The site Everyday Feminism published the most ridiculous article ever last week. Titled “20 Ways to Help Your Employees Who Are Struggling with Food Insecurity and Hunger,” it does everything but challenge employer power. It has such useful tips as think about whether the employee can afford the expensive meal at the restaurant to don’t judge them by their clothes. It however does not mention the one thing that will actually ensure your employees don’t struggle with food insecurity and hunger. I’m about to go all caps now just so that it’s clear.
PAY THEM MORE MONEY
But no, can’t mention that. Challenging employer power evidently has nothing to do with everyday feminism.
Locking out a university’s faculty right before the start of classes seems like a drastic step, but that is just what Long Island University (LIU) did this weekend, when it barred all 400 members of its faculty union from its Brooklyn campus, cut off their email accounts and health insurance, and told them they would be replaced. The move came three days after the union’s contract expired. Now, the faculty is furious, and planning rallies and pickets with support from the American Federation of Teachers. On Tuesday, faculty voted 226 to 10 to reject a proposed contract from LIU, and the faculty senate voiced their support for a vote of no-confidence in the university’s president Kimberly Cline, 135 to 10. Faculty rallied outside the university’s Brooklyn campus Wednesday with a giant inflatable rat as classes began, taught by non-union members.
Labor historians say they can’t recall an example of a university using a lockout against faculty members. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell professor of labor relations, says they’re particularly unwise in the service sector, or any sector where a company has clients such as students and donors to placate. More typically, she says, lockouts are used in the industrial sector, where customers are removed from labor practices.
Why did the faculty reject the contract? Because it was pure union-busting all the way:
Arthur Kimmel has been an adjunct at LIU’s Brooklyn campus for more than 20 years. Under the terms of the proposed contract, he would have his income cut by 30 to 35 percent, he said. That’s because, in addition to the $1,800 or so per course he teaches, he has received pay for having office hours and money from an adjunct- benefits trust fund to help defray the cost of health insurance. Kimmel says the university’s proposal would eliminate the adjunct- benefits trust fund and payments for office hours, among other cuts. The new proposal would also decrease the number of credit hours he could teach, and establishes a two-tier system for adjuncts so that new employees would receive less than Kimmel does.
“I think that what the administration is doing, and has done from first day of the current president’s administration, is gutting the university and creating the archetype of the corporatization of the university, where the interest is not in education, but is purely financial,” he told me.
First, I really struggle to see how this turns out well for LIU. How do you replace an entire faculty? I know there is a massive oversupply of teachers out there since the same union-busting administrators now prefer to build themselves nice offices and give themselves 5-figure pay raises rather than hire faculty. But there are also lots of potential faculty who aren’t going to be scabs. This is awful for the students as well.
Worst-case scenario, for the university, would be that the National Labor Relations Board could decide that the university has committed the lockout in an environment of unfair labor practices, at which point LIU would have to pay back wages. But even the best case scenario probably isn’t great: Even if the school reaches an agreement with the union and the 400 faculty are given their jobs back, LIU will still be facing budget problems, which may be exacerbated by students staying away. And worse, it will be remembered as the place of higher education that was the first to lock out its faculty. Those wounds could last a long time.
But if it was to succeed, this is extremely frightening. This is a Gilded Age union-busting tactic used against a vulnerable sector in the New Gilded Age. Moreover, it is my sector. The precedent this would set would be titanic. It’s hard to see it happening at a place like my institution, which is very large and without a pool of eligible replacement faculty, but at smaller schools especially, I could see entire faculty unions being wiped out, pay lowered, and conditions worsened significantly.
Myth No. 3
Right-to-work laws would bankrupt unions.
For the past year, unions across the country have been terrified by a single word: Friedrichs, referring to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case that was all but certain to place public-sector employees in a “right to work” status. That would have meant workers who benefitted from union contracts would not have to pay any union dues. In briefings before the court and in public articles, labor advocates cast the issue in the language of economics, as one of free-ridership: At the Century Foundation, education policy analyst Richard Kahlenberg summarized Friedrichs as a referendum on whether there is a “constitutional right to free ride on public sector unions.”
