Run-DMC reminds us of the hard economic times of African-Americans during the Reagan years.
The legendary cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin with a comedic song about the very unpleasant work of castrating farm animals.
Blind Willie McTell on the perils of agricultural work and nature in the American South.
Dolly Parton reminds us about work and feminism.
This fine Labor Day, I want to run a series of posts remembering the great history of work and the lack thereof in American music. For the first post, here’s some Dave Alvin. A former member of The Blasters and X, Alvin has a long history of writing about unions and work in song during his long solo career. Here’s an early example, “Brother on the Line.”
Also from his first solo album is “Jubilee Train,” a good example of remembering how great the New Deal was for the American working-class.
During the Bush years, he wrote “Out of Control,” which he would dedicate live to the Dick Cheney economy:
Finally, on his latest album, Alvin wrote one of the best songs about working people in the last several years, “Gary, Indiana 1959″ about the 1959 steel strike:
It’s also worth remembering that today is anniversary of the Rock Springs Massacre, so this is a good time to remember that the history of American work is very much also the history of immigration and racial oppression.
First, most Americans hold favorable views of unions. According to a June 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans hold favorable views of labor unions, a 10 percent increase from the number in the same poll conducted two years earlier. This is first time since January 2007 that a majority of the public has viewed unions favorably. 80 percent of “liberal Democrats” hold favorable views on unions. Women, minorities and youth – key groups for organized labor — hold the most pro-union attitudes. There is no straightforward relationship between public approval for unions and union growth, but the labor movement must figure out how to bring into its fold the majority of Americans who like unions.
Second, bucking national trends, union membership in California increased by a whopping 110,000 members in 2012, even as it fell by 368,000 nationwide. Much of the increase in California, which has the nation’s largest number of union members, was among healthcare workers and Latino workers. In several other states with growing Latino populations, membership grew more modestly, but these states may soon follow California’s lead.
Third, some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers have been standing up for decent wages and working conditions. Wal-Mart workers and warehouse workers under contract with Wal-Mart have gone out on strike around the country. Port truckers in L.A. and Long Beach voted to unionize, as did carwash workers in L.A. and New York, and taxi drivers in New York. Following the examples of New York, Hawaii enacted a domestic worker “Bill of Rights” and California may soon do the same. Fast food workers — most of who are adults working for little more than $10 per hour — have walked off the job in New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Seattle. They won’t be able to bargain with their employers anytime soon, but few would have predicted their brave job actions last year.
Fourth, after years of Republican obstructionism, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has a full compliment of five members for the first time under the Obama administration. The NLRB election system provides weak protection for workers’ right to organize, and its influence has been severely constrained by the courts, but it remains an important bulwark against recalcitrant employers who violate workers’ fundamental rights.
Finally, as demonstrated by next week’s “open convention,” the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are more flexible, imaginative, and inclusive than ever before. They have embraced the struggles of domestic workers, carwash workers, Wal-Mart workers, fast food workers and others. They have formed deep alliances with the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Sierra Club, religious organizations, and other groups that support basic justice for American workers. And they have played a key role in lobbying for federal legislation that benefits all workers – healthcare reform, equal pay legislation, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage and paid sick leave.
Other than maybe active growth in California, I’m not sure any of this means all that much in terms of growing union power. A functional NLRB is a good thing, making meaningful, alliances is very important (although what that means in terms of concrete results I’m not sure), and I’m certainly glad fast food workers are standing up for themselves. But sweet icing can’t cover up a cake poisoned by nearly a half century of capital mobility, ideological attacks on unions, and corporate regulatory capture.
Some of you probably caught this last week, but the death of this intern is extremely disturbing:
Serious concerns have been raised tonight about the punishing hours endured by interns at City investment banks following the death of a young Bank of America Merrill Lynch employee.
Moritz Erhardt, 21, was nearing the end of a seven-week internship in London when he collapsed at home after working until 6am for three days in a row.
Around 300 interns working at various banks stay at the Claredale House student accommodation complex in Bethnal Green in east London for between seven and 10 weeks over the summer. One intern, who did not want to be named, told The Independent those in Mr Erhardt’s investing banking division group faced the longest hours.
He said: “We all work long hours, but the guys working regularly until 3am or 4am are those in investment banking. People working in markets will have to be in at 6am but not stay as late, so what time you can leave the office depends on your division.
“You’re only doing it for up to 10 weeks so there’s a general acceptance of it. I see many people wandering around, blurry-eyed and drinking caffeine to get through but people don’t complain because the potential rewards are so great. We’re competing for some very well-paid jobs.”
There are at least 3 major problems here. First is the exploitation of interns. The most serious example of this doctors and the pointless grotesquely long hours they are forced to serve during their internships, potentially putting people’s lives at risk. Can you imagine pilots having to fly 24 straight hours? Within the financial industry, there’s even less of a reason for this. What do financial workers have to do that’s so important? The answer is impress the employer enough to let them into the inner sanctum of full-time employment, which is the second problem. This is all about the brutality and masochism of our capitalists. You want to work for a company as awesome as Bank of America? Prove it. Do whatever we tell you to do. This is macho hazing and little more. The third problem is the general expectation of extreme hours and massive personal sacrifice that has come out of the tech industry and infected much of our work culture. Americans today will simply volunteer to work 60, 70, even 80 hours a week at a salaried job, simply because it is so ingrained in the culture that no one questions it.
