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This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1869

[ 55 ] May 10, 2014 |

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines met at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad itself was key to the growth of the American nation after the Civil War, but it came at a terrible cost to workers, particularly the Chinese for the Central Pacific. Examining the treatment of the Chinese shines a lot not only the conditions of labor of the most despised group of workers in the United States, but also on the limits of Republican Party free labor ideology.

While the Union Pacific relied largely on Irish labor, the Central Pacfiic hired mostly Chinese laborers to build the railroad. There were certain dangers with all railroad construction and the UP did build across the territory of still pretty powerful Native American tribes, but the land itself was slowly rising and without major physical obstacles in the way. On the other hand, the CP had to build across the Sierra Nevada and then through the difficult terrain of Nevada. It was going over the Sierra that tells the most compelling labor history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Central Pacific hired James Strobridge as its construction superintendent. It was his job to hire the men and build the road. Strobridge liked to beat his workers with a pick handle. While Charles Crocker, one of the CP top executives, objected to this treatment, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, were fine with it. In 1865, Strobridge started hiring Chinese laborers, the most easily dominated in the country at that time, even more so than the newly ex-slaves. The low wages meant that even the Irish were hard to get. CP wanted 4000 workers and had 800. By 1868, 80% of the 12,000 member CP workforce were Chinese. The Chinese presence was hated in California but was also necessary in the early years to do the work white miners did not want to do. When everyday whites left mining after not striking it rich, they saw the Chinese as competition for the white man’s republic they hoped to build in the Golden State.

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Image from Harper’s of Chinese railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad

Few would object than if Strobridge turned his legendary labor methods on the Chinese. And turn on them he did. He only brought the Chinese on when the Irish began demanding higher wages. The CP explicitly divided workers by race, forcing the remaining Irish to take lower wages. They wanted about $50 a month. The Chinese were paid $30 and the Irish $35. The Irish had their food and board provided, but the Chinese had to pay for theirs. The Irish of course blamed the Chinese for keeping wages down.

The conditions of work were extremely difficult. Building through the Sierra meant cold, rain, and lots of snow. The Chinese labored on blasting 16 tunnels through the Sierra, an extremely dangerous proposition at any time, and especially during an era when employers had no legal responsibility for workplace safety. It is impossible to know how many Chinese workers died building the railroad, from avalanches, explosions in tunnel building, and other causes. No one kept track because the CP didn’t care. A 1870 newspaper story in a Sacramento paper reported that a train carrying the bones of 1200 dead Chinese workers to San Francisco had passed through town. We can probably see that as a bare minimum of the dead and the number was almost certainly much higher.

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As word of the horrible conditions got back to San Francisco, fewer Chinese signed up. Strobridge raised the wage rates for the Chinese to $35, but this was not enough. In late June 1867, thousands of Chinese went on a short strike. They had concrete demands. They wanted $40 a month, a 10-hour day for above-ground work and an 8-hour for tunneling work instead of the 12-hour day they faced, and end to beatings, and the right to quit without harassment from the company.

Strobridge’s response was to stop feeding the workers. Crocker looked into hiring newly freed slaves (at the same time that southern planters were exploring hiring Chinese) to replace them but this was unrealistic. So simply refusing to send supply trains carrying food was the best answer. The Chinese were high in the mountains, far away from home, and with no means of survival. They were at the mercy of the Central Pacific. After a week, the strike ended and they returned to their brutal, deadly work.

Once they crossed the Sierra and started building in the baking hot and dry alkali flats of the Great Basin, the Chinese had enough. Hundreds of workers fled back along the railroad lines to California. Strobridge sent horsemen to round them up just like they would round up cattle. Free labor this was not.

This story suggests the very strong limitations of Republican labor policy and I want to once again push back on the idea that the Republican Party was a revolutionary political party. The vast majority of these railroad executives were Republicans. Many Republicans were perfectly fine with coerced labor so long as it wasn’t the actual conditions of slavery in the American South. That’s because for them, the problem with slavery was not the treatment of blacks, but the effect on whites, making them lazy, violent, and unconcerned with industrial progress. The abolitionists had different views and at least some of them were not horrible toward the Chinese, but they were always a pretty stark minority in the Republican Party. There was a revolutionary element in the Republican Party, yes, but their views of labor with the mainstream were more an alliance of convenience than a broad set of commonly held views. Far more common and growing ever more powerful in the years after the war were people like the Central Pacific executives, who would happily drive labor to the point of death for profit.

