The next front in Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republican Party’s war on labor is to abolish the state law that mandates one day off a week. I assume the chances of this bill passing is approximately 100 percent.
Mental health at work absolutely should be something covered by OSHA standards. Workplace happiness is key to overall happiness. If terrible bosses, absurd working hours, and high stress is causing people to die on the job through suicide, that should be the government’s concern and investigations of workplace conditions should be taken as seriously here (understanding that OSHA is underfunded and things are not taken seriously enough) as when a tractor overturns or a worker falls off scaffolding.
New York University, supposedly a bastion of education and academic freedom and whose president John Sexton came on strongly against BDS because of academic freedom issues, made a deal with the United Arab Emirates to open a campus in Abu Dhabi. The reason was obvious: cash. And NYU, supposed bastion of education and academic freedom, is willing to compromise on every mission other than making cash to make this happen. First, there was the terrible wages and working conditions of the migrant labor used to construct this campus. Now, the United Arab Emirates is banning NYU professor Andrew Ross from even entering the country because he reported on those labor issues! What do you think the response of NYU will be? Oh I think we all know the answer–cash another check.
This report shows just how unsafe working conditions are in the fast food industry. 79 percent of fast food workers were burned in the last year and 58 percent received multiple burns. Given the relatively open kitchen of the fast food restaurant, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why as there is a lot of open vats of oil and not a lot of protections for workers. 67 percent of workers were cut, 34 percent were hurt lifting heavy items and 23 percent fell. Perhaps more disturbingly, a full 12 percent of workers claimed they were assaulted on the job last year, although the report does not explore this in much follow up detail. Moreover, employers do a terrible job of dealing with these injuries, especially the burns, where employers give the equivalent advice of “shake it off and keep working.” 33 percent of burn victims reported managers suggested rubbing condiments on the burn instead of getting burn cream.
On March 18, 1871, the French military attacked the worker movement in Paris with the aim of retaking the city for the nation’s government. Workers foiled the military’s invasion and ten days later they formed the Paris Commune. This socialist workers movement controlled Paris for two months and was the first revolutionary challenge to European government in the industrial age (which 1789 really was not in France). It would start the long tradition of revolutionary movements based upon working-class radicalism that would help to define the next century around the world.
The Paris Commune came about as a result of political crisis in France. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 led to embarrassing losses for the French and Napoleon III. This led to the French abolishing their monarchy and replacing it with the Third Republic. The workers of Paris, already radicalized and far to the left of the rest of France, feared that the new government would not truly embrace republicanism and instead just be another form of oligarchic rule by the powerful. They also held the creation of this kind of order contemptible because they had already organized themselves to defend the city against the Germans with little help from the elite. Workers began establishing their own government as a challenge to the new national government. Urban French workers, especially in Paris, had grown increasingly radicalized over the nineteenth century. Socialism was much more accepted in the French working class than in the United States and the French workers were working out its tenets at the same time Karl Marx and others was figuring out its theoretical basis.
Of course, the Third Republic was not going to let a bunch of radical workers supersede its power. When the army came into Paris, the national guard refused to hand over their weapons. The government was forced to flee to Versailles. Obviously this situation was untenable but in the mean time, things got very interesting in Paris. The workers tried to run an alternative government. Louis-Auguste Blanqui, an early communist, headed this government. It abolished conscription and created a citizens’ army, which also granted the right to bear arms to all citizens. It reestablished the calendar of the French Revolution, building connections with that earlier revolutionary movement. Interest payments on debt were suspended. It issued a lot of radical statements, especially empowering radical women to play a central role in the struggle. Paule Mink (born Paulina Mekarska) had a long history of radicalism in Paris, including publishing anti-Napoleon III newspapers. When the commune began, Mink jumped into the fray to demand gender equality, arguing that all workers deserved deliverance from the oppression they faced but that was especially true of women who faced both gender and class oppression. She set up an ambulance service during the commune and also traveled to other cities around France to try and spur the movement there. One leading radical woman stated, “The social revolution will not be realized until women are equal to men. Until then, you have only the appearance of revolution.”
