Working-class communities have fought against government-approved monopolization of natural resource economies going back to at least the 1930s, but rarely with much success. That so many resources are depleted suggests many problems with this system, but it continues given the ability of corporations to engage in regulatory capture.
The Ten Commandments of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, submitted to The Carpenter by John Quinn of Local 714 in Queens, 1915.
1. Thou shalt be a union carpenter, a member of the U.B. (United Brotherhood)
2. Thou shalt not belong to any other organizations.
3. Thou shalt keep whole the Saturday half-holiday and all other holidays.
4. Honor and respect thy officers.
5. Thou shalt not become “boisterous” in the meetings of thy local union and want to lick anyone who may disagree with thy opinions.
6. Thou shalt not commit offenses against the laws of the U.B.
7. Thou shalt not steal from the boss. Show him it pays to employ U.B. members.
8. Thou shalt be charitable toward fellow members. Thou shalt not try to gain favor with the foreman by pointing out their shortcomings. Thou shalt not be a “boss’s stool pigeon” for in his heart he shall despise thee.
9. Thou shalt not be envious of they fellow member if he should happen to be working while thou art on the sidewalk. He may need the money as much as thyself.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy fellow member’s good fortune, and if he should happen to own his own little home he may have scraped all his life for the few dollars he has in that home, and will keep on scratching the remainder of his days paying the interest on the mortgage.
This definitely reflects the starkly not radical philosophy of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Regardless of that, it’s kind of cool.
On March 7, 1932, several thousand unemployed workers marched toward Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Upon reaching the complex, the city police and Ford’s armed guards, very similar entities, opened fire on the marchers, killing five and wounding more than 60.
Henry Ford still has an international reputation for good labor management. This is based entirely upon his 1914 decision to pay his workers $5 a day, the equivalent of about $113 today. That was indeed pretty impressive, doubling his workers’ wages. Here’s the problem though–he didn’t raise that wage for well over a decade. Moreover, Ford was a small-minded mind and demanded nearly complete control over his workers’ lives through his Social Department and its 50 investigators that detailed workers’ everyday lives to make sure they lived up to Ford’s moral standards. Ford also hated unions. He hired Harry Bennett, a former boxer, to bust unions and beat organizers, which Bennett and his men did with extreme prejudice, most famously at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937, when Bennett’s men brutally beat United Auto Workers leaders including Walter Reuther. So when the Great Depression began in 1929, Ford had no patience for those who would argue he had a responsibility for his workers.
As the Depression deepened, the auto companies laid off thousands of workers. Between 1929 and 1932, automobile production fell by 75%. For those still working, wages dropped by 37%. The resulting unemployment led to depression and suicide. There were 113 suicides in Detroit in 1927, 568 in 1931. By 1932, there were 400,000 unemployed people in Michigan, most of them in the Detroit area. Dave Moore remembered life in Detroit at the time:
I hope you never will witness what people went through. People would go down to the old Eastern Market and pick up half-rotten white potatoes or sweet potatoes, lettuce and cabbage, whatever the farmers were throwing away. That was the source of food for many people, picking up a half-rotten banana or a half-rotten potato, any kind of half-rotten vegetables, to bring home so your mama could make a meal out of it. I came from a family of seven boys and two girls, and the older boys had to leave home. Whatever food there was, was left for the younger ones. David Moore, and a lot of other David Moore’s went very hungry at that time. But we tried to make it possible for our moms and dads and brothers and sisters to eat. We’d go out and try to salvage whatever we could from the stores and street corners, wherever different kinds of food – discarded vegetables and meat – had been thrown out because they couldn’t sell it. That’s how we got together a meal for ourselves.
The unemployed began organizing, with help of the Communist Party that was organizing the unemployed across the United States. Two communist-led groups, the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers of America decided on a march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge complex in Dearborn to present petitions demanding jobs. Focusing attention on the Ford Motor Company seemed an ideal way to galvanize support for unemployment relief at one of the worst times in American history.
The march had between 3000 and 5000 workers and was nonviolent. Workers held placards demanding jobs and there were some feisty speeches, but nothing more threatening than that. The workers marched to the Dearborn city limits but when they arrived, the sympathetic government of Detroit mayor and future Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy disappeared, to be replaced by the Ford dominated Dearborn police. Ford completely controlled Dearborn. The city government, police, and fire fighters answered directly to Henry Ford. And they were determined to keep the communists and the unemployed out of the Ford fiefdom.
Upon reaching the city limits, the Dearborn police sprayed tear gas at the marchers and beat them with their clubs. The crowd fled and the nonviolence turned into self-defense, with marchers throwing stones at the police to fight back against police violence. The police retreated and the marchers regrouped. A mile later, nearing the River Rouge gates, the Dearborn Fire Department sprayed fire hoses upon the marchers on what was one of the winter’s coldest days. The police and Ford security guards began firing into the crowd. 3 worker–Joe York, Coleman Leny, and Joe DeBlasio–were killed and 22 wounded.
