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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: August 28, 1963

[ 15 ] August 28, 2015 |

On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, DC. This famous event is of course most often remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or more specifically the 3 lines of it that conservatives have decided justify their own positions. But even among liberals and civil rights activists what is often forgotten or downplayed in the memory of this event is the central role economic issues played in it. Most of the economic agenda of the 1960s civil rights movement in fact is barely remembered. That’s a huge problem because not only were African-Americans fighting for the opportunity for economic advancement as well as to end segregation and for the vote but also because it presents an incomplete history which takes away part of the reason this movement so challenged American life.

First, it’s worth noting that the original idea for the March on Washington came from a union. In 1941, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to protest hiring discrimination in defense plants as the nation was gearing up for World War II. Like most issues concerning minorities, FDR didn’t really care but he didn’t want the bad publicity so he caved and ordered the end of hiring discrimination on government defense contracts. This opened up a lot of jobs to African-Americans during World War II and helped build the black middle class that would do much to push forward the freedom struggle after the war.

Randolph was still active in the movement in 1963, although more as a senior figure than a major player. But he, Bayard Rustin, and others revived the idea of the march to push John F. Kennedy to do something on civil rights, which he had been frustratingly reluctant to do. Rustin was hired to organize the event. Rustin had been a communist in the past and that greatly worried anti-communists like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (who did not even want to make a statement about the death of W.E.B. DuBois at the March because he hated him for his communism but who did when he realized Randolph would do it and it would be favorable), but he had played a role in the planning for the 1941 march and he had Randolph’s trust. Of course Strom Thurmond used Rustin’s role to paint the entire march as a communist front and J. Edgar Hoover rejected a report showing no significant communist infiltration into the civil rights movement, but this was just standard fare from the white supremacist American power structure.

The NAACP and most importantly Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference agreed to the idea while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were happy to use the opportunity to take on Kennedy publicly and directly for his inaction. The civil rights movement was a diverse movement with a lot of different groups and aims. That meant some careful alliance building was needed. But the different groups did come up with specific goals to fight for which included not only the passage of civil rights legislation, but a $2 minimum wage ($15.60 today), federal employment law banning discrimination in public or private hiring, and the expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include agricultural workers, domestic workers, and the rest of the workers excluded when the law passed in 1938.

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During the March itself, Bayard Rustin read all these demands on live television, which may be the only time a list of labor demands has received that kind of coverage. A. Philip Randolph led off the speeches by saying, “We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom” and that “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality” in arguing for housing reform.

Playing a key role in the March on Washington was United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Organized labor often has a bad reputation on civil rights during this era, mostly for a good reason. Reuther is an important exception. This doesn’t mean he could instantly turn UAW locals into beacons of racial harmony. Turns out that racial solidarity has a lot more power with a lot more people than class solidarity and UAW officials found that out the hard way when they tried to push civil rights on the shop floor. But that’s an issue for another entry in this series. Reuther provided key labor support for the event. The AFL-CIO paid for a lot of the infrastructure of making this event happen, including the buses to get people to Washington and the UAW paid for the sound system that would blast King’s speech into history. This all happened over the opposition of George Meany, who did not care much about civil rights before this and who opposed an official federation endorsement of the march. But the AFL-CIO did officially support the Kennedy civil rights bill. It is said that Meany however was so moved by Randolph’s speech at the March that he created the A. Philip Randolph Institute to promote African-Americans in the labor movement.

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Reuther stated in his speech, “And the job question is crucial because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” Reuther knew that he had a friend in King because even as a lot of internationals and locals resisted the civil rights movement, King consistently supported the progressive causes of labor and frequently spoke to labor audiences. And of course as King went on, he became more and more focused on economic justice as a centerpiece of the larger freedom struggle, to the point of dying while supporting the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968.

While it’s difficult to measure the precise impact of the march on the political process so soon before Kennedy’s death, we can pretty clearly say it led to the inclusion of the Fair Employment Practices clause into what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also please notice how little a role Martin Luther King has played in this post. The March on Washington was not all about MLK, although that in no ways diminishes his importance to the movement or the “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was a lot more than one man giving one speech.

This is the 156th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 20, 1866

[ 8 ] August 20, 2015 |

On August 20, 1866, the National Labor Union, the first labor union federation in U.S. history, demanded Congress implement a national 8-hour day. It led to a partial and fleeting success, but the NLU story is an important moment in American labor history as it represents an early response to the onslaught of capitalism upon workers who suddenly found a class-based system developing in what was promised to be a white man’s democracy.

The trade union movement had roots early in American history but had never really taken off, in part because the system of American employment was still in the pre-Civil War years by and large artisan and farmer based. Where you did see large concentrations of industry, unions formed such as in the Lowell mills. But the nation was changing rapidly in 1866. The capitalist revolution of the Civil War was beginning to be felt by workers. Factories were growing and money was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions in factories, railroad yards, and mines were becoming part of the everyday experience for workers.

Unions began to develop in these industries, but there was no national federation to organize and guide them. That’s what the National Labor Union intended to do. Founded at a Baltimore conference in 1866, it was a precursor to the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor. It wanted to bring together all of the current unions in its umbrella and take a political and bargaining approach to solving problems, as opposed to striking which was quite controversial even among workers at this time. It favored arbitration as its preferred labor action. It also wanted a Labor Party to challenge both the Republicans and the Democrats.

The NLU’s leader William Sylvis was an interesting individual. In 1846, at the age of 18, Sylvis became an iron molder, which was someone who poured hot slag into wooden patterns to shape the final product. This was hard, tough, dangerous work. He soon became active in Philadelphia’s union movement and was elected secretary of his local in 1857. In 1859, Sylvis called for a convention of all the iron moulders locals around the nation. He was elected president of what became the National Union of Iron Molders. He spent the Civil War building the union where he instituted a number of innovations, including creating the first ever national strike fund, through mandatory dues payments by members. Sylvis was also a major supporter of unions of female workers, particularly Kate Mullaney’s Collar Laundry Union. Sylvis would later invite Mullaney into a leadership role within the NLU, making her the nation’s first female union executive.

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William Sylvis

The NLU did invite all workers, including farmers into the organization. But as would be the case with the AFL, its core membership was the skilled building trades. Also like the rest of the labor movement of the time, the NLU held white supremacy as a central guiding point. It was segregated and while there was a black chapter, it was ineffective and small. Sylvis actually opposed this segregation; although he supported Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election, he believed that all workers had the same issues and would have preferred one integrated organization. It took years of fighting recalcitrant unionists to even allowed the Colored National Labor Union to exist alongside the NLU. The federation also called for the exclusion of Chinese workers from the United States, which would eventually be the first legislative victory for the American labor movement in history.

