers freely signed agreements with employers (thus making labor legislation unconstitutional because it would violate that freedom of contract) but for women workers the state’s interest was greater than this freedom. This was not completely unprecedented however, for as early as 1876, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had founded similarly, as had several additional states between then and 1908, although Illinois had overturned a law restricting women’s hours that applied freedom of contract to women as well as men.

The legacy of Muller is complicated because of the paternalism at its core. It fit the ideals of many Progressive reformers, who used ideas of femininity and motherhood to protect women and children in a number of ways, but especially at the workplace. For people like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, these sorts of decisions were validations of their larger campaigns to protect poor women from the ravages of industrial life. But the small more explicitly feminist movement disliked the decision because it created artificial differences between the sexes.

Still, placing Muller in the context of the time, we should see it as an important victory because of its precedent setting approval of hours laws for anyone. Lochner reinforced the idea so prevalent in American business that corporations had no responsibility to anyone and that the halls of Congress and federal courtrooms would reinforce this if necessary. Even if Muller was sexist, for a lot of labor activists getting these principles applied to women laid the groundwork for all workers, which may not have been the goal of all Progressives, but was for labor activists. Establishing this principle did indeed start chipping away at the freedom of contract idea and within a decade, many industries would have 8-hour days.

States followed up on Mueller by passing night work laws for women to ensure they were not laboring during hours deemed by the state to be hours when they should be taking care of their children. Between 1909 and 1917, 19 states passed new legislation limiting the hours of women’s work, leaving only 9 states in 1917 that lacked any restrictions at all, a number that decreased to 5 by the mid-1920s. However, in most if not all of these states, the laws did not cover domestic or agricultural workers. The decision itself was rendered irrelevant by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 since it provided equal coverage for men and women. Yet gender inequities on the job have never fully been overcome, not even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The struggle for real equality on the job continues today.

I relied on Andrea Tone, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America and Nancy S. Jackson, “Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-Based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract” in Labor History, September 1989.

This is the 133th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 23, 1864

[ 10 ] February 23, 2015 |

On February 23, 1864, Kate Mullaney (sometimes spelled Mullany), leader of the Collar Laundry Union, the second all-female union in the United States (the Lowell Female Reform Association, established in 1845, was the first), led union members in Troy, New York out on strike. The CLU wanted higher wages and better working conditions. The strike succeeded, marking a rare union victory for women workers during the era.

Women working in commercial laundries faced the terrible working conditions that were becoming so common as the nation industrialized in the mid-19th century. They worked 12-14 hour days in extraordinarily hot workplaces. The Collar Laundry Union workers labored specifically with collars. This required the use of harsh, caustic chemicals and boiling water. Workers frequently suffered severe burns. Like in the rest of American work in the second half of the 19th century, rapid technological advancements came at the price of worker safety. In this case, it was new starching machines that were known for causing horrific burns for workers. Of course, companies were not held responsible for workers getting hurt or dying on the job. The pay for this labor: $3 a week.

Kate Mullaney was an Irish immigrant born in 1845, emigrating during her teenage years. Her family ended up in Troy, New York, a growing industrial city that specialized in iron foundries and collar production. Troy was one of the nation’s most prosperous cities at this time. In 1864, about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collar production (a popular fashion of the time) was located in Troy. In the 1860s, about 3000 women worked in the Troy collar laundries. Mullaney was forced into the labor force in the early 1860s when her father died and with her mother an invalid, she became the family’s primary breadwinner. Like the vast majority of the collar workers, Mullaney was a young unmarried woman. 92 percent of the Irish collar workers were single, and another 5 percent widows. Generally, the Irish worked in the collar laundries while native-born Protestants labored in collar sewing, as it paid better and was seen as more respectable, not to mention was less dangerous. Like much work as well, these jobs tended to be passed through families, as workers got jobs for their younger family members.

It did not take long for Mullaney to become a leader of the collar workers movement to make a better life for themselves. On February 23, 1864, she led about 300 workers out of the job and onto the streets. Within a week, 20 Troy laundries increased workers’ pay over 20 percent and agreed to work on safety issues. The strike made the union a successful operation. The CLU lasted for five years, which may not seem long to us today, but that in an era of nascent labor organizations, that was a pretty long run. In 1866, the CLU again went on strike, forcing employers to raise wages to $14 a week, over four times what workers made just two years earlier.