At this point, the organizers called off the march and began retreating. But then Harry Bennett, who was as bloodthirsty an anti-union thug as anyone could imagine, pulled up in his car and opened fire on the crowd personally. People began throwing rocks at his car and injured him. The police then opened fire with a machine gun, killing a fourth worker by the name of Joe Bussell. A fifth, Curtis Williams, an African-American, died of his wounds a month later.
That night, the forces of reaction kicked into high gear. The wounded marchers were chained to their hospital beds. Communist offices were raided in Detroit. A nationwide manhunt began for CPUSA leader William Z. Foster. There were no legal consequences for Harry Bennett, any of his thugs, or the Dearborn police. Detroit newspapers blamed the whole thing on the communists, saying they had opened fire. The communists tried to blame Frank Murphy along with everyone else, but that didn’t stick with Detroit workers. Even the AFL, anti-communist as ever, condemned the murder of workers.
A funeral march of up to 70,000 people laid the 4 murdered workers to rest, side by side. When Williams died, the cemetery would not allow an African-American to be buried there. Have to keep the color line in death as in life after all. So instead his ashes were dropped over the River Rouge plant from an airplane.
Here’s an interesting little film produced in 1932 about the incident. The first 2 minutes show a march in February in Detroit. Then it gets to footage of the repression in Dearborn.
Ford would continue his harsh anti-union stance. Long after General Motors and Chrysler signed contracts with the United Auto Workers, Ford resisted, finally relenting only in 1941.
On March 4, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiff in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, deciding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to same-sex sexual harassment, and creating a landmark expansion of judicial oversight into the workplace.
In 1991, Joseph Oncale got a job working as a roustabout on an oil rig for $7 an hour. Employed by Sundowner Offshore Services, Oncale was assigned to a Chevron USA rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While on board, Oncale was subjected to severe sexual harassment by his supervisor, John Lyons, and his fellow workers Danny Pippen and Brandon Johnson. Lyons placed his penis on Oncale’s neck and arm. On October 25, 1991, Lyons also publicly sodomized Oncale with a bar of soap in the rig showers as Pippen held him down. Lyons also threatened to rape him. Today, most of us would no doubt consider the soap incident rape, but throughout the case, there seems to have been a steady distinction between the two incidents.
Oncale stood up for himself through this entire process. He complained to his employer, who basically said he was gay (in fact, Oncale was heterosexual) and did nothing. Oncale quit, requesting that his pink slip state that he left because of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. In his deposition, Oncale said, ““I felt that if I didn’t leave my job, that I would be raped or forced to have sex.”
With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Oncale then filed a suit against Sundowner in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, saying his rights were violated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But there was no precedent to applying Title VII to same-sex harassment. Title VII forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by all employers with more than fifteen employees (indeed, if your workplace has less than 15 employees, Title VII does not apply. I don’t know anything about the history of this. If anyone does, let me know). Title VII does not explicitly cover same-sex issues, as one would expect in 1964. The District Court ruled in favor of Sundowner. Oncale then appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled for the defendant.
The Supreme Court overruled the Fifth Circuit with unanimity based on a previous decision that held Title VII “evinces a congressional intent to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment.” It decided that Title VII’s protections against workplace harassment applied to same-sex relationships, even if those relationships were not explicitly sexual. Sundowner argued that applying Title VII to this case would create government interference into the workplace in an unprecedented manner that would serve “as a general civility code for the American workplace.” Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the opinion, rejected this, drawing a limited application to the decision: “the prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the ‘conditions’ of the victim’s employment.”
Not only did Oncale set a precedent for same-sex sexual harassment, but it also expanded the legal definition of sexual harassment to include something broader than sexual desire, so long as it makes a worker uncomfortable on the job. The implications of this did not make many commenters comfortable. Here’s a Jeffrey Rosen piece from The New Republic expressing his concern that the courts were equating sexual expression at the workplace with sexual harassment and urging the Court to stay out regulating workplace behavior. I’m guessing Rosen now really wishes he hadn’t written that. Reading Rosen’s piece sixteen years later shows how long the road has been in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. The late 20th century workplace was a space where power was used for sexual advantage and intimidation. Many men thought of making sexual advances on women almost as a right. Today, we slightly laugh about that while we watch the ridiculously lewd office behavior in Mad Men, but of course those sorts of things happened in any number of ways in any number of workplace settings. Creating and enforcing protections for women was controversial and contested in the 1990s. Extending such protections for men at a time when the anti-gay movement was as its peak seemed even more unlikely.