The major legislative aim for the NLU was the passage of the 8-hour day. As capitalism developed, the 8-hour day would become the ultimate goal for much of the American labor movement. It was the call to arms for the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, so much so that the Knights basically lost control of its exploding membership by 1886. Union after union would call for this over the next decades and it was not achieved nationally until the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and even then only partially.

Amazingly the NLU actually achieved an early victory on the 8-hour day when in 1868, the government created the 8-hour day for federal employees. But this was a very limited win as most of the government agencies then reduced wages to go along with it, which was very much not what the NLU wanted. When President Grant ordered departments to stop reducing wages, most just ignored him and he did not press the issue. Ultimately, little concrete benefit came of the 8-hour day announcement.

Frustrations with the federal employee 8-hour day and loopholes in laws in New York and California that made similar statues unworkable combined with the growing concern in the post-Civil War period about monetary policy to turn the NLU in a starkly political direction. It focused its energy on electoral politics and monetary reform, specifically the issuance of greenbacks, as well as providing public land for settlers as opposed to the huge land grants given to railroads as an incentive to build transcontinental lines. This did not exactly excite workers. Many locals believed in “pure and simple unionism” that kept workers out of politics. Thus the NLU became increasingly divided as it prioritized politics over workers’ concerns. While Sylvis claimed the NLU had 600,000 members, he was exaggerating significantly. At its peak, it might have had 300,000. That number declined as the 1860s became the 1870s. Sylvis dying in 1869 at the age of 41 helped speed the decline as the federation lost its guiding light. The NLU dissolved in 1874 after its membership plummeted in the Panic of 1873.

So ultimately, we should see Sylvis and the NLU as an important ancestor of both the Knights of Labor and the AFL. The NLU was an early attempt for workers to collectively find ways out of the inequality arising during and after the Civil War and for all its limitations, was probably more successful than any other organization before the AFL.

This is the 155th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 15, 1914

[ 30 ] August 15, 2015 |

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened, completing one of the great engineering projects of the time, one that recreated racialized labor norms of the United States in Panama while also demonstrating how sanitary reforms could save workers lives. It also served to connect the imperial empire of labor the United States was building around the world.

Much of the story about the Panama Canal is well-known, including how Theodore Roosevelt worked with the French company that had originally hoped to build a canal to hew Panama off of an uncooperative Colombia in order to acquire the canal rights, a classic act of imperialism in now two nations who would long bear the brunt of American interventionism. To some degree, the brutality of building of the Canal is known as well and this post will expand some of your knowledge on these points.

The first real transportation labor in what would become the Panama Canal took place in the 1850s, when Chinese and African laborers died by the thousands building railroads in the area that later became the Canal. The French were heavily involved in these early projects, as they would be in the first attempt to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific in the 1880s. The French particularly targeted the impoverished island of Jamaica for the workers on this project, running advertisements showing Jamaicans returning from Panama with great riches. This was an effective advertising scheme but certainly didn’t represent the reality for those workers. Approximately 20,000 workers, mostly Jamaicans, would die in the first effort to build a canal. Most of these workers died from disease, as the canal was built upon tropical swamps rife with mosquitoes and with enormous rates of malaria and yellow fever. Hygiene was horrible and significantly contributed to the death rate. The West Indians only earned 10 cents a hour and less than 20 percent of those who lived lasted more than a year. Ultimately, the first effort to build the canal would fail in the face of the engineering problem and deaths, but with such great poverty throughout the Caribbean Basin, it wasn’t because the French couldn’t find workers.

When Roosevelt stole Panama from Colombia in 1903, he was determined that a canal succeed and wanted to learn from the French mistakes. Once again, the workforce was primarily West Indian. The Jamaicans remembered what had happened twenty years ago and largely refused to go, so the U.S. targeted Barbados, whose citizens would make up nearly half the total workers who labored on the Canal during its construction. To say the least, the natural conditions that had plagued workers in the 1880s hadn’t changed. Poisonous snakes were rampant. The rainy season created six months of mud. The original housing was the falling apart workers’ housing the French had built. The hygiene was still terrible. In 1906, 80 percent of the Panama Canal labor force was hospitalized for malaria. By this time, doctors were learning more about tropical disease, but continued to believe that people of African descent were uniquely capable of resisting it and so applied none of the new medicine to protect these workers. Yet with poverty still dominating the region, tens of thousands of workers from around the Caribbean and Central American flocked to Panama for work.

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The U.S. hoped to build on the French failure to build a canal through the application of newly discovered sanitary principles, even if they held on to their racialized beliefs about African workers. Sanitary engineers descended upon Panama to make the landscape livable. Draining standing water to protect against malaria, paving streets, screening windows, quarantines of the sick, preventing the fecal contamination of water, and other measures were used to protect against epidemic disease. This all built on the work of Walter Reed and other physicians to fight against avoidable death during the U.S. conquest of Cuba, which killed a lot of troops. In fact, Reed was in Panama to expand upon this work. The doctors forced the Army Corps of Engineers to give the black workers better living quarters because pneumonia was moving through the cramped housing at tremendous speed. The death rate for black workers plummeted from 18.8 per 1000 in 1906 to 2.6 in 1908 thanks to these changes. Even in the harshest conditions and with the most despised and exploited workers, basic sanitary reforms could save the lives of thousands.

Racial discrimination was also rife, with the U.S. determined to hold the segregation line in its empire as it was at home. So in its new colony of the Philippines it was strictly segregating many parts of life while doing the same in Panama. Not only were white workers paid better but they were paid in gold, while non-white workers were paid in Panamanian currency. Those workers were crowded into cramped barracks while white workers lived in conditions that would be acceptable in the US (not that this was necessarily a high standard in 1910). Mess halls for the non-white workers did not have chairs. Conditions for whites improved quickly after 1905 when a 75 percent turnover rate convinced the canal builders of the need to make whites want to be in Panama. They received increasingly luxurious housing, received cold-storage facilities to improve their diet, paved roads, baseball teams, YMCA recreational facilities, and all the other amenities that would later be associated with the company unionism of the 1920s. Black workers would eventually rise somewhat in the labor hierarchy because of the need for labor, but racial discrimination would remain stark.

Panama Canal Workers

The work was far more dangerous for the West Indians than the whites, largely because the former was in charge of the dynamiting. Dynamite was always dangerous to deal with because it could be placed incorrectly or not explode, thus creating a hazard later. The worst single workplace death incident in the building of the Canal was on December 12, 1908, when prematurely exploding dynamite killed 23 workers. There was also significant labor discontent, with black workers protesting the unfair treatment they received at the hands of the Americans and local Panamanians outraged at the division of their new country by the U.S. But the overwhelming number of poor workers meant that meaningful work stoppages never occurred.