But right-to-work does not necessarily translate into high levels of covered, “free-riding” workers who don’t pay. For instance, all federal employees, including postal workers, are under right-to-work. In the federal workforce (excluding postal employees), 79 percent of the workers who are covered under a union contract have chosen to join; among postal employees, more than 92 percent covered under a contract have chosen to join. In a brief submitted in the Friedrichs case, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy pointed out that union membership among union-represented workers has remained around 80 percent despite right-to-work policies passed in recent years.
Yet right-to-work laws threaten to expose real weaknesses inside unions: a lack of solidarity and participation among members. Twenty-five years ago, in their study on union membership attitudes and participation, Daniel Gallagher and George Strauss wrote that “compared with European unionists, those in North America look upon unionism more as an insurance policy than an instrument in the class struggle or even as a social movement.” Labor’s approach to its membership has changed little during the intervening years, with unions still presenting themselves as a service to their members. Though it is difficult to gauge levels of solidarity, one way of measuring it is through the use of strikes. Strikes are among labor’s strongest weapons, but they require a great deal of solidarity to ensure that workers don’t cross the picket line or that the union does not face a decertification vote following the strike. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of strikes declined by more than 90 percent, from 801 in 1990 to 72 last year.
A good point. It’s not like Friedrichs meant that public sector unions would have to be decimated. Of course they would in reality because the American labor movement is largely simply not set up to have that level of internal organizing. It takes a lot of work and a lot of committed members. And a lot of workers just don’t care about their union enough to have that level of commitment. Maybe that’s the union’s fault. But Marvit is right: there are examples that could give us hope.
Myth No. 5
Unions are a bulwark against globalization.
From NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, labor unions have positioned themselves as the primary critics of, and protectors of workers against, globalization and free trade. The AFL-CIO, for instance, states that the TPP “appears modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a free trade agreement that boosts global corporate profits while leaving working families behind.” Likewise, the SEIU calls the TPP “NAFTA on steroids” and “a secret trade agreement that must be stopped.”
The reason for their opposition is clear: Increased globalization often leads to more competition with countries where workers are paid far less, exploiting those workers while making it difficult to keep American wages high.
But despite the best efforts of labor, including large protests in the 1990s, globalization has largely continued apace, and U.S. workers have paid the price. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while NAFTA promised to create 200,000 new jobs for American workers, since its 1994 inception 682,900 jobs have been lost. Another EPI report found that international trade depressed wages for non-college-educated workers by 5.5 percent, meaning an annual loss of $1,800 for the average worker. Meanwhile, workers overseas often face even worse labor conditions, with fewer protections and lower wages.
I would say that calling them an ineffective bulwark against globalization is more precise because to a greater or lesser extent depending on the union, they have tried to serve that function. But there’s no question that they have been ineffective. They simply don’t have enough power for that. They never have.
On September 6, 1869, the Avondale Colliery mine near Plymouth, Pennsylvania caught on fire, killing 110 workers. This disaster, one of the first major coal disasters in the United States, led to some of the nation’s first workplace safety laws, but ultimately, many thousands more workers would have to die before the nation took workplace safety seriously.
By the end of the Civil War, the nation began to rely on coal as its most important fuel. During the mid-19th century, eastern cities and factories started to turn from wood to coal for fuel as transportation networks to get it from the often relatively remote coal fields to urban centers developed enough to make coal mining a profitable endeavor.
The hard work and dangerous conditions led to the Welsh miners forming a union. The Workers Benevolent Association formed in 1868. They immediately pushed to regulate the Pennsylvania mines by the same standards that existed in Britain. That included multiple mine entrances and ventilation requirements. Pennsylvania had actually enacted a weak version of this as a law, but had written in an exception for Luzerne County at the request of a local politician. So at Avondale, the mine was as dangerous as ever.
The morning of September 6, the mine caught fire with about 200 men inside. The mine’s furnace caught fire. It was about 100 feet from the entrance, but it was connected by a flue, which quickly spread it. All of this was made of wood, which of course meant an almost instant conflagration, as was also common in cities throughout the U.S. at this time. The mine was quickly engulfed, with over half the workers dying. Volunteers rushed to the mine and the fire was put out through buckets of water. Volunteers then went inside to find any survivors. Two of them died from the fumes. Of the 110 dead miners, 72 were married. They left behind 158 children.
