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Tag: "labor"

IWW History Project

[ 9 ] January 23, 2016 |


If you have a few minutes, checking out the IWW History Project at the University of Washington is well worth your time. It contains a lot of great visuals, maps, timelines, etc. The labor historian James Gregory:

The IWW History Project is now live. Based at the University of Washington, the online project reveals in new ways the rich history of the Industrial Workers of the World during the formative years, 1905-1935. The project has many dimensions, but at the center are interactive maps and datasets that show the geography and density of IWW activism.

One set of maps locates more than 1,800 strikes, campaigns, arrests and other acts of persecution, allowing us to see year by year or month by month where the IWW was active. Another set of maps and charts shows the locations of more than 900 local unions. The maps are linked to chronological yearbooks of events that are based on data collected from the Industrial Union Bulletin, Industrial Worker, Solidarity and other sources.

These visualizations bring surprises and invite new understandings about the radical organization. The scope of activity is one surprise. IWW local unions were found in more than 350 towns and cities, in 38 states and territories of the United States and five Canadian provinces. We are familiar with some of this geography–the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, the Northeastern textile belt—but seeing the density of activity in Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, and Ohio is eye opening. So is the IWW’s place in New York City which hosted dozens of unions and many strikes, including one by the Macaroni Workers Industrial Union No. 301. The city was also home to seventeen IWW affiliated newspapers published in seven languages.

Macaroni Workers Industrial Union No. 301 would a pretty good band name.

This is a really great resource. I look forward to using it myself.


This Day in Labor History: January 23, 1973

[ 3 ] January 23, 2016 |

On January 23, 1973, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers went on strike against Shell Oil. This strike gained unusual supporters. Environmentalists came out hard against Shell and in support of OCAW. This came about in part because of the progressive leaders of OCAW leaders, particularly Tony Mazzocchi, OCAW legislative director. This case shows the very real potential for alliances between labor and environmentalists when the two movements have meaningful conversations and act in solidarity with one another.

By the late 1960s, many unions responded to growing scientific literature about the health effects of industrial labor by demanding federal action and demanding action from employers to clean up their workplaces. On the federal level, this led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Companies resisted doing anything about these workplaces. The AFL-CIO under George Meany generally was typically indifferent, but a number of industrial unions, including the United Steelworkers of America, took the lead on making environmental demands. No union led on this issue more than the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Tony Mazzocchi and his assistant Steven Wodka believed that inspiring rank and file activism on environmental issues was key for unions to keep workers safe. This was especially important for the OCAW because its members were exposed to radiation and reports were coming out during these years about just how unsafe those radioactive workplaces were. It started to reach out to other unions working on environmental issues, like the nascent United Farm Workers, fighting over pesticide exposure.

Said Al Grospiron, OCAW president:

Organized Labor must emphatically support environmental efforts and must never get into the position of opposing such efforts on the grounds of economic hardship. Our position must be that nearly all polluting facilities can be corrected without hardships to the workers and that in those few cases where corrections are not possible new job opportunities or compensation must be provided for the workers.

The OCAW also worked with environmental organizations. Calling for the workplace as the first line of defense for the environment certainly got the attention of greens. Environmental Action worked with unions to get OSHA passed. Other environmental organizations were however only tepidly in support, frustrating the OCAW. They reprinted a Stewart Udall editorial in the union newspaper, lambasting greens. Udall said, “Environmental groups act act as if the blue collar worker does not exist. Their lack of concern for the workplace–their failure to even recognize it as an environment–is the most glaring defect in their young movement.”


OCAW and other unions felt OSHA far too weak and continued to push for worker-led safety and environmental committees that would go farther than the weak and slow government oversight the law created. This continued to help build relations with environmental organizations. Shell Oil had long animosity toward both unions and environmentalists. OCAW decided to target Shell because of the company’s power and the union’s need to stand up to the biggest bully on the block. But it knew that it could not defeat this company alone. It needed consumer help. For that, it build on its relationships with environmentalists, arguing that if Shell didn’t care about polluting workers’ bodies, it wouldn’t care about polluting the environment.

So a week after OCAW went on strike, on January 30, 11 of the nation’s largest environmental organizations announced their support for the strike and urged a nationwide boycott of Shell. This included the relatively conservative Sierra Club, which had by this time kicked the radical David Brower out of office and reverted to its traditional moderate stance. But the radicalism of the time had caught up to Sierra Club, which was concerned about attracting new members. It held two conferences with labor in the early 1970s, which helped create connections that convinced it to join the boycott. It took until March for Sierra Club to join and that included the threat of unions creating an anti-environmentalist coalition, which was already happening in the building trades. But join it did, putting its significant muscle behind the action.