Ultimately, the opening of the Canal would allow the products of American imperialism around the world to move around the planet at a much faster rate, connecting rubber workers in Asia with fruit workers in Colombia and miners in Montana.

I consulted David McBride, Missions for Science: U.S. Technology and Medicine in America’s African World, in the writing of this post.

This is the 154th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 7, 1978

[ 14 ] August 7, 2015 |

On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, New York, in response to the discovery of massive amounts of toxins underneath a school and near a housing development for the working class who lived in the city of Niagara Falls, near Buffalo. This event was a key moment in the American working class standing up to the environmental depredations of American industry and eventually led to the creation of Superfund, the last major environmental legislation passed to address the popularly-based environmentalism of protecting people from pollution that played a major role in American politics during the 1970s.

William T. Love wanted to build a small canal intended to connect the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers around 1900 to generate power for the community he hoped would grow there. It failed and by 1910, the partially built canal was abandoned. Industry began turning it into a waste dump. Hooker Chemical Company purchased the land in 1942 and continued using it for toxic waste. In 1953, Hooker capped the land and looked to sell it. By this time, there was 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals in the canal, including at least 12 carcinogens. The company buried the waste in barrels 20-25 feet deep and capped it with dirt, allowing grass to quickly cover it up. Hooker sold it to the school board of Niagara Falls to build the public school for a growing suburban neighborhood near the canal site. It included a caveat in the contract about what was buried there and felt itself absolved from legal liability.

This was the period of the postwar housing boom in the United States. And while the New Deal state had already led to enormous positive changes for the now upwardly mobile white working class, guaranteeing them good union contacts if they wanted them, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage, and then a variety of new benefits after World War II like federally insured home loans through the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill (so long as you were white and building in the suburbs), little progress had been made to protect the working class from the environmental impact of industrialization. At Love Canal, housing developments for working class people–both some public housing and single-family housing–began filling some of that housing need.

 

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Most of the early conservation movement was predicated on efficient resource use. The New Deal did take working people into account in its planning, but primarily on the farms with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and other responses to the Dust Bowl. The giant dam projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority also sought to improve working people’s lives through large-scale regional planning, but pollution issues were an afterthought here as well. During the 1950s, the proto-environmental movement worked on pressing for more conservation of natural resources and more public planning, while building support for new national parks and trying to bring some limits onto the dam building mania that would eventually lead to the damming of Glen Canyon and the near damming of Dinosaur National Monument. Organized labor was involved in all of this, much more so than is usually acknowledged, a project I am presently researching for a future book. The CIO had a full time staffer working specifically on conservation issues through the 1955 merger with the AFL and the UAW had a full-time atomic energy staffer. But pollution, that just wasn’t really on the radar in the 1950s. In fact, as the nation geared up for the Cold War, pollution was often seen as a problem, at least in the post-Donora Fog period, but an acceptable sacrifice for preparedness and economic growth.

What this all meant is that new housing developments and public schools could be built upon toxic waste dumps and no one would bat an eye. But by the 1970s, the American working class, building on a foundation laid by the growing environmental movement, began demanding accountability from corporations over the sacrifices they suffered. Some of that was in famous cases like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 or the Santa Barbara oil spill of the same year. In the latter case, oil workers’ unions were deeply involved in demanding the companies be held accountable for pollution. The growing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between pollution and personal health by the late 1960s helped fuel this as well. The Black Lung Associations within the United Mine Workers of America was a rejection of horrific union leadership as well as the impact of coal on their bodies. Everyday people, union members or not, began trying to understand the science behind the chemicals transforming the world and how they impacted their own bodies, such as in the anti-pesticide movement. This popular epidemiology would play a major role in Love Canal, especially as residents began to notice the horrible cancers, birth defects and other diseases that affected them, especially their children. No one really knew what was happening until heavy rains led to erosion that began uncovering the barrels of toxic waste in 1976.

Lois Gibbs was the leader of the Love Canal residents. Her son suffered from a variety of healthy problems. After reporters began reporting on what was in the barrels in 1976 and the New York State Health Department declared the site an emergency on August 2, 1978, leading to Carter’s decision a few days later. But what would happen to the residents? Gibbs took the lead here against a state not wanting to do much of anything. She continued investigating, discovering the canal itself was the site of the contamination. The growing investigations discovered dioxin among many other hazardous chemicals in the soil and drinking water of the housing. The government finally relocated 800 of the 900 families nearby and compensated them for their homes. Some still remain on the site today, or at least were there during my visit to what is a very spooky place two years ago.

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Lois Gibbs

Carter then responded by pushing for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Popularly known as Superfund, this law mandated the cleanup of the nation’s most toxic sites. At first, a polluter tax paid for the program, creating a $3.8 billion surplus for the program by 1996 and creating a very successful agency. Unfortunately, in 1995 Congress did not extend that tax, meaning the rapid depletion of that surplus and an underfunded agency, a defeat of successful government becoming ever more common in that decade. Organized labor strongly supported the creation of Superfund, both for the jobs it could create and for the protection of working people from industrial hazards. Ultimately, Superfund and the outrage Love Canal caused did help protect Americans from these hazards. Yet disparities in toxic exposure between rich and poor still exist today, and as these things go in America, they tend to fall on racial lines, with African-American and Latino communities exposed to toxicity at much higher rates than wealthier or whiter communities.

This is the 153rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 19, 1972

[ 65 ] July 19, 2015 |

On July 19, 1972, the AFL-CIO announced its decision not to endorse George McGovern for president. This astounding decision helped doom the already floundering McGovern campaign, helping to guarantee another victory for Richard Nixon. It also placed a permanent divide between non-labor progressives in the Democratic Party and the labor movement, one that still has not been fully bridged today. The story is actually more complicated than is usually stated, because in fact a lot of unions strongly supported McGovern.

For George Meany, George McGovern and his supporters were offensive on a number of levels. First, McGovern represented the Democratic Party in revolt, the hippies who protested inside the disastrous ’68 Chicago DNC. In the aftermath, with rules changes to the Democratic Party structure to make it more democratic, the power of the AFL-CIO leadership within the Party was challenged, even as there was room for more rank and file participation. But worse for Meany, McGovern didn’t support the Vietnam War. George Meany was a cold warrior’s cold warrior. He used his power as head of the federation to undermine socialism around the world and promote CIA activities, including, at the beginning of his tenure as AFL chief, supporting the overthrow of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Meany thought the Vietnam War was a righteous war. And that would make him hate McGovern.