Under Mullaney’s leadership, the CLU was pretty radical for its time. It donated large sums to striking male unions in a time when that was not so common. In 1868, National Labor Union president William Sylvis appointed Mullaney to the NLU’s national office as assistant secretary and women’s organizer, probably making her the first woman to hold a position in a large national labor union. The NLU was also a Troy-based organization, with Sylvis the head of the Iron Moulders Union that had made that city a strong union town for the era. Sylvis also had long supported the idea of women’s unions and so was quite favorably disposed to the CLU. Mullaney was actually elected second vice president of the union at the 1868 NLU convention but she declined that offer.

In March 1869, the CLU won another strike, but this convinced operators to destroy the union. That May workers again walked off the job. But the owners were starting to follow a strategy that would prove very effective throughout this period at forestalling unionization in the United States–they organized and planned a common strategy against the unions. They pressured smaller operators to hold out against the CLU, began to recruit scab laborers, and worked to control press coverage of the strike in Troy. The workers protested the bad press coverage, but while the Troy Times published a letter by the workers, it refused to endorse their actions. New York City newspapers provided more sympathetic coverage, but that was relatively far away. Perhaps the most effective action was to lockout union members. The owners offered more wage increases to workers, but only if they agreed to leave the union. This proved effective. The strike was lost and the union destroyed.

In its wake, Mullaney and some of the other collar workers formed their own collar manufacturing cooperative, Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactury. Mullaney became president of that cooperative and, working with friends in the women’s rights movement, sought wealthy investors to fund the enterprise. Alas, the cooperative failed in the wake of both struggles to keep up with the latest technologies and the replacement of cloth collars with paper collars, which led to the slow decline entire Troy collar industry, although factories were still active into the 1880s. In 1870, Mullaney dissolved the CLU, which was also suffering after the death of Sylvis and the loss of support from the National Labor Union.

At this point, Mullaney and her fellow workers returned to work for their employers at the May 1869 wage levels, but again, this did not last long because of fashion changes. Mullaney eventually faded from view after 1870. We know she married at some point and that she died in in 1906 in Troy. She ended up remaining poor, being buried in an unmarked grave until the 1990s, when women’s rights and labor rights advocates fought to create a National Historic Landmark to remember Mullaney and the CLU. She was given a proper headstone and her home marked with a plaque.

Kate Mullany House dedication

Dedication of Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark

Collar workers continued to organize, with hundreds joining the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.

I borrowed much of this material from Tiffany Wayne, ed., Women’s Rights in the United States: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Events and People, Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-86, and a bit from Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, eds., America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present.

This is the 132nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Stolen Wages and Labor Enforcement

[ 28 ] February 22, 2015 |

Unfortunately, it’s not really news that a lot of employers steal the wages of their workers and that immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to this problem given how many lack documentation. But even if those workers do successfully sue for back wages, do the employers actually pay them? We are seeing a breakdown in the system at that point. Owners are taking advantage of legal loopholes, opening and closing businesses, in order to avoid paying these workers. New York labor activists are looking to close those loopholes:

Two years ago, legislation was introduced by State Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal and State Senator José R. Peralta that was intended to limit the gamesmanship, but it never left committees. A new version of the bill will be offered next week. It would make it possible for workers to file a wage lien, similar to a mechanics’ lien. The bill would change the civil court procedures to allow a judge to attach assets before a case has concluded if the workers can show they are likely to succeed. Its third important provision would make it easier to hold primary shareholders of corporations liable for unpaid wage judgments.

The changes are not intended to hold businesses hostage to frivolous claims, according to Hollis Pfitsch, a staff attorney at Legal Aid.

I think the need to hold individuals responsible is absolutely crucial here. If there’s not real personal punishment against wage thieving employers, there is no reason for employers to not continue doing this.

The Death of Abood?

[ 21 ] February 21, 2015 |

Not surprisingly, anti-union groups have responded to reasonable moderate Sam Alito’s call for a good case to overturn the 1977 Abood decision that allows public sector unions to charge fees in lieu of dues for non-union members that they represent and would otherwise be free riders on the contracts they negotiate. Whether the Court overturns Abood remains in question since that’s a more radical move than just chipping away at it, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

How We Talk About Strikes

[ 81 ] February 21, 2015 |

It looks as if the labor dispute between the longshoremen’s union (ILWU) and west coast ports is about over, as Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has been working hard to find a solution.

Like so many strikes, the concern trolls have come out in great numbers, complaining that the ILWU is selfish and won’t sacrifice for the rest of the American working class, such as this USA Today editorial. Of course, it’s not as if when these workers aren’t striking the media elites are trying to help the working class. But when workers do anything that might inconvenience anyone, no matter how justified the reason, the media blames them. Like Kristof claiming that he now supports union despite some stagehand making $400,000 a year, USA Today pulls out the age-old card of complaining that these blue collar workers make so much money that they are the problem, without stating what it thinks is an appropriate wage for workers.