This alliance did not come that easy in the rank and file of both labor and greens. A lot of environmentalists had absolutely zero interest in working with unions. Particularly during these years, environmentalism was seen as above politics and unions were most certainly not. Middle-class greens might well oppose unions and they didn’t see why their dues money should be spent working with workers. Sierra Club especially saw many angry letters from its members who opposed the boycott, saying the workplace was not an environmental issue. But Sierra Club leadership held to its position.

By April 1973, Shell sales in the U.S. had dropped 20-25 percent. But ultimately, OCAW did not have the resources to win this strike. It was paying out large sums in strike benefits and was rapidly losing money. Many rank and file workers wanted to end the strike. A Texas local negotiated an independent settlement, defying OCAW leadership. It included a few tokens for the union, including morbidity statistics the union wanted. There was no way the international could stand up to this and the strike ended on June 4.


The strike was not exactly won. But OCAW’s new contracts following it almost all had much stronger health and safety clauses. The strike also helped solidify the coalition with environmental groups. Many groups now claimed a long-term commitment to workplace health and safety. In the spring of 1975, labor and environmentalists formed Environmentalists for Full Employment that fought for the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. During the Carter administration, blue-green alliances reached their peak, as I discuss in the lumber industry in Empire of Timber. On workplace health, pollution, and other issues, labor and environmentalists worked together in exciting ways.

At the same time though, deindustrialization was destroying the American working class and their unions. Companies began openly claiming that if environmental laws were passed, they would close company doors and move to a new state or out of the nation. Often these were lies, but sometimes companies followed through. Job blackmail began to turn the declining unions against their green allies because the rank and file was so scared for their jobs. The OCAW resisted job blackmail to a significant event, as did the International Woodworkers of America until 1987. But many unions did not. In the early 1980s, the OSHA/Environmental Network, an attempt to unite labor and greens against Reagan’s attacks on both, had some local successes in rebuilding coalitions, but mostly it quickly faded, as did the conversations between the two movements. There have been periodic attempts to revive these alliances to the present. But as we have seen over coal mining and the Keystone XL Pipeline, when workers feel their jobs under attack, especially in the absence of good jobs for working people throughout the United States, they will attack environmentalists. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Ultimately though, the more we understand about attempts to build these coalitions, the better chance we have to build them in the future over issues such as pollution, green energy, and climate change.

The information for the OCAW strike comes from Robert Gordon, “Shell No! OCAW and the Labor-Environmental Alliance,” in the October 1998 issue of Environmental History. Other parts of the post come from my own research and writing.

This is the 169th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 12

[ 18 ] January 22, 2016 |

Time for the next installment in the internet’s least important historical series.

This is the grave of Samuel Gompers.


Gompers, an English immigrant from a Jewish background, immigrated to the United States in 1863. He became involved in the nascent American labor movement in 1864, when he was 14 and working as a cigar maker. He was elected president of his local in 1875 and rose quickly after that. Although he never actually was president of his international, he became the most important person in American labor in the 1880s, heading the American Federation of Labor from its founding in 1886 until his death in 1924. Today, Gompers is often an object of disdain among radicals. Some of that is for good reason. He was violently anti-radical, and knew more about communism than any government official by World War I because he kept such close tabs on potential rivals. He wouldn’t organize most immigrants, women, black people, Asians, or children. He wouldn’t organize shop floors or the new industrial factories, yet worked hard to destroy unions who then tried to do that very thing. He held onto an older vision of independent male laborers working in skilled positions, which was totally unrealistic in the industrial economy developing around him.

This is all true. But it’s also worth noting that Gompers’ positions represented the feelings of millions of American workers who wanted that vision of the proper American worker to come true. He was not a dictator within the AFL, but rather was the head of a federation of unions, some of which, especially the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, that had a ton of power in the organization and which he had to represent. He also moved the American labor movement ahead significantly, creating a space for its legitimacy in a nation where employers wanted to crush all unions, especially in the aftermath of the Knights of Labor.

In other words, Gompers was a tremendously complex individual and our view of him should reflect this.

