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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: November 2, 1909

[ 26 ] November 2, 2014 |

On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World called a free speech strike in Spokane, Washington. The free speech movements would highlight what the IWW did well and where is struggled, as the organization exposed the hypocrisy and brutality of Gilded Age capitalism and exposed to the nation the terrible lives of working people while at the same time failing to build on a major early victory when it won this battle.

The IWW was founded in 1905 to give power to the millions of industrial workers who lacked it in Gilded Age America. With the American Federation of Labor largely unwilling to organize women, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, farmworkers, children, or the giant industrial workplaces developing during the late 19th century, there was a tremendous vacuum for someone willing to organize the masses. The IWW would step into that vacuum.

Conditions in northeastern Washington were as bad as the rest of the nation. This was farming and logging country and both industries relied on itinerant labor. Working and living conditions were terrible and pay was poor. What really made workers angry was the employment agency scam. Companies and farmers would contract out with employment agencies, forcing workers to use them for a job. Workers paid for this service. If a job wasn’t there when they arrived, no money back! Return to Spokane and try again. Same if the job just lasted a couple of days. This was rank exploitation of the poor.

These conditions made Spokane an early IWW organizing hotspot. By mid 1909, the city and surrounding region had up to 1500 dues-paying members and a nice headquarters. It expanded its presence through street speaking. This is the literal meaning of “get on your soapbox” in action here. In angry speeches denouncing the exploitation workers faced, Wobbly speakers attempted to convince the workers passing through Spokane from job to job to fight back. As 1909 went on, the Spokane police began cracking down against this. In March, the city council passed an ordinance banning public speaking to all “revolutionists.”

anit-IWW cartoon from Spokane Spokesman Review 1909

Anti-IWW cartoon from Spokane newspaper

As arrests grew, the IWW moved toward a larger action. When local Wobbly leader Jim Thompson was arrested for speaking without a permit on October 25, the IWW demanded his release and threatened to send speakers from around the country to city and flood the jails. Spokane called the IWW on its bluff and the IWW began its first major free speech fight on November 2. Spokane police began arresting everyone who tried to speak. Soon 400 people were in jail, overwhelming the prison system. As the members cycled out of jail, often after a 30-day sentence, they got themselves rearrested. Conditions in the prisons were terrible. Overcrowded and cold, the prisoners were intentionally underfed and forced to take ice-cold outdoor showers in the winter.

This was not quite the first free speech fight, but it was the first to become a national story. Major radical speakers like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived. Flynn was nineteen and pregnant. She was arrested as well, after chaining herself to a lamppost to avoid it. When she was in prison, she had a story published in Industrial Worker that the Spokane police were using the prison as a brothel. The police went ballistic and attempted to confiscate all copies. The intense resistance of the IWW surprised Spokane and overwhelmed its ability to deal with the crisis of its own making.

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The IWW won a pretty complete victory in the free speech fight here. All the unconstitutional restrictions on their activities were taken away and the free speech prisoners freed. It could hold outdoor meetings without the police harassing them. And during the strike, the employers gave up the contract labor system in order to take away part of workers’ reason to be angry. But the employers could have held out. Most of the arrested strikers were out of town revolutionaries and the IWW leadership was having trouble finding more. The IWW actually approached the Spokane city government for a deal because it knew it would lose soon.

What I find fascinating about the IWW response to Spokane is how rapidly the conditions of work in Spokane disappeared from the pages of Industrial Worker, the most important IWW newspaper, once this struggle became about free speech. Instead of the hellish lives experienced by the rank and file, the fight was about free speech, heightening the contradictions of capitalism by forcing mass arrests, and the potential for revolutionary change. But the actual conditions of work became secondary, basically disappearing from Wobbly documents. That might make sense in the short term. But when the strike ended, Spokane itself faded from view. The Wobblies moved on to the next big national struggle. The focus on conditions in Spokane that was common in the paper before the strike was completely gone after it was won.

Even after the strike was won, the conditions of labor were still terrible. But the IWW as a national organization really failed to build upon this victory. It could have really doubled down in Spokane and started pushing further improvements to the lives of the loggers, agricultural workers, and urban workers (who were really the same people since people switched work in this economy all the time). But it did not. The loggers would still remain active IWW members and northeastern Washington and northern Idaho the heart of Wobbly radicalism in the Northwest timber industry. But it would take another decade, more strikes, and government intervention to solve the labor unrest caused by the terrible exploitation of the timber industry.

I don’t necessarily blame the IWW here for its failure to build on the free speech fights, a problem it would have throughout its history. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of the victory in Spokane. This was a young organization with the struggles that new groups have. It was very good at certain things, such as throwing the hypocrisy of the capitalists back in their face, creating public displays, and promulgating powerful cultural images. It also managed to make strong connections some of the nation’s poorest workers. It was not good at understanding how to build a long-term struggle, nor would it ever be. For many IWW leaders and intellectuals, ideas of revolution and struggle had more appeal than the day to day organizing needed to build long-term worker power. For an organization so dedicated to the struggles of the nation’s poorest, a lot of its leaders and famous speakers could abstract the working class at the same time as providing material assistance to it at its hardest times.

I think the real relevance of this story today is in the tricky connections between free speech and long-term organizing. The commitment of American radicals to free speech as a principle has waxed and waned over time, but today, like a century ago, it’s high on the radical agenda. And fighting for the spaces and rights for that speech against what can be a coercive state is a major demand, like a century ago. So I guess I see Occupy Wall Street and the IWW free speech fights as having certain similarities. Demanding the soapbox is a vital principle, but it’s awfully hard to build on that to other issues that connect directly to everyday people’s lives. This went far to undermine Occupy and proved a barrier for the IWW as well. The free speech fights were noble, but in the end they didn’t do a whole lot for empowering the rank and file to control their own lives.

This is the 124th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: October 28, 1793

[ 29 ] October 28, 2014 |

On October 28, 1793, Eli Whitney submitted a patent for his invention known as the cotton gin. Perhaps more than any technology in American history, this invention profoundly revolutionized American labor. Creating the modern cotton industry meant the transition from agricultural to industrial labor in the North with the rise of the factory system and the rapid expansion and intensification of slavery in the South to produce the cotton. The cotton gin went far to create the 19th century American economy and sharpened the divides between work and labor between regions of the United States, problems that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

People had long known of the versatile uses of cotton. This plant produced fibers that could be used for many things, but most usefully clothing, which in the 18th century was often scratchy and uncomfortable for everyday people who could not afford finer fabrics, including cotton. The problem was the seed inside the cotton boll, to which the plant’s fibers stuck. Thus, the labor it took to process it made it a luxury good. The cotton gin solved that problem by mechanically separating the fibers from the seeds. This made cotton a universal product and the production of it an international business that would radically change the entire United States and transform work.

Whitney, from Massachusetts, became interested in the problems of cotton production while visiting a plantation in Georgia. Helping out the plantation’s owner (the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene), he created the cotton gin. On October 28, he send his patent application to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. He hoped to make a lot of money on it but American patent law was weak at the time and others copied him. Quickly the invention spread around the South.