Of course, like American employers blaming workers for accidents, I have little doubt that the Soviet state could have mandated safeguards on machines that would have prevented a lot of pain and suffering had it had even minimal accountability to the public.
Too often, including in the comments at this blog, the idea that labor unions and environmentalists have irreconcilable goals goes unchallenged. But there is in fact significant common ground. Over the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Transit Workers Union, health care unions, and other unions opposed its construction on grounds of both environmental health and the future of the planet. Employers love to say that the Environmental Protection Agency is a job killer. Too often, many unions buy into that rhetoric as well. But not all. A leader on pushing back against job blackmail for years is the United Steelworkers. The USW has long used EPA regulations to push its own interests both inside and outside the workplace. Other unions that used to do this as well were the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), which is the subject of the second half of my book project. Unfortunately, those latter unions no longer exist. But the Steelworkers keep up the fight. Here it is with a press release ripping the oil refinery industry for violating EPA standards on safety and the workplace environment.
Part of the problem right now on this labor-environmental issue is that the industrial unions of the CIO were always much more open to making alliances with environmental organizations than the AFL trade unions. But it’s the industrial unions that have been slaughtered by outsourcing, deindustrialization, and globalization, while many of the trade unions, especially in the building trades, remain relatively healthy. So a changing culture in the remnants of American unionism isn’t helping. But the reality is far more complicated than the stereotype of workers and environmentalists being always opposed.
On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO gave tacit support for building the Keystone XL Pipeline, a very disappointing development for many involved in the climate movement, as well for some of the federation’s constituent unions that had fought the building trades over whether labor should support it. The Transit Workers’ Union took a particularly leading role on this issues, with the Laborers, IBEW, and Teamsters the unions most pushing for building it. I have more on this at LaborOnline. An excerpt:
I understand the tough situation that Keystone creates for organized labor. A union’s job is to protect the interests of its members, including keeping them employed, all too rare today. But in the early 21st century, with organized labor in deep decline, does it make sense to promote short-term job growth at the cost of telling the thousands of people who care deeply about a variety of progressive causes, including climate change, that organized labor is not an ally?
Let’s also remember that climate change is the greatest issue faced by humans in the 21st century. Events like Hurricane Sandy, the drought parching half the United States, and the massive forest fires in the West that are changing the ecology of states like New Mexico will almost certainly become far more common. Climate change will disproportionately affect the poor. Lack of air conditioning will cause higher death rates from heat exhaustion. Warmer weather will lead to higher cockroach populations that cause elevated asthma rates among urban dwellers. The poor in low-elevation nations like Bangladesh will suffer tremendously, not to mention those living in floodplains in the United States. Climate change is absolutely a working-class issue. Organized labor needs to play a leading role in conversations on how to fight this menace. Building a massive pipeline that makes the problem worse is counterproductive.
So I understand why LIUNA and the building trades are behind the pipeline. I won’t criticize them too harshly for a stance that will create jobs. But if organized labor wants to remain relevant within the 21st century progressive movement, it can’t support policies that intensify climate change. Endorsing more petroleum pipelines may create a few jobs in the short-term, but has starkly negative long-term consequences, both for the planet and for labor’s ability to make much-needed alliances with other organizations.
From my perspective, it just comes down to whether it makes more sense to get a few jobs now or be relevant in the movement to make a world a better place. Labor is getting crushed left and right and part of the reason is that it by and large has not made itself available to be part of the social movements trying to change this country for the better. It’s come around on immigration, much to its credit. Environmental issues are just as hard, but parts of organized labor are excellent on these issues and others are at least willing to have conversation. Some unions though, they just don’t care. Meanwhile, the climate is changing more every day.
No, the problem is tainting all of labor with the charge that, “It was perhaps the most visible and contentious example of a phenomenon seen, in one form or another, around the country: otherwise progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration. In terms of prisoners rights in general, and solitary confinement in particular, unions are seen as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.”
The authors provide absolutely no evidence for this statement. I’m not even saying it isn’t true. But they need to show their work in order to make such broad-based claims. The authors talk about SEIU and the Teamsters but offer no concrete examples. They talk about the AFGE’s support for solitary confinement, but that’s different than opposing all prison reforms. Are “progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration?” I’m pretty skeptical of that claim.
In addition, it is completely unfair to dismiss union’s claims of security for prison guards. I know that prison guards often do bad things. I know the system has a lot of corruption and that guards can abuse their power. I also know that profit margins for privatized prisons and underfunding for public prisons means that guards can be overwhelmed. Solitary confinement is bad public policy. But from the perspective of the prison guards, I don’t doubt that they are genuinely very scared when dealing with some of these prisoners. Part of a union’s job is protecting its members. We have to respect that position.
Again, none of this is to say that AFSCME is right or that any of the union stances are per se correct on this issue. I am saying that this is poor labor reporting.