Samuel Gompers is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Life in the Factory

[ 3 ] January 18, 2016 |


What is life like in a Bangladeshi garment factory for women workers? It’s not good.

“What happened when you formed the union?” asked the interviewer from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Aleya Akter, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), employed at Lufa Garments, responded:

I was severely beaten when I tried to bring together workers to make them understand why it’s necessary to form a union. I was beaten on three separate occasions from 2006 to 2007, once inside the factory conference hall, once in a meeting room with the presence of the police, who observed and did nothing, and once in front of the factory.

Shobita Byapari, a sewing machine operator, 28 years old was asked, “What do you think stands in the way of progress for Bangladeshi garment workers?” Her answer: “Police, thugs.”

Ritu Khan, a helper, 40 years old, was asked the same question, and responded, “Police, thugs, the supervisor, the line chief. These are the biggest problems.” The exchange continued:

What does the police do?

Suppose the owner got a cop to harass me, or they got a thug to beat me.

How about the supervisor?

Suppose if I did something. In the office, they…

Do they lay a hand on the girls?


So the girls don’t say anything about that?

What will they say? For the fear of losing our job, no one says anything.

Sabina Ara, a sewing-machine operator, who believes she is 25 or 26 years old, was asked “Suppose you asked for a salary increase. What would happen?” She answered:

They threaten us with many things. They threaten us with the police. Then there are local politicians; they threaten us with them. There are landlords; they threaten us with them.

Apostles of free trade and the current system of global capitalism laud these factories as great for workers–how freeing!–without examining anything about what these workers lives were like before they worked in the factories, why they are forced to work here, etc. A deeper examination shows the role of agricultural centralization and global food policy throwing workers off their land as a key part of creating this workforce. What’s worse is the rhetoric of freedom globalization promoters use. In using that rhetoric, they–implicitly or explicitly–accuse critics of this work and these conditions as actually the ones opposed to workers’ having better lives. And given how many of these workers are women, they accuse people like myself of even being anti-woman. This is, of course, facile, an argument easily made when one doesn’t bother actually listening to the words of workers themselves.

The Garment Liberation Theory of Global Development and Women not only misses the harsh reality of inadequate wages. It also overlooks the grim interaction among the culture of the nation, the factory, and the household. Claeson notes that 79 percent of a sample of women studied by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity “reported giving their husbands their wages every month.” Sixty-three percent of the 27 unmarried women in the study “lived with their parents and reported giving their earnings to their father or mother. The rest of the unmarried women reported sending 2,000 to 2,500 taka (US$ 25-32) to their parents in the countryside every month. Only the single mothers retained full ownership of their earnings, being solely responsible for their own and their children’s livelihood.”

The regime of gender subordination also works on the factory floor. The testimony of Taslima Sultana, sewing-machine operator, 31 years old, typifies much of the testimony in the report:

Inside the factory no one can really abuse a male operator the way they do to women. We don’t protest very much so that’s why they do that to us. And besides, they don’t even hire men very much anymore. And this is why they don’t take men. For example, the end of the workday is supposed to be at 7 p.m., but they don’t give us leave until 8 or 9 or 10 p.m. They wouldn’t do that with a man, would they?

It’s not that work can’t liberate women from their families. It’s that this work liberates no one. It is terrible. Moreover, it’s a sexist work system that seeks to exploit women, the core of the garment industry since it’s development at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Who can we hold responsible for these conditions? That’s an easy answer–the big wealthy world department stores.

The report concludes by making unmistakably clear that the power to improve the workers’ lives resides at the top of the supply chain, with the Walmarts and the Gaps, should they truly choose to exercise it. As Aleya Akter of the BGIWF puts it, “If the buyer says, ‘I will not give work if there is no union,’ even the government’s Dad doesn’t have power to stop it.”

This is why it is our responsibility to stop these conditions. We can’t say, “oh, let the Bangladeshis demand better laws if they want them” while we buy clothing produced by women making peanuts and working in unsafe factories. First, the Bangladeshi Parliament is dominated by the clothing manufactures. Second, when they do stand up and demand change, their organizers are beaten or killed. Third, if they did win those changes, Walmart, Gap, and Target would just move to some other country. It’s American and European companies setting the standards here. We need to hold them to higher standards and take away their incentive to move by setting universal rules to which they must apply no matter where they move, with inspections mandatory.

Unfortunately, this is not an issue even most people on the left take remotely seriously. Meanwhile, more workers are exploited and dying.