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The cotton gin immediately transformed the South. By 1815, cotton became the nation’s leading export, tying the Southern elite to the factory owners and investors of Great Britain. By 1840, it was worth more than all other American exports combined. The system of chattel slavery that had under-girded the colonial tobacco economy had become heavily strained during the 18th century. Declining soil fertility and the expansion of tobacco production around the British empire meant that the plantation owners were not making the money off of slavery that they did 100 years earlier. The lack of an economic imperative for the institution went far toward the abolition of slavery in the North after the American Revolution. In the South, it combined with Enlightenment ideals to at least make plantation owners question the institution. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both admitted the institution was bad but could not imagine freeing their slaves because of the lives of luxury the system provided them. Others were slightly less selfish and either freed their slaves in the 1780s or freed them upon the master’s death, such as George Washington. The general assumption though was that slavery was going to disappear, even if Georgia and South Carolina wouldn’t like it much. As Oliver Ellsworth said at the Constitutional Convention, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”

The cotton gin ended this equivocation on slavery among the plantation elite and destroyed the myth of disappearing slavery in the North. Combined with the conquest of rich land in the hot climates of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana over the next few decades, the planters found new ways to make money using slaves. The southern discussion of slavery transformed from a “necessary evil” to a “positive good.” Thus we would enter the “classic” period of American chattel slavery, replete with the large plantation agriculture you probably think of when envisioning slavery. The lives for slaves were terrible under this system, with rape, beatings, whippings, murder, and the breaking up of families normal parts of life. Further advances in cotton farming created breeds that incentivized working slaves as close to death as possible while keeping them just alive to pick more. As the nation moved toward the Civil War, the southern labor system wrought by the cotton gin was becoming only more entrenched and more brutal for the laborers. Slaves would resist this in any number of ways–breaking tools, running away from masters, even revolt, such as Nat Turner’s revolt or Denmark Vesey’s supposed conspiracy. But by and large the system of racialized violence that kept the labor force in place doomed slaves to miserable lives. In 1787, there were 700,000 slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were 4 million and rising. Around 70 percent of those slaves were involved in cotton production.

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In the North, the revolution caused by the cotton gin was just as profound. Samuel Slater had opened the United States’ first modern factory, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a couple of years earlier. The textile industry would explode in the next several decades with all the newly available cotton. By the 1820s, New England had already undergone a massive economic shift toward textile mills that moved this region from rural to urban, with courts and politicians serving the interests of the industrialists over workers, farmers, and fishers. At first, this transformation was along the region’s copious waterways–at Pawtucket, Lowell, and Manchester. But further technological advances would for steam power meant owners could build factories anywhere and they dotted the region after the Civil War.

The impact upon northern workers was truly revolutionary. The agricultural economy certainly did not disappear but it soon became secondary to the textile factories in much of the region. The wealth spawned by textiles created other industries and new transportation technologies like the steamship, canal, and railroad, and by 1860, the growing northern industrial might had reshaped the nation. It took workers out of the farms and small shops that defined 18th century work and into giant factories. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution that the cotton gin brought to the U.S. meant that workers would lose control over their own labor, the ability to set their own hours of work, the possibility of drinking on the job, and the artisanship of American craft labor. Replacing it would be the factory floor, the time clock, and the foreman. This is largely in the relatively distant future from 1793, but the transformations began soon after.

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It also brought women into the economy in new ways. Supposedly because of their nimble fingers but really because employers could pay them less, women became desirable workers in the cotton factories. This upended gender roles and when American women resisted the treatment they faced in the factories, spurred the migration of immigrants from Ireland and then eastern and southern Europe to fill these low-paid jobs. In the early factories, work was hot, stuffy, and exhausting, with 14-16 hours days not uncommon. The creation of textile work as women’s work and thus highly exploitative never ended and continues today in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, and many other nations. The fight to tame the conditions of industrial labor wrought, in part, by the cotton gin, remains underway today.

This is the 123rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: October 27, 1948

[ 25 ] October 27, 2014 |

On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.

Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.

The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.

In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.

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Pollution in Donora (credit here)

The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.

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The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.

The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.

U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.

So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.

The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.

The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.

For decades now, anti-fluoridation nutcases have used the Donora Fog as one of their cases to prove that fluoride is the world’s greatest evil and the government is covering it up.

I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.

This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: October 19, 1935

[ 9 ] October 19, 2014 |

On October 19, 1935, the American Federation of Labor was holding its convention in Atlantic City. While usually a staid affair, this convention was rocked by a fight on stage between United Mine Workers of American president John L. Lewis and United Brotherhood of Carpenters president Big Bill Hutcheson. This incident and the lead-up to it helped cement the withdrawal of the UMWA from the AFL and the creation of the CIO as an industrial alternative to the AFL’s craft unionism.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters was the largest member of the AFL. It was also among the most politically conservative unions. While, like much of the AFL, technically nonpartisan in these years, Hutcheson was an active Republican and would remain so throughout his life, openly campaigning for Republican candidates against Franklin Roosevelt. His son, who took the union over upon his death in 1952, shared his political conservatism. In fact, the UBC would not endorse a Democrat for president until Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Hutcheson would become a member of America First before World War II, castigate FDR for not supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee, and oppose Harry Truman’s proposal for a national health program. He also opposed unemployment insurance. For all the criticism the old AFL gets today for its politically conservative positions, it is worth noting that even a more aggressive AFL leader would have faced enormous resistance from his constituent unions. It is a federation after all, not a single organization.

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Big Bill Hutcheson

The Carpenters were distinctly uncomfortable with not only the idea of industrial unionism but the industrial workers. The AFL gave the UBC jurisdiction over the timber industry. Loggers in the Pacific Northwest went on strike in 1935. The Great Strike finally organized the loggers who had agitated for unionism since their days as IWW members twenty years earlier. The Carpenters gained 100,000 new members. But the UBC feared the influence of a bunch of ex-Wobblies and current commies (of which there were no small number, especially in Washington although decidedly less so in Oregon). So they did not give the loggers full union rights, including the right to vote for union officials. Hutcheson already ran one of the least democratic unions in the United States and was not about to let a bunch of commie treecutters in an industry marginal to the union’s central mission undo the work he had done building his empire. The loggers seethed under Carpenters’ representation, such as it was.

John L. Lewis saw the labor movement very differently than Hutcheson. Not that Lewis was more democratic or some sort of raging leftist. Far from it. Lewis and Hutcheson had even been allies in the past, playing poker together regularly when they both lived in Indianapolis. But Lewis knew that his laborers, one of the only industrial unions in the United States, required the organizing of the nation’s other industrial laborers to create a stable union. Lewis would later personally engineer the organizing of the steel plants for this reason. Lewis and other labor leaders were also concerned that AFL president William Green’s tepid response to the Great Depression was undermining the labor movement. During the early 1930s, the AFL was losing up to 7000 members a week. Lewis demanded that Franklin Roosevelt aggressively move to pass legislation that helped workers while encouraging the AFL to give up its long-standing animus to the industrial workers that made up a huge chunk of the American labor force and engage in an organizing campaign of workers who wanted to join unions. Green and Hutcheson demurred.

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John L. Lewis campaigning for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1936.