The Chinese would go on to build many western railroads, facing discrimination and violence wherever they went. Hatred of the Chinese eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislative victory for organized labor in American history. Violence however continued and it was only with the rise of Japanese immigration and declining Chinese populations due to the immigration restriction that the violence subsided.

I based part of this post on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, which is not primarily a labor history, but which contains detail of these issues in its railroad chapter and which is worth you reading for more on the importance of nature for understanding key events in American history.

This is the 106th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Most Dangerous State for Workers

[ 35 ] May 8, 2014 |

North Dakota, thanks to an oil industry that continues to shirk on workplace safety.

According to the AFL-CIO, the most dangerous U.S. state for workers is North Dakota, which the report calls “an exceptionally dangerous and deadly place to work.” Its fatality rate — almost 18 deaths per 100,000 workers — is five times higher than the national average. It’s also double the state’s 2007 rate, when it stood at 7 deaths per 100,000 workers.

North Dakota’s spike in workplace deaths illustrates the dark side of the state’s booming energy industry, which has brought both high-paying jobs and problems such as rising crime rates and homelessness, thanks to a lack of housing. The rising rate of workplace deaths suffered in the oil and gas industry was called “unacceptable” by Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez last year.

“A particular focus is needed on the oil and gas industry,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, on a conference call with reporters. “With that industry growing and expanding, we’ve seen an expansion of fatalities not just in North Dakota, but in other states. It needs much more attention by employers, OSHA, and other state and federal agencies.”

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1970

[ 87 ] May 8, 2014 |

On May 8, 1970, 200 unionized construction workers attacked an anti-war march in the wake of the Kent State shooting a few days before. The so-called Hard Hat Riot placed an image in the American mind of right-wing workers opposed to social justice that sadly remains far too prevalent today.

Unfortunately, the actions of a small number of unionists are used 44 years later as evidence of why unions can’t be trusted by otherwise progressive people. Although the national AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War, the reality is that the union movement is very ideologically diverse and was so even more at that time, when there were many more unions than the present. Many union members and union leaders opposed the Vietnam War. Many had fought there and came back bitter. Others fought there and were die-hard supporters.

But the building trades have long been bastions of conservatism in the labor movement, whether the United Brotherhood of Carpenters not endorsing a Democratic candidate for president until 1964 (and mostly not endorsing Dems today) or the Laborers supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline. There are exceptions to this–the Painters tend to be quite a bit more liberal. But the building traders generally supported the war. That was especially true of Peter Brennan, president of the powerful Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and vice-president of the state AFL-CIO. Brennan was moving significantly to the right in these years, around Vietnam and other issues. Hating hippies was pretty easy for Brennan.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed 4 students at Kent State University, leading to the largest protests of the war. Protests continued after the Kent State massacre. New York mayor John Lindsey ordered flags to be flown at half mast to honor the 4 dead. On the morning of May 8, hundreds of young people gathered at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan for a protest. Brennan coordinated construction workers to attack them. The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.

Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway. The construction workers, carrying American flags and patriotic slogans, singled out the men with the longest hair and beat them. They began tearing up nearby buildings as well as the attacks verged nearly out of control. One of the first things the construction workers did was to raise the flags back to full mast, a direct rebuke to Lindsay, who many saw as unmanly and cowardly for kowtowing to antiwar protestors and hippies. About 70 people were sent to the hospital, mostly students but including 4 policemen. Brennan claimed it was a spontaneous demonstration by workers sick of hippies desecrating the American flag. This was an obvious lie.

The construction unions were largely white male unions that had resisted desegregation and gender equality; they felt themselves and their cultural values under attack from many forces and that included those protesting the war in Vietnam.Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked them from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway.

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Throughout the rest of May, building trades workers continued to rally. On May 20, the rallies became officially sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, with 100,000 people festooned with flags and signs reading “God Bless the Establishment” and “We Support Nixon and Agnew.” Construction workers in St. Louis held similar rallies. Very quickly, the hippies began distrusting labor unions as part of the corrupted establishment. In the 1971 hippie dystopian film Punishment Park, about a world where the hippies are rounded up, tried in kangaroo courts, and then given the option of fleeing from the army for their freedom in the eponymous park, one of the key figures on the courts is a unionist, masking his evil in vague language of workers’ interests but in fact just being a tool of the man. Such images of labor unions became all too common on the American left, sometimes not without reason, as we see in this post.