This Day in Labor History: January 18, 1887

[ 13 ] January 18, 2016 |


On January 18, 1887, Pinkerton detectives killed a fourteen year old boy in Jersey City, New Jersey during a coal wharves strike. This murder, like so many of the period by the Pinkertons and other agencies developed to protect employer interests from workers, are a sign of the murderous attitude of business, police, and politicians toward American workers during the Gilded Age. Nothing is more emblematic of these attitudes than the hated Pinkertons.

Allan Pinkerton immigrated from Scotland to the United States in 1841. Ironically, given his future, he left in part because of British repression of the Chartists, which Pinkerton was involved in. However, his concern for workers dissipated as he established himself in the United States, although he remained a strong abolitionist who directly assisted John Brown with $500 when Brown freed 11 slaves in Missouri in 1858 and needed to get them to Canada. He began his detective career somewhat by chance, stumbling across a group of counterfeiters in 1847. With the police not paying much attention to this, local merchants paid him to start patrolling for counterfeiters. A career began. He soon rose to prominence while protecting Abraham Lincoln from assassination on his rail journey from Springfield to Washington after the 1860 election. He then served as George McClellan’s chief of intelligence, although quite poorly given his overstatement of Confederate forces. Most importantly for labor history, Pinkerton started a firm that supplemented Chicago’s meager police force, with Pinkerton himself given the power to arrest.


The Pinkertons started working as thugs for companies against strikers in 1866, during a miner’s strike in Braidwood, Illinois. A more serious action took place in the same town in 1874, when miners walked out over wage cuts. Allan Pinkerton and 20 armed guards came to Braidwood in response. But in this case, Braidwood’s mayor sided with the miners and took away the guns and would not allow the Pinkertons to march in the street. When one hit an old woman, the police arrested him and fined him $100. Once a group of women attacked Allan Pinkerton, forcing him to flee. This experience led Pinkerton to not hire his forces out for labor strikes for a decade. However, Pinkerton undercover agents were used, particularly against the Molly Maguires.

Allan Pinkerton died in 1884. His sons William and Robert took over the agency and recommitted it to defending industrial facilities during strikes. This would lead to the Pinkertons’ most notorious period, where it became the agency of choice for capitalists to not only defend their facilities but undermine workplace organization by any means necessary. This did not mean it was particularly effective because the agency soon acquired such a nasty reputation that its arrival would send local residents into an uproar and often lead to more problems from employers than it was worth. Local authorities not infrequently arrested Pinkerton agents upon arrival, such as in New Braidsville, Ohio, where 25 Pinkertons were arrested for carrying concealed weapons. Of course, corporations had a lot of power in the Gilded Age and the Pinkertons were quickly freed and allowed to do what they wanted. But the level of local hostility, including from local law enforcement, was often stark. In 1885, workers at a McCormick’s Harvester Company plant went on strike. The Pinkertons arrived. Fights happened daily. At one point, strikers stopped a busload* of Pinkerton men and beat them severely, stealing all their weapons. When the Pinkertons finally shot an old man, McCormick had to give in entirely to the strikers and they won the strike.


No small part of the problem was the undisciplined nature of the Pinkertons. They often did not act as a professional police force. They acted as thugs. They often drank and harassed people with their guns. Many people commented that the men the Pinkertons hired were bad characters to begin with.

In early January 1887, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad announced a 2 1/2 cent per hour pay cut for its coal handlers. They walked off the job. Railroad officials brought in hundreds of strikebreakers and hired the Pinkertons. On January 17, the secretary of the Jersey City police board issued more than 100 badges to Pinkertons. Two hundred more were sworn in by the courts to fight strikers in Bayonne. Violence followed in both cities. The mayor of Jersey City immediately demanded the removal of the Pinkertons, fearing this violence. The next day, a Pinkerton shot 14 year old Thomas Hogan, who was not involved in the strike. Police arrested four Pinkertons for it. The murder solidified labor sentiment around the region. Coal handlers on the other side of the Hudson refused to handle this non-union coal. Jersey City courts indicted three of the four Pinkertons to the murder, although only one went to trial and he was found innocent. But by this time, the Pinkertons were too afraid to go into Jersey City.

