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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: April 14, 1975

[ 35 ] April 14, 2014 |

On April 14, 1975, the Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, Idaho announced a new policy in response to worries about female workers suffering reproductive problems due to lead exposure. The company decided to require sterilization of all women working in its smelter. This was a landmark moment in the history of women working in dangerous labor, particularly in traditionally all-male industries like mining.

Bunker Hill was founded in the late 1890s and became one of the nation’s largest producers of lead and zinc. Until 1943, women were not allowed to work in the lead smelter. That changed briefly because of World War II, but they were again banned in 1946. In the 1970s, Bunker Hill employed around 1600 people. Of them, nearly 100 were women. 22 worked in the lead smelter area. By the 1970s, Americans’ concern over lead poisoning, both on the job and in the nation at large had grown significantly. The nation was moving toward banning leaded gasoline and both environmentalists and some labor unions fought for greater restrictions on the exposure of working people to all sorts of toxic materials, especially lead.

Bunker Hill was a union mine, its workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America. But the USWA was not particularly comfortable with female members. In 1973, the EEOC, Department of Labor, and Department of Justice filed suit against the nation’s 9 largest steel companies and the USWA, charging them with discriminatory hiring practices that extended through the mills. That the union was at fault too is depressing, but on target with a lot of organized labor in traditionally male physically challenging work at this time. The settlement agreed to give $31 million in back pay to 40,000 women and minorities in the mills and to set hiring goals of 25% of supervisory positions and 50% of craft jobs going to women or minorities. Neither the union nor the companies really wanted this to happen. But the EEOC settlement reopened the lead smelter to women.

Bunker Hill’s response to the EEOC suit was to cloak itself in a fetal rights argument, simply banning most women from the job. The company stated publicly that it “is willing to be criticized for not employing some women–but not for causing birth effects.” What it was not willing to do was to limit exposure of all workers to lead. Effectively, Bunker Hill decided to define women primarily as childbearers and operate accordingly. But as ACLU lawyer Joan Bertin stated, the real reason was that companies didn’t want women working in these jobs because of beliefs they were less efficient and argued, “The price of safety cannot be the loss of civil and constitutional rights.”

Thus if women wanted to work in the lead smelter, they could. But the company wanted no responsibility for the poison the women would ingest. So they had to be sterilized. 29 women refused and were transferred to safer work that paid significantly less and reinforced the gender norms in the mill. At least three women did receive sterilization in order to keep their jobs.

The women at Bunker Hill turned to their union for help. The USWA refused to get involved. It said the fight would be too expensive. It claimed that fighting this would cause more problems for women throughout the steel industry. It also worried for the future of the mill as the industry was already declining in the United States.

The women then went to the Idaho Human Rights Commission. It developed a compromise allowing women to be paid the same rates as if they worked at the smelter. Both the company and women rejected this idea; the company because of the cost, the workers for the principle. The women then filed a suit with the EEOC in January 1976. EEOC endorsed the same compromise as the IHRC.

Too many unionists did not care much about this case, including USWA officials. On the other hand, Tony Mazzocchi, safety director for the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and the most important figure in the union environmentalism of the 1970s and early 1980s, stated bluntly, “Ultimately, it will be quite clear that women and men alike suffer from exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals. When that happens, the industry initiative may be to have men sterilized. We will then enter the age of the neutered worker.”

OSHA stepped into this debate. President Carter’s OSHA was Eula Bingham, and as an advocate for both feminism as well as women’s rights, Bingham was furious at Bunker Hill’s sterilization policy. As she noted, no one suggested men should be banned from workplaces where toxic exposure might lead to their sterilization. It’s also likely that OSHA wanted to use Bunker Hill as an example in order to get companies to comply with its stricter national lead standard. In 1980, OSHA filed suit, fining Bunker Hill $82,000 for 108 occupational safety and health violations, including $10,000 for the sterilization policy. But after Reagan took the presidency in 1981, OSHA dropped the case. Reagan’s OSHA already stopped referring to it as a “sterilization policy,” instead calling it an “exclusionary policy,” a significant rhetorical move.

But even before Bingham became involved in fighting the broader problem of discrimination based upon defining women as childbearers, the Idaho women had accepted defeat. The EEOC offered the same compromise as the Idaho Human Rights Commission. The women accepted their higher wages, but future women would not have the opportunity for those high-paying jobs. Within weeks, companies including Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Firestone, General Motors, and AT&T all instituted similar programs that effectively excluded women from high-paying, dangerous work.

In the end, the women believed they had been victimized not only by their employer but by the USWA and the government. The union had done basically nothing for them. The EEOC did not want to get involved. Women in other dangerous trades would have to continue fighting for equal access to work, a fight that would continue well into the 1980s.

In 1979, the Labor Occupational Health Program made a film about lead exposure featuring this struggle. You can watch a chunk of it here. Pretty good stuff.

Although it is mentioned in several places, I don’t think there is a complete scholarly discussion of this event. I relied in part on Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America, which discusses the case for a few pages.

This is the 103rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 12, 1934

[ 14 ] April 12, 2014 |

On April 12, 1934, workers at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo walked off the job in a strike that united unionized labor and the unemployed, creating a social movement that scared capitalists around the nation, helped spur more substantial labor legislation, and left two workers dead after a five day battle between strikers and the Ohio National Guard. If I had to point to a the most militant moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.

The Electric Auto-Lite company made electrical starters and spark plugs at a factory in Toledo. Although we don’t think of the American Federation of Labor as organizing industrial workers–because usually they didn’t–by the early 1930s, the pressure to engage in industrial strikes was forcing the AFL to move in a limited way on this front, particularly after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. So the AFL sought to organize the Auto-Lite plant, as well as several other auto plants. It had some early success, establishing temporary industrial unions at a few plants by March 1934.

AFL president William Green was never comfortable with this arrangement. He saw himself as the sole mediator between workers and employers and these industrial workers were too independent for his tests. When the auto unions decided on a strike in March 1934, Green tried to stamp it out, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, who offered mediation because he feared an auto strike would hurt the recovery; Green felt the unions were not strong enough to win. When Green agreed, auto union membership plummeted since workers no longer trusted him to represent them.

In Toledo, workers had organized Federal Labor Union (the AFL name for these temp unions) Local 18384. This local focused on Auto-Lite but actually had members from multiple car and car part companies in Toledo. This gave the local a lot of power because they could go on strike at one company but still have dues money coming in, allowing it to pay strike dues without becoming insolvent. On February 23, 1934, workers briefly walked out for union recognition and a 10% pay increase. They came to an agreement in late March on a smallish pay increase (the union wanted another 20%) and an agreement to talk further. But when management refused to sign the new contract, a group of workers walked out.

Unfortunately for them, only about 25% initially came out for that second strike. Very fortunately, the American Workers Party under the leadership of the legendary radical and former Quaker minister here in Providence AJ Muste immediately joined the strike, organizing the city’s unemployed both to radicalize the general population over the terrible conditions of the Depression and to ensure that they wouldn’t take jobs as strikebreakers. Muste was in his Trotskyite phase at this point and like the Trotskyite Minneapolis Teamsters who would strike the next month, was more invested in direct action than obscure theoretical arguments. AWP executive secretary Louis Budenz led the party’s actions from Toledo.