The growing tensions between the craft unions and those who sought to organize the millions of under- and unemployed Americans demanding economic change grew through 1934, as revolts around the nation made many Americans fearful for capitalism’s future. But the AFL still largely refused to act. By the time the AFL met in Atlantic City in the fall of 1935, Hutcheson was determined to squash any industrial unionism talk. At the convention, Hutcheson was running the floor. When a rubber worker began speaking about a point of order, Hutcheson interrupted him. Lewis quickly responded. When Hutcheson called Lewis a “bastard” in response, Lewis jumped on the stage and punched him in the face. He then re-lit his cigar and calmly returned to his seat.

Some have questioned whether Lewis had planned to punch Hutcheson. I kind of doubt it but he certainly took advantage of the situation to very publicly announce to the AFL old guard that he was serious about organizing the nation’s industrial workers. Three weeks after this dramatic event, Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (AGW) formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL. This set the stage for the withdrawal of the industrial unionists from the federation in 1937, when the CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

In the timber industry this split gave the radicals the room to bolt the Carpenters and found the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) in 1937. If there’s one thing Hutcheson loved, it was a jurisdictional battle and he went full-bore against the radical loggers, using his Teamsters allies to not load IWA processed wood, among other intimidation tactics. The IWA itself was torn apart by communism, requiring the personal intervention of Lewis before the union fell apart. By 1940, the battle faded and about 2/3 of the loggers were in the IWA and 1/3 in the UBC. The bickering between these two unions would never fully end and even when the IWA could no longer sustain itself in 1987, it merged with the International Association of Machinists rather than create one union in wood.

This is the 121st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: October 5, 1886

[ 13 ] October 5, 2014 |

On October 5, 1886, Henry George accepted the nomination of the United Labor Party for the mayor of New York City. Although a quixotic effort, both labor’s attempt to create an alternative to the two party system and the reformist ideas of Henry George were emblematic of how Americans attempted to understand the shock of industrial capitalism during the Gilded Age.

The rise of industrial capitalism after the Civil War disturbed many Americans, not because they opposed capitalism but because they thought it was going to create a relatively fair system. The promises of free labor ideology turned out to be lies for most Americans, as the power of corporations to control all aspects of American life meant that both factory labor and farm labor were denied the fruits of their work.

Into this void came many ideas. Most Americans believed the system of capitalism worked, but that it just needed a single tweak to reconstitute the equality of opportunity they believed it would bring. As the analysis of capitalism was not very sophisticated among most native-born Americans, the solutions to these problems tended to focus on the one thing that we could do that would fix everything. That could be the 8-hour day, Chinese exclusion, Bellamyism. Obviously Marx and Engels, not to mention many other socialists, had developed far more complex analyses of the problems of capitalism, but those would not become prominent in the U.S. for another decade, as they tended to arrive with the waves of immigrants that would begin in the 1880s.

Henry George made one of the most important forays in solving the problem of industrial capitalism. George started his political life as a Lincoln supporting Republican in the Civil War but soon came to criticize the growing system of industrial capitalism, especially the dominance of railroads over American life, as well as the perfidious influence of Chinese labor on white wages. In 1879, George published Progress and Poverty, arguing for the Single Tax as the surest way to bring corporations under control. The single tax was a basic property tax. At its core was the idea that people earned the value of own their own labor, but that land was a common resource for all and should essentially be quasi-socialized with very high taxes on large landowners. George’s ideas quickly spread beyond the U.S. and were especially popular with the English and Scottish working classes, as well as the Irish resisting British domination.

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Cartoon of Henry George fighting corruption, 1886

George had moved to New York in the early 1880s and became an obvious candidate when laborites and socialists decided to form a working class challenge to the duality of Tammany Democrats and plutocratic Republicans who both disdained a strong labor movement. His mayoral campaign generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. His campaign lasted less than a month, but he gave over 100 speeches around the city. Here is a bit from his acceptance speech, which you can read in full here. It gives you a good sense of George’s appeal:

See how we are crowded in New York. London has a population of 15,000 to the square mile. Canton, in crowded China, has 35,000 inhabitants within the same area. New York has 54,000 to the square mile, and leaving out the uninhabited portion it has a population of 85,000 to the square mile. In the Sixth Ward there is a population of 149,000 to the square mile; in the Tenth Ward, 276,000; in the Thirteenth, 224,000, including roads, yards, and all open places. Why, there is one block in this city that contains 2,500 living beings and every room in it a workshop. There is in one ward a tenement covering one quarter of an acre, which contains an average of 1,350 people. At that rate a square mile would contain 3,456,000. Nowhere else in the civilized world are men and women and children packed together so closely. As for children, they die almost as soon as they enter the world. In the district known as the Mulberry Bend, according to Commissioner Wingate’s report, there is an infant death-rate of 65 per cent, and in the tenement district he says that a large percentage of the children die before they are five years of age.

Now, is there any reason for such overcrowding? There is plenty of room on this island. There are miles and miles and miles of land all around this nucleus. Why cannot we take that and build houses upon it for our accommodation? Simply because it is held by dogs in the manger who will not use it themselves, nor allow anybody else to use it, unless they pay an enormous price for it—because what the Creator intended for the habitation of the people whom He called into being is held at an enormous rent or an enormous price. Did you ever think, men of New York, what you pay for the privilege of living in this country? I do not ask what you pay for bricks and mortar and wood, but for rent, and the rent is mainly the rent of the land. Bricks and mortar and wood are of no greater value here than they are in Long Island or in Iowa. When what is called real estate advances it is the land that is getting more valuable; it is not the houses. All this enormous value that the growth of population adds to the land of this city is taken by the few individuals and goes for the benefit of the idle rich, who look down upon those who earn their living by their labor.

But what do we propose to do about it? We propose, in the first place, as our platform indicates, to make the buildings cheaper by taking the tax off buildings. We propose to put that tax on land exclusive of improvements, so that a man who is holding land vacant will have to pay as much for it as if he was using it, just upon the same principle that a man who goes to a hotel and hires a room and takes the key and goes away would have to pay as much for it as if he occupied the room and slept in it. In that way we propose to drive out the dog in the manger who is holding from you what he will not use himself. We propose in that way to remove this barrier and open the land to the use of labor in putting up buildings for the accommodation of the people of the city. (applause) I am called a Socialist. I am really an individualist. I believe that every individual man ought to have an individual wife, and is entitled to an individual home. (applause) I think it is monstrous, such a state of society as exists in this city. Why, the children, thousands and thousands, have no place to play. It is a crime for them to play ball in the only place in which they can play ball. It is an offence for them to fly their kites. The children of the rich can go up to Central Park, or out into the country in the summer time; but the children of the poor, for them there is no playground in the city but the streets; it is some charity excursion which takes them out for a day, only to return them again to the same sweltering condition.

The United Labor Platform also had a provision against police interference in strikes, a reaction to police repression during the Haymarket violence, not to mention the remembered police violence of Tompkins Square a decade prior. George faced a rising Republican by the name of Theodore Roosevelt, a man who also stood for reform, albeit of a different kind. The Democrats responded the George threat with Abram Hewitt, who attacked Roosevelt as a tool of the plutocrats and set himself as a responsible working class voice, claiming that socialists and anarchists controlled the ULP. In the end, Hewitt won with 41 percent of the vote. George finished second with 31 percent and Roosevelt trailed in third with 28 percent.