The most notorious Pinkerton action of course came in 1892 at Homestead, when Henry Clay Frick sent the Pinkertons on a boat to attack strikers, an action that led to an all-day shootout between the two sides, eventually forcing the Pinkertons to surrender after three Pinkertons and ten civilians died, and making the name of the company synonymous with unionbusting to the present. Even before this, politicians such as Tom Watson and William Jennings Bryan were speaking publicly against private guards. The actions at Homestead only raised the level of criticism. The Populists, meeting at the same time in 1892, incorporated an anti-Pinkerton plank into its platform. The day after Homestead, the House announced it would investigate the action of the agency. The Senate followed suit. These investigations weren’t all that serious–this was the Gilded Age after all and concerns about private property far outweighed any concern about dead strikers–but once again, the logical conclusion for many employers should have been that hiring Pinkertons was not worth the hassle. States went farther than Congress, with Montana, Wyoming, Georgia, and Missouri banning the importation of private police from out of state. By 1900, 26 states had similar laws on the books, including Pennsylvania. Many of these laws specifically banned the Pinkertons.

After Homestead the Pinkertons began moving out of the corporate thug business, feeling the damage to the company’s reputation not worth the business. After all, the company’s main business was always catching criminals, not serving as shock forces for capitalists. Still, the Pinkertons remained involved in union-busting by sending its agents out as spies. The Coeur D’Alene strike in Idaho that summer is a key example of Pinkerton spies undermining unions. But corporations continued to find ways to bust unions, including through private police forces. New agencies popped up, including 20 in Chicago alone. Most notorious of all the Pinkerton replacements was the vile Baldwin-Felts Agency, murderers of the West Virgina coal country and whose actions helped lead to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest domestic insurrection since the Civil War.

I borrowed the material for this post from Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States.

This is the 168th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

* It’s described as a busload in Smith’s book, but I’m not sure exactly what form of transportation this was.

This Day in Labor History: January 16, 1961

[ 5 ] January 16, 2016 |


On January 16, 1961, lettuce workers in the Imperial Valley of California walked off the job in one of the first modern actions of agricultural worker militancy that would eventually lead to the rise of the United Farm Workers and other farmworker unions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Imperial Valley lettuce growers, like farmers across the Southwest, made their profits off very low wages. From the very beginning of agribusiness in this region, farmers relied on inexpensive transient labor, usually by people of color. This labor could be white, as it was during the Great Depression. But mostly it was Mexicans and Filipinos. The Chinese primarily worked on the railroads and in the cities and the Japanese tended to buy their own farms at first opportunity, often on land abandoned on white farmers. The Filipinos took over much of the agricultural labor in the early 20th century, but the ending of Filipino immigration after the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 meant that the long-term answer for farmers would be Mexicans. These concerns are the primary reason why agricultural labor was excluded from both the immigration acts of the 1920s that effectively ended immigration from eastern and southern Europe but did not affect the Americas, as well as the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act, the core labor legislation of the New Deal. The entry of the U.S. into World War II threatened farmers’ cheap labor force even more and thus the government created the Bracero Program with Mexico. This really allowed the farmers to exploit workers like never before.

For the AFL-CIO, the bracero program was a threat to American labor. In 1959, the federation created the Agricultural Workers Organization Committee (AWOC). This organization, largely made up of Mexican and Filipino-Americans and eventually led by the great Filipino-American labor leader Larry Itliong, sought to force the Department of Labor to eliminate bracero labor by having small numbers of domestic
workers call strikes at farms. This could work because braceros were banned as scab labor in the agreement with Mexico. Moreover, there was some greater public sympathy with farmworkers at this point because of the recently aired Edward R. Murrow documentary special “Harvest of Shame,” which aired in November 1960.

The strike itself began because the growers, seeking to maximize their profits, decided not to pay wages at the agreed upon set wage. Farmworkers do have one advantage to other striking workers and that has to do with the spoilage of produce. If they stay out long enough, farmers simply lose their entire crop. On January 16, AWOC called its workers out to force the farmers to pay the agreed upon wage and not use braceros. It started using its strategy of taking advantage of the bracero strikebreaking provision. At one farm, striking workers rushed in to disrupt the camp, a riot started, and a cook and two Mexican workers were injured. This led to both a raid upon union headquarters in Brawley, California where over 40 unionists were arrested and demands by the Mexican government to get its citizens out of these farms. The DOL pulled 2,052 Mexican citizens from California farms, including over 1,000 from the Imperial Valley lettuce farms, leading to the growers objecting and finally a meeting with Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg. But AWOC and the DOL led to a serious disruption in the Bracero Program.