But the Paris Commune also struggled to consolidate power and alienated most of the remaining power structure from the old Paris. It also angered most of the rest of France. Having limited connections with workers outside of Paris and almost none the still largely rural peasantry that made up much of France, this was a urban-based revolution without consent from the majority of the theoretically governed. The communards also lacked any real way to even spread their message to the provinces, relying on vague hopes of working-class revolt than a meaningful plan.
The Commune was also incredibly fractured ideologically. Some called themselves Jacobins and directly connected themselves to radicals of old. Followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wanted a loose federation of communes. Blanqui’s communists wanted to use violence to create a revolutionary state. If anything held them together, it was anti-clericalism. All church property in Paris was confiscated by the revolutionary government. The Commune captured the Archbishop of Paris and executed him on May 24.
The French government was not going to tolerate this radicalism in its capital. Finally, the army marched from Versailles. But retaking the city would be very difficult. On April 2, troops started the attack but the communards held out for several weeks. The revolutionaries had built 600 barricades around the city that had to be cleaned out one by one. The French army entered Paris on May 21 and crushed the movement by May 28. The small commune movements in other French cities were also decimated by this time. Along the way, much of Paris burned, some claim by the radical feminists of the Commune although it seems more likely that most of the fires originated from the general chaos of a civil war. The French army claimed about 887 dead; estimates of Parisian citizens killed usually revolve around 20,000, although some recent totals suggest more like 10,000. At the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the army lined up and executed 147 Commune members. About 6000 communards fled as the fighting doomed their experiment, fleeing to surrounding nations.
In the United States, the Paris Commune itself did not have a major impact on American workers, but scared the capitalists, police, politicians, and journalists of the nation as it entered the Gilded Age. During the next decade, any workers’ movement in the U.S. was darkly compared to the Paris Commune as the future if these workers continued to organize. For example, the response to the unemployed organizing in New York’s Tompkins Square Park was completely disproportional with the threat these workers posed. Only wanting to march to the meet with the mayor, they were beaten by the cops while journalists screamed about the Paris Commune coming to the United States. To put this into perspective, the head of this movement was Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, even at its founding one of the most conservative unions in the United States. One can argue, as the sociologist Kim Voss has, that what placed the United States on a more anti-union path than western Europe was not anything about the American character and instead was about American employers busting heads and organizing themselves into anti-union organizations much sooner than in Britain or France. How they took the smallest American workers movement, compared it to the Paris Commune, and called for its violence repressions suggests evidence for the thesis.
In Europe, the story of the Paris Commune was one of possibility, not failure, as it provided evidence that workers could act collectively to build an alternative society, as well as the use of political violence to defend that society against counterrevolutionary forces.
This is the 137th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
The more the marijuana industry becomes ensconced in the regulatory lap of the American state, the harder it is going to be make it illicit again. That marijuana workers filed charges against employers with the National Labor Relations Board that the NLRB chose to consider is a piece of this; even if the case is non-binding, it brings the industry closer to a normal business. The case, brought by the United Food and Commercial Workers and over retaliation against workers organizing against pesticide exposure, was settled last week. That federal labor law now applies to the marijuana industry, regardless of its legal status from a federal perspective, is really important.
Massachusetts is trying to do something about its tipped minimum wage. It raised it in a recent bill all the way to $3.75 an hour by 2017. To say the least that’s not good enough. A new bill has been introduced in the state legislature to eliminate the tipped minimum wage by 2022. That’s a positive step but still isn’t good enough. The tipped minimum wage should be abolished immediately. I’d sure like to see some statement from the Obama Administration about tipped minimum wages. Not sure what power it would have to eliminate these discrepancies without a bill passing Congress (which of course would never happen), but the tipped minimum wage needs to end.
Vance Muse is the founding father of the right to work movement. Not surprisingly, he was also a virulent racist, saying, among other things about unions:
“From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
Meanwhile, right to work gets rejected for this legislative session in West Virginia, but it probably won’t be much longer given the types of politicians West Virginians now vote into office. I feel terrible about the declining work freedoms in West Virginia, but at the same time, given how hard right and racist the state has gone, in a sense voters are going to get what they asked for, even if not in 2015.