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There was another issue at play–the endless rivalry between Meany and the old CIO unions. Walter Reuther was dead by this time, but Meany and Reuther hated each other and what each stood for. Meany was highly concerned that the new social liberalism of the Democratic Party grassroots would empower the Reutherites both in the labor movement and in society as a whole. So undermining the social democratic unions in a new grassroots oriented Democratic Party was also on his mind.

George McGovern had a reasonably strong background in labor. He wrote his first book on the Colorado coal wars that culminated in the Ludlow Massacre. But McGovern’s record was not perfect, and that included on some of the most important labor legislation of his term. First, while in Congress, he voted for the Landrum-Griffin Act. Second, in 1966, he voted against the repeal of Section 14(b) the Taft-Hartley Act. The latter especially is pretty bad. That’s the provision that allows states to enact right to work legislation. Yet in the end, COPE, which was the AFL-CIO political arm, noted that McGovern voted with labor 93.5% of the time, about the same as Ed Muskie, if less than Hubert Humphrey, who was an outstanding supporter of unions. In any case, it wasn’t a record that should have lead to the AFL-CIO ditching him once he had won the domination. One can argue, as Jefferson Cowie has in Staying Alive, that the vote to overturn 14(b) would have hurt him in South Dakota where such a vote would have no support. Possibly, although I think Cowie, is excusing McGovern’s vote here to make a point against Meany. But, to his credit, McGovern openly said that if elected, he would fight to overturn 14(b). And as Cowie also points out, Meany’s good friend Lyndon Johnson had voted for Taft-Hartley in the first place so this was all a frame job against McGovern, a fair enough charge. And in any case, McGovern’s labor record was a hell of a lot better than Richard Nixon’s.

So Meany went to work on the AFL-CIO to not endorse McGovern. That wasn’t all that hard, really. First, Meany himself supported Nixon. Second, a lot of the building trades also supported Nixon. That didn’t mean that the federation was going to endorse Nixon; far from it. But it did mean neutrality, which was a huge and very public blow to McGovern. At the AFL-CIO convention a week before the announcement, Meany worked openly to achieve this result. Even before it was made official on July 19, the newspapers were filled with articles that this was going to happen. And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.

Interestingly, McGovern’s second choice for the vice-presidential candidate, after Ted Kennedy, was United Auto Workers president Leonard Woodcock. By this time, the UAW had withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taken out by Reuther in 1968 over Vietnam and a variety of other policies. So it’s far from clear that had Woodcock accepted whether this would have done anything more than infuriate Meany. But while Woodcock was interested, there was a lot of feeling within the UAW that this was inappropriate for a union head and he declined.

There was significant discontent within the labor movement over Meany’s tactics. A lot of unions, especially the industrial unions, were furious with him over it. They thought McGovern would be great and fully supported him. The United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, AFSCME, and a lot of less powerful unions like the International Woodworkers of America fought hard for McGovern. Thirty-three unions, representing a majority of unionized workers in the United States, ultimately officially endorsed McGovern.

McGovern also visited that site of 1972 rebellion against both corporations and staid union leaders, Lordstown, Ohio, where his genial rebellion was received very positively with the young rank and file UAW members rebelling against the boredom of their jobs and what they saw as staid union leadership. But it was all too little by far and of course McGovern was crushed that fall.

Unfortunately, this complexity within the labor movement over the McGovern decision gets lost in a general narrative that between Meany’s support for Vietnam, his hatred of McGovern, and a couple of isolated incidents where “hardhats beat hippies,” labor cannot be trusted by other progressives. It’s a cherry picking narrative that is really problematic and needs severe revision. Those incidents are true enough and George Meany was terrible, not only for what he did to McGovern, but to the labor movement as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that labor itself can’t be trusted because of some actions over 40 years ago. Rather, it means that organized labor has had some terrible leadership over the years, but that the union movement has always included some forward-thinking people who have done a great deal of good for social and economic justice everywhere. And that’s should be a lot more important today that George Meany’s call in the presidential election of 1972.

This is the 152nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 15, 1959

[ 11 ] July 15, 2015 |

On July 15, 1959, the United Steelworkers of America went on strike to protect its significant victories won after World War II in running the shop floor and empowering its members to live a middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps the most underrated event in American labor history, the steel strike of 1959 touches on many of the key labor issues of the postwar period. Combining the total number workers and length of the strike, companies lost more employee hours than any other strike in American history. It showed the height of worker power in American labor history on the shop floor and through the contract. It also demonstrated how government would still bust strikes when it could, a blast from the past and a foretaste of the future. Yet it also suggested just how far unions had come in American society, given how the USWA overcame these challenges and won. Finally, this was the end of the peak of American labor militancy.

During the 1950s, the nation’s major unions mae enormous gains in wages and benefits for their members. That was particularly true of the United Auto Workers and, to a slightly lesser extent, the USWA. After Philip Murray died in 1952, David McDonald became union president. McDonald is no one’s idea of the ideal union president, particularly given his total lack of charisma. There’s a reason no one talks about him today. But he was good at forcing the companies to open up their pocketbooks in contract negotiations and forcing their hand on shop floor issues. He was irritated that the UAW generally won better contracts and worked hard to make up that gap. During the 1950s, the USWA won significant wage gains, health insurance, pensions, vacation time, and other hallmarks of the working class becoming middle class through union contracts. This often took place through strikes, including in 1946, 1949, 1952, and 1955. A 1956 strike was a major victory for the USWA (and for McDonald’s leadership), leading to big wage and benefit gains.

By 1959, the American steel industry was incredibly profitable, with very little foreign competition having developed by this time. But the companies wanted to push back. Their specific line of attack was to take control of the shop floor through eliminating a section in the union contract that had given workers significant shop floor power through the grievance process. Effectively, the USWA was using the grievance procedure to take away management prerogative to rule at the workplace. This included making it very difficult for companies to lay off workers whose jobs were replaced by automation. While the high wages and benefits rankled the companies, it was the sheer gall of employees to tell them how to run their factories that really infuriated the steel industry. And so the companies decided their target would be the shop floor clauses, with the hope that this was a first step to regaining control over their workers. Less than a month before the expiration of contract, and in the middle of ongoing negotiations, the companies offered a slight wage increase in exchange for union givebacks on scheduling, seniority, staffing, and work standards. The hope was to force the union to strike and then the companies would be willing to give up everything but shop floor control givebacks.