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AJ Muste

The strike quickly became a social movement. When unemployed workers came to the aid of the strikers, employers and the agents of power were shocked. After a century of using the unemployed against unions, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the employed and unemployed were uniting. The courts granted Auto-Lite an injunction against the strikers, limiting pickets to 25 at each of the plant’s 2 entrances, but that did not apply to the unemployed workers. The AWP responded that it would “deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking auto workers’ federal union.” The AWP and the unemployed continued to block the entrance to Auto-Lite, organizing them in part so that they would not serve as strikebreakers. Leaders of the movement were arrested but the protests continued.

By early May, with the strike leaders on trial, Auto-Lite decided to break the strike and began importing strikebreakers. When the workers heard of it, the protests grew rapidly. On May 21, there were 1000 picketers, 4000 on May 22, and 6000 on May 23. Between May 23 and May 28, the streets of Toledo were a battlefield and strikers battled the Ohio National Guard seeking to open the plant. It started when police started beating an old man. The crowd erupted, started breaking windows and throwing rocks at the police. The National Guard came in. FDR sent Charles Taft in to mediate. Son of the former president and a major political player in Ohio (you can also visit an animatronic Charles Taft at the William Howard Taft museum in Cincinnati), Roosevelt hoped he could calm the situation but he could not. He wanted the workers to submit their grievances to the federal Automobile Labor Board, but this would have forced the workers to give them their best weapon–the strike–and so they rejected it. The National Guard killed 2 workers on May 24 in a pitched battle with strikers. The next day, Auto-Lite agreed to keep the plant closed to avoid further violence. But on the same day, 51 of the city’s 103 unions agreed to begin a general strike. However, the violence began to die down on May 26 thanks to mass arrests, especially of local American Workers Party leaders.

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Seeing the writing on the wall, the actual Auto-Lite workers lowered their request at Taft’s urging to a 10 percent wage increase. The company again became aggressive, attempting to create a company union and rejecting everything the auto workers proposed. As May turned into June, the chances for a renewal of violence grew. More unions geared up for a general strike while the company asked the Ohio governor to use the National Guard to keep the plant open by force. Workers appealed to FDR to intervene on their side. Finally what ended this was employers throughout the city granting pay raises to the unions, beginning with an IBEW local that won 20 percent. On June 2, the auto workers came to an agreement, getting only a 5 percent wage increase but also union recognition. The AWP urged the workers to reject the agreement, but the workers wanted to work and felt they had won what they wanted. The National Guard withdrew from Toledo on June 5. The Toledo Central Labor Council held a huge victory parade on June 9 with 20,000 people. Regardless of the AWP’s revolutionary aims, for labor itself, this was a gigantic win.

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The power of workers at Auto-Lite helped build momentum for the National Labor Relations Act that followed the next year. It also increased the appeal of large-scale industrial unionism. The Toledo workers became United Auto Workers Local 12 when that union formed in 1937.

The factory closed in 1962 and was turned into a park in 1999. The Autolite company is now part of the Honeywell octopus.

This is the 102nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 11, 1986

[ 63 ] April 11, 2014 |

On April 11, 1986, police fired tear gas at strikers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota after UFCW Local P-9 shut down the plant by blocking the main gate to the building. 17 workers were arrested that day. The Hormel Strike was notable both for its militant local and the reluctance of the UFCW to put up a strong fight against contractual rollbacks. It also pioneered the modern corporate campaign as a labor tactic. Most importantly, the Hormel strike was a sign to the entire nation of the weakness of the labor movement by the late 1980s and the aggressive actions companies would now take to destroy their employees’ unions, a trend that has continued to the present.

In 1985, Hormel decided to bust the United Food and Commercial Workers union in its plant. Average wages in meatpacking plummeted in the early 1980s as capital mobility busted the industry’s unions. In 1982, meatpacking average hourly wages were $9.19. By January 1985, they had fallen to $7.93. Hormel demanded a 23 percent pay cut for the workers in Austin, to $8.25, even though the company made a $29 million profit in 1984. The Austin plant was a new, state of the art facility that could have been a model for a new day of labor in the industry, but Hormel ran a speedup and had a terrible safety record in the plant even before it demanded the wage decrease.

Originally the United Packinghouse Workers, a CIO-affiliated industrial union that cleaned up the horrible conditions Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle, the United Food and Commercial Workers represented workers in the industry. In the wake of labor’s overwhelming defeat in the PATCO strike, when Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union, UFCW leadership, like most of the rest of American labor, was afraid to challenge companies on anything because they too feared destruction. Nationally, UFCW acquiesced to these pay cuts because it feared a worse result if it said no.

But UFCW did not do this with the consent of the local. Local P-9 defied international leadership, preferring to go down fighting than just give up everything they had fought for over the previous decades. In response, 1500 workers walked off the job in August 1985, a strike that would last ten months. P-9 proved quite resourceful. It began what is known as corporate campaigns, hiring a PR person to go after Hormel nationally. That included national newspaper ads targeting the company’s poor labor practices, picketing at the company’s national headquarters, and turning a local campaign in a Minnesota town into a national event in order to gain public attention for their cause. This was not that different from how Cesar Chavez used white supporters around the nation to bring publicity to the cause of farm workers in the California fields. Among the successes of the corporate campaign was discovering connections between Hormel and the apartheid government of South Africa, leading to statements of support for P-9 from the African National Congress.

Nationalizing the cause was effective and brought Hormel unwanted publicity. National supporters sent money to P-9. Although the days of the union ladies’ auxiliary was long in the past, the wives of P-9 workers took the lead in organizing national fundraising, clothing drives, and other activities to sustain the strike. P-9 roving pickets at Hormel plants did have concrete results. But nationally, the UFCW opposed all of this. One shift of workers in Algona, Iowa crossed the picket lines because of orders from the union to ignore the pickets. At the Fremont, Nebraska plant, the union told workers that if they honored the picket line, they would be violating their own contract. Only 65 of 850 did so. Workers at a Dallas factory did respect the lines and briefly shut down this facility, but without support from the international, this proved very hard to maintain. When 750 workers in Ottumwa, Iowa honored the pickets, Hormel fired 500 because of the violation of the contract’s no strike pledge.

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Sympathy picketer for P-9

Hormel was annoyed by the corporate campaign but it made no difference to corporate strategy. It brought strikebreakers to Austin, getting them into the plant with the help of the National Guard. This undermined the strike itself. 460 members crossed it to retain their jobs after the company imported enough strikebreakers to get the plant started again. After 6 months, seeing a lost cause, UFCW leaders ordered P-9 to end the strike. An overwhelming majority of the workers voted no. At that point, the UFCW put the local into receivership and took it over. By September, UFCW negotiated a new four year contract with lower wages, the elimination of a guaranteed annual wage, and the 52-week layoff notice that the workers had originally won in 1940. Of the remaining 850 workers who had not crossed the picket line, fewer than 100 ever received their jobs back. A year later, Hormel demanded further concessions. When the union refused, the company outsourced most of the jobs.

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Teargassing P-9 strikers

Hormel later leased most of the factory to Quality Pork Processors, which took over the most dangerous pork slaughtering functions in the plant. By the mid-1990s, QPP had replaced most of the labor force with Mexican labor, recent migrants who would take jobs with declining safety standards at low wages.