Refinery workers with the United Steelworkers have now been on strike since February 1. The main issue in the strike is workplace safety. Let’s take a refresher on the terrible working conditions of the refinery industry by looking at the daughter of a man killed on the job:
Her father was killed by burns sustained in an accident at the then-British Petroleum Texas City refinery in September 2004. Gonzalez lived in the hospital for weeks after the accident and for a long time, Rodriguez and her two sisters and their mother hoped that Gonzalez would pull through. But eventually his body began to fail and his organs started shutting down. The family was together with him at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when they turned off all the machines.
After that, Rodriguez couldn’t even stand to talk about what had happened to her father, but she started researching the industry that employed him for most of his adult life. Only then did she begin to understand what it was really like behind the refinery fence. While he never said a word in front of his daughters about the dangers and the near-misses that were a part of life at the Texas City refinery, Gonzalez would tell his wife about the burns and how careful workers had to be at the refinery, her mother later told her. “He kept that from us because he didn’t want us to worry. If we had known we would have worried all the time,” Rodriguez says now.
An accountant by trade, Rodriguez coped with her grief through research. She learned everything there was to know about how refineries worked and who the companies were answerable to if something went wrong. Rodriguez comforted herself with the thought that at least safety would improve at the refinery. Even in the dangerous world of oil refineries, deaths make the national news and trigger investigations led by USW, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board. Professionals would look at the accident that killed her father, figure out the cause and make sure it wouldn’t happen again, she told herself.
But less than six months later, on March 23, 2005, there was a bigger explosion at the Texas City refinery. BP lawyers had been pushing back on a settlement agreement with the family and contesting the OSHA fines, but the day of the explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 100, they stopped fighting and paid.
Preventing these sorts of incidents is central to this strike. Yet unions continue to be broadly painted as only about wages. That’s not true at all. They are about dignity and representation on the job. That is often represented by money but it is often not the primary issue. Sometimes it is about staying alive.
I am obviously dismayed by Wisconsin passing a right to work bill and Scott Walker signing it. Of course, Walker had said he wouldn’t sign such a bill last year but there was no reason to believe him since he is governing, if one can call it that, with the sole purpose of appealing to Republican primary voters and caucus participants in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. I think I’m even more dismayed that the news was just taken with a giant shrug by most progressives; outside of labor people, hardly anyone gave it more than a notice. That’s sad, not only because of Wisconsin’s great union tradition, but because right to work bills are seen as pretty much so unstoppable now that there’s hardly reason to comment on them. It’s just another step in the inevitable decline of American labor. Even more dismaying is that whereas the original Walker anti-labor actions lead to enormous protests while by 2015, Madison is seeing some protests over yet another unarmed black person murdered by the cops (and I’m glad people are protesting this. Also, see Sarah Jaffe’s essay connecting the two issues.) but there’s barely a whisper of organized protest against Walker signing the bill.
After the original Walker protests, a book came out called Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America. It was one of these occasional books that come out combining labor historians, journalists, and activists to think about the future of American labor. The essays were written in that sweet spot right after the Madison protests and before Occupy. So they reflected that moment in time. I reviewed it in a long-form, multi-book review you can read here if you have access to a university library. What bothered me about this was all the quite esteemed historians making direct reference to the anti-Walker protests as an example of how Americans were revolting over the treatment of public sector unions and how it was a harbinger of things to come.
Um, no. Those essays were dated as soon as they were written. They look even more dated now as Wisconsin joins the majority of the states that are eviscerating public sector unions through right to work laws. I fully expect a national right to work law to be signed by the next Republican president and moves toward reversing the major provisions of the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act over the next decade or two. That’s a much more realistic projection that thinking every moment of protest is going to lead to something larger. Maybe it happens one day. I’d like to think so too. But I’m not feeling great about that right now.
Too much of the talk around women at work these days revolves around wealthy women like Sheryl Sandberg. As Janey Stephenson argues, if we want International Women’s Day to mean something, that requires the closing of sweatshops worldwide. That will only happen if we create legal regimes that force companies to acquiesce to international labor law in their factories and that grants the rights of these usually female workers to sue in corporate nations of origin for real financial damages against their employers or the companies that contract with their employers. Without closing the sweatshops, the international exploitation of women by American corporations will continue and without empowering women and ending the race to the bottom, that international exploitation will never end.