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Anti-George image counseling labor to shed anarchists, 1886

This was an auspicious start for an independent labor political movement, but, like most 3rd party challenges in American history, it was made up of diverse forces that collapsed almost immediately after the election. Specifically, it split over socialism in 1887, with the expelled socialists creating an alternative political party. The ULP tried to revive in some form for several years, but it never again made a serious run as a real labor challenge to the 2-party system. George slowly migrated to the Democratic Party in the last years of his life, supporting Grover Cleveland because they both opposed high tariffs. George suffered a stroke in 1890, recovered enough to campaign for William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and then died of another stroke in 1897, a week before another mayoral election in New York where he became a candidate on an anti-Tammany Democratic ticket.

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Henry George campaign poster, 1897

This is the 120th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 23, 1969

[ 19 ] September 23, 2014 |

On September 23, 1969, President Richard Nixon issued the Philadelphia Plan, forcing building trades unions to allow black members into their ranks. Nixon did this believing that it would show him as a strong civil rights president without having to do very much to give in to the more radical demands of the civil rights movement. More importantly to Nixon, he saw it as a way to undercut organized labor, creating a coalition of African-Americans and Republicans against racist unions. Opponents of the new principle of affirmative action immediately sued to kill the new policy, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in its favor in 1971 and the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Affirmative action was introduced into federal hiring practices for the first time.

A central tenet of the civil rights movement, and an underrated one in the popular memory of the movement, was equality at work. In the 1960s, the construction unions in Philadelphia, as they were nationwide, were almost exclusively white. These were good paying working-class jobs and also bastions of economic discrimination. African-American citizens in Philadelphia began organizing in 1967 to integrate construction work. This organizing eventually led to federal attention. In June 1969, a Nixon advisor announced the plan, including specific numerical goals, to the unions of Philadelphia. On September 23, Nixon made it federal policy through his secretary of labor, George Shultz.

The Philadelphia Plan required that 6 Philadelphia area building trades create numerical “goals” for integrating their locals if they wanted to receive federal contracts. White construction workers around the country opposed this idea. They did so for a variety of reasons. Overt racism drove many, but it’s also important to remember that the building trades had developed traditions of passing jobs down to family members. Setting affirmative action targets meant that for every African-American granted a job, someone’s son or cousin or nephew was not getting a job. They also thought they had worked hard to rise in the world and believed that this was the government letting a special class of people equal them without working. Of course, racism also infused these last two reasons, not to mention the mental gymnastics it took to talk about how you worked so hard to get your job compared to these blacks when it was your dad who secured it for you.

For the building trades therefore, being forced to integrate was seen as a direct attack on the white male enclave they had created. This hard hat anger at the overall tenor of social and cultural change became manifested in the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, an event that unfortunately created a stereotype of unions hating hippies even though this was just a couple of building trades locals in New York. In Pittsburgh and Chicago, construction workers held sizable anti-integration rallies. In the former city, 4000 construction workers rallied when the city government halted all contracts to negotiate with African-Americans demanding integrated work. AFL-CIO head George Meany strongly criticized the plan, siding with his building trades over the civil rights movement that always had a complex relationship with organized labor.

Southerners in Congress immediately attempted to not fund the program. Led by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin and West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, they hoped to kill it in its infancy and stuck a rider onto a bill funding relief for Hurricane Camille to do so. But the order survived after Nixon threatened to hold Congress in session over Christmas to pass the bill. Now, Nixon had little interest in strong enforcement of the plan. He certainly didn’t care about actually integrating these locals. Nixon used the Philadelphia Plan to defend himself when his administration’s civil rights record was attacked, as it often was. Nixon also hoped it would undermine union control over construction labor by creating non-union but integrated competitors to the unions. Many civil rights leaders saw through Nixon’s ploy, claiming he was doing virtually nothing here but to try and split the Democratic Party coalition. This was of course, correct. John Ehrlichman bragged about this very thing. And in fact, Nixon was angry that labor and civil rights groups had teamed up to defeat his nomination of Clement Haynesworth to the Supreme Court and splitting these two groups was a top political priority.

And in fact, real progress in desegregating construction work was very slow, in no small part because Nixon did virtually nothing to push the integration of construction after the Philadelphia Plan’s approval. In 1971, Nixon advisor Chuck Colson successfully weakened the plan’s enforcement and by this point, Nixon himself had no interest in the subject in the face of his coming reelection campaign and domestic political concerns about inflation. By 1971, Nixon realized the real political power was in white resentment, not civil rights. and that ended his interest in pursuing the implementation of the Philadelphia Plan. This move allowed many building trades and other conservative unions to support Nixon in 1972, with the AFL-CIO withholding support for George McGovern. Much had changed in three years.

When the courts did enforce integration, white workers hazed black workers and just refused to work with them. With this level of resistance, the federal government turned more toward voluntary desegregation programs without enforcement. Ultimately, the political will was not there to create widespread integration of the building trades. Yet the Philadelphia Plan did advance affirmative action as federal policy and so I guess Nixon deserves a certain amount of credit for this, even if he did it for crass political reasons. It brought the principle of specific numerical goals into affirmative action, the dreaded “quotas” conservatives of the 90s loved to talk about as they were largely rolling them back through the courts.

I drew on a number of historical works for this post, including Joshua Freeman’s article “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations,” from the Summer 1993 issue of the Journal of Social History, Kevin Yuill’s Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy, and Trevor Griffey’s “‘The Blacks Should Not Be Administering the Philadelphia Plan’: Nixon, the Hard Hats, and ‘Voluntary’ Affirmative Action,” in Goldberg and Griffey, ed., Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry.

This is the 119th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 22, 1862

[ 100 ] September 22, 2014 |

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in all parts of the U.S. in rebellion free on January 1, 1863 if they did not rejoin the United States. While not a complete abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled slavery’s death knell and is one of the most important presidential acts in U.S. history. It also made taking away the labor system that led the South to secede from the Union away from its leaders, undermining the economic stability of an already beleaguered rebellion.

While Lincoln abhorred slavery personally, as president, he was very cautious about acting against it. There were several reasons for this. First, he had campaigned on the idea that slavery was recognized in the Constitution for the states and the real battle was in the territories. Given the intense hatred of Lincoln from the Democrats who were still a real force in many states after 1861, including the political powerhouse of New York, such a reversal of his campaign rhetoric would have been hard to imagine. Second, Lincoln was very nervous about what millions of free blacks would mean for the country. Could they live together in peace? Even into the war, Lincoln was toying with colonization schemes to send slaves back to Africa. Third, Lincoln’s biggest problem other than the rebellion itself was keeping the border states in the Union. Baltimore had to be placed under martial law while Kentucky had “neutrality” that needed to be respected. Freeing the slaves would have just stirred up more anger in those states and perhaps made it impossible to keep them from seceding. Finally, Lincoln consistently deluded himself, to the point of his death, that the majority of the white South really wanted to be part of the Union and so tried to give them incentives to rejoin. Freeing the slaves would have made that impossible.