A few days later, a coroner’s inquest launched an investigation of the fire. The mine’s managers hinted that the WBA had committed arson, as the workers had recently returned from a brief strike. WBA representative Henry Evans had a very different response, damning a system of incredible danger. In response to someone telling him he was condemning the system, he replied, “That is exactly the intention. We miners intend to prove here who is responsible for that system. We intend to prove that it is wrong – WRONG – to send men to work in such mines, and that we have known it for long years; but we must work or starve; that is where the miners stand on this question, and we mean to use this occasion to prove it.” The WBA had held meetings around the state after the fire to demand change. WBA president John Siney told workers:
Men, if you must die with your boots on, die for your families, your homes, your country, but do not consent to die like rats in a trap for those who take no more interest in you than in the pick you dig with. Let me ask if the men who own this mine would as unhesitatingly go down in it to win bread as the poor fellows who lives were snuffed beneath where you stand and who shall henceforth live with us only as a memory. If they did, would they not provide more than one avenue of escape? Aye, men, they surely would and what they would do for themselves they must be compelled by law to do for their workmen.
The inquest went on to find that the fire and the gases caused by it killed the miners and suggested more ventilation systems in the mines to prevent future disasters, but the mine owners were not charged with any crimes.
A few workers here or there would not create any sort of legal challenge to the unregulated mining system. But 110 dead workers would. With outrage pouring in from around the state and the nation, politicians were moved to act. The state of Pennsylvania responded with the passage of first comprehensive mine safety legislation in American history. First, later in 1869, it passed a law specific to Schuykill County and the next year for the whole state. It mandated at least two mine exits and better ventilation systems. It banned boys under the age of 12 from working in the mines and created a system of inspections for the state’s mines. It also criminalized actions that workers took in the mines that might make them more unsafe, which might include riding on loaded coal cars or carrying lit matches into areas with gas lamps. This fundamentally blamed accidents on workers, which has been at the base of most workplace safety law and attitudes through American history, at least up to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. That took attention and responsibility away from employers and from work processes that were inherently unsafe in an age where profit was deified. Given that workers were often paid by the ton and that they were not paid for any safety work that they were nonetheless required to perform, it’s hardly surprising that many of them would seek to cut corners on safety when they were trying to feed their families.
Even these minimal laws were largely unenforced. Pennsylvania and the coal industry at large would suffer disaster after disaster and even continues to do so today. Some of this is the nature of mining underground, but this is almost always exacerbated by corporate indifference to workers’ lives, most notoriously in recent years by Don Blankenship, whose personal intervention in avoiding safety regulations killed 29 of his workers. Still, Pennsylvania did periodically attempt to expand upon the post-Avondale laws, including creating a state hospital for those injured in the coal mines in 1879 and an 1881 law requiring any mine with more than 20 employees to have a way to take injured miners to their homes or a hospital when they got hurt. But these laws were barely window dressing and workers continued to die. It does seem that there was a brief decrease in the death rates in the mines up until about 1875 but it stagnated for decades after that.
On September 5, 1934, the governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid mill owners in the textile strike overtaking their state and the east coast. This strike, not only mobilizing the remnant apparel workers of the northeast, but the traditionally anti-union workers of the South, was a shock to the system of the New Deal state, helping it realize the level of worker dissatisfaction and the need for meaningful union legislation.
When the New Deal began, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA was intended to eliminate the cutthroat competition that destroyed profits in many industries of this time, including textiles. Many large manufacturers supported it, hoping it would drive out low-end competition and consolidate industries. But the NIRA also included a half-thought out provision called Section 7(a) that granted workers the right to form a union free from employer interference. Although Roosevelt and his advisors didn’t really see this as an invitation for workers to organize, workers themselves saw it that way. And in 1934, they acted on it. The textile strike was the 4th major worker rebellion of this arguably most radical year of American labor history, along with the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the Auto-Lite workers in Toledo, and the longshoremen in San Francisco. The NIRA helped spawn this by establishing minimum wages, including in textiles, but not really giving workers any way to enforce this or any of their rights. The textile industry accepted the minimum wages, but sped up work to make up for their lost profits, angering workers.