But this did not mean that AWOC would win the strike. The major goal of the Kennedy administration was to solve the strike, not end the Bracero Program, even though the 1960 Democratic Party platform had a plank calling for its end. The meetings led by Goldberg and Undersecretary of Labor Willard Wirtz mediating between the growers and labor were fraught with problems because leading union participants were not even invited and the growers refused to sit down with labor. The growers began raising pay rates quietly to convince workers to not strike while Goldberg and Wirtz decided that if a field was not being picketed at a given time that the braceros could continue to work. Given the limited resources of AWOC (and the United Packinghouse Workers of America, which was also representing some workers), winning the strike was impossible. They couldn’t picket 40,000 acres of lettuce at once. This pleased the growers greatly. The Imperial Valley News wrote, “Growers are not said to feel that Secretary Goldberg is more sympathetic to his cause than was his predecessor James Mitchell.” Of course Goldberg came from a Democratic administration and Mitchell had served under Eisenhower. Once again, the actual actions of the Kennedy administration proved to be less than liberal.

AWOC received a lot of bad publicity for its aggression toward braceros and George Meany shut it down later in 1961, possibly at the request of Arthur Goldberg who had long hated radicalism in labor and who had played a major role in the CIO expelling communist unions in 1947. Meany never really supported AWOC anyway and had mostly created it to cut Walter Reuther from using his people to organize farmworkers. But AWOC would soon revive playing an important role in early farmworker organizing, especially among the Filipinos that would play an underrated role in the early history of the United Farm Workers. This was helped by AWOC head Norman Smith, an old CIO organizer, refusing to hand over money from his treasury that he had never told Meany about. Moreover, the ambivalence to outright hostility these unions would have to undocumented workers after the end of the Bracero Program in 1964, including from Cesar Chavez himself, would repeat the actions of AWOC in 1961.

This strike did not lead to a union victory exactly. But when Kennedy renewed the Bracero Program later in 1961, he publicly stated he ordered Goldberg to correct the abuses and protect the wages of American residents in the fields. In fact, Goldberg then raised the minimum wage for braceros in the California fields to $1 an hour at a time when the national minimum wage was $1.15. he also sent 57 more inspectors to the California farms to monitor the program and ordered the restoration of the piece rates the lettuce growers had violated. UPWA director of west coast operations Bud Simonson later noted, “It looks like we won the Imperial Valley strike of 1961 after all.”

The 1961 strike it was in many ways the first real moment that showed growers what they would have to face as the 1960s and 1970s went on: worker militancy combined with public sympathy and greater anger over poverty that would force agribusiness on the defensive like never before, eventually leading to union recognition for at least some farmworkers.

The material from this post comes mostly from Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. Each and every one of you should read this fantastic book. Some is drawn from Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, another highly worthwhile book.

This is the 167th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Shame the Leeches

[ 51 ] January 12, 2016 |


Given that public sector unions are going to be devastated in Friedrichs, new strategies are in order. I love what this UAW local is doing:

A local United Auto Workers chapter in Warren is singling out workers who decide to opt out of the union.

In a recent UAW Local 412 newsletter obtained by The Detroit News, a list of 43 workers “who choose not to pay their fair share” was published alongside “conditions” that will apply to workers who opt out and no longer pay — or partially pay — union dues.

Listed conditions for “ex-UAW members” range from rudimentary things such as not being allowed to attend union functions or vote in local elections, to having to “pay all unpaid dues and/or dues in arrears as well as an initiation fee” if one decides to rejoin the union.

Singling out workers who decide to leave the union isn’t unprecedented, but it’s seen by some as an intimidation tactic to deter others from leaving — and pressure those who have left to rejoin.

“Pure and simple: It’s intimidation,” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “They’re doing it because they want to incite other union members to pressure those who have exercise their right to start paying the union again.

It is intimidation and it’s awesome. That’s what we need. People in union shops who don’t join the union and yet benefit from all the union offers should be publicly shamed. More unions should do this.

Of course, I’m sure conservatives will file lawsuits to make this illegal.

Uber and Employment

[ 53 ] January 5, 2016 |


Stephen Greenhouse has your must-read long-read of the day in his exposé of Uber and the argument that their drivers are not employees. He discusses several key points that observers of the Uber economy have noted–that there is nothing new about this employment relationship, that despite their claims, Uber and other companies control almost everything about this employment relationship, that if Uber drivers were classified as employees instead of independent contractors there is no reason why Uber would have to follow through on its claims of placing people on set schedules, and that the lack of any benefits is a major problem throughout this economy. Greenhouse also discusses how much worse conditions are getting for Uber drivers.