On the other hand, African-Americans, north and south, knew what the war was about. While many in the North were trying to say it wasn’t about slavery per se, like southern whites, African-Americans never had any question of the stakes. Frederick Douglass and other northern black leaders urged Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves and organize black regiments for the Army. Perhaps more importantly, slaves themselves took advantage of nearby U.S. troops, fleeing to the military. Generals such as Benjamin Butler quickly recognized the potential of taking away the South’s labor force and turning that into a Union labor force. But Lincoln, nervous about the effects of making this an official policy on his plans to lure the South back into the Union, originally rejected the idea.

By mid 1862, Lincoln began to change his mind about the expediency of freeing slaves. The situation in the border states was more secure, with the ardent secessionists now significantly outnumbered by unionists. Congress pushed him on this, passing in March 1862 a law barring the military from returning escaped slaves to their owners. Still, Lincoln decided to avoid Congress and issue the proclamation as Commander in Chief, thus avoiding a tense debate and possible rejection. Lincoln wanted a major victory by Union forces before he issued it so it didn’t look desperate. Unfortunately, he had George McClellan as his commanding general, which meant that no major victories was likely. With the partial victory at Antietam a few days earlier as good as Lincoln was going to get, he decided this was the time.

14disunion-img-blog427

Currier and Ives print on Lincoln using the Emancipation Proclamation to crush the rebellion

The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in areas of the South under rebellion on January 1, 1863. People criticize Lincoln today for the partial nature of the Emancipation Proclamation and for the fact that it provided immediate freedom for no one. For slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, not to mention the subjugated areas of the Confederacy like parts of Tennessee, slavery did not end at the beginning of 1863. The morally pure thing to do was to free all the slaves immediately. Certainly that is what Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison demanded. And yes, it mandated the Union actually win the war for the slaves to be freed instead of freeing the slaves it actually had control over. But the partial nature of the proclamation was political genius. No, it didn’t free anyone. On the other hand, it made the ending of slavery in the Confederacy official federal and military policy. And slavery simply could not survive in Kentucky if it was ended in Mississippi. Plus it gave a moral reason to fight the war, one with increasing importance as soldiers who might have been racist but had never personally witnessed slavery were outraged when they went to the South and saw the horrors of this labor system first hand. When combined with the doctrine of free labor that already drove Republican policy, the eradication of slavery becoming central to the war effort was both morally correct and politically savvy.

It’s not as if word about the Emancipation Proclamation immediately spread around the South. But as rumors leaked out, slaves began fleeing by the thousands to Union lines. By 1865, this would have a severe impact upon the plantation economy. Booker T. Washington remembered the day the Emancipation Proclamation became knowledge at his home:

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom…. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

On the other hand, Democrats were outraged. Horatio Seymour, running for governor of New York and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 1868, called it, “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, and of arson and murder, which would invoke the interference of civilized Europe.” But in fact, Europe largely approved of the move, although the commonly held myth that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to keep Europe from recognizing the Confederacy is significantly overstated and was only a minor factor in its existence or its timing.

By June 1865, 4 million slaves would be free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.

We see the Emancipation Proclamation as a key moment in the African-American freedom struggle, and for good reason. But it’s also an absolutely central moment in American labor history because it was the decisive moment when the nation officially rejected the system of slave labor that had built so much of the antebellum country.

This is the 118th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 14, 1959

[ 33 ] September 14, 2014 |

On September 14, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Landrum-Griffin Act after actively lobbying for its passage. Officially known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, Landrum-Griffin used union corruption as an excuse for a broad-based attack upon organized labor on issues completely unrelated to corruption. The passage of this bill was another major blow to organized labor in the early years of the Cold War that moved power away from unions and back to corporations.

There is a widescale public perception of union corruption. Mostly, this is false and a corporate promoted narrative to turn people off of organizing themselves to improve their lives. But with some unions, corruption was (and occasionally still today, is) all too real. In general, this corruption was concentrated in some of the AFL trades, mostly the smaller building trades unions but also of course in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Teamsters corruption is largely associated with Jimmy Hoffa. This is not wrong and Hoffa was certainly on the take himself, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated that that. First, the IBT had major corruption issues before Hoffa took power. Second, the corruption reached deep into several sectors of the union. The Teamsters had real problems here and earned their reputation, although the problem is less severe today. The AFL version of the United Auto Workers (UAW-AFL–basically the offshoot of UAW locals angry over internal politics in the real UAW) had real problems. John Dioguardi, a high ranked member of the Lucchese crime family was named head of UAW-AFL Local 102 in New York. Distillery Workers Union executive Sol Cilento was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges.

These sorts of problems got the attention of politicians. It is worth remembering that outside of union-dense areas, organized labor was extremely unpopular in the United States, giving politicians in the South, Great Plains, and West no reason not to go after unions. It also allowed politicians from the union-heavy areas to raise their national profile by showing they would buck unions at some risk to their careers. Anti-corruption hearings in Congress settled in the McClellan Committee, named after its chair, senator John McClellan, a Democrat from Arkansas. The McClellan Committee originally investigated corruption charges against both business and labor but soon shifted to a Senate committee devoted exclusively to digging into the dark side of organized labor. After the 1958 congressional election, in which Democrats picked up large gains in both chambers, conservatives struck back by raising fears of communistic and corrupt unions (never mind that the lefty unions were the ones most likely to not be corrupt and the corrupt unions were largely among the most conservative) would rule America.

Introducing the law was two congressmen–Philip Landrum, a Georgia Democrat, and Michigan Republican John Griffin. This “bipartisanship” that so many Beltway hacks long for today ignores the fact that the real control in Congress belonged to people who shared very similar conservative positions on many issues, regardless of party registration. Among the law’s features were mandating that unions hold internal elections, barred members of the Communist Party from holding union office for five years after they left the CPUSA, required that unions submit annual financial reports to the Department of Labor, and limit power to put locals into trusteeship, which is a way to undermine internal union challenges. Effectively, Landrum-Griffin used corruption as an excuse to extend the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Legislation could have dealt with actually corrupt unions rather than serve as a general attack on organized labor, but that was not the point for the legislators involved. They wanted to bust unions.

Organized labor as a whole vociferously opposed Landrum-Griffin. This isn’t because the AFL-CIO didn’t oppose corruption. As a whole, the federation very much did. It also kicked three particularly corrupt unions out of the federation, including the Teamsters. It’s because the bill’s authors used it as a broader attack upon unions, forcing them into reporting requirements that business did not have to adhere to. In other words, it was a major step in tipping a playing field only twenty years earlier evened for workers back toward employers. What on earth did communism have to do with corruption? Nothing of course, but it didn’t matter.

Politically of course, it was brilliant to force labor to oppose Landrum-Griffin because they then looked pro-corruption to the general public. Some senators who had made their name fighting union corruption were not happy that the bill attacked the heart of unions. That included John F. Kennedy, who had introduced his own anti-corruption bill. Said Robert Kennedy, chief counsel to McClellan, Landrum-Griffin went “beyond the scope of the McClellan Committee’s findings to affect the economic balance at the bargaining table by honest and legitimate unions and employers.” What made Landrum-Griffin beat Kennedy’s bill was President Eisenhower giving a national speech on September 3 to urge its passage. Congress soon did and Eisenhower signed the law on September 14, 1959.