By the late 1920s, as the nation’s economy contracted, the textile companies decided to make up for lost profits by stretching workers’ ability to the breaking point. They sped up production on the lines. The “stretch-out,” as it was called,” infuriated workers. Strikes, albeit mostly unorganized, sparked across the South. Larger strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929 were repressed by the police. The factory owners, the police, and politicians were determined to keep their towns union-free. As still happens today in southern organizing campaigns, unions are demonized as something northern and something foreign.
So the UTW, which had organized some plants in the northern states, was desperate for victories in the South. Like the CIO a dozen years later, it knew it could not survive or thrive if it did not organize the South because capital mobility would destroy the union. The impetus for the strike was not only years of the stretch-out but also the NRA deciding to grant southern textile owners wishes to increase worker hours without increasing wages earlier that year. So it sought to make a big statement in the southern factories that would determine the fate of the strike. At first, the UTW was hesitant to go ahead with the strike as the NRA responded to the outrage by agreeing to give it a voice. But continued anger in the Southern mills forced the leadership to reevaluate their decision. The UTW developed a list of demands that included the raising of the minimum wage from $13 to $30 a week, the end of the stretch-out, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired unionists.
The workers in North Carolina were the most important because of the size of the workforce there. The strike exploded there on Labor Day, September 3, when 65,000 workers walked off the job. The UTW was well aware how hard it would be to organize these southern factories and so they employed innovative tactics to convince the workers to come out, using their smaller numbers of committed activists to create flying squadrons that went factory to factory convincing workers to walk off the job.
The strike spread quickly. 200,000 workers from Rhode Island to Georgia were on strike by September 4. 325,000 were out by September 5. Politicians and factory owners soon cracked down. On September 5, North Carolina governor John Ehringhaus called out the National Guard. That started the crackdown. Rhode Island governor T.F. Green did the same. By September 9, South Carolina had instituted a partial state of martial law. Georgia did the same under the leadership of the reprehensible governor Eugene Talmadge. Workers were ready to fight back. They armed themselves and continued striking. But the UTW had its work cut out for it in the South. The overwhelming pressure against the union began to undermine its support in the South, which simply lacked any sympathetic institutions that would bolster tired and hungry strikers. The UTW had promised to feed strikers, but did not have the resources to follow through. At its peak, about 1/2 of workers in North Carolina and South Carolina and 3/4 in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were on strike. But they began drifting back.
The Roosevelt administration responded quickly to the strike, held a quick investigation and issued a report. It had very moderate recommendations, such as more studies on the stretch-out and urging employers not to discriminate against strikers on the job. When the report was issued, Roosevelt urged the strikers to return to work. The UTW, seeing the strike begin to collapse, declared victory and ended it. But the UTW was finished. The southern plants would go decades before serious unionization campaigns reappeared. The employers completely ignored the report and refused to hire thousands of strikers. The UTW simply did not have the resources to build on the strike, or in any case, they did not really try. They did not see this as the beginning of a longer-term organizing campaign and seek to send more organizers to the South. The ability of the textile companies to successfully blacklist thousands of workers without union challenge was the best argument they had against future unions. It worked for a very long time.
If the textile strike did little for the involved workers, it did very much add to the pressure the federal government felt to build on Section 7(a) and pass real pro-union legislation. When the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, the Roosevelt administration responded with the National Labor Relations Act, which went very far to provide what many American workers demanded.
On September 3, 1991, a chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught of fire thanks to nonexistent safety procedures, killing 25 workers and injuring another 55. This was the largest workplace disaster in North Carolina history. This entirely avoidable accident was reminiscent of workplace disasters of the past, with open employer contempt for safety regulations and the lives of their workers.