Parmar, 53, who immigrated to the U.S. from India at age 16, receives no benefits through Uber, but he says he is fortunate because his family gets health insurance thanks to his wife’s job at a bank.

He, too, did well in his first year with Uber, but then the company dropped its New York prices by 30 percent. His pay receipts show that he used to average around $2,000 a week, driving 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. six days a week—but by last summer, his weekly gross fell to about $1,500 a week. From that he had to subtract around $100 a week for gas, around $100 a week for tolls, and $400 a week to rent a Toyota Camry with insurance.

For Parmar, grossing $1,500 a week for 70 hours of driving comes to around $21.50 an hour, before factoring in his many expenses. That was substantially less than the $28 an hour that two researchers—Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Jonathan Hall, Uber’s director of policy research—found to be the median gross pay for Uber drivers in New York in an analysis of October 2014 data. (The $28 an hour they found comes to $58,000 a year for a 40-hour-a-week driver, and is far below the $90,000 a year that Uber was boasting its drivers in New York averaged in 2014.) According to Krueger and Hall’s Uber-backed study, the median gross pay for Uber drivers in 20 cities was around $17.50 an hour—including $16 in Chicago, just under $17 in Los Angeles—and that was before subtracting the drivers’ costs and before Uber further reduced fares in 48 cities in January 2015.

“I went personally to Uber’s office in Queens and I said, ‘How do you justify this 30 percent cut in fares?’” says Parmar, who recently cut back his Uber hours to part-time so he could also drive for a friend’s black-car service. “They said, ‘Since we’ve dropped the price, we’re going to have more customers.’

“I told them, ‘I’m not selling apples, I’m not selling donuts. I’m driving a car. I can do 15 or 16 rides a night. If the price is 30 percent less, I get paid 30 percent less.’

“They said the cheaper the price, the more customers you’ll have. I can’t drive 100 customers a night. I’m not a machine. I cannot work 18 hours a day.”

In other words, there is nothing here that you don’t see from other employers. They are going to drive down wages as steeply as possible. Denying they are even employers is a neat trick to doing this. Hopefully the courts step in here.

The Seattle City Council recently voted 8-0 to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. Several hundred are interested in doing so and the Teamsters are organizing them. And not surprisingly, Uber treats these unionizing workers like other employers and tries to fire them for organizing:

Last August 31, Takele Gobena, an Uber driver, stood alongside Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien at a news conference, complaining that his Uber earnings came to less than the federal minimum wage after factoring in gas, insurance, and other costs. At the press conference, Gobena, a 26-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, hailed O’Brien’s plan to introduce legislation that would allow Seattle’s Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize and bargain collectively, even though those companies insist their drivers are independent contractors and not employees. A half-dozen drivers flanked O’Brien, holding signs saying, “Drivers need a voice.”

Toward the end of his remarks, Gobena, a member of the App-Based Drivers Association, said, “I know Uber will probably deactivate me tomorrow, but I’m ready because this is worth fighting for.”

It didn’t take that long. At 6:50 that evening, a few hours after several websites posted stories about the news conference, Uber emailed Gobena to notify him that he had been deactivated as a driver. The reason Uber gave: His auto insurance had expired.

Gobena rushed to inform the news media and Councilman O’Brien about his being deactivated (Uber-ese for dismissed). Not only that, Gobena sent them iPhone photos of his insurance certificate, which wasn’t to expire until December. Several reporters contacted Uber to ask about the sudden deactivation, and as if by magic, Uber re-activated Gobena around 9 p.m. (Uber denied deactivating him, even though news websites later posted a screenshot of Uber’s deactivation message on Gobena’s phone.)

The story of the fired worker rehired because of public attention is a nice one. But how many are being fired without this public attention? Hard to know.

In any case, there is no reason why Uber, Lyft, and all these other services shouldn’t be held under traditional employment law. The more we know, the more exploitative these companies seem. Let’s hope politicians and the courts see this too.