And it isn’t just the media, this is common throughout society. Remember the BART strike in San Francisco, when supposedly liberal residents turned against the union because it took a labor action. Why is it that labor solidarity only goes one way–labor sacrificing for the general public and never the other–the general public understanding the necessity of the occasional labor struggle that will raise standards for the whole working and middle classes of an area. Instead, as a society we almost always only talk about strikes in terms of greedy workers causing problems for me, ignoring the benefits of good union contracts for all of us.

Mark Brenner counters:

Newfound concern for workers across the economy has everyone from the FedEx CEO to the Editorial Board of USA TODAY howling over port congestion. They blame unionized workers for everything from dwindling auto parts supplies in the Midwest to french fry shortages in Japan.

It’s a depressingly familiar bait and switch. Pay no attention to the billions in profits shippers are raking in, or the fact that it’s the port operators bottlenecking cargo by cutting shifts and closing ports for days on end. Instead, blame the workers laboring in this difficult and dangerous occupation because they still carry a union card and their wages don’t hover around the poverty line.

Longshore workers on the West Coast earn $26 to $41 an hour, and they have excellent health care and retirement benefits. In short, they have the kind of jobs we need more of — jobs that allow working-class men and women to buy homes and send their kids to college free from crushing debt.

These standards aren’t the result of enlightened corporate decision-making. They are the product of struggle. Longshore workers have fought for 80 years to get a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Today’s standoff is just the latest battle.

With the new labor agreement, I’m sure USA Today will now dedicate itself to improving the lives of the American working class to meet the good wages and benefits of the ILWU….

The Age of Acquiescence

[ 166 ] February 21, 2015 |

I haven’t read Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, but after reading this review, I sure plan to do so.

Fraser identifies a number of reasons why Americans acquiesce to the class warfare of the New Gilded Age:

Fraser explains the economics of decline effectively. The working class may have abandoned Marxian “class struggle,” but, he says, the capitalists haven’t; they have pretty much won the class conflict by destroying labor unions. But the problem for him goes beyond economics; the disappearance of the left-wing political imagination is his real concern. His analysis thus focuses mostly on the cultural and ideological.

He points to the distractions offered by consumer culture, “an emancipation of the imaginary and the libidinal whose thrills and dreaminess are prefabricated.” Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private, that take people away from the political and social and economic grievances they share with others.

He emphasizes the particular idea of “freedom” that provides the heart of Republican Party ideology: Freedom in America is the freedom to succeed through individual initiative (rather than cooperative effort). Our heroes are the entrepreneurs, the “job creators,” and the enemies of freedom are the government regulations and taxes that shackle their creativity and energy (and which otherwise might go to serve social needs and the public good).

The ’60s maxim “the personal is political” meant that issues that seemed private — above all, women’s oppression — were in fact widely shared and required collective action to bring change. Fraser argues that what began as a call for liberation has today become a justification for avoiding the political, for substituting personal solutions for political ones: eat organic food, drive a Prius, send your kids to charter schools.

It’s an interesting thesis. As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have. And I think that’s right. Not all of us necessarily, but the capitalists did an outstanding job after the fall of the Soviet Union is discrediting even the slightest possibility that any system other than unrestrained American-style capitalism could work. Socialists were pushed back on their heels while class consciousness collapsed in American society (although it was already in decline since the 1950s). Horatio Alger myths have existed in American society since before Alger wrote them, but never before have so many people believed in them so whole-heartedly. And I don’t think student debt loads, economic stagnation, recession, and growing income inequality has really changed it that much, at least if my students are any sign.

The arguments about consumer culture and individualism I think are particularly interesting. I don’t think consumerism and resistance are necessarily counter to one another, but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo that shows their own personally crafted politics for them. This highly individualized politics empowers people to resist on one level but also empowers them to drop out if the movement they’ve joined doesn’t take this or that position. Occupy did a lot but this atomized individualism is a big part of the reason why the same spirit and same problems didn’t allow it to continue and then didn’t reignite in some other way.

Anyway, I’ll try to review Fraser’s book for the blog and explore these issues in greater detail.

The Walmart Raises

[ 16 ] February 21, 2015 |

Walmart has announced a pay raise for its workers.

The company said it would pay even its lowest-level workers at least $9 an hour starting this spring, comfortably above the $7.25 federal minimum wage, and push that to $10 in 2016. The company also said it would strengthen a “department manager” role, giving it a minimum wage of $13 per hour this year and $15 next, thus offering low-wage hourly workers a clearer path to advancement. Including similar bumps at Walmart-owned Sam’s Clubs, the company expects 500,000 workers to receive a raise at a cost of $1 billion a year, executives said in a conference call with reporters.