This strategy certainly worked at first. The USWA completely rejected the corporations’ offer. More than 500,000 workers went on strike at factories around the nation on July 15. Steel production declined 90 percent. AFL-CIO president George Meany wasn’t happy with McDonald or the USWA. Being a Cold Warrior first and class warrior second, Meany worried the strike would undermine national security. He really wasn’t in a position to distance himself too far from one of the federation’s most powerful unions, so he gave it a very mild endorsement while pressuring McDonald to settle.

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The strike convinced President Dwight Eisenhower to invoke the back to work clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act, forcing an 80-day cooling off period. This then led to the union filing suit in federal court that Taft-Hartley was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Court upheld the law by an 8-1 majority. The strikers had to return to work after 116 days on the pickets. Yet the union was able to survive this frontal assault. Kaiser Steel, which had long had been more willing to work with labor than many of the other companies, caved and took out the offending provision while offering a small wage increase. But the rest of the companies held out. Finally, Eisenhower realized the workers would strike again if the companies insisted on the workplace rule provision. He had Richard Nixon tell US Steel chairman David Blough to give up. With the government clearly stepping in on the side of continued steel production, the companies did surrender. The contract created a committee for the union and management to study the issue of shopfloor rights.

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One lesson of this strike for us is that the idea that the companies ever really accepted unionization, even at the peak of labor’s power, is a lie. There was never a period where the companies saw unions as partners. Rather, they wanted to crush them and return to the 1920s without union shops. The reason they couldn’t is worker power. Corporations had to make public statements that they accepted organized labor as a partner. These were lies but they also reflected the need to appease that worker power. The corporations may have lost the 1959 strike, but the union was not is a good position to win in the long run. Ultimately, the rise of steel imports, which some have claimed were a result of consumers looking to foreign competition in order to avoid production problems because of these frequent labor conflicts, would undermine both the industry and the USWA. The 1959 strike was the last nationwide steel strike of the era. In the 1962 contract, McDonald did give back quite a bit of shopfloor control and made it easier for companies to let workers go because of automation. He became convinced about that the steel industry was increasingly less competitive and hoped these compromises of worker power would help. They did not. But they did create a rank and file rebellion against McDonald and in 1965, he was replaced by I.W. Abel, a very rare defeat for a major union leader to that point in labor history. But the American steel industry did not reverse its long, slow decline.

Somehow, there is not a really key historical work on the ’59 strike. Hopefully this changes soon. Jack Metzgar’s autobiographical remembrance Striking Steel is however a fantastic book that you all should read.

This is the 151st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

….I forgot to insert this earlier. Dave Alvin wrote a song about the strike. His father was an organizer for the USWA during these years.

This Day in Labor History: July 9, 1948

[ 7 ] July 9, 2015 |

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On July 9, 1948, the International Labour Organization signed The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention. Unfortunately, the United States Senate never ratified it, showing the difficulty international standards, labor and otherwise, have always had in becoming law in the United States and the damage that can do for the effectiveness of these agreements. It also suggests just how limited labor rights really are in the United States compared to much of the world.

The International Labour Organization came to be in 1919 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. As the U.S. never ratified that treaty, it did not join the ILO until 1934. The ILO became significantly more important after World War II as it became closely associated with the United Nations. The UN asked the ILO to create a series of conventions immediately after the war, making the request official in 1947.

The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention is one of the 8 conventions that make up the core of international labor law. It is a very basic document. Article 1 urges all ILO states to follow the following direction:

Article 2

Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.

Article 3

1. Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.

2. The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.

Article 4

Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.

Article 5

Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to establish and join federations and confederations and any such organisation, federation or confederation shall have the right to affiliate with international organisations of workers and employers.

Article 6

The provisions of Articles 2, 3 and 4 hereof apply to federations and confederations of workers’ and employers’ organisations.

Article 7

The acquisition of legal personality by workers’ and employers’ organisations, federations and confederations shall not be made subject to conditions of such a character as to restrict the application of the provisions of Articles 2, 3 and 4 hereof.

Article 8

1. In exercising the rights provided for in this Convention workers and employers and their respective organisations, like other persons or organised collectivities, shall respect the law of the land.

2. The law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided for in this Convention.

Article 9

1. The extent to which the guarantees provided for in this Convention shall apply to the armed forces and the police shall be determined by national laws or regulations.

2. In accordance with the principle set forth in paragraph 8 of Article 19 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation the ratification of this Convention by any Member shall not be deemed to affect any existing law, award, custom or agreement in virtue of which members of the armed forces or the police enjoy any right guaranteed by this Convention.

Article 10

In this Convention the term organisation means any organisation of workers or of employers for furthering and defending the interests of workers or of employers.

Yet this was too far for the United States. In fact, the United States has only ratified two of the eight fundamental conventions. The U.S. voted for the convention within the ILO and Harry Truman sent it to the Senate for ratification in 1949. Secretary of State Dean Acheson assured the Senate that the U.S. would need no legal changes to comply with it. But 1949 was not an auspicious time for international labor conventions and the U.S. Senate, not in the aftermath of the Taft-Hartley Act and the rise of McCarthyism. John Bricker, the isolationist and anti-union senator from Ohio led the opposition, saying the ILO “wants to become the economic overseer of all humanity.” The fear of international supremacy over American law also motivated many senators to not support the ILO and other international legal frameworks. Bricker, based in no small part on his opposition to the ILO, attempted to get constitutional amendments ratified that would significantly reduce presidential power to agree to international law and in 1954 his amendment failed in the Senate by one vote after Dwight Eisenhower personally intervened against it. The Senate never ratified the convention. Conservatives have occasionally spoke out for ratification over the years, including George Schulz, Elizabeth Dole, and even Orrin Hatch. But it has never again received serious attention.

Today, 153 nations have ratified the convention. Among the 30 nations who have not ratified it are North Korea, Belarus, and the United States. It’s not a dead letter either. Last year, Somalia signed it. But not the United States. It undermines American credibility on labor issues worldwide. When the U.S. lectures about democracy, as it has since the early days of the Cold War, labor issues and the freedom of association are usually part of that critique. Yet many at home and abroad have noted that, once again, the U.S. does not practice what it preaches because it won’t pass the basic ILO conventions. It’s not as if the U.S. never passes ILO conventions. For instance, in 1999, the Senate ratified an ILO convention against particularly exploitative forms of child labor. But a serious commitment to international labor rights is of little interest to many senators, indicative of a nation that has not passed major pro-labor legislation since 1938. In fact, the US has ratified only 14 of the 188 ILO conventions.