In my view, perhaps the most significant thing about the Hormel strike is not the corporate campaign, a strategy beloved by many liberals, nor the defeatist behavior of UFCW leadership, but rather the aggressiveness by Hormel. By 1986, American corporations simply stopped caring about the appearance of compromise with organized labor. Capital mobility was in full effect by this time. The rise of Reagan and the growth of open union-busting after PATCO took off the facade that corporations ever accepted unions in their factories (despite the necessity for rhetoric claiming it was so in the 1950s and 1960s, rhetoric too often taken at face value today).

Hormel’s open contempt for anything the UFCW could do was notable to everyone involved. It’s why that while the UFCW international leadership comes out of this strike looking really bad, in a sense their position is understandable. P-9 decided to go down fighting, They had the right to do that and UFCW should have supported them. UFCW’s actions in attacking P-9 president Jim Guyette (who international leadership saw as a real threat and thus red-baited him) were reprehensible But it was truly a lost cause. Hormel had all the momentum and all the ability to simply close factories and move. Some will argue that the Hormel strike shows the moral bankruptcy of business unionism and the potential of corporate campaigns, and while I don’t totally disagree with that, I think any larger examination of the larger trajectory of the meatpacking industry during these years should make one skeptical of the potential that this strike could have succeeded.

The Hormel strike is perhaps most famous today for being chronicled in Barbara Kopple’s American Dream, not exactly one of the most uplifting films about American labor you’ll see. The failure of the Hormel strike and the horrible internal struggle became a national symbol for labor’s hard times.

For further reading, see Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.

This is the 101st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1854

[ 22 ] March 20, 2014 |

On March 20, 1854, the Republican Party was founded at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin. Ideas of labor, both free and slave, were central to Republican Party ideology and would have massive implications for decades, not only with the end of slavery during the Civil War, but for white labor through the Gilded Age.

When Republicans organized in the wake of the Whig Party’s collapse (This was not a third party. It was filling a vacuum created by the decline of the period’s second party), it was building off of common ideas about labor in the antebellum period. Labor was seen broadly as the work done by anyone outside of the financial sector or lawyers, making most people “workers” whether they employed people or were employed. The industrial system was supposed to work for all these people, allowing them to rise and fall according to their merits, but ultimately helping most people advance. This would lead to a broadly middle-class life of individual farmers, small employers, and entrepreneurs without great wealth. All labor was noble in this ideology. What made Republicans different than Democrats was the desire to use the power of the state to create policies that would advance this goal, such as high tariffs, government support of transportation networks, etc.

This idea of intertwined personal and national advancement was at the heart of the Republican critique of the South. Most Republicans certainly did not think of black people as equals. But they did see slavery undermining American progress. They saw a North of manufacturing, of railroads, of canals and they saw a rapidly growing nation of progress. They saw a Southern elite of landed wealth who did no work for themselves, who had militaristic values and a violent culture. They saw undemocratic politics with entrenched poverty of the region’s poor whites and they indicted the entire system as a anchor upon the advancement of the union as demonstrated by northern capital investment and industrialization. The threat of slavery was its expansion because the institution only grew more powerful through the 1840s and 1850s. From not being a major part of the American political landscape, the nation had fought a war to allow its expansion by stealing half of Mexico. This threat had to be dealt with for the future of white landholders and entrepreneurs because slavery threatened the white republic. Blacks themselves were more the objects of concern than the subjects. It’s not that black labor didn’t matter. But most Republicans assumed the proper role for black labor was toiling on plantations for white overseers, as in fact we would see at the end of the Civil War when northerners would reorganize the plantation system despite ex-slaves wanting to end it entirely.

Free labor ideology was a very individualistic system and free labor ideology was from the outset strongly anti-union. Even though Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens argued that it was bad to blame the poor for their own poverty, the idea that labor would combine against capital was anathema to Republicans. Horace Greeley referred to strikes as “industrial war” as early as 1853. Instead, Republicans believed the poor should simply move west to the safety valve of the frontier. Free labor ideology struggled to adapt to the reality of wage labor after the Civil War. The ideology assumed the natural harmony between labor and capital and when capital exploitation of labor during the early years of the Gilded Age, particularly in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, Republican leaders assumed the problem was workers breaking this natural state. Thus when George Pullman created his company town outside of Chicago, he used free labor language to justify his paternalism and control over workers.

Although among regular people, the early Republican distrust of corporations did not go away, for those who had access to the money and power within this new system, it definitely did as the great potential for wealth under Republican rule during the Civil War became ever more apparent. The individualistic side of free labor ideology could lead to great greed, especially when combined whit the self-justification of the pseudo social Darwinism of its early days. It was no great turn for the same people we laud for their role in ending slavery to attack the white working class with a vengeance, both as businessmen and as politicians. If Jay Gould became incredibly wealthy off of cheating people, he could justify it through the language at the core of the ideology.

Leading Republicans began to fear by the 1870s that both southern blacks and northern whites were agents of disorder that threatened the smooth relations between labor and capital. They saw blacks demanding labor rights and believed they were a class that threatened the social fabric of the republic. Demands for federal assistance were just as threatening as northern white labor’s demand for the right to strike. Both white and black labor made leading Republicans fear the Paris Commune coming to the U.S., a theme Horace Greeley and others wrote about as they talked of anarchy reaching American shores every time American black or white labor complained about anything after 1871. This helps explain how Republicans were willing to end Reconstruction and condemn black labor to exploitation. In the end, for most Republicans anti-slavery politics was not about anti-racism, it was about ending a particularly institution they saw holding back the nation. Wage exploitation, that was fine. Ideal even.

The consummation of Republican free labor ideology toward unions became apparent in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when newly elected Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes used U.S. troops to crush the strikers. It wasn’t just Hayes–most leading Republicans wanted them crushed. The shock to the populace would lead to a number of social and labor movements intended to get things right again. The Populists, Single Taxers, Bellamyites, Chinese Exclusionists, 8 hour day organizers, unemployment marchers, Knights of Labor–all of these movements would be heavily influenced by the idea of making capitalism doing what everyone thought it was supposed to do–support the free, hardworking white male citizen who wanted to support himself. It would not be until the influx of new immigrants after 1880 that had no connection to free labor ideology that the American working class would move more realistic cures for what ailed it.

The question everyone wants to know is whether Lincoln would have been as anti-white organized labor as other Republicans. This is of course a counterfactual–who knows! And counterfactuals’ primary value come during drunken conversations. People like to cite a couple of Lincoln quotes about the primacy of labor to capital. But this ignores the context–Republicans said things like this all the time and then a few years later were calling for military intervention to crush strikes. The quote lacks the context of what Republicans meant by labor and capital. Lincoln was the consummate moderate Republican on pretty much every policy issue, including slavery. I think, like other Republicans, Lincoln could have easily reconciled his earlier statements with a later support of monopoly capitalism and fears of the dangers of unions. Sure, I’d like to think otherwise, but a few quotes from the early 1860s isn’t a lot of evidence when placed in context of Lincoln’s relationship with the ideology of his party and how that party changed over time.

The key book on Republican free labor ideology is Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. You should all read it. On the changing views of Republicans toward black labor after emancipation, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901.