The entire term “Big Labor” is terrible. It assumes that all labor unions are the same, which is absolutely not true. It assumes that the AFL-CIO leadership sets all policies and acts as a monolith, with a white guy in a big cushy office telling everyone what to do. This is most definitely not how the AFL-CIO operates. It also repeats right-wing talking points about organized labor and obscures both the movement’s complexity and reinforces stereotypes.
There’s been a lot of discussion about “saving” the labor movement in recent weeks. Two particular pieces to point out. First, Josh Eidelson hosted a forum at The Nation that included CWA President Larry Cohen, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and a number of researchers and activists. Second, Jacobin interviewed Canadian labor activist Sam Gindin. The solutions for saving labor were along the lines of what you’d expect. There’s a lot of good ideas–focus on organizing over politics, organize immigrants, labor should think about class more than workplace, create a strong progressive coalition to retake the Democratic Party, etc.
I have no real criticism of these ideas. I think they are all solid and, taken together, might really change things. I do want to offer a couple of additional thoughts.
There are two fundamental problems organized labor faces. One, the history of American labor shows that it is never strong enough to create long-term concrete change, or for that matter just winning over workplaces and holding on to what they have, without supportive or at least tolerant federal and state governments. It’s hardly coincidental that the one big victory for Gilded Age labor came at Cripple Creek in 1894 when the governor of Colorado used the state militia to intervene on the side of workers rather than employers. For all the hard organizing over decades, it wasn’t until the New Deal legitimized unions that they had any real success. So we can talk about subordinating politics to organizing and there’s a very good argument to be made in that direction. But the political game can’t be given up entirely because without it, there’s just not much precedence for the success of organized labor.
What organized labor needs to do is to rethink its political actions. I’d argue for the necessity of shifting resources out of presidential and congressional politics and into local and state politics, where they can make a more concrete difference in their members’ lives and where they can foster and develop politicians that will eventually rise into Congress and reshape the Democratic Party into a working-class force. The current emphasis on Washington made a lot of sense in the 1933-1981 era, but it’s been a losing game for 30 years. The AFL-CIO is a very Washington-focused organization and shifting significant resources to the states and counties, not to mention giving locals significant power to engage in local politics, would be a hard task. But I think it is necessary.
Second, the changes in the workplace and workforce has put labor on its heels for decades. The big factory with the shopfloor that contained thousands of organized workers was a great space for building union power. How you do that with our decentralized workforce of the 21st century is a tough question. The old CIO industrial unions were built on the big factory model and making the institutional adjustments are as hard as the strategic adjustments. This is where you have people suggesting cross-class organizing and organized labor playing a central role in all sorts of progressive policies, including immigration, gay marriage, environmental issues, etc. That makes sense from a theoretical strategic perspective but I want to suggest a couple of problems that any serious discussion of labor’s future has to deal with. One, cross-class organizing is a great idea, but there’s a reason for paying dues. If labor is providing a broad definition of representation to workers who do not pay dues, how does it function as an effective organization? In the short term, that might work, but in the long-term you have to turn those people into dues-paying members.
Two, the ultimate job of a labor union is to represent the interests and desires of its membership. While organized labor can provide real leadership and push members to take more progressive stands, it can’t completely ignore its membership. So when you have a significant percentage of membership that might be strongly anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist, etc., how do you deal with that? I’m not offering this as an excuse for organized labor not playing a progressive role in non-economic social issues. What I am saying is that talking about organized labor in the abstract in pretty easy, but organized labor is made up of working-class people who have a variety of opinions on issues and a lot of them are not going to be done with their unions becoming this broader progressive force on, say, climate change.
In other words, everything about saving organized labor is hard and complex. We should avoid anything that even looks like a simple answer.
One real hair-raiser for rightbloggers was Obama’s proposed raising of the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, which would lift the annual income of low-end workers to a princely $18,000. “The largest percentage of minimum wage earners have ‘less than a high school’ education,” reported Warren Beatty at American Thinker. “…The last time I checked, public schooling included high school. And public schooling did/does not directly cost (except for ‘cool’ clothes) those being educated. Dropping out of school is a conscious choice. Yet we consumers are expected to pay higher prices to support what is a bad decision. Some economists suggest that increasing the minimum wages may actually encourage some students to drop out of high school.” So Obama was not only costing businessmen money, he was also contributing to juvenile delinquency.
“There are people who would like to work for $4 an hour,” said Ron Ross at the American Spectator, “and there are employers who would like to hire them for that wage. However, for them to enter into such a transaction is a criminal act. Some far-away clueless politician has arbitrarily decided that $4 an hour is not fair and not enough to live on.” Well, it’s good to see Republicans already working on their 2016 campaign pitch.
Like Roy, I strongly support the Republicans running on this platform in 2016.