A fascinating side note to the origins of Landrum-Griffin. David Witwer’s recent research that shows the public incident that led to its passage was largely fabricated. In 1956, the anti-union newspaper columnist Victor Riesel was blinded when the mob threw acid in his eyes. The story was that the corrupt unions it as revenge for his writing about the “underworld-Communist combine” in his column and to prevent him from testifying against union corruption. It was this act that led to the McClellan Committee. The FBI arrested UAW-AFL Local 102 head John Diogaurdi for ordering the hit. Dioguardi was absolutely a mobster running a union for personal profit. This general narrative of bad union thugs attacking hero Riesel for his brave crusade has remained largely unchallenged until recently.

However, Witwer shows that in fact, Riesel never wrote about Dioguardi or any of his operations. Instead, it seems Riesel was corrupt himself and had a financial arrangement with Dioguardi so that he would not write about the mobster. Union leaders’ testimony to the FBI shows that Riesel was shaking down the corrupt unions to keep their names out of his columns. Dioguardi and Riesel even partied together at mob restaurants in New York’s garment district. Witwer could not find out exactly why Dioguardi ordered the hit on Riesel. He suggests it may have had something to do with a dispute over the financial arrangements between the two in another shakedown–forcing business to pay up to stay union free.

All the big political players, including the U.S. Attorney, FBI, and the McClellan Committee, found out about Riesel’s double dealings and lies as he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer a lot of questions when they talked to him. But Riesel was too useful in the larger anti-union movement to bother with the truth mattering much. Riesel played the martyr until the day he died. Fascinating stuff.

This is the 117th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 23, 1912

[ 12 ] August 23, 2014 |

On August 23, 1912, the United States Commission on Industrial Relations was founded. One of the most remarkable moments in American labor history, the USCIR (more popularly known as the Walsh Committee) forced industrial leaders to testify about the conditions of American labor in front of a government committee. For the first time in the nation’s history, the plutocrats, long used to running their operations without responsibility, were called onto the carpet in front of directly hostile committee members for their actions. While the USCIR did not create specific reform bills, it did signify a changing tone in American labor and American society in general that took power away from the plutocrats and created government responsibility for the conditions of American workers.

The USCIR was created in response to the labor violence becoming more prevalent in the U.S. by the early 1910s. In particular, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 by two Ironworkers angry about the paper’s anti-union owner Harrison Gray Otis, one of the most loathsome people in American history, finally got the government’s attention. While President William Howard Taft created it, it was mostly operated under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a far more pro-labor president than the Republican. Most of the committee members were Wilson appointees after several of Taft’s nominees did not receive confirmation from the Senate. Had they, the commission would have been far more pro-business and probably less memorable.

The head of the committee was the remarkable Frank Walsh. A poor boy from Kansas City who dropped out of school at the age of 10, Walsh trained himself in the law and became a leading Progressive and Democratic Party operative in that city, attracting the attention of Wilson, who nominated him as the USCIR’s chairman. Between 1913 and 1915, the USCIR interviewed hundreds of people about the conditions of American work. Traveling the nation, it set up shop for a few weeks in a given city and did its best to cover all the major regional types of work. Investigators in the Northwest discovered stories about logging camp cooks infected with venereal disease and still allowed to prepare food, loggers beaten by owners and having their money stolen, and workers getting so sick from timber camp food that they could not work for weeks. No wonder the IWW was so successful organizing these workers. One investigator writing about miners at U.S. Steel operations in Duluth detailed how the police, owners, and city leaders all conspired to crush a strike. Labor newspapers told these stories all the time, but never before had a the government invested the resources to document the horrors committed against working people.

Said the groundbreaking journalist Walter Lippmann, “The nine members of the Industrial Relations Commission have before them the task of explaining why America, supposed to become the land of promise, has become the land of disappointment and deep-seated discontent.” Walsh encouraged people to criticize employers. Reformers such as Louis Brandeis testified as to moral corruptness of employers’ absurdly wide view of “freedom of contract,” noting how this led to the widespread exploitation of American labor. S. Josephine Baker, the child labor crusader, talked of how American corporations using child labor did not train those workers for any kind of future, dooming them to permanent poverty, “having entered adult life and are still earning a child’s wage.” Labor leaders and even everyday workers testified about their conditions. But most famously, Walsh saw his role as a crusader for American workers. He alienated the capitalists quickly. After the Ludlow Massacre, he called John D. Rockefeller Jr. before his committee, and publicly humiliated the powerful man for his company thugs and indifference to workers’ lives. It didn’t help the capitalist that his PR man said that truth was “as the operators saw it.” The embarrassment led Rockefeller to push for company unionism, which for all its very real limitations, was a concession.

Some capitalists did better in their testimony. When Andrew Carnegie testified, he openly lied about his role at Homestead, claiming he was out playing in Scotland when in fact he had ordered Henry Clay Frick to bust the union while he was away. When Walsh announced he would also investigate the South, Georgia senator Hoke Smith led a charge to cut the USCIR budget by 75 percent. When the vote failed, Walsh directly targeted Georgia to stick it to Smith, holding some of his most pro-worker hearings in that state.

Not everyone on the committee was a pro-worker as Walsh and his attacks upon the rich made many uncomfortable. This meant that as an institution, the USCIR was unable to fulfill its potential. The final report, issued in 1916, was actually three different reports prepared by different sections of the committee. The Walsh faction openly called for an industrial democracy. It called agricultural work, such as had led to the Wheatland Riot “industrial feudalism in an extreme form.” The word “feudalism” was applied heavily throughout the report–to company towns, to the coal regions, to rural labor.

The response to the Walsh report was mixed. Labor publications and unions were ecstatic at the honest portrayal of the conditions of American workers. The Masses went so far as to call it, “The beginning of an indigenous American revolutionary movement.” Again, it’s worth noting here how out of character for American history the Walsh report and USCIR in general was that American radicals would see it in this light. On the other hand, the president of the Pittsburgh Employers Association called for Walsh’s assassination, perhaps tongue in cheek, perhaps not. The majority report was written by the labor economist John Commons, which in a more typically Progressive manner than Walsh’s activism called for impartial labor boards rather than involve labor in politics, which reflected the belief of much of American labor during this period, including the American Federation of Labor.

The extent to which the USCIR really changed the nation is somewhat up for debate, but it’s likely that its findings fed the pro-labor Democratic platform in 1916. It’s worth remembering that even when considering the horrors of the Red Scare and the government suppression of the IWW in World War I, the Wilson administration was still by a significant margin the most pro-labor administration in American history before FDR. Wilson would make alliance with Samuel Gompers during World War I to bring labor into the national planning for the war and the AFL saw significant gains during the war, however short-lasting they were. Charles Evans Hughes campaigned against Wilson in 1916 based in part of what he saw was the waste of the USCIR, but to little effect. The more moderate Commons report would become influential in the welfare capitalism of the 1920s, which still provided gains of sorts for workers.

Walsh would later go on to become the co-chair of the National War Labor Board with William Howard Taft, where the two clashed over the former’s staunchly pro-union policies and abrupt manner with the capitalists. Walsh eventually lost Wilson’s favor over his other favorite cause–Irish nationalism.

You can read the final report and all the testimony, which is voluminous and a wonderful resource for labor historians of the period here
. I used the timber testimony extensively in the first chapter of my logging book manuscript.