This is why organizing efforts like the United Food and Commercial Workers’ campaign with the Walmart workers is so important. UFCW is rightfullly taking a good deal of credit for this. The bad publicity the company has received for its poverty wages, for holding food donation drives for its own workers, for making pregnant employees work with dangerous chemicals, and so many other awful corporate behaviors has made a difference. While the Times article linked above suggests this is Walmart responding to a tightening labor market, I am highly dubious that this is the only major reason for these raises. After all, it’s not like the early 2000s when fast food chains were offering signing bonuses for new workers. The labor market is still pretty bad for a lot of workers. Rather, it’s more likely that the fear of losing those workers to slightly better paying jobs combined with the need for Walmart to get some good publicity.

And as Mariya Strauss discusses
, this is very much a publicity move, part of a larger pattern of the company to make cosmetic changes in its business practices whenever the criticism of its practices generate particularly poor publicity. After all, it’s not like $10 an hour is some great shakes. In many states and municipalities, minimum wage law is moving to and above $10.

How Safe Do Oil Trains Make You Feel?

[ 42 ] February 20, 2015 |

You like oil trains running through your community? You feel safe that they won’t explode? Or leak? Or derail? Probably not.

So it’s just great that the rail companies are seeking to reduce crew size on trains from 2 to 1, relying on GPS for braking systems. Basically every stakeholder other than the rail companies opposes this–labor, environmental groups, safety advocates, community organizations. But the rail companies don’t care. But they can’t enact this unilaterally. Rather, the Obama administration has to approve. One hopes it denies the rail industry this ridiculous request. Imagine this scenario, not with oil but with chemicals:

“Imagine a railcar full of chlorine bursting on the CSX tracks less than mile away from a big public event on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. — an inauguration, say, or a concert,” he wrote. “The resulting cloud could kill 100,000 people. Al Qaeda might do it, but it’s more likely that a $55,000-a-year engineer, in the tenth hour of his shift, would simply nod off at the controls.”

Yeah, not good. A second person working on the train can make a huge difference in keeping the other awake.

Kristof on Unions

[ 94 ] February 20, 2015 |

I guess I am supposed to care that Nicholas Kristof now supports unions. Or so he says. Kristof usually only supports a cause if he can personally parachute in to save the victims–he loves to rescue Cambodian prostitutes (even if he is being scammed)–but when people take agency to improve their own lives–support Cambodian garment workers? No way–his interest declines significantly. Kristof writes that he now understands that unions actually do good in society, help create the middle class, reduce income inequality, and the like. Who knew! But he can’t resist framing this new position with anti-union stereotype after anti-union stereotype. The $400,000 stagehands! Teachers who can’t be punished! Corruption! Other myths and half-truths!

I’ll believe in Kristof’s conversion to unionism when he actually uses his column to support a specific action of workers–hey Nic, there’s an oil refinery strike going on right now!–or gives support to unions in his own field. Until then, this is just anti-union stereotypes used to cover up his half-apology for a long history of anti-unionism.

Of course one can also ask how a leading columnist at the nation’s paper of record can miss all the obvious evidence that unions are good for an economy–and miss that evidence for years and years. But then Kristof should have been fired over the Somaly Mam incident and it’s hardly news that Times columnists have lifetime sinecures no matter what idiotic columns they write.

See also Isquith.

The Oil Refinery Strike and Green Alliances

[ 11 ] February 20, 2015 |

Trish Kahle has an interesting piece at Jacobin on the potential for alliance between striking United Steelworkers’ refinery workers and environmentalists over safety conditions at the plants. Certainly environmentalists like Bill McKibben are saying all the right things here–greens have indeed learned lessons from the spotted owl debacle of the 1980s and 1990s. What does such alliances lead to? I don’t know. Kahle points out the history of these short-term alliances in the past, using the commonly cited example of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) under the leadership of Tony Mazzocchi in the 1970s as well as the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the same era, fighting against their own union leadership and the companies for a healthier and more ecologically just workplace. My own book Empire of Timber details how these alliances played out in the timber industry.

Unfortunately, these alliances are very hard to sustain. First, they are almost always top-down, leadership-driven actions. That can work, but the rank and file of *both* movements have to get involved and there’s often been resistance there, often for cultural reasons. I think this is somewhat less of a problem with greens these days because in my experience, young people are often significantly more interested in green issues with an environmental justice angle than pure wilderness and wildlife issues of the past. But as the signs festooning West Virginia and western Pennsylvania lambasting Obama’s “War on Coal” suggest, there can often still be severe cultural suspicion from workers toward environmentalists.