Our national work culture of the twenty-first century is highly disturbing and needs serious reform. Bank of America effectively murdered this guy but they will go completely unpunished and do the same thing to next summer’s intern class.
A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.
In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.
As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.
“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many [chemical] accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, a nationally recognized expert on chemical safety who recently testified before a congressional hearing on West.
Let’s be clear, this is intentional. Corporations don’t want you to know where things are produced or under what conditions. Business has ensured that the relevant government agencies that could effectively track this information remain chronically underfunded. We can blame government and there’s no question that it isn’t enough of a priority for either political party. But one party is opposed to the sheer existence of these agencies and that makes it awfully hard to craft an effective regulatory system.
An excerpt from my book manuscript draft, part of which explores the history of worker safety in logging. Sadly, things aren’t always so different today:
On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from the saw he worked when he fell into it, killing him. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Anderson & Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson died the following day, leaving behind a wife and child.
Many workers survived their grievous wounds. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Workers like Campbell, Lang, and Boyer faced grim futures as disabled persons, as did many people disabled on the job before the passage of the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1920, which provided occupational training and job placement for those injured on at the workplace.
Matt and I have had our share of arguments over how to create a better life for working people, but I mostly endorse his statement about Guaranteed Basic Income.
The minimum wage typically gets debated in terms of econometric studies about disemployment impacts. But the problem with the minimum wage isn’t the alleged disemployment, it’s the freedom. Imagine a worker earning just slightly above the minimum wage, and also working under some kind of conditions that he finds annoying. He goes to the boss and asks for a change. Turn the heat up a little in the winter. Or let him pick which music plays rather than sticking with some dumb playlist that’s been assigned from the top down. Or get a more comfortable chair. Or manage the line this way rather than that one. There are dozens and dozens of little non-wage decisions in any given workplace that impact a person’s happiness and life satisfaction. But the manager looks at it and says there are sound business reasons for sticking with the status quo. Now the problem with the minimum wage is that even if the worker values the change much more highly than he values an extra 2 cents an hour, he’s not allowed to trade 2 cents an hour for an improvement in his working conditions.
Conversely, I strongly suspect that one reason empirical studies often don’t disemployment effects of minimum wage hikes is that there are a lot of non-wage dimensions to the employer-employee relationship along which things can change.
The problem with no minimum wage, however, is that the kind of freedom involved in allowing for unconstrained wage bargaining is that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The ideal solution to these problems, however, lies not in the workplace but outside of it. Exactly where King and Henry George thought it belonged—in guaranteeing to everyone a minimum standard of living whether or not they work. With that in place, employers will face a de facto minimum job quality. Your job has to beat “unemployment + living off the GBI” rather than “unemployment + homelessness.” You can reach that job quality threshold with money. Or you can reach it by providing valuable training and experience for the future. Or by having a really enjoyable atmosphere of some kind. Realistically, it’ll be a mix.
There are multiple reasons for the minimum wage, which I obviously think should be much, much higher. But part of it is that it was an achievable victory during the New Deal in a way GBI never was. It was part of the piecemeal construction of workers’ rights that reached its pinnacle between 1938 and 1965. Union recognition was also central to that and what people often forget about unions is that they weren’t only or even predominantly about wages, but about dignity at the workplace.
Matt brings up the example of the chair. Let’s expand on that. In the 1970s, the International Woodworkers of America, the union that makes up the heart of my logging book manuscript, fought very hard for the ergonomic workplace. The IWA made alliances with workers and scholars and researchers in Japan, Sweden, and Germany to bring ergonomic timber mills into the Pacific Northwest. This was part of a larger attempt to empower workers on the shop floor through enforcing OSHA regulations. The IWA was among the nation’s leading unions in this task; whereas many unions chose to focus on other issues or fell for job blackmail and employer propaganda that OSHA regulations would force companies to move factories abroad (which they were planning on doing anyway), the IWA centered these issues and made real differences in workers’ lives. If you have GBI, unions could focus even more on the importance of dignity at the workplace, however workers themselves define it. Everyone’s life is better.
As for Henry George’s Single Tax, as I’ve stated before, such one-trick ideas were too simplistic for the modern workings of capitalism, even though that simplicity appealed greatly to 19th century Americans who believed so strongly in the system and just wanted it tweaked to put it back in control of everyday people. But moving toward a tax or a system that would provide GBI is a noble goal. Once you have Guaranteed Basic Income, the world of working-class possibilities opens up. You can work to raise the GBI. Or, if it is at a respectable level, you can fight for an ergonomic workplace, the importance of which can’t be overstated for those who have suffered from its lack.
In a Democratic administration, OSHA makes alliances with women’s groups to improve health and safety for women who work in construction.
In a Republican administration, OSHA is controlled by industry hacks who prioritize industry profits over keeping workers alive.
Glad to see OSHA make this step. Won’t change the world, but it’s positive.