But again, it’s important that we today push back against “labor” being pro-Vietnam. Polls showed that manual laborers were more opposed to the war than the college-educated. These were not public sector unionists or industrial unionists or even all building trades unionists. This was a small sector of labor. Moreover, what galled many of the working-class people at the protest was not the lack of support for the war itself, but rather the privilege of the anti-war protestors who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam. There were lots of tensions at work here, but they were more complex than presented at the time. And they are basically irrelevant today. People talking about this today with any relevance to the present might as well pull any event from the American movement 44 years ago. It would be relevant if American labor unionists began beating Occupy protestors or environmentalists rallying against Keystone. But even if such a horrible thing happened, it would be one very labor union acting very badly, not all of organized labor. We need to recognize this and place it in context of who is the problem here. In 1970, it was the New York building trades and their ambitious hippie-hating leader, not the United Auto Workers or United Steel Workers of America.

Of course Richard Nixon thought of all this was great. All his talk about “law and order” did not apply at all to rioting construction workers. Nixon repaid Brennan for his actions by naming him Secretary of Labor. Brennan continued in the job into the Ford Administration. Ford replaced him in 1975 whereupon he returned to his old post in the Building Trades Council. Brennan died in 1996. Congressmen Peter King, a man wrapped up in the politics that drove Brennan nearly a half-century ago, saluted him for “standing up to the antiwar protesters who tried to take over our streets.”

Bits of this are taken from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the American Working Class, although he doesn’t talk about this event much. Joshua Freeman’s “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations” from the Summer 1993 issue of Journal of Social History was also used. I understand that Penny Lewis’ recent book is quite good on this history, but I have not read it.

This is the 105th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Temporary Work is Dangerous Work

[ 26 ] May 7, 2014 |

On July 29, 2013, a Florida propane plant owned by Blue Rhino, who makes those big propane tanks you can buy at Wal-Mart, exploded. 5 workers were severely burned. OSHA claims Blue Rhino broke 26 workplace safety rules and fined it $73,000. Which is almost nothing considering the size of Blue Rhino and the injuries involved. Blue Rhino of course denies everything and blames careless employees, i.e., what almost every single employer has said about almost every single workplace accident for the entire history of industrialization. But for me, the lede is buried.

Many of Blue Rhino’s employees were temporary workers from a staffing agency, which is also facing OSHA fines for failing to properly train the laborers to work with hazardous materials.

While it’s unclear whether any of the injured workers were temp workers, the fines strongly suggest they were involved. It’s not surprising at all that these workers would be poorly trained for the dangerous labor they were engaged in. And of course, these should have been Blue Rhino employees. But manufacturers use temp labor all the time, sometimes to solve a short-term staffing problem, but quite often to offload the risk and cost of a new employee onto a contractor, allowing the company to pay them very little while trying them out on the job. It’s an exploitative system and one that can be quite dangerous.

Cheerleader Wages

[ 92 ] May 7, 2014 |

I guess I always assumed that NFL cheerleaders were reasonably well-compensated for the rather significant role they play for most teams. Of course I was wrong.

The Jets are Gang “Not a Lot of” Green when it comes to paying their cheerleaders, a new lawsuit charges.

The suit, filed by a former Jets cheerleader identified in court papers as Krystal C., says she was paid an average of $3.77 an hour for her time on the Flight Crew — or $1.50 an hour after out-of-pocket expenses.

“The Jets, while paying millions of dollars to its male athletes for a single season of work, have historically and currently pay less than minimum wage to its cheerleading staff,” the Bergen County, N.J. lawsuit says.

“We didn’t complain because we were always told how lucky we were to be able to perform and we were lucky,” Krystal told the Daily News. “But I didn’t think it was right to pay us so little when we all worked so hard and we were 100% there all the time.”

Her deal called for her to be paid $150 per game and $100 for special events — but that didn’t take into account the full cheer schedule.

She loved the fans and her fellow Flight Crew members. She gave a lot of thought to taking this step.

“The cheerleaders are required to work ‘off the clock’ at home, attend rehearsals three days a week from May through December without pay, attend ‘charity events’ without pay, and are required to spend their own money on travel, uniform maintenance and cosmetic and hairstyling requirements set by the Jets,” the suit says.

They’re also required to show up three and a half hours before game time, and to stay 30 minutes after the end of the game, the suit says.

Practices were held three times a week, and lasted about three hours, and the cheerleaders were required to keep practicing at home, the suit says.