We might ask whether such agreements make a difference. Obviously Somalia does not all of a sudden lead the world in labor rights. Nor do other signatory nations Bangladesh, Guatemala (which signed it under the leadership of Jacobo Arbenz), or Honduras. Enforcement matters and the ILO doesn’t have enforcement rights. Yet in a world of rampant global labor exploitation, often led by Americans companies operating internationally, it’s quite telling that the United States refuses to sign on to basic international labor rights. Like any international agreement, it’s strength is largely determined by the most powerful members. In the U.S., whether in international law or international agreements to stop Bangladeshis from dying in factories making clothing for Walmart, the nation’s political and business leaders refuse to commit to anything that might hold the powerful accountable.

I borrowed some of this from Steve Charnowitz’s paper, “The ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Its Future in the United States.”

This is the 150th post in this series. I guess that’s a sort of milestone. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1980

[ 11 ] July 2, 2015 |

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On July 2, 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Industrial Union Department AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must take economic considerations into account when issuing regulations. This 5-4 decision severely impacted the ability of the government to take an aggressive and preemptive stand against workplace health problems.

One thing that often gets left behind in discussions of OSHA is the health part of the agency’s mission. We focus on safety. That’s because those issues are easier to take care of. You put proper protection around a saw and it becomes a lot less dangerous. But health is a whole other issue. You have a couple of issues making it so. First is the long term impact of work upon health, which means that occupational illness can take decades to become apparent. Second is that remaking worksites so that workers aren’t exposed is a lot more expensive than the saw guard. Protecting workers from benzene, toxic gases, or dust has real challenges. And those solutions can be expensive.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 charged the federal government with protecting workers on the job from industrial hazards. OSHAct stated, “no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.” It built on the “Precautionary Principle” that was in favor during these years for dealing with workplace safety and health issues, addressing environmental uncertainties in the regulatory process before they became problems. That means in the case of workplace health trying to figure out what substances might cause health problems and preemptively eliminating them. That requires action even if scientific data doesn’t exist that suggests there is a problem, but only that there could be in theory. This principle drove the move toward environmental and workplace regulation during the 1970s in both the United States and Europe. But the political implications of this were not worked out in the legislation and Congress gave OSHA a lot of leeway in figuring out how the agency would actually operate.

OSHAct tasked the Secretary of Labor is bound to set out rules for substances like benzene, even if only one worker might become unhealthy due to exposure. It was benzene at play in Industrial Union Department. OSHA sought to regulate benzene, an carcinogen, but without really nailing down how many workers’ lives would be saved in doing so.

The American Petroleum Institute decided to fight this, even though the petroleum industry clearly had the money to protect its workers from benzene exposure (it didn’t even bother arguing otherwise). Industry had engaged in a court campaign to slow down OSHA from its beginning, challenging the agency at every turn. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO led the charge to save the Precautionary Principle, building on its significant progress in fighting for workplace health in the 1970s. OSHA finally was up and running at full capacity by the late 1970s with Jimmy Carter naming Eula Bingham as the agency’s head. Bingham, the first OSHA director who really supported the agency’s mission, sought to remake workplace environments around the nation, often with the active support of those unions who saw the agency as a way to empower workers on the shop floor to protect themselves and express workplace power at the same time. So defending the Precautionary Principle became a top OSHA priority after 1977. Bingham’s OSHA created standards for acrylonitrile, cotton dust, lead, arsenic, and benzene.

Yet for organized labor, this was very slow progress. By 1981, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had recommended 250 standards but OSHA had only implemented 21 of those. Only 4 of these standards dealt with cancer-causing agents. In my forthcoming book on timber unions, I discuss in some detail how the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) was frustrated that their concerns on a wood dust standard was not taken seriously enough by OSHA. So for corporations, these standards were outrageous and for workers, they were too little and usually too late. The Precautionary Principle was a great idea but workers in the 1970s were impatient and wanted immediate remediation of the problems of work.

In the case itself, more popularly known as the benzene case, the Court had two primary objections. First was to rule on the benzene standard itself, specifically the reduction of benzene at the workplace from 10 parts per million to 1 ppm. Second was whether OSHA needed to have a “reasonable relationship” between the costs and benefits of new standards. The Court’s majority (John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion with Burger and Stewart in the majority while Rehnquist and Powell wrote concurring opinions) decided to read Congress’ mind in interpreting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, assuming Congress couldn’t have meant to protect all workers from all health risks without cost consideration. Effectively, the Court rejected the Precautionary Principle as an unreasonable standard with which to hold business. A plurality tried to create a standard for workplace health that would activate OSHA action, rather unhelpfully noting that it should lie somewhere between a 1 x 1000 chance of illness and a 1 x 1,000,000 chance. What this did was allow the Reagan administration to effectively avoid health regulations on the job at all after it took power in 1981 by adhering to the 1 in a million standard. Thurgood Marshall wrote a blistering dissent (Brennan, White, and Blackmun making up the rest of the minority) saying the decision placed “the burden of medical uncertainty squarely on the shoulders of the American worker.”

Despite Industrial Union Department, American work is much safer and healthier today than it was decades ago. Unfortunately, a lot of the reason for that is the outsourcing of such work to Latin American and Asian nations where workers labor in health-destroying conditions making products for American consumption.

While researching this case, I ran across a celebratory essay about the decision by one Antonin Scalia in an American Enterprise Institute publication.

The roots of this week’s decision in Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency
can be seen in Industrial Union Department, as Scalia’s opinion relied heavily on the same cost-benefit analysis as that case.

I don’t think there is a single book that really deals with this case effectively, but it is mentioned in Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner’s Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, which is a very good book on the larger issue of workplace health. I also consulted Albert Matheny and Bruce Williams, “Regulation, Risk Assessment, and the Supreme Court: The Case of OSHA’s Cancer Policy,” in Law and Policy, October 1984.

This is the 149th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1922

[ 24 ] June 22, 2015 |

On June 22, 1922, a night and early morning of angry United Mine Workers of America members massacring strikebreakers and mine guards ended in Herrin, Illinois. Twenty-one people died, 19 of which were the strikebreakers and guards. This spasm of violence is a rare example of American labor history where workers killed more people than the forces of order. It’s also a sign of the desperation and anger of coal miners by the 1920s over the terrible treatment of themselves and their unions. Finally, the UMWA strategy of avoiding blame for this incident by blaming nonexistent communists for leading the mob proved a pioneering incident of a long history of American organized labor redbaiting.

In April 1922, the United Mine Workers of America, led by their new president John L. Lewis, began a nationwide coal strike. Lewis wanted to establish his union as a power in the labor movement and his members took a strong stance against strikebreakers. Herrin, Illinois was in the center of an area called Little Egypt, a bituminous mining zone in the southern part of that state.