This is the 100th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 18, 1970

[ 16 ] March 18, 2014 |

On March 18, 1970, postal workers around the nation went on strike. This illegal but pioneering strike of public sector workers not only forced the Nixon Administration to cave but ushered in a decade of working class restlessness against their own staid union officials and a decade of public sector activism that would spur an enormous growth in union organizing among public employees.

Postal workers were deeply frustrated by the late 1960s. They had a union but lacked collective bargaining rights. They had not seen a pay raise since 1967. Many worked second jobs to survive. In 1968, the Kappel Commission recommended postal workers be granted collective bargaining rights, but Congress rejected it. Working conditions were not very good–many of the post offices were old, overheated or freezing cold depending on the season, dusty and dank. Leaders of the National Association of Letter Carriers (James Rademacher was the president of the NALC) were not particularly responsive to the bubbling frustration coming from the rank and file that would mark the 1970s in strikes like Lordstown. When Congress voted itself a raise of 50 percent while refusing to do anything for postal workers and then Nixon did nothing for them in his 1970 budget, this lit the switch of fury at their employers.

The postal workers were poor and they were angry. Over the desire of their union leaders, rank and file activists in New York called for a strike. When Congress suggested a 5.4 percent pay raise, the rank and file flatly rejected it. Union leaders did not want a strike, but they could not control the membership. The president of a New York City local was chased off a podium by his own members when he opposed the strike. Rademacher said on national television that the strikers were members of Students for a Democratic Society and did not represent the good Americans of the postal workers.

When postal workers went on strike on March 18, 1970, it was illegal because they did not have the right to strike. Writing to AFL-CIO president George Meany, Brooklyn postal clerk Steve Parise argued that the illegality of a strike was irrelevant: “Our union and our rank and file feel that the government has forfeited its immunity to a strike, not only because its open disdain for these men, but also the humility of financial hardships they have forced upon our families, such as seeking welfare to survive.” Said another postal worker to the New York Times, “Everybody else strikes and gets a big pay increase. The teachers, the sanitation and transit workers all struck [in violation of the law]. Why shouldn’t we? We’ve been nice far too long.”

President Richard Nixon called for postal workers to immediately return to work and said the government would not negotiate so long as the strike continued. Nixon said, “What is at issue is the survival of a government based upon law,” a statement we also know he applied to his own actions. Yet for the next week, the strike continued to expand, eventually leading to 210,000 postal workers off the job. He directed his Secretary of Labor George Schultz to agree to negotiate with the NALC as soon as the postal workers returned to work. This actually empowered Rademacher, who saw the rank and file rebellion as a direct attack upon his leadership. A wildcat strike that led to a massive victory would hurt him as much as Nixon. The rank and file totally rejected this offer, seeing it for what it was.

By March 25, the nation’s entire postal system had ground to a halt. This was as serious as the railroad strikes of the late 19th century because of the necessity of the USPS for communications in a way hard to imagine today. Like with the railroad strikes, Nixon ordered Operation Graphic Hand, sending the military to operate as scabs and deliver the mail. However, they were incompetent at this task. Moreover, this angered the workers who feared violence. In New York, some of the postal workers were actually National Guard members then called up, and they convinced their fellow troops to not do anything to move the mail. In less militant parts of the country though, the arrival of the military did bolster a back to work movement and some began trickling back.

Nixon was forced to negotiate despite his earlier pledge. What finally did get the rank and file to give up the strike was some dissent within the workers–the New York locals were far more militant than the rest of the country’s unions and many of those returned to work after the military became involved. So when Nixon and Rademacher announced the outline of a final agreement, militants wanted to continue striking but the rank and file generally approved and returned to work. The final agreement gave the postal workers an 14% pay increase (6% retroactive to 1969 and 8% for the next year) and collective bargaining rights on wages and working conditions, although not the right to strike. The workers were not punished for having engaged in an illegal walkout. This was a landmark moment in the history of public sector unionism, ushering in a decade of enormous advances for these workers, until Reagan kneecapped them with the PATCO strike.

The strike led to the Postal Reorganization Act, creating the United States Postal Service out of the old Post Office and guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for postal workers, albeit not the right to strike. The collective bargaining rights led to the creation of the American Postal Workers Union in 1971 from five preexisting unions. Continued rank and file activism against Rademacher’s leadership forced major reforms in the postal union, creating a more democratic organization. Vincent Sombrotto, who was a key leader of the postal workers movement, finally won the union’s presidency as a reformer after Rademacher retired in 1978. Before the 1970s strike, Sombrotto had to work a second job as a truck driver to feed his six children. Rank and file militancy continued in New York and New Jersey locals, led by civil rights activists and Vietnam veterans until 1978 when a wildcat strike led to the firing of 200 workers.

In the 21st century, Congress has undertaken a project to destroy the USPS entirely. The APWU has taken a lead role in fighting for the institution but it is probably doomed thanks to Republican evil.

This is the 99th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 14, 1954

[ 16 ] March 14, 2014 |

On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.

On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).

The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.

For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.

Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.

The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.

The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”

On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.

The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.

The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.

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For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.

This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 5, 1972

[ 141 ] March 5, 2014 |

On March 5, 1972, the workers at General Motors’ plant in Lordstown, Ohio went on strike after authorizing it two days prior. They were angry about sped-up work at their factory, but ultimately this was a young and diverse workforce angry at the degrading and mind-numbing nature of industrial work. The 3-week strike received national attention as much for the generational rebellion it summed up as the labor strife itself. Employers and union leaders both feared the “Lordstown Syndrome” that seemed to be taking over American workplaces as young workers wanted more for their lives than a lifetime on the assembly line.

By 1972, the United Auto Workers was in transition after the death of its titanic president Walter Reuther in a 1970 plane crash. The UAW was about as left-leaning as any of the major internationals during the last years of the 60s. Although Reuther’s record on dealing with racism in UAW plants was mixed, he pushed for civil rights and personally opposed both the Vietnam War and the AFL-CIO’s support of it. Finally, in 1968, he pulled the UAW out of the federation, complaining of the Meany doing nothing, refusing to organize, and undermining labor’s future. Reuther planned to take his union on strike against GM in 1970 hoping for a revival of the old-school social movement unionism. He died but the plan continued after his death under the leadership of Leonard Woodcock. However, it wasn’t much of a win and nearly bankrupted the UAW. Despite the social movement talk, the strike operated within the traditional structure of postwar collective bargaining. Moreover, the new contract allowed the company to automate the line, combine two divisions in the plant, and eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, GM and other American car companies were beginning to face competition from low-price, high-mileage Japanese models. In response, GM created the Chevy Vega and chose to manufacture it in its new Lordstown, Ohio factory, just northwest of Youngstown. This new factory was engineered to do most of the work for the workers. Claimed a GM official, “The concept is based on making it easier for the guy on the line. We feel by giving him less to do he will do it better.”