They were also required “to maintain a specific personal appearance, including hair style, make up and nail appearance,” all at their own “personal expense,” the suit says.


Cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills are also suing over their low wages.

And the lesson is to always assume workers are getting screwed over. Always. Because you are rarely going to be wrong.

This Day in Labor History: May 6, 1935

[ 86 ] May 6, 2014 |

On May 6, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7034 creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Passed and funded by Congress in the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935, the WPA became among the two most important federal jobs programs of the New Deal and a model for how government investment in the economy can not only solve short-term unemployment problems but also build the infrastructure of a strong, modern nation.

The WPA is not the sexiest New Deal program. People love the Civilian Conservation Corps while the Tennessee Valley Authority is more famous for its ambition in reshaping an entire region of the country. But during its 8 year existence, the WPA provided nearly 8 million jobs to unemployed Americans. WPA administrator Harry Hopkins was one of FDR’s closest advisers (he actually lived at the White House). The president felt strongly about this program, in no small part because he wanted to show the American people that his plan to fight the Great Depression was working before the 1936 elections. The WPA was an expansion of the Civil Works Administration (CWA), an earlier and smaller attempt at employing the nation’s unemployed, also led by Hopkins.

WPA_Main_Image

The WPA (along with the Public Works Administration) built most of the nation’s modern infrastructure. WPA workers constructed 5900 new schools, 9300 recreational buildings, 1000 libraries, 7000 dormitories, 900 armories, 2300 stadiums and grandstands, 52 fairgrounds, 1686 parks, 3026 athletic fields, 254 golf courses, and a whole lot more. Among the most famous WPA-constructed building projects are Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood in Oregon, LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and Camp David in Maryland. It build flood control projects, roads, airports, utility projects, and electrical infrastructure. One of the roads it built was the Blue Ridge Parkway, today one of the nation’s finest drives.

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WPA road project, Utah, 1938

The Household Service Demonstration Project trained 30,000 women for domestic employment. Most famous was the WPA art projects. The Federal Art Project employed 5300 artists. Art centers around the country offered courses to everyday people. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Jacob Lawrence made ends meet this way. The Federal Music Project made sure classical musicians did not starve. The Federal Writers Project began the field of oral history in the United States with the interview of surviving ex-slaves while the American Guide Series provided the first comprehensive travel book series for each state. There were also attempts to write up the varieties of American food, although this project faltered in the face of it being such a make-work deal that it employed people who were incompetent. But who really cares because people were able to eat. And then there’s the Federal Theatre Project which did so much for a young man named Orson Welles.

But of course most of the WPA projects are things we don’t notice today. And in a sense, that’s a good thing because this was ultimately a government modernization investment. The WPA worked with the states and localities to co-fund projects; the feds provided 70-90% of the funding but local entities had to buy into the program. In doing so, they invested in the future of their communities, laying the groundwork (literally in many cases) for the growth of the U.S. as a superpower after World War II.

In November 1938, the WPA employed 3.3 million people, a remarkable number given the restrictions of one person per family of people on relief. It aimed to pay the local prevailing wage, which was always something of a guessing game, but the average worker received about $52.50 a month (about $857 in 2013 dollars). Over its 6 year existence, the WPA averaged 2 million Americans on the government payroll.

The WPA also employed a large number of African-Americans at a time when New Deal programs sometimes left them behind or even increased job segregation (as happened with the TVA). Given the local control over TVA programs, the impact for African-Americans was greater in the North than the South. In 1941, the NAACP said:

“It is to the eternal credit of the administrative officers of the WPA that discrimination on various projects because of race has been kept to a minimum and that in almost every community Negroes have been given a chance to participate in the work program. In the South, as might have been expected, this participation has been limited, and differential wages on the basis of race have been more or less effectively established; but in the northern communities, particularly in the urban centers, the Negro has been afforded his first real opportunity for employment in white-collar occupations.”

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WPA sewing project, New York City, late 30s

As a program dedicated specifically to providing household breadwinners work, most of the employees were men. But despite modern right-wing fantasies about historical family structure, many women have always taken over as the primary income generator for themselves and their families for any number of reasons. That includes in the 1930s and about 15% of WPA workers were female breadwinners.

Of course the right-wingers hated it, with Martin Dies calling it a “seedbed for communists.” In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act, which banned federal employees from partisan political activity and undermined the left-leaning artistic programs. Many critics said FDR was building a political machine through these programs, which makes perfect sense if you mean “showing the American people that the American government cares about you so you should vote for liberals.”