The building where the chicken factory was located was built in the early twentieth century and had been used in various food processing operations in the past, including as an ice cream factory. In 1980, it was purchased by Imperial Foods. This was a company was a terrible safety reputation in its other plants. Its plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania was cited for managers locking exit doors. Its Cumming, Georgia plant had a fire in 1989 that caused over $1 million in damage, although no fatalities. The corporate hostility to basic safety procedures would be repeated in Hamlet. The factory had no fire alarm system. The factory was used to process chicken for fast food restaurants and pre-frozen products for grocery stores. That meant cutting, bagging, weighing, and, most importantly for this story, frying it. About three-quarters of the workers were African-Americans. Hamlet is a small town close to the South Carolina border and the worker histories reflected that. Many of these workers had grown up doing farm work in the area and for some, this was their first factory job.
Imperial’s CEO Emmett Roe had moved from Pennsylvania to the South in order to bust the unions in his plants there and move to a state with a “more favorable regulatory climate,” i.e., the kind of state that won’t inspect your factories or enforce safety violations. Among other states, he chose North Carolina. A state in bed with the agricultural industry if there ever was one, North Carolina regulators never inspected the factory because the budget for inspections was minuscule. In 11 years of operation, it received no fire inspections. The factory did undergo repeated inspections from the company’s poultry inspector. Workers complained about the terrible smell and quality of meat, with at least one telling an inspector that the meat processed into chicken nuggets was particularly awful. According to one survivor of the fire, the plant managers locked the door to stop workers from stealing chicken. This was the same excuse sweatshop managers gave to locking the doors at Triangle when that disaster killed 146 workers in 1911.
The fire began when the deep fryer caught fire after a hydraulic line to a cooking vat failed, with obvious problems with it not found because of the company’s indifferent safety culture. It spread very quickly thanks to a combination of burning cooking oil, insulation, and exploding gas lines hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t help that all of the phones inside the building were nonfunctional. The workers at the front of the plant all managed to get out. But at the back of the plant the company did not place any fire alarms. Moreover, Imperial managers not only locked all the exits but sealed the windows as well. Those workers had nowhere to go. As an old plant, it was a maze of paths inside. The smoke meant they couldn’t find their way to the front. They were doomed. Like at Triangle, which this fire reminded many of, a few workers did get out the back by breaking open a locked loading bay, but most died. On one door, near charred bodies, blackened footprints could still be seen, signs of the desperate attempt to escape. Eighteen of the dead were women. Most of the dead were African-American.
“When I woke up that morning on the day of the fire, I had said to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m going to work today,” she said. “But I knew there was a holiday coming up and if I didn’t go to work that morning I wouldn’t get paid for the holiday. I was at the plant and had changed into my white coat. Everybody was saying they didn’t want to come to work either. They wanted a longer time off, but if we hadn’t gone in, we wouldn’t have gotten paid for the holiday.”
“I went down to the line where the fire happened before it happened,” Davis said. “That was where you weigh the chicken. And my boss man came up and said, ‘I want you to lay out tenders today.’ I told him I didn’t want to go, and he walked off. But then he came back and saw I was still there, put his hands on his hips and gave me this look, so I went.”
“It was always cold in there and those tenders come right out of the refrigerator,” she said. “After a while, your legs feel like they’re not even there. Then all of a sudden the lights went out and we heard somebody yelling, ‘Y’all need to get out of here! This place is on fire!”
Davis said the next thing she knew, the lady who managed the tenders line had gotten everyone to hold hands and told them they would all go out together.
“We were down near the floor and nobody could see,” Davis said. “But we finally got there when somebody yelled, ‘The door is locked! We can’t get out!”
Davis said that’s when the hand-holding stopped. People began to panic, running into other parts of the plant in search of a way out. But it was dark, she said.
“I said, ‘Lord, what am I going to do? How can I get out of here?” Davis said. “And I heard a voice to my right that said, ‘Just sit down right here where you are.’ So I said, ‘What in the world can I do from right here? I can’t see. If only I had some light I could get out.’ And that voice said, ‘You can pray.’”
Davis said she sat down on the floor and began to pray. She doesn’t remember how long she prayed or what she was praying.
“Then a hole opened up in the ceiling,” she said. “I remember feeling so peaceful and good, and then I just fell asleep.”