Workers in Local 1172 hated it. By “giving him less to do,” GM really meant speeding up the line and laying workers off. The factory had previously made the Impala at a rate of 60 an hour. The Vega sped off the line at 100 an hour. This gave workers 36 seconds to a complete their task rather than 60. Workers resisted in a number of ways. The worked to rule, refusing to do anything outside of what was specifically stated in the contract. They smoked marijuana and drank on the job. The let cars go by without finishing them. They took days off or quit. They grieved everything. By January 1972, 5000 grievances clogged up the system, workers demanded the rehiring of laid off workers and slowed down production. This was a very young workforce, averaging only 24 years of age. These were young people imbued with the anger and rebellion of their generation. Some had fought in Vietnam. The plant was also highly integrated and with the overwhelming youth culture, the workers at least claimed that racial solidarity was more frequent than racial tension. Local 1172 president Gary Bryner, age 29, said, “The young black and white workers dig each other. There’s an understanding. The guy with the Afro, the guy with the beads, the guy with the goatee, he doesn’t care if he’s black, white, green, or yellow…..They just wanted to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.”

97% of the Lordstown workers voted to go on strike and it lasted 18 days. UAW leadership was distinctly uncomfortable with local uprisings. They took over the negiotiations and eliminated the empowerment of workers and shopfloor democracy that workers really wanted and brought it back to traditional collective bargaining. Both GM and UAW wanted this to end fast. So GM agreed to restore almost all the jobs eliminated in the 1970 contract and dropped 1400 disciplinary layoffs against current workers. So the workers won on one level, but not on another. Nothing really changed for workers. They still weren’t allowed to question production decisions or workplace culture. They weren’t allowed to play a role in the life of the factory like European auto plant workers, to which they compared their own lack of empowerment. They were still frustrated. Said a union official, “If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?”

UAW cartoon during Lordstown strike

Activists around the country saw what they wanted to in Lordstown. Ralph Nader thought this would do for workers “what the Berkeley situation of 1964 did for student awareness,” while New Left publications believed it was “a trial run of the class struggle of the 70s.” What was happening however was a general dissatisfaction of the American working class with industrial production labor. The mind-numbing pace, the lack of ability to shape one’s own future, this would lead to a number of interesting moments of working-class rebellion throughout the 70s. J.D. Smith, treasurer of the Lordstown UAW local, said “They’re just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They’re not afraid of management. That’s a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.” The blue-collar rebellion became a fairly major media and political phenomenon of the period, with newspaper articles, TV reports, Senate hearings, and a presidential commission to study the issue.

The commission issued a report titled “Work in America,” that began the quality of work life movement,” that sought to make industrial labor more satisfactory and less mind-numbing. Perhaps these and other 70s working class rebellions could have led to concrete gains had industry not also engaged in widespread capital mobility, leading to the elimination of nearly all industrial jobs over the next twenty years, destabilizing the American working class, and destroying the cities of the industrial north. Government moves to bust unions certainly has blame too. In the PATCO strike, Reagan came down hard against air traffic controllers who had overthrown their previous union leadership to take a more militant stance.

Over the years, the radicalism of Local 1112 wore down. In the 1980s, workers picked their own union hall against concessions forced upon them by UAW leadership. Today, they talk the same management partnership language as the rest of the union. Surprisingly, the plant is still open and has made the Chevrolet Cruze since 2010.

Much of this was borrowed from Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which I strongly recommend.

This is the 97th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915

[ 52 ] March 4, 2014 |

On March 4, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, creating standards for working conditions on boats that the U.S. would enforce on all ships stopping at American ports, whether under American flags or not. It was not only a major early victory for American labor but is strong evidence behind the assertion that Woodrow Wilson is the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.

In the early 20th century, working conditions on ships were dire. Many ships were barely seaworthy. Sanitation on the ships was grotesque. A race to the bottom developed in sailing as manufacturers looked to reduce their transportation costs. In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent. Seamen called for “emancipation” from their shipowners. Penalties against desertion were still draconian. Although flogging had largely ended in the mid 19th century, punishing sailors in stocks and other forms of physical coercion were still common. They wanted the right to walk away from their contracts because of the near slavery of shipboard life. They were presently bound to their 1-3 year contracts with penalty of imprisonment and forfeiture of all wages if they deserted. Effectively, they lacked the ability to quit their jobs.

Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907 when they allied against the prosecution of Union Labor Party leader Abe Ruef for graft. LaFollette began to introduce the bill every Congress in 1910. It gained support after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When Wilson won the presidency that year, he named William B. Wilson, a cosponsor of the bill in the House, as Secretary of Labor.

From left to right, Andrew Furuseth, Robert LaFollette, and Lincoln Steffens

In pushing for the bill, the ISU explicitly connected it to the Titanic and the Triangle Fire of 1911, asking “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and the lock the doors. Is it not even more dangerous to jam a steamer full of passengers and then to send it out to the harbor without having on board the means whereby they may be taken off quickly and safely in case of need?” As with much of labor reform at the time, Furuseth and his supporters did take on a racial and anti-immigrant tone. He bemoaned that sailing was “the domain of those who fought life’s battles and accepted defeat, of the sewage of the Caucasian race and of such of the races of Asia as felt that their condition could be improved by becoming seamen.”

Such statements forced the Industrial Workers of the World, which had quite a few members on the ships, to answer a tricky question of supporting a law that would make their lives better versus the racial internationalism of their ideology. The Wobblies opposed the law in the end, claiming not only was the ISU racist but that Furuseth “very likely has a child-like faith in the state, far exceeding his confidence in the workers whom he is supposed to represent.” Moreover, the IWW actually used the argument that the would hurt their employers by driving American flag-based shipping from the seas, a rather surprisingly pro-business position employed by these anti-capitalists.

Seamen on the S.S. Minnesota, 1919

Wilson’s foreign policy team encouraged him to pocket veto the bill because it might upset the British. But when Furuseth went to lobby Wilson personally, the president’s heart melted in the face of this craggy old seamen telling stories about the horrors of the ships. The new law established the 9-hour day and 56-hour week on ships. It guaranteed minimum standards of safety and cleanliness. It recognized the right of seamen to organize. It allowed them to get out of their contracts with relatively minimal penalty–half their salary earned to that point in the contract. Most importantly, it applied to all sailors–regardless of national origin or citizenship status–if they landed in an American port. The LaFollette Act is thus probably the closest law passed in American history to something that created a “race to the top” in working conditions around the globe. If you were a French sailor and you landed in New York, you could desert and the U.S. government would protect your rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps surprisingly, declared the international enforcement provisions constitutional, at least at first. After a 1918 decision ruled against a seaman who used the act to desert in Mobile while demanding half his wages, Louis Brandeis moved the court to a unanimous decision in a similar 1920 case by explicitly arguing that the point of the law was to enforce nationalist conceptions of labor standards, stating “foreign vessels engaged in the American trade would be compelled to raise wages and working conditions to practically the standard prevailing in our coastwise trade.”

By not only mandating standards on goods entering the United States, but also giving workers an out from their contracts if they were dissatisfied, the Seamen’s Act had the potential to advance the rights of workers significantly. In the end though, the fears of the shipping industry over its effect proved unfounded, largely because the Commerce Department under Wilson and then subsequent Republican presidents consistently sided with employers in enforcement. Commerce ruled that the space provisions for workers only applied to ships built after 1915 for instance. The French redefined sailors under its flags as members of the merchant marine and therefore ineligible for the protections. Finally, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the international enforcement provisions unconstitutional and by this time the law was not widely applied anyway by a federal government interested in promoting global trade. This saddened the law’s supporters. In 1953, the Friends of Andrew Furuseth Legislative Association wrote, “If only the Seamen’s Act had been enforced from 1917 on, it might not have been necessary to have spent 19 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan, because the standard of living of European countries would have advanced more nearly to a parity with our own.”