Erik Visits an American Grave (VIII)

[ 2 ] January 5, 2016 |


This is the grave of Philip Murray, former CIO president and of the United Steelworkers of America. Murray emigrated from Scotland in 1902, arriving in Pittsburgh. He was 16 years of age. He then went into the coal mines. He became involved with the United Mine Workers of America in 1904 and he punched the man who weighed his coal because he felt the man was cheating him. The company then threw Murray’s family out the company housing where they lived. At that moment, a lifelong unionist was born. A relatively conservative unionist in terms of worker militancy, Murray soon became a favorite of UMWA leadership, including John L. Lewis. He became a vice-president of the Mineworkers in 1920. Murray followed his mentor out of the AFL and became vice-president of the CIO. When the UMWA created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1937 to organize the steel mills, Murray led that charge and became first president of the union, which became the USWA in 1942. When Lewis left the CIO in 1940, Murray took over. Lewis and Murray soon split over the latter’s independence from his mentor and their friendship ended. That Murray strongly supported FDR and the New Deal while Lewis became an isolationist and endorsed Republicans over Roosevelt contributed to this divide. Murray continued leading the USWA and CIO both after the war, including guiding his union through the 1952 strike. He died of a heart attack soon after. Walter Reuther replaced him as head of the CIO and David McDonald followed him as USWA president.

Philip Murray is buried in Saint Anne Cemetery, Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania.

Poverty in the Valley of Plenty

[ 10 ] January 4, 2016 |


In 1948, the National Farm Labor Union and Hollywood filmmakers who hated the virulently anti-union big farm grower DiGiorgio Fruit, the largest grape, plum, and pear grower in the world, made a film titled Poverty in the Valley of Plenty to expose the terrible conditions of the farmers. In 1947, DiGiorgio responded to a strike by firing all the strikers and replacing them with a combination of Filipinos, undocumented workers, and migrants coming to the U.S. through the Bracero Program. The last of these was an illegal move for the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico explicitly stated that braceros were not to be used as strikebreakers. The unions hated DiGiorgio so much that they waived all their wage and hour contracts to get the film made.

Here it is.

It’s an interesting document. I know the print is not very clear at all and that’s too bad. It’s notable that the workers here are all portrayed as white, given that there were already a lot of Mexican-Americans and Filipinos working these farms and that Ernesto Gallarza, one of the founders of farmworker organizing, was one of the NFLU leaders. Perhaps this was done for the rhetorical argument of claiming these were real Americans. That seems more likely given the unfortunate emphasis on the evils of illegal immigration as the real villain here. It’s not so much that the immigrants are being blamed as they are pawns of an evil corporation, but there’s certainly no sympathy for the immigrants either. That’s unfortunate but not at all surprising for 1948.

DiGiorgio responded by suing the NFLU for libel and going to court to end all screenings of the film. In 1950, the company won. The NFLU was destroyed and the union agreed to destroy all copies of the film, although as we see here, at least one survived.

Rare Good News

[ 12 ] January 2, 2016 |


Sometimes, if you fight long and hard enough, you might win something and positive change results. At least that’s the case for 239 Citgo employees at the company’s refinery in Corpus Christi who finally won their case charging the company required unpaid labor after forcing them to brief the next shift for 15 minutes every day. Citgo now has to pay over $460,000 to those workers.

Unfortunately, in cases like this, just paying the back pay is not enough. What’s the incentive for Citgo or other companies to not exploit their workers if the downside is that someday, maybe, they might have to finally pay them. Only serious punitive damages on top of the back wages will provide any kind of meaningful incentive for corporations to treat employees with respect. At least Obama’s Labor Department is aggressively going after wage and hour violations in the oil industry, which will certainly end if a Republican wins in November.

Today in Fred Hiatt’s Rag

[ 60 ] December 31, 2015 |


Above: People who Fred Hiatt wishes would go away

Fred Hiatt, who has no problem hiring 312 conservatives who all say the same thing, has fired Harold Meyerson, one of the paper’s only liberal voices. Why?

Of course. In Hiatt’s universe, writing about labor power has no value. Better that those workers are unemployed and then join the military so we can invade another Islamic nation for no good reason. Hey, he should hire another 14 writers for the op-ed page who want to see that happen!

[SL] Peter Dreier has more.

My “favorite” part of this is a guy who’s been paying Robert Samuelson to write the same column about how all federal entitlement programs need to be cut for decades firing Harold Meyerson because he writes about the same issue too much. But, of course, 1)Samuelson’s one column idea happens to dovetail with Fred Hiatt’s views, and 2)while “ideological diversity” may mean hiring torture apologists or universally derided hacks, as Erik says God forbid it extend to the left to apply to writers of actual talent.

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