Owners did not want to cave but some did not want to have a showdown with the UMWA either. The Southern Illinois Coal Company was one of those, as it was a union shop. Originally, it agreed that while its members would continue to mine coal, it would not ship any of it until the strike ended. The UMWA agreed with this because the mine was newly opened and heavily indebted. The miners did not want the mine to close permanently, so this somewhat odd arrangement developed. By June, the miners had dug out 60,000 tons of coal that waited for shipment.

But when coal prices rose because of the strike, William Lester, the company’s owner, could not resist selling it, even though he had earlier counseled the state to let the strike go on without interference. Realizing he would pull $250,000 in profit if he broke the agreement, he hired 50 strikebreakers and private guards for them. The private guards soon intimidated local residents and hoped to bully the UMWA out of the strike. On June 16, he shipped out sixteen rail cars filled with coal, guarded by his private police force armed with machine guns.

Tensions rose quickly. 30,000 UMWA members lived in the area and they were shocked. They held a mass meeting. Lewis sent a message to them saying the local was “justified in treating this crowd [the scabs and private police] as an outlaw organization.” The head of the Illinois National Guard came to meet with Lester to get him to ease those tensions. By this time though, the coal owner was determined to crush the union. On June 21, a group of miners attacked a train of scabs, killing its driver. Later that afternoon, another group looted a local hardware store for its guns, went to the mine and started shooting the guards. The county sheriff was a UMWA member and did nothing to prevent this.

Eventually, the guards and strikebreakers surrendered after a night of shooting. But the miners and town residents were infuriated over the lies of Lester and how the guards had treated them. The scabs were beaten and pistol-whipped by the union members. Someone evidently said they should be killed, but it’s impossible to really know what started the next stage, which was opening fire on the guards and scabs. One of the first to die was mine superintendent C.K. McDowell, who had led the guards. The killing lasted into the morning of the 22nd. Some were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to the town cemetery before being killed. By the end of it, 19 strikebreakers and guards lay dead, along with 2 UMWA members. The local police force, evidently sympathetic with their miner friends and families, never showed up.

Nationally, opinion was strongly against the UMWA. President Harding and General John Pershing demanded prosecutions against the guilty while the Illinois Chamber of Commerce put out a fundraising appeal to subsidize the case. But while an inquest took place and 214 indictments were handed down for murder, riot, and conspiracy, no one was ever convicted of any crime for the Herrin Massacre. The first jury acquitted everyone within an hour. The second acquitted seven more. The prosecution gave up. Part of this was an inability to actually prove who did what. Part of it was overwhelming hostility from the townspeople toward the investigators. They refused to assist the investigation at all and blamed it all on vague people from other towns.

Prominent in Herrin Massacre Trial

The UMWA responded to the criticism of its members’ actions by claiming the incident was led by communist insurgents that had nothing to do with the union. Union officials had previously told investigators that while they didn’t know anyone involved (which was certainly not true), there were certainly no radicals involved in the incident. But in 1923, John L. Lewis said at the UMWA convention, “in every instance where there has been any disorder or disturbance of the public peace in mining regions there has been there secretly men of this type.” The United Mine Workers Journal began publishing articles backing this up, albeit without actual evidence. One said, “in fact, the miners’ union was in no manner responsible for what took place. This revolting, inexcusable, terrible crime was fomented, promoted, and caused solely by the Communists.” The following year, it issued an pamphlet titled “Attempts by Communists to Seize the Labor Movement” to take this campaign to a wider audience. The coal operators rejected this of course, but the UMWA did find out how effective anticommunist politics could be for a labor union. Interestingly, the UMWA did actually uncover claims by communists that they were involved in Little Egypt, but historians have rejected this, saying there is no evidence of any meaningful communist organizing in southern Illinois during the 1920s. That the Communist Party would take credit for its own opportunistic reasons served Lewis’ purpose like nothing else.

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Ultimately, the United Mine Workers came out of the Herrin Massacre completely unscathed as an organization. Yet the 1920s ultimately would prove disastrous for the UMWA and it would not be until the Roosevelt administration that it would rise to become the power in the labor movement it is known as in the mid-twentieth century.

I borrowed from Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars in the writing of this post.

This is the 148th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 18, 1954

[ 29 ] June 18, 2015 |

On June 18, 1954, the CIA-trained coup against democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz began, an event that crushed Guatemalan labor, happened with the complicity of the American labor movement, and significantly destabilized Guatemala, helping to create the violence that afflicts that nation and the large-scale undocumented migration to the United States today.

Born in 1913, Jacobo Árbenz became a top military officer under the leadership of the United Fruit (and thus U.S.) supported dictator Jorge Ubico. Árbenz was forced to escort chain-gangs of prisoners, which disgusted and radicalized him. In 1944, he assisted in a coup against Ubico and was offered the position of Minister of Defense from the democratically elected new president of the nation, Juan José Arévalo. After Arévalo died in 1950, Árbenz won the election to replace him.

United Fruit had a significant presence in Guatemala from the first decade of the twentieth century, using its power over that poor nation to suppress any labor activity on its banana plantations. For example, in 1923, UFCO had the strong support of the current military dictatorship to violently repress a strike; said dictatorship had come to power with the company’s support after a government opposed its interests. In 1928, Guatemala nearly went to war with Honduras on UFCO’s orders over a disputed region on the Honduran border, with the latter nation doing the bidding of UFCO rival Cuyamel Fruit. By the mid-1940s, Guatemala had around one-fourth of the company’s Latin American operations. United Fruit had been major supporters of Ubico, who effectively followed its orders. Ubico and other presidents gave significant concessions to United Fruit, robbing the nation of both its land and tax revenues that could have built infrastructure and social programs for the nation’s poor. In fact, Ubico actually asked UFCO to lower its wages to 50 cents a day as to not cause other employers to have to pay workers more. You can guess UFCO’s response to that request.

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United Fruit plantation in Central America

Árbenz’s primary goal was modernizing Guatemala. To do so, he needed to wrest control of his nation’s future from the single corporation that controlled it: United Fruit. So Árbenz made his number one priority land reform, which through much of Latin American history has been the major goal of left-leaning movements against the church, conservatives, and outside corporations. He issued Decree 900, giving the government the right to expropriate unused land from agricultural corporations, compensating the owners. That included United Fruit, which had a lot of land now out of production thanks to banana monocultures leading to diseases that kill trees. During the 18 months of the program’s existence, 1.5 million acres were distributed to 100,000 families.

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Jacobo Árbenz

Árbenz had significant support from labor unions in Guatemala for his reforms. He had started forging links to the Guatemalan labor movement early in his rise. The Guatemalan labor movement had significant ties to the Communist Party and the CP supported Árbenz, thus helping to deliver that rank and file labor support. With United Fruit and conservative elements of the Guatemalan industry shouting that Árbenz was a communist, even though he was just a nationalist, he embraced the idea of it since the policies the U.S. supported in his nation were so awful that being a communist could not be all bad.