Nevertheless, it marks perhaps the first time labor successfully used regulatory reform to advance the interest of specific workers and it provides an interesting precedent for those seeking to use the power of government to improve the conditions of workers toiling for American companies (or subcontractors for those companies) in a global marketplace. Can the American government implement standards in a worldwide economy reliant upon transportation methods to get apparel from Bangladesh? Could organized labor target transportation networks as a way to improve international labor standards? I do not believe a secondary strike by the ILWU or Teamsters in support of a labor action in Bangladesh would violate Taft-Hartley since it would not be an American union supported. The LaFollette Act wasn’t necessarily all that successful, but it suggests an almost totally unexplored strategy for international labor solidarity.

It is also worth noting that even taking into account the Red Scare and IWW-crushing that would take place later in the Wilson presidency, Wilson is still the most union-friendly president in American history before FDR.

I am drawing primarily from Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present for this post.

This is the 96th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 3, 1931

[ 12 ] March 3, 2014 |

This post is a special request from Anna in PDX to help her work out some thorny issues she faces in her local. If this series can be of use to your local or organizing needs, drop me a line.

On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the Davis-Bacon Act, establishing a requirement for the government to pay local prevailing wages on public works projects. Even since its passage, it’s been tainted with an accusation of racism, which will be the subject of today’s post, as we try to untangle the complex knot of race and labor in American history.

The law was prompted by Robert Bacon, a congressman from New York who allied with former Secretary of Labor (1921-30) Senator James Davis. A contractor in Bacon’s home district built a new VA hospital. Rather than hire local workers, he brought in low wage African-American laborers from Alabama. Bacon worried about the government undermining local wages and he sought to put a stop to it. It took the Great Depression to make Bacon’s bill a political possibility. Congress rejected it the first 12 times Bacon introduced it, but the desperation of the Depression created a political force that would lead to the construction of America’s labor law regime. One of the first victories in this was Davis-Bacon. The Hoover Administration itself requested that Congress take up the bill once more in order so that it could seem like it was doing something about falling wages. The law only covered government contracts greater than $5000 (amended to $2000 in 1935) and did not force contractors to hire union labor. As federal labor law often does as well, many states created little Davis-Bacons to cover state contracts, helping to raise the standard of living for construction labor.

James Davis and Robert Bacon

From the time of its passage, opponents portrayed Davis-Bacon as a racist law intended to protect white workers from black competition. Race and labor can’t be separated in this country. The racism that has divided this country since the beginning has also divided workers. Labor deserves no more but also no less blame in perpetuating this than other American institutions, including corporations who openly used race and ethnicity to divide workers, paying black workers lower wages and constructing white workers and black workers as competition against each other. Davis-Bacon intended to stop employers from undermining local standards of living, which they often did by taking advantage of the nation’s inherent racism to bring in workers of color. Today, one certainly cannot blame these black workers for taking jobs significantly better than the cotton plantations of the Jim Crow South, but I don’t think it particularly useful to condemn unionized northern workers for protecting their own jobs either, even if those protections by definition took on a racist tone. After all, feeding their families was a completely legitimate priority.

One however can shake their head at how labor used racist rhetoric to justify what could in principle have been a very reasonable bill. AFL president William Green in supporting Davis-Bacon noted in talking about why it was needed in Tennessee, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.” The debate in Congress over the bill also took on the racial overtones of American life in the early 30s. Alabama Rep. Clayton Allgood said in support, “Reference has been made to a contractor from Alabama who went to New York with bootleg labor. This is a fact. That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country. This bill has merit, and with the extensive building program now being entered into, it is very important we enact this measure.” Some wished it could be extended to protect “white” labor from immigrants as well. Fiorello LaGuardia was among those expressing these sentiments, noting “the workmanship of this cheap imported labor was of course very inferior.”

The law’s wording was pretty vague and both unions and employers have fought over its meanings ever since. For the building trades, Davis-Bacon directly benefited them and they fought for its vigorous use. For contractors, “prevailing wage” was totally undefined and frustrating. It never proved easy to determine or enforce when determined. The Department of Labor was tasked to determine just what the prevailing wage was for a region, but the formulas were increasingly complex and had to cover individual job classifications. In 1979, the General Accounting Office issued an appeal to repeal the law, citing four decades of it not working well.

In 1956, Congress extended Davis-Bacon to cover highway construction, the only controversial piece of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Southern senators like Harry Byrd sought to reduce union influence by trying to exclude Davis-Bacon from the bill. In 1964, Davis-Bacon was expanded to add fringe benefits, including medical insurance, pensions, vacations, and sick pay into the calculations. This expansion also increased the reach of the law to include the states and municipalities receiving large federal grants for capital construction projects, ranging from schools to roads.

I think the debate over the origin of the law is a separate question over its value today. There is a whole history of terrible racist laws in this country, not to mention good laws passed with racist intent. Are we going to overturn hunting and fishing regulations because they were enacted to save the nation’s game for rich white people to use and overturned hundreds of years of subsistence food traditions by Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, poor whites, and European immigrants? No. Neither should we eliminate Davis-Bacon. Is the law racist today? That’s the key question. And the answer is no.

The argument is basically concern trolling by businesses when what they really want is to avoid paying workers a living wage. Business hopes that by saying that labor law is racist, they can undermine unionism nationally. While northern African-Americans did often have very good reason to be suspicious of white labor unions in the past, today they are among the most union-friendly groups. Research consistently shows that unions have not hurt African-American employment over the years and that today they join unions to protect themselves from wage inequality (see Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp’s “Organized Labor and Racial Wage Equality in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology, March 2012) The NAACP supports the continuance of the Davis-Bacon Act. That support is a lot more important to me than the law’s overtones in 1931.

Opponents also claim Davis-Bacon openly favors union labor. Call the whaaambulance. It actually doesn’t favor union labor per se. It favors paying people the same wage rates unions have negotiated in areas where they control enough of the labor market to do so. Right-wingers use whiny arguments about taxpayers, noting that Davis-Bacon can increase public construction projects by 20 percent. Of course, usually it is less high than this, but those higher costs go back into the community through returned tax dollars, higher purchasing power, better schools, and happier citizens.

Also, high wages are needed for the building trades. Construction is seasonal labor. Without high wages during the work season, you aren’t going to convince young people to join these professions. You are going to lose skilled labor to build your house, fix your toilet, etc. These people have to live and eat and feed their families and I don’t think we should be giving any support for undoing some of the last legislation that helps provide workers with real benefits on the job. Employers should not be able to undermine local wages by importing cheap labor, just as they should not be able to decimate communities by a global race to the bottom to increase profits.

This is the 95th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 26, 1972

[ 23 ] February 26, 2014 |

On February 26, 1972, a Pittston Coal Company slurry dam collapsed in Logan County, West Virginia. The ensuing flood of coal slurry would kill 125 people and demonstrate once again the horrific contempt the coal industry has for the people of West Virginia.