This is the 116th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 11, 1911

[ 27 ] August 11, 2014 |

On August 11, 1911, workers at the Watertown Arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts walked off the job as the scientific management ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor began to be applied to their work. This resistance of corporate micromanagement of work was a last ditch attempt by American industrial workers to remain masters of their own labor, even within the factory system that had already degraded their skills and independence.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was an aristocratic Philadelphian who after a few years working as a manual laborer, chose to dedicate his life to making industrial labor more efficient and streamlined. He began managing some Maine paper mills before starting his own efficiency practice in Philadelphia in 1893. His first big job was with Bethlehem Steel between 1898 and 1901, when he was forced out for clashing with other managers, a frequent problem for the bullheaded Taylor.

Taylor believed that workers were nothing more than inefficient machines and like real machines could be time and trained to do more work at a greater speed for less money per unit, thus increasing both productivity and profit. Taylor himself publicized his work in his famous book, The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911. Interestingly. Taylor didn’t come up with the term “scientific management.” Rather, he borrowed it from Louis Brandeis, who coined it the year before in arguing a case about railroads before the Interstate Commerce Commission, borrowing from Taylor’s ideas to argue that railroads could raise wages without raising freight rates. Taylor fundamentally thought working people were stupid, a not uncommon belief for the Gilded Age. He said:

the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.

Taylor’s ideas, and those of other pioneers of scientific management, became popular among the nation’s industrialists by the 1900s. As increasingly huge corporations sought to maximize profit, controlling the lives of workers on the shop floor became more appealing. While the industrial system had long exploited workers, in many ways, workers still ran the shop floors with a significant degree of autonomy. The long cherished freedom of individual labor had long disappeared by the early 20th century, but the masculine idea of a man having some control over his labor remained strong.

In 1909, General William Crozier, head of the Army Ordinance Department, visited Taylor about his methods. This military facility was one of the nation’s largest arsenals, established in 1816 but turned into a site of gun carriage manufacturing only in 1892. Taylor and his acolytes, particularly Carl Barth, began implementing Taylorist ideas of reorganization. This immediately got the attention of workers, not only in Watertown but around the country. The International Association of Machinists urged members to complain to their congressmen. But when Taylor sent Dwight Merrick to Watertown in May 1911 with a stopwatch to time workers, the workers erupted in fury. Taylor warned the officers to not completely implement a time study plan without prior preparation of the workers, but seeking quick results they did anyway. The workers then walked off the job after one worker refused to allow Merrick to time him and was fired for subordination.

The Watertown molders wrote to Lieutenant Colonel C.B. Wheeler, commanding officer of the arsenal:

Dear Sir: The very unsatisfactory conditions which have prevailed in the foundry among the molders for the past week or more reached an acute stage this afternoon when a man was seen to use as top watch on one of the molders. This we believe to be the limit of our endurance. It is humiliating to us, who have always tried to give to the Government the best that was in us. This method is un-American in principle, and we most respectfully request that you have it discontinued at once.

We feel justified in making this request, on the ground that some two years ago you told a committee of the molders that you were well satisfied with the output of that department; also Gen. Crozier gave his word to a committee that waited upon him in Washington that he would not install any part o the Taylor system that might be objectionable to the men; and we assure that this part of the system will not be tolerated by the molders.

I love this letter because you can really feel the outrage. These men are insulted. They have pride in their work and they work hard. And then some college boy with a stopwatch comes around and tells them they aren’t working hard enough! That new technology must be used to speed up their work! No way! Moreover, they show how often early Taylorism to be a total failure because rather than increase efficiency, they caused strikes. Taylor’s hard-headed ways of running these experiments routinely led to these problems and thus most of his personal work was a failure.

The strike itself was short, lasting only until August 18 when the fired worker was reinstated and the Ordinance Department promised an investigation of the new management techniques. Taylor was furious that the officers had not followed his plans to the tee and thus precipitated the strike and the bad publicity that went along with it. The strike led to hearings in the House Labor Committee over Taylorism. They were testy, in no small part because Taylor was not good at hiding his contempt for workers and their dignity. When asked by Rep. William Wilson, a former official of the United Mine Workers and future Secretary of Labor under Woodrow Wilson, about his method, Taylor said “the ordinary pig-iron man is not suited for shoveling coal because he is too stupid. But a first-class man who could lift a shovel weighing twenty one and a half pounds cold move a pile of coal lickety-split.” Wilson responded, “but what about the effects on a man who wasn’t first-class? Taylor dismissed the concern: “Scientific management has no place for a bird that can sing and won’t sing.” Wilson was furious: “We are not dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are part of society and for whose benefit society is organized”

Oh how antiquated, thinking workers were humans. Congress did act on the workers’ anger, first taking apart Taylor’s system at Watertown and later banning the use of stopwatches to time workers in factories. Taylor personally suffered a major setback here, but his ideas of scientific management and efficiency based upon making workers’ lives worse continued to advance. No one did more on this front than Henry Ford, whose vaunted $5 a day wage has given him an unjustified reputation as a humane boss. But the reality was that Ford extracted his pound of flesh for that $5, working laborers so hard and with such speed and efficiency that many simply could not hack the work there and had to quit. Treating workers like machines became central to American labor management practices, with the eventual hope to just replacing them with machines, a project that would prove quite successful beginning in the second half of the twentieth century and contributing significantly to the decline of working-class power and economic stability by the latter part of the century.

For further reading on these issues, see Sanford Jacoby, Employing Bureaucracy. I also borrowed some details from Hindy Lauer Schachter, Frederick Taylor and the Public Administration Community.

This is the 115th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1934

[ 35 ] July 11, 2014 |

On July 11, 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union formed when eleven white farmers and seven black farmers met in Tyronza, Arkansas to form a union of sharecroppers to fight for poor farmers’ rights. Perhaps the last gasp of the Farmers Alliance potential to reach out across racial lines and transform rural life, the STFU sought to empower sharecroppers to fight for economic rights during the dark days of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was very hard on poor southern farmers. In fact, the Depression there had really started in the 1920s. Crop prices plummeted after the overproduction of World War I. By the time the official Great Depression began in 1929, the farm economy had been terrible for years, meaning the sharecroppers on southern land, a labor situation that had begun as something of a compromise between freed slaves and white landowners after the Civil War but had since spread to employ poor whites as well, were in entrenched, awful poverty.

tenant_farmers2_f

Arkansas sharecroppers, 1930s

Tyronza, Arkansas was a bit odd for the rural South as there were active socialists in the area. This was not totally unknown in the South, but rare enough by 1934. Floods and droughts had ravaged the region in recent years and the national attention these received interested socialists in the area. As those ideas began spreading into the area, some locals, even merchants, showed interest in an economic system that offered an alternative to a capitalism that had not worked out for their region. Living in Tyronza was Harry Mitchell, a socialist and sharecropper. He and a gas station owner named Clay East saw that the owners were not sharing their Agricultural Adjustment Act payments with the sharecroppers and they began organizing their neighbors into what became the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

The STFU’s main mission was fighting against the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The New Deal promoted agricultural centralization, which threw thousands of sharecroppers off their land. The Okies coming to California in the 1930s, were mostly fleeing the loss of their land rights from AAA-related centralization, not the Dust Bowl. It was the same in eastern Arkansas. AAA had two provisions that severely hurt sharecroppers. First, it had no provisions to ensure that the money landowners received to reduce farm production trickled down to sharecroppers. They were expected to share it but the owners were just keeping it all. Second, it encouraged the eviction of sharecroppers through its centralization policies, in effect if not in word. In 1934, these farmers had nowhere to go. A decade later, the jobs of World War II would give them opportunities. These did not exist in 1934. Eviction meant moving to a strange place with no likely hope of a job.