As Kahle points out, the shift in the UMWA away from an ecological agenda had much to do with industry slashing jobs, which is another huge reason for the difficulty of making these alliances last. The corporate-state assault on unions, especially in the private sector, means that workers are extremely nervous about supporting anything that might endanger their jobs and in that fear are easily manipulated by the lies of their employers about environmental protection or even workplace safety. It is when workers have some sort of employment and economic stability that they have been most open to green programs. And that’s very hard in the 21st century American economy with the global race to the bottom and aggressive anti-union tactics undermining good jobs.

As for an ecosocialist agenda, well, I obviously support that, even if it remains fairly undefined. But given that Kahle is writing about refinery workers who labor in an industry contributing to climate change, I guess I need more detail on what role refinery workers can play if the goal is to switch to a green economy without fossil fuels. Obviously supporting solar and wind energy jobs as union jobs can be a piece of that but if the ideal is closing the refineries, I’m not sure that’s going to be a great way to keep an alliance with refinery workers going.

Still, you have to try. What else is there? Any alliance between labor and greens over workplace safety is really positive and I hope this leads to more conversations and more common ground between the two movements. If there’s a picket line around you, go to it. If there’s a speaker around these issues, go hear the person.

Labor Reporting

[ 37 ] February 19, 2015 |

The New York Times is replacing the retiring Stephen Greenhouse on its labor beat with…..Noam Scheiber. Who is an OK reporter but when has he had anything interesting to say about unions? Does he even really care about unions per se? Has he walked a picket line? I don’t think he’s ever written about these issues too much. I’m sure Scheiber will be fine on the big economic questions that concern working class people but that’s not the same as covering labor, which requires talking to poor and working people on the ground. Maybe this works out, but I can’t say I’m super excited.

Of course, it’s good to remember Scheiber’s oh so insightful essay complaining that DeBlasio cares about black people getting killed by cops. That’s a reporter who can talk about labor solidarity!

Applying Labor Trafficking Laws to US Companies Operating Outside the U.S.

[ 17 ] February 19, 2015 |

In Out of Sight, I argue for the need of international enforceable labor standards that empower workers to seek redress for their exploitation through the courts of the company who either owns the workplace or who has signed contracts to produce its items there. If you are a Bangladeshi worker making apparel for WalMart and your factory collapses and kills you, your family should be able to sue Walmart in U.S. courts.

I realize that this is not happening overnight. But it’s not like there aren’t useful precedents we can build from. For instance, a U.S. ship repair company sought Indian labor after Hurricane Katrina. There was quite a bit of international labor recruited to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf. And a lot of it was exploited, including the workers of this ship repair company. But the workers fought back:

A New Orleans jury on Wednesday awarded $14 million to five Indian men who were lured to the United States and forced to work under inhumane conditions after Hurricane Katrina by a U.S. ship repair firm and its codefendants.

After a four-week trial, the U.S. District Court jury ruled that Alabama-based Signal International was guilty of labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination and ordered it to pay $12 million. Its co-defendants, a New Orleans lawyer and an India-based recruiter, were also found guilty and ordered to pay an additional $915,000 each.

The trial was the first in more than a dozen related lawsuits with over 200 plaintiffs that together comprise one of the largest labour trafficking cases in U.S. history.

Signal recruited about 500 Indian men as guest workers to repair oil rigs and facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to plaintiffs.

The workers paid $10,000 apiece to recruiters and were promised good jobs and permanent U.S. residency for their families, according to the suit. When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, they discovered that they would not receive promised residency documents.

Signal also charged the men $1,050 per month to live in guarded labour camps where up to 24 men lived in single 1,800-square-foot (167-square-metre) units, according to the suit.

An economist who reviewed Signal’s records for the plaintiffs estimated the company saved more than $8 million by hiring the Indian workers.

“The defendants exploited our clients, put their own profits over the lives of these honourable workers, and tried to deny them their day in court,” plaintiffs’ attorney and Southern Poverty Law Center board chairman Alan Howard said in a statement.

American labor law is violated and the company can be defeated. But the question we don’t ask often enough is why should American labor law be applied only to workers in the United States? Why shouldn’t at least parts of American labor law be applicable to anyone making products for American firms? What has really empowered the global race to the bottom is disconnecting corporations from national law, allowing them to move while law stays static or is even repealed in order to keep them from moving again. Anyone working in a guarded labor, overcrowded labor camp producing goods for American companies should have the right to fight back not only in their own country, where corporate money has even more power and buys even more politicians than in the U.S., but also in American courts. These are the goals for which we must fight if we want to improve global labor standards worldwide.

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