Like the rest of the New Deal jobs programs, the need for their existence faded once the nation geared up for World War II. FDR announced the WPA’s closing on December 4, 1942 and the agency officially folded on June 30, 1943.

The WPA shows the power of the federal government in improving the lives of Americans. If there’s one weakness to the WPA, it’s that it was too small to transform the economy. Unfortunately, we have not learned this lesson today and the politics around a federal jobs program that would employ Americans who wanted to work are impossible, even though doing so would not only rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and build new skills that people could use the rest of their lives, but also serve as a gigantic stimulus that would go far to turn this nation around and rebuild an infrastructure conservative politics have forced us to neglect for far too long.

This is the 104th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Put the People First in Tennessee

[ 18 ] April 30, 2014 |

Building off North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, this the kind of community organizing/coalition building/attention raising that those who care about labor in red states need to engage in to bring some attention to the extreme difficulties of the working class in these states.

Note of disclaimer–United Campus Workers (CWA Local 3865)–prominent in this piece–is the union I helped to get started back about 15 years ago now.

Republicans See Poor People, Think They Are Too Rich

[ 230 ] April 30, 2014 |

In case you needed a reminder that the Republicans are engaged in open warfare with the poor, Republican senators filibustered the minimum wage bill today.

Wal-Mart Worker Safety

[ 53 ] April 30, 2014 |

Wal-Mart’s labor practices are really great for workers who want to get hurt on the job.

Workers at an Indiana Wal-Mart warehouse allege they were subjected to safety risks including falling freight, forklifts on fire, and frostbite – and then illegally fired for organizing in response.

“They never want you to stop working,” said fired worker David Fields. “They want you to keep working – and no matter how unsafe it is, they want you to just keep going.” Fields, who asserts he was fired this month for organizing co-workers to take on safety issues at Walmart Consolidation Center #7100, joined co-workers in filing National Labor Relations Board charges alleging illegal retaliation. He told Salon that a temp agency manager terminated him April 2, the same day

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workers planned to deliver a petition with 100-some signatures protesting unsafe conditions. “Seeing we were all on the same page,” charged Fields, “they got threatened, and this is why they got rid of me.” He added that management had been intentionally “secretive” about ejecting him: “They took me out the side door, and they basically fired me on lunch.”

Wal-Mart, the only company whose goods move through the Hammond, Indiana, consolidation center, has contracted Linc Logistics (a subsidiary of Universal Truckload Services) to run the facility; Linc has brought in temp agencies Malace HR and Swift Staffing. Wal-Mart, UTS, Malace and Swift did not respond to Salon’s requests for comment on the allegations. Linc “has said the disciplinary actions were unrelated to the protests in January,” according to The Times of Northwest Indiana.

While Wal-Mart doesn’t directly employ any of the facility’s workers, Fields told Salon, “Everything that Linc would tell us in the pre-shift meeting, they basically said, ‘Oh, this is Wal-Mart’s policy.’” He said that included a “policy of loading the freight high and tight,” even though “it’s unstable – it’s basically putting everybody at risk of being crushed by these falling boxes. They are quite aware of what’s happening, but they really just don’t care.”

Fields told Salon he was also repeatedly required to drive forklifts despite conditions made unsafe by accumulated rain or snow on the docks. “I mean, you can’t stop or anything like that…” he said. “It was a terrible feeling.” In addition, he charged, “the hydraulics system didn’t work properly”; “a lot of people were frostbitten”; and “there’s no fire alarms.” Workers at Walmart Consolidation Center #7100 also alleged this month that forklifts have had faulty brakes, and caught on fire.

Note as well that this is technically a contractor of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart controls everything about it except that it is shielded from responsibility for the conditions of labor. The workers are driven by Wal-Mart directives and the costs are determined by Wal-Mart, but the workers aren’t Wal-Mart employees. This is the same immoral system that helped create the Bangladeshi factory collapse a year ago. This system of contracting to avoid labor responsibility needs to end–the ultimate receiver of goods needs to be legally responsible for all labor issues at their contractors. There is no good reason at all that Wal-Mart or any other company should be able to shield themselves from liability for its labor, whether in Indiana or Bangladesh.

Poultry Plants

[ 41 ] April 29, 2014 |

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal complaint against conditions in an Alabama poultry factory.

Beatriz Navedo began to feel dizzy as she worked a processing line at the Wayne Farms poultry plant.