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Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting, Arkansas

The first strike began in the fall of 1935, when Mitchell led sharecroppers out for $1 per pound of cotton versus the 40 cents the owners were offering. When the owners compromised on 75 cents (and some went all the way to $1), the workers declared victory and returned to work. Of course, the response of landowners to this movement was violence, especially once the unionization campaign began. The STFU was a threatening organization to the white power structure. That it was integrated automatically made it dangerous. The first commission of STFU representatives to travel to Washington to appeal to the government included two African-Americans in its five members. At one meeting, four armed whites walked in and ordered all the blacks to leave if they did not want to be lynched. Many members were thrown off their land for membership in the organization. Beatings of organizers took place while police violence was common and threatened lynchings scared many members. STFU offices had to move from Tyronza to Memphis, where the urban environment provided more safety.

The STFU soon spread from Arkansas to Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee. It claimed 7500 members in Oklahoma, demanding land redistribution, with land owned by banks given to small farmers. In Arkansas, it forced politicians to create the Governor’s Commission on Farm Tenancy. Oklahoma passed the Landlord and Tenant Relationship Act in 1937 to encourage long-term residency on the land and promote the government as a mediator of the problems of the sharecropped farm, but conservative outrage led to its repeal in 1939.

Unlike previous farmer movements like the Populists, STFU leaders actively thought of themselves as in the same boat as industrial labor and thus sought to become a union like in eastern factories. The STFU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ agricultural union, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) in 1937 but withdrew a year later, worried that UCAPAWA’s communist leadership was looking to take over the STFU. UCAPAWA president Donald Henderson saw the STFU as a utopian vanguard of rural revolution rather than a real union and attempted to overwhelm its leadership with paperwork so he could take it over. When the STFU leadership withdrew, it led to UCAPAWA ending its attempts to organize in the fields, focusing on the canneries, where the CIO (and the CP) was always more comfortable. The break with UCAPAWA severely hurt the STFU’s ability to function, especially as several of its leading organizers were CP and stayed with the union. Two-thirds of its locals collapsed.

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Southern Tenant Farmers Union logo

As the STFU and landowners battled each other with increasing intensity, the situation finally received some attention from the government. This led to the Resettlement Administration (RA), intended to help sharecroppers find better lives. But the funding for the RA always remained small and the solutions it developed long-term rather than immediate. The government also created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), to provide low-cost loans to poor farmers who wanted to buy their own land but this was not a realistic option for the vast majority of STFU members. The 11,000 farmers around the nation it helped in 1939 was a nice start, but far too small to deal with the scale of the problem. Ultimately, the government did little to alleviate the problems AAA had spawned for sharecroppers.

The STFU declined by the early 1940s. Mitchell continued leading it, called the National Farm Labor Union after 1945, for the rest of his life, but it was only a shadow organization except for some success organizing the California cotton fields in the 40s. Because of the mechanization and industrialization of farming, most of the cotton labor force disappeared from the fields not long after World War II. The same happened for many other crops. The exception to this history of agricultural labor is Latino farmworkers, laboring in exploitative conditions not dissimilar to that of the early 20th century American South. On these farms, usually in more difficult to mechanize fruits and vegetables, the fight continues.

This is the 114th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 5, 1935

[ 18 ] July 5, 2014 |

On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation revolutionized the relationship between the federal government and organized labor and gave workers a fair shake from the government for the first time in American history.

When Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1933, the economy was in the worst state in American history. But Roosevelt wanted to help business, not hurt it. His first New Deal labor legislation was really more a pro-business measure. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) intended to bring business on the board with a reform program, and in fact parts of the act were welcomed by corporations, especially as it promoted bigness to undermine harmful competition. Somewhat unintentionally, the NIRA’s provision protecting collective bargaining for workers was interpreted by American workers as giving them approval to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor movement helped cleave corporate support from the New Deal.

In 1935, when the right-wing Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt moved for greater empowerment of workers. In fact, it was only when the NIRA was shut down that FDR moved toward this greater empowerment of workers. He was originally skeptical of the act because it did so much for workers and seemed anti-business. But the election of 1934 created an overwhelmingly liberal Congress that the political space existed for Roosevelt to take such a significant step. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) shepherded the bill through Congress (and giving it its popular name of the Wagner Act). Wagner had long been a champion of labor. He had served as chairman of the New York State Factory Inspection Commission in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire and built upon that to become a Democratic senator from the state in 1927. Wagner was the Senate’s leading liberal during the New Deal, shepherding a variety of legislation through the body, particularly around labor issues.

The NLRA guaranteed “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The law applied to all workers involved in interstate commerce except those working for government, railroads, airlines, and agriculture. The agriculture exception, as in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, continues to lead to the exploitation of agricultural workers today and is one of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Deal, although arguably including agricultural workers might have dampened support for these laws enough that they wouldn’t have passed.

The most important part of the NLRA was the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, creating a government agency with real authority to oversee the nation’s labor relations. The government had now officially declared its neutrality in labor relations, seeing its role as mediating them rather than openly siding with employers to crush unions. This was a remarkable turnaround in a nation where unionbusting was a good political move for the ambitious pol. After all, Calvin Coolidge, out of office only 4 years before Roosevelt took over, made his name by busting the 1919 Boston police strike.

Business went ballistic after the NLRA passed. Business Week ran an editorial titled “NO OBEDIENCE!” It read: “Although the Wagner Labor Relations Act has been passed by Congress and signed by the President, it is not yet law. For nothing is law that is not constitutional.”

Conservatives immediately challenged the constitutionality of the NLRA. But Roosevelt’s war on the Supreme Court, while damaging his prestige and ability to get new legislation passed, did have an effect. The pressure of a changing nation by the time the case came to them had an effect. In the 1937 decision in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the government and the act’s future was ensured. Within a year of the decision, three justices retired and Roosevelt ensured the future of his programs.

It’s also important to remember what life for workers was life before the National Labor Relations Act. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t form strong unions and thus were poor, although that was a piece of it. It’s that companies could do basically anything they wanted to in order to stop or bust a union. They could hire spies. They could hire a police force. They could kill union organizers. They could fire you for joining a union. Corporations had all the power and workers had none because in the end, the government was willing to back up the companies through legislation or even through military intervention to bust unions. The NLRA ended that, perhaps not entirely, but largely. Leveling the playing field meant workers now had the right to a decent life, a right they were happy to grasp and fight for. And fight for they did, as union membership skyrocketed after the NLRA was upheld by the Court.

In other words, social movements require accessing the levers of power, even if that means compromising on key principles, in order to codify change.

As is the case with most legislation, it proved susceptible to conservative regulatory capture and today the NLRB is a shell of its former robust self thanks to Republican attacks on it as one of the few agencies dedicated to giving workers a fair voice on the job, a principle to which the Republican Party opposed in 1935 and opposes in 2014.

This is the 113th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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