Coal slurry is basically the toxic leftovers of modern industrial coal production. This was less of an issue in the days of underground mining, but with strip mining and later mountaintop removal, large scale residue became a real problem. The coal is sifted and processed, washed of impurities, and transported to market by rail or boat. The leftover is the slurry. It includes heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, beryllium, manganese, selenium, cadmium, as well as a whole slough of toxic chemicals. This is nasty stuff. The process for cleaning this up was haphazard then and it is now. Basically, coal companies built a dam and dumped it in there mixed with the water that naturally filled up behind the dam.

Pittston was the largest coal company in the United States in the 1970s and its dams had a history of problems. The company began dumping coal waste in the Middle Fork of Buffalo Creek in 1957 and built its first dam to impound the material in 1960. It built two more dams, each about 600 feet upstream, turning the creek into a series of black pools of polluted water. These were basic impoundments made of earth and not sophisticated dams guaranteed to stand up to harsh weather. In 1967, the Department of Interior had warned Pittston the dams (along with 29 others in the state) were unstable and dangerous. Pittston executives did not care. The third dam broke in July 1971, but the second dam held the water and disaster was briefly averted. Pittston also had a long reputation for poor safety practices. It was cited for over 5000 violations at mines in 1971 alone, but only paid $275 of the $1.3 million in fines it was levied. These impoundments were actually banned by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, but had so far been unenforced.

Late February was very rainy in West Virginia. Residents were nervous about the state of the dams. A mere 4 days before the dam collapsed, a federal mine inspector declared the dam safe. But on the morning of February 26, the third dam caved and this time the second dam did not hold. Neither did the first. A huge wall of polluted water rushed down Buffalo Creek.

When the dam caved, 132 million gallons of slurry entered Buffalo Creek. Downstream lay 16 small towns with a total of 5000 people. 125 would die that day. 1121 were injured 4000 people lost their homes. These little towns were all old coal company towns. The companies had divested any responsibility for the towns before this, but most the people who lived either worked in coal or had family members in the industry. Already these towns were dying as mechanization replaced thousands of jobs in the 1950s and people left, largely for the northern industrial factories.

Pittston Coal called the mine collapse “an act of God” in its legal filings, saying the dam couldn’t hold all the water “God poured into it.” As if it was God who constructed unsafe dams and then filled them with coal sludge. Typically, the state government of West Virginia, wholly owned by the coal industry, “investigated” the dam collapse with a commission made up of wholly pro-coal men. Governor Arch Moore initially banned reporters from entering the area to prevent “irresponsible reporting,” a tactic that reminded many of the old days when basic constitutional rights and freedoms did not apply in coal country. A circuit court grand jury refused to indict Pittston or its executives for any of the many laws it broke with the dam collapse. The special prosecuting attorney, Willard Lorenson of the West Virginia University School of Law, said, “It has been a noble exercise in American justice.”

When the United Mine Workers, now in a period of reform after the corrupt Tony Boyle, a man indifferent to the lives of his own men, was ousted and imprisoned, protested over this sham, the governor ignored them. So the UMWA created the Citizens Commission, which issued a report calling the coal company guilty of the murder of all 125 dead. The state followed by suing Pittston for $100 million, but just before leaving office, Moore settled for a mere $1 million, thus ensuring his place as one of the most pro-industry hacks in the history of American politics.

The survivors sued Pittston but received only a pittance of $13,000 a piece after legal costs, or about $61,000 in 2014 dollars. Moore sought to capitalize on the disaster by promising to do something to help the citizens who lost their homes. He proposed 10 new housing developments for Buffalo Creek, with 750 homes. The total built was 17 homes and 90 apartments, all constructed on top of a coal tailings pile. Moore also attempted to use federal disaster money to ram a superhighway through the valley. Residents were bought out but only a two-lane road was built. Moore promised to build a community center with the funds given back to the community by the lawyers for the plaintiffs from their fees. The community center was never built.

In 1975, the great Appalachian film project Appalshop made a film titled “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man.” You can watch an 8 minute excerpt here.

Pittston Coal would later be the site of one of the most important strikes of the late 20th century.

In 1990, Arch Moore was sentenced to 5 years in prison for graft after stealing money from the state’s black lung fund. He is the father of Shelley Moore Capito, the likely next senator from West Virginia.

Here is a list of the dead.

This is the 94th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 15, 1907

[ 25 ] February 15, 2014 |

On February 15, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Japanese government signed the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” to stop the migration of Japanese to the United States. This came about after the organizing of whites on the west coast against Japanese immigration, as whites steadfastly maintained their states were for the white man alone. Not only had the Japanese entered the labor market in a number of low-wage areas after the end of Chinese immigration in 1882, but they also managed to make a legitimate go of it on farms that whites had failed to make work. The outrage over Japanese labor competition was but one episode in a long history of west coast labor opposing people of color.

West Coast employers wanted cheap labor. The region received very little immigration from southern and eastern Europe like the east, so they had to be creative. Originally, western employers hired the Chinese to do menial work, but the angry response from west coast labor that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislative victory for organized labor in the nation’s history, ended that supply in 1882. So employers turned to Japan. Japan in the 1880s was modernizing rapidly, but was still poor. Encouraging migration was a useful way to undermine internal social problems. Almost immediately after 1882, Japanese migration to the United States soared. Much of this was to the sugar plantations of the American soon-to-be colony in Hawaii, but large numbers came to California, Oregon, and Washington as well. There they would serve as a key part of the low-wage labor force for the next sixty years.

Japanese workers entered the growing agricultural industry of California, especially sugar beets. By 1902, 9 contractors supplied Japanese labor to farmers. Wages were originally high but when slashed in 1902, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican workers organized the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association in 1903, winning some important early victories in raising wages in the fields. Others worked on railroads. Many Japanese women worked in domestic service for whites, often in very difficult conditions.



Japanese celery harvesters, California, circa 1920

Many Japanese went into the timber industry as well. Japanese mill workers on Washington’s Bainbridge Island lived in “Jap Town,” which consisted of several hundred people. This large community had a Baptist church and Buddhist temple, a baseball diamond, and multiple shops that served both Japanese and white customers. Kihachi Hirakawa, a Christian minister in a Washington logging town, remembered all the Japanese laborers living together and the long nights of gambling that kept him up. He fretted about the all-male aspect of these communities, recalling three hundred or more Japanese workers, but only eight or nine families. Whites resisted even these relatively small numbers. In 1904, the Panel and Folding Box Company of Hoquiam, Washington “put on a night crew of Japs” because they “have been unable to secure a sufficient number of girls.” The mill’s manager, a man named Finlayson, defended himself from accusations that he had tried to undermine white labor and simply claimed that “if forced to employ Japs, it will only be to supply that cannot otherwise be filled.”



Tsukamoto and Nakamura Laundry, Salem, Oregon, 1919

Whites became even more angry when Japanese began leasing land (California had laws against Asians owning land) and starting families, seeking permanency in their new home and offending the white Californians who had defined their state as a place of free white men from the time of the gold rush. They were growing fruits and vegetables and would pretty quickly become important and successful small producers within the California agricultural economy. Of course, interracial sex happened too. One farmer wrote to the California legislature:

Near my home is an eighty-acre tract of as fine land as there is in California. On that tract lives a Japanese. With that Japanese lives a white woman. In that woman’s arms is a baby. What is that baby? It isn’t Japanese. It isn’t white. I’ll tell you what that baby is. It is a germ of the mightiest problem that ever faced this state; a problem that will make the black problem of the South look white. All about us the Asiatics are gaining a foothold.