Davis does not remember anything specific to the plant after that moment.
There was both a state and a federal investigation of the fire. The state passed the buck. The state labor commissioner said that his department did not have enough money (true, thanks to the notoriously anti-labor North Carolina legislature. Even today, NC has the lowest union density rate in the nation). He also blamed the federal government for not enforcing safety standards (OK, but that is indeed passing the buck).
Three men faced charges for the fire. Imperial Foods owner Emmett Roe, his son, and the plant manager. They all took plea bargains. Since Roe had personally directed the locking of the doors, he received a prison sentence of nearly 20 years, less than a year for each of the murders he committed. He served four years in prison. Imperial Foods also received an $800,000 fine. The factory was never reopened. 215 people lost their jobs. The federal government ordered North Carolina to improve its worker safety legislation or the government would do it for them. This did lead to the passage of 14 new laws, including a whistleblower law, as well as a near doubling of state workplace safety inspectors.
Memorializing the deaths also faulted along state lines. For the survivors, this was not only a labor rights issue, but a civil rights issue. They invited Jesse Jackson to the town to speak at the memorial. For Hamlet’s conservative white elite, Jackson was anathema. So there were two memorial services with two monuments next to each other.
The factory remains were bulldozed in 2001 because of the psychological damage it caused the survivors and the firefighters who saw it. Eight survivors lived within viewing distance of it.
Here is a 22 minute film from 1994 on the fire and its survivors.
The Hamlet fire also spawned this Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra song.
Now that it is beyond the paywall, you really need to read Gabriel Winant’s essay on the state of the union movement. It’s one of the smartest takes on unionism you will have read in a very long time. He takes me to task a bit for opposing unions seeking exemptions to the higher minimum wage in Los Angeles–and we still very much disagree about that point. But outside of that, I endorse this completely, particularly two critical points. First, the fundamental problem with unions in this country and the fundamental problem going back a long time is not that they don’t organize enough, not that they are bureaucratic, not that they are sexist or racist or slow to respond. It’s that employers in the United States remain fanatically anti-union and that is extremely difficult to contend with, especially if the government is not on the side of workers. For all that the left and the union reformer crowd loves to talk about corruption and bureaucracy and not organizing, this is the key issue.
Second, the union bureaucracy that the left loves to decry is actually an objectively good thing, as worker movements may spring up here and there but if they aren’t fostered, shaped, given resources and organizers, etc., they will fade. If those movements succeed and actually win a union election and then a contract, those dues need to be used not only at the workplace but to lobby the government that is so crucial for the success of unionism. As the quote that titles this post suggests, there is no magic bullet for unionism. As Winant says, you just have to keep trying and eventually hope that all the pieces are there when the historical moment comes for a great advancement. I will close with just one excerpt about the potential of municipal strategy, but please read the whole article.
The members themselves are the most underused resource. America once had factories where thousands toiled together. Though divided by race, ethnicity, and skill, the great plants and mills were hothouses of proletarian consciousness. While such work sites are now extremely rare, their lesson should be remembered. The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.
Such institutions tend to have major footprints in their local labor markets. In New York City, the Department of Education is the largest single employer of all agencies of the city government, itself the largest overall employer; health-care providers and universities make up eight of the top ten in the private sector. What’s more, the students, families, and patients who are served by the institution often have interests that can be aligned with those of workers: Do you want enough nurses on the hospital floor? What is all this debt for if the money’s not going to the professors? Do you want your children tested to death and jammed into overcrowded classrooms? Here the classic case is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has successfully positioned itself at the head of a popular majority against mayor Rahm Emanuel.
These institutions are also susceptible to public pressure. Hospitals, school systems, and universities all depend on the public — its opinion, its dollars. If a significant number of people who work at these institutions can be mustered to volunteer in local elections, that group can persuade an even larger group of workers, students, and patients to vote for the same candidates. Then you have a shot at building real, substantive unity between different sections of the working class. This is, essentially, the model of the Working Families Party in New York, as well as my union’s coalition in New Haven.