As the line zipped by, her chest also began to hurt. It was a heart attack.

But Navedo wasn’t sure what was happening. She just knew she needed help. She went to the plant’s nurse, but the nurse wouldn’t call the hospital, instead offering aspirin. Navedo’s daughter, who also works at the plant, left her shift early to take her mother to the hospital. Both women were punished by having points added to their employee files. Workers who accrue too many of these points are automatically fired.

It was another example of the abuse workers endure at the plant. Navedo had previously been threatened with firing for reporting on-the-job injuries. “We were promised a dream, but what we really got was a nightmare,” said Navedo, who no longer works at the plant. “I felt like a slave.”

The SPLC filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) today charging that workers at the Enterprise, Ala., plant have been forced to either endure unsafe and abusive conditions or lose their jobs.

OSHA is so underfunded and the meat industry so politically powerful that the largely immigrant workforce in these once unionized and now union-free jobs are treated like garbage, effectively bringing the dangerous working conditions of the Gilded Age of past America to the present and the outsourced dangerous factories of the developing world back to the United States.

It’s also worth remembering that every meal you eat has a labor history to it and if you are eating pretty much any meat, it’s extremely likely it is produced on the back on dangerous labor. That’s not to say don’t eat meat. It is to say that lending your voice to the fight for safe working conditions in food processing needs to be central to any food movement.

Unpaid Internships

[ 47 ] April 24, 2014 |

Indeed, unpaid internships should be illegal. Stolen labor is never acceptable.

From Ludlow to Upper Big Branch

[ 16 ] April 23, 2014 |

I have a piece up at Bill Moyers’ site connecting the exploitation that led to the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 with coal companies exploitation of labor and degradation of nature today:

In recent years, American mining companies have undermined the effectiveness of many of these reforms. West Virginia mandates that the state legislature must approve all environmental regulations, making meaningful regulation all but impossible. The companies managed to influence the scientific testing of black lung claims. Miners suffering from black lung need to have their cases confirmed by doctors, but a single pro-coal scientist at Johns Hopkins University denied all 1,500 cases he saw between 2000 and 2013. After the Center for Public Integrity exposed this travesty — winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process — Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung testing program.

Today, mountaintop removal mining reshapes West Virginia and Kentucky, dumping millions of tons of contaminated soil into valleys, poisoning waterways and sickening residents. Coal companies claim it is the most cost-effective process, but it forces the long-term costs of mining onto local communities. It poisons waterways with mercury, lead, arsenic and selenium. Improper storage of coal waste also leads to polluted waterways. A Duke Energy coal ash leak in North Carolina earlier this year turned at least 27 million gallons of water in the Dan River into a toxic soup, polluting the water source for Danville, Va.

In 2010, 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the nation’s deadliest mine explosion since 1970. Don Blakenship, CEO of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, had long fought against safety and environmental regulations. The mine’s operation was officially and notoriously unsafe, having racked up over 500 safety violations in the year before the explosion. After the disaster, Massey denied time off for miners to go to their friends’ funerals. Blankenship called the explosion an “act of God” and denied all responsibility.

Upper Big Branch was a non-union mine. The coal companies have managed to reduce the UMWA to a shell of its former strength by closing union mines while investing in new non-union mines in the West, and automating jobs that allow them to lay off union members. And when workers lack a voice to fight for their own safety, the results can be disastrous. The UMWA only has 75,000 members today, down from 500,000 in 1946 and 240,000 in 1998. In 2006, an explosion at the non-union Sago Mine in West Virginia killed 13 miners, but the mine was only fined $71,800 for safety violations. Robert Murray, owner of the non-union Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah blew off the safety violations his operation received in 2006 as trivialities. The next year a mine collapse killed six miners and, later, three rescue workers searching for their bodies. When the UMWA criticized Murray’s safety record, he told family members of the dead, “the union is your enemy.” The coal industry is now fighting to reduce the already limited inspections

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of its mines.

The UMWA struggles to keep up its fight against black lung disease. The number of miners afflicted with the illness has risen in recent years, especially among younger miners. Fifty-two percent of the 113,000 mine dust samples turned into government regulators by coal companies since 1987 exceeded federal standards. Seventy-one percent of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch had already developed the lung lesions that are typical of black lung.

Like John D. Rockefeller Jr., a century ago, Blankenship, Murray and other coal mining CEOs destroy lives and ecosystems without consequences.

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