Like in the 1870s and 1880s in California, anti-Japanese fervor began dominating west coast politics in the 1900s. San Francisco passed a law to segregate Asians out of public schools while west coast politicians wanted Washington to end this yellow peril. Organized labor lent its support to the effort. White workers believed any job held by a Japanese was a job stolen from a white man. In 1905, 67 labor unions met in San Francisco to found the Asiatic Exclusion League to eliminate the perceived Japanese and Korean threat to their jobs, much as they had so successfully done in 1882 against the Chinese. Such organizations would continue until World War II. In 1908, the Laundry Workers and Laundry Drivers Union began the Anti-Jap Laundry League, urging whites to boycott doing business with Japanese laundries. Attacks on Japanese immigrants grew. A laundry operator said, “The persecutions became intolerable. My drivers were constantly attacked on the highway, my place of business defiled by rotten eggs and fruit; windows were smashed several times.”

Japanese-American railroad workers

By 1907, the Japanese government was happy to keep their citizens in Japan, as the nation’s rising imperial ambitions meant holding onto potential industrial workers and soldiers. President Theodore Roosevelt, having just negotiated the end to the Russo-Japanese War, did not want to anger the increasingly powerful Japanese who were concerned about the treatment of their citizens abroad. So Roosevelt and the Japanese government came to an informal agreement. The U.S. would not pass a bill to exclude the Japanese and would force California to repeal its school segregation bill. In return, the Japanese government would take steps to halt immigration.

This effectively ended large-scale immigration from Japan to the United States, although the agreement did not apply to Hawaii and thus migrants could go to Hawaii and then to the mainland, although relatively few did. Japanese men in the U.S. could also send back to Japan for wives, leading to the thousands of picture brides coming to the U.S. in the next couple decades. By the time Japanese immigration ended, about 400,000 had migrated to the United States. West Coast employers, still seeking cheap foreign labor, turned their attention to the new American colony of the Philippines. Since the Philippines was actually American, stopping the importation of that labor would prove much more difficult for white labor, although they would eventually accomplish it in 1932, at which point employers began bringing in Mexicans (or did so after the Great Depression anyway).

White resentment remained strong and the anti-Japanese scare after Pearl Harbor was also an excuse to expropriate Japanese property and again turn the west coast into a white man’s haven.

There is a very large literature on Japanese immigration and the backlash to it. I took much of this, including the good quotes, from Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Store. On the experiences of Japanese women, see Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Issei, Nisei, War Bride. The material on logging in the Northwest comes from my dissertation.

This is the 93rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1845

[ 24 ] February 13, 2014 |

On February 13, 1845, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association forced the state of Massachusetts to hold hearings on reducing the work day in the state’s textile mills to 10 hours a day. The LFLRA had collected 2000 signatures to put pressure on the textile mill owners and state to improve the conditions in the factories. While the ability to interest state politicians in the conditions of workers was a success of sorts, not only did the workers fail to win, but this is a transitional moment in an industry that would soon replace these women with workers who had access to far less power to protest the conditions of their work, something that continues apparel companies have aimed for ever since.

Samuel Slater brought the first modern factories into the United States in the 1790s. These were largely lauded by most commentators, but they also worried Americans who feared the nation’s nice towns would become the pestilent hellholes of English cities since the Industrial Revolution began there earlier in the 18th century. Some owners were conscious enough about these problems that they created the model town of Lowell, Massachusetts to prove that one could operate a factory using respectable labor. Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectable fashion. The closely watched “Lowell Mill Girls” lived in dormitories under the watchful eyes of older women and attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other early 19th century intellectuals. They produced their own magazines, took classes, and in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves nicely for marriage while producing profit for their employer.

The Lowell Offering, December 1845

These women also labored in very unpleasant conditions. The factories were hot and humid, necessary to keep the cotton fibers workable and reduce fires. Enormous glass windows allowed sun to pour in on the hottest days of the year. The machines were shockingly loud in a way that’s difficult to imagine for most modern Americans who do not work in factories. They worked 12 or 14 hour days, six days a week. These were young farm women used to work, so it wasn’t the strenuous nature of the labor that bothered them, but being locked up in that factory tending those machines minute after minute, day after day, month and month. Historians have timed the beginning of working-class Americans seeing the environment as something romantic to these early textile factory workers, for whom nature became something to escape to rather than tame.

Rather quickly, the young women moved from intellectual pursuits during their (limited) free time to political organizing. The women began demanding better conditions in the factories and since they came from respectable families, ignoring them was a challenge for the owners. To make it worse, the companies began reducing wages. In 1836, they went on strike, one of the nation’s first organized walkouts. One of the strikers was Harriet Hanson Robinson. She remembered,

Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty—five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on “I won’t be a nun. ”

“Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-

Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?

Oh ! I cannot be a slave,

I will not be a slave,

For I’m so fond of liberty

That I cannot be a slave.”

My own recollection of this first strike (or “turn out” as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at “oppression” on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, “Would you? ” or “Shall we turn out?” and not one of them 1laving the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, “I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not;‘’ and I marched out, and was followed by the others.

As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage.

Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association, 1836

They lost but continued fighting. In 1835, Sarah Bagley, age 28, began work in the mills. She quickly became politically aware and started working to reform the conditions. She helped found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 and led the campaign for the hearings, gathering many of the signatures and organizing her fellow workers. When the hearings were held, Bagley testified, “The chief evil, so far as health is concerned, is the shortness of time allowed for meals. The next evil is the length of time employed.” Basically, the owners were trying to turn the women into machines. But in 1846, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject the workers’ demands, part of a larger move in early 19th century New England to create a pro-corporate legal agenda smoothing the way for the growth of business over the concerns of workers and citizens. However, the owners did agree to reduce the hours to 11 a day in 1853 as pressure continued.

The response of the factory owners to this agitation was to switch the labor force. The potato famine in Ireland meant 780,000 new immigrants to the U.S. from that island in the 1840s alone, with another 914, 000 following in the 1850s. These workers were in no condition to turn down hard industrial labor; the opportunity for that was what was many hope awaited them in the United States. It’s possible that the Lowell experiment never really had much chance of working, given the lack of government-mandated employment standards and an ever more competitive market with factories seeking to undercut each other. But eliminating what we can call a privileged labor class–workers with options and access to political levers–proved incredibly profitable for the textile industry.



Mill complex of the Merrimack Company, Lowell, circa 1850

Thus began the history of the textile industry looking for the most vulnerable and impoverished labor to exploit. Eventually, the Irish too would demand better lives. Jews and Italians would be next, then corporations would discover the glories of capital mobility. They moved their factories to southern Appalachia beginning in the early 20th century, then to Mexico in the 1960s, and then to Taiwan, China, and Bangladesh in a never ending global search for workers desperate enough to accept the risk of dying in fires or having their factories collapse on top of them.

In 1846, Sarah Bagley quit her job in the mill and became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.

This is the 92nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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