In New York, the result is visible in the de Blasio administration’s most progressive moves: policies like mandatory paid sick leave, opposition to charter schools, and free pre-K represent points of common interest across the working-class coalition that put the mayor in office. In New Haven, a coalition of Yale employees and community activists, after a string of local electoral victories, extracted an agreement from Yale in December 2015 to hire 1,000 New Haven residents over three years. (I was part of this campaign.)
These successes, along with the astonishing momentum of the $15 campaigns, hint at the possibilities of the city as the unit of strategy. With enough political power at the local level, workers’ organizations may be able to develop forms of leverage that can counteract the growing hostility of the federal legal regime. Imagine if the Chicago Teachers Union won control of the city government (far from an impossible prospect) and used that power to rein in police violence; the union might also reopen schools and clinics closed by Emanuel and staff them, creating huge numbers of unionized jobs. Enough victories like these, and the public image of organized labor might finally change from racist white men to the dominant group across many sectors for decades now — progressive people of color. More significantly, the wide range of working-class people whose long-term interests can align would take a step toward unity.
The crux of the 2004 Brown decision had been that the relationship of graduate students to the university was primarily educational, and as a result did not fall under the purview of legislation designed to govern economic relationships. What a line to draw—how could anyone who works at a university fail to cross it? In overturning Brown, the Columbia decision states plainly what we’ve argued all along: “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.” The decision similarly demolishes, with reference to empirical evidence, familiar arguments that a union of graduate employees would worsen the quality of education, suck up inordinate amounts of valuable time and resources, or pose a threat to the continued functioning of the university. In other words, Columbia rejects the idea that academia is a uniquely un-unionizable industry (an idea that many employers have of their own industries: Target, for example, warns workers that “ if the unions did try to organize our team members, chances are they would change our fast, fun, and friendly culture”).
Pretense prevails among those who run the institutions. Deans often feign surprise at graduate student complaints, and claim not to notice the thousands petitioning them every semester. With impressive sophistry, administrators manage to argue that unions would at once destroy academic life and fail to accomplish anything. Columbia’s administration, for example, both warns that the union could break the budget (“all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs”) and cause wages to fall (“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase”). The message they’re sending is that change is impossible—that there’s no way to make your voice heard.
To us, then, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the NLRB decision is its explicit recognition of our years of organizing outside the protection of the law, and its argument that this work in itself is admissible testimony for change. Unlike our deans, the federal government has heard our speeches and petitions, and listened to us as adult citizens capable of advocating for ourselves:
It is worth noting that student assistants, in the absence of access to the [National Labor Relations] Act’s representation procedures and in the face of rising financial pressures, have been said to be “fervently lobbying their respective schools for better benefits and increased representation.” The eagerness of at least some student assistants to engage in bargaining suggests that the traditional model of relations between university and student assistants is insufficiently responsive to student assistants’ needs.
When your employer insists that none of your actions matter, it is gratifying to learn that, through years of struggle—sometimes bitter, often seeming fruitless—you have moved the gears of the federal bureaucracy.
Really, this is a hugely important decision for academic labor.
Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.
But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.
Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.
The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.
Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.
Manuel expounded on this point:
I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.
The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.
One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”
Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.
These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.
Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.
A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.
The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.
A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.
There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.
In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.
This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.
This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:
If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.
While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.
And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.
The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.
There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.
Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.
On August 21, 1791, the Haitian Revolution began. The largest and by far the most successful slave rebellion in world history, the Haitian Revolution transformed world history, foiling French imperial aims, leading to the expansion of the United States, placing fear into the hearts of slaveholders across the Western Hemisphere, and exposing the limits of the republican rhetoric of the Enlightenment. It’s also a story of the incredible bravery of the slaves themselves.
Immediately upon arrival in Hispaniola in 1492, Christopher Columbus instituted a forced labor system. This is the model Europeans sought from the very beginning. That island quickly became a center of colonial slavery, with populations brought over from Africa after indigenous peoples who the Spanish preferred to enslave died from disease. Between 1492 and 1494, one-third of the indigenous population died. Slaves always fought back, an important point not made often enough. As early as 1519, a slave rebellion took place there with both African and indigenous people rising up in revolt. Thousands of slaves started maroon communities during the colonial period, hidden from Spanish or French forces by the isolation of their camps deep within forests, mountains, and swamps.
In 1697, the French won the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish. Soon it would become among the richest colonies in the world thanks to the sugar grown by slaves. It also became a huge coffee producer, producing 60% of the world’s coffee in 1789. But conditions for those slaves were utterly brutal. The enormous amounts of money in the sugar trade made it worse, because the labor costs to buy new slaves, while high for a Virginia tobacco farmer, was almost nothing for these sugar barons. They brought slaves from Africa and just worked them to death. These plantations were effectively death camps. Half of African slaves died within three years. Probably 1 million slaves died in Haiti during the period of French rule. If a slave ate some sugar cane, the slave would have to wear a tin muzzle while working.
There was a lot of discontent toward the French government in what was then known as Saint Dominigue by the 1780s. It was a tremendously wealthy colony. But the white population of about 40,000, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, were chafing at the centralization projects of Paris, including heavy import taxes. There were about 30,000 free blacks in Haiti, of which about one-half were mulattoes. Finally and most importantly, there were the 500,000 slaves whose labor created the wealth in the colony. In May 1791, the free blacks started a revolt when the island’s whites refused to acknowledge the French revolutionary decision to grant citizenship to free people of color, but it was the August slave revolt that targeted white slave owners that really brought Haiti to independence.
The slave revolt began with a signal from voudou priest Dutty Boukman on August 14, giving slaves a week to prepare. Within a few weeks 100,000 slaves had revolted. Quickly though, the revolution’s leader became Toussaint L’Overture, an ex-slave who was likely the son of a tribal king from modern Benin who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. L’Overture was freed in 1776 after his master allowed him to acquire an education. He became fairly wealthy himself. When the rebellion started in the north of the island, he was not involved, but he soon helped cement an alliance between the rebels and the Spanish in Santo Domingo. By 1792, L’Overture and his ex-slave troops controlled 1/3 of the nation. The French Revolution of course was happening at the same time. In 1794, the French abolished slavery throughout its colonies, but even earlier than this, L’Overture had invaded Santo Domingo in order to end slavery there. But by the time the rebellion ended, 100,000 of the island’s 500,000 slaves were dead, as well as 24,000 of the 40,000 whites. In 1801, he led troops to conquer Santo Domingo and ended slavery there when he succeeded.
The slave force had no hope to defeat the French in a decisive battle. But they did have a secret weapon: mosquitoes. When the French had first colonized the Caribbean, yellow fever did not exist there. But it soon migrated over from Africa. Europeans simply could not resist the diseases from these mosquitoes. In fact, effective European colonization of American tropics largely ended because of the migration of yellow fever. Malaria and especially yellow fever overwhelmed the French forces. The Haitians could just wait them out. Napoleon sent 43,000 troops to Haiti to retake the island and institute slavery. Those troops did capture L’Overture. He was sent back to France as a prisoner, where he died in 1803. But disease quickly ravaged those troops. Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as the leader of the rebellion and defeated remnant French forces at Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. This led Napoleon to come to terms and give up his dream of an American empire. He then sold his North American lands to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Dessalines declared the nation of Haiti on January 1, 1804. France was the first nation to recognize its independence, although France also ensured long-term Haitian poverty by demanding incredibly high reparations beginning in 1825, when French warships showed in Haiti and forced the government to agree, effectively dooming it to long-term poverty.
The United States found Haiti an anathema. It believed in republicanism–so long as it only applied to white people. A slave rebellion? Well, this became an object lesson for southern planters, for whom this was their worst nightmare. This was literally their greatest fear and they spent the next 74 years talking about how to prevent it. When the British helped slaves escape during the War of 1812, when Denmark Vesey got angry that his church was being repressed, when Nat Turner revolted, when slaves played drums in the forests at night, slavers dreamed of the slaves rising up to massacre them in their beds. Given southern domination of the American politics through most of its history but especially before the Civil War due to the 3/5 Compromise, they made sure Haiti remained a highly isolated and impoverished nation. The U.S. forced it into international isolation and refused to recognize Haiti until 1862.