United Fruit had urged the U.S. to overthrow what it claimed were communist-led governments in Guatemala going back to 1945. Those calls were heard when the Eisenhower administration took power in 1953. United Fruit had very close connections to Eisenhower’s foreign policy team, especially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA head Allen Dulles. The Dulles brothers had both done legal work for United Fruit before joining the administration. They and Eisenhower were aggressive about using the CIA to undermine left-wing movements in the developing world and quickly moved to eliminate Arbenz. The CIA went so far as to personally select his replacement, Carlos Castillo Armas. The initial CIA-funded invasion was pathetic and made little impact, but Árbenz was afraid that an overwhelming victory over these forces would provoke direct American action. That happened anyway through airpower and the use of napalm against ships exporting goods out of the nation. By June 27, the CIA won through creating a crisis of confidence against Árbenz in the military, who forced him to resign.

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Castllo Armas entering Guatemala City. CIA agent at wheel.

Always vociferously anti-communist at home, the American Federation Labor happily worked with the CIA during the Cold War to undermine left-leaning labor unions in the developing world and foster politically conservative unionism that would promote the goals of American foreign policy. Shortly before the coup, the AFL’s Latin American Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (ORIT) established an organization in Mexico called Guatemalan Workers in Exile. Effectively, it was an operation to create a right-wing labor movement for the post-coup government. Ten days after the coup, Serafino Romualdi, the AFL’s ambassador to Latin America, was in Guatemala City with the figurehead of ORIT and the leader of the right-wing labor movement in Batista’s Cuba to take over the former Guatemalan trade union building and reestablish the labor movement on lines friendly to the U.S. government and United Fruit. This attempt to create a moderate anti-communist trade union that would be a respected member of a U.S.-friendly government failed completely as the new military regime didn’t care less about the roots of unions and sought to crush all organized labor.

Guatemala suffered under decades of military dictatorships supported by the United States and its corporations, culminating in the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, the Reagan supported military leader in the early 1980s who engaged in a genocidal campaign against the nation’s indigenous population, defining them as communists for being indigenous.

For years, Árbenz floated around Europe, trying to find a place to live. The CIA muscled western European nations to deny him. The Czechs didn’t want him because they were nervous he would seek financial remuneration for the shoddy guns they sold him before the coup. The Soviets took him for awhile but he wanted to return to Latin America. He eventually ended up in Cuba after the Revolution. Later he moved to Mexico. Over all this time, he sunk into desperation and alcoholism before drowning in a bathtub in 1971.

Today, Guatemala is one of the world’s most violent and dangerous nations thanks in no small part to the destabilization caused in 1954. The U.S. continues to engage in a post-colonial relationship with Guatemala and its workers, including the exploitation of the poor by apparel industry sweatshops who will just jump 20 miles to Honduras or El Salvador if the nation enforces labor regulations or allows its workers to form strong unions. Repression of labor has been the hallmark of Guatemala governments in the 21st century.

I borrowed from Deborah Levenson-Estrada, Trade Unionists Against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-85 and Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer, and John Coatsworth, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala in writing this post.

This is the 147th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 15, 1990

[ 21 ] June 15, 2015 |

On June 15, 1990, 400 striking janitors in Los Angeles who had organized with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and were trying to secure a contract with International Service Systems (ISS), who had the contract to clean many of the city’s downtown office buildings, were beaten by police as they attempted to cross a street. Around 90 strikers were wounded and 38 were arrested. This event galvanized support for the janitors and is an important event both in the history of Latino labor in the United States and the growth of SEIU into arguably the most powerful union in the United States during the early 21st century.

In 1983, the average wage for a janitor in Los Angeles surpassed $7 an hour and included health insurance. By 1986, that had plummeted to $4.50 and insurance had disappeared. This happened through a phenomena we are familiar with today–instead of employing their own janitors, building owners began contracting the work out to an outside company that put enormous downward pressure on wages and working conditions. These companies largely hired undocumented workers, especially from Central America, that they could control and who had little power to resist. Once again, we see how contracting out work so often leads to downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

What was happening in Los Angeles ravaged SEIU locals around the country. After a 1985 lockout in Pittsburgh, the union looked for a new campaign to fight back. SEIU sought to reverse these losses in 1987 with the Justice for Janitors campaign. The plan, developed primarily by Stephen Lerner, targeted building owners rather than contractors as they held the real power and could roll the higher costs of treating workers decently into the contract as opposed to a contractor then losing out to a non-union agency if the campaign targeted them. The campaign had early successes in Denver and Atlanta before moving on to the tougher, larger cities of Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

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It was in Los Angeles that the movement achieved its greatest victories. Local 339 in that city became the center of the national campaign in 1990. Some of this came from the fact that the Central American workers who made up the local’s core already knew social struggle. These were refugees from the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. They were, as a whole, less scared of civil disobedience than native-born workers, despite their undocumented legal status. They began following building owners to their nice restaurants and country club and heckling them, while using leaflets and demonstrations to get the buildings’ tenants to place pressure on the owners to settle the issue. This strategy also avoided the long and often futile process of going through a union election and dealing with the National Labor Relations Board. Given how long such a process takes and how that system has become co-opted by employers, it made sense to pressure employers to accept a union without an election. Effectively, the Justice for Janitors campaign borrowed many of the tactics of the civil rights movement to build public sympathy rather than the classic tactics of the labor movement.

Perhaps the most aggressive building owners and contractors were at Century City, a sizable office complex where International Service Systems had the contract. With the building owner and ISS unwilling to deal, the union led the janitors on a strike in May 1990. It was during these protests, on June 15, that the police attacked the janitors. They did so after shouting orders to disperse only in English with a group of workers who were largely monolingual in Spanish. As the office workers looked on in horror from the buildings, the police attacked the strikers for two hours. They used their riot batons to beat the workers at the front of the line, then engaged in a flanking action that trapped the strikers in a parking garage. When the workers tried to flee, they were arrested for failure to disperse. 90 workers were injured, 19 seriously. One suffered a fractured skull. One pregnant worker miscarried her baby.

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This was an overwhelming error for the police, building owners, and ISS. Public sympathy overwhelmingly supported the janitors after the violence. The mayor of Los Angeles had mostly stayed out of it until this point, but after the beatings, he spoke out for the union. It seemed to many that the police wanted to teach these immigrants a lesson for causing problems. SEIU sued the LAPD for civil rights violations, leading to a $2.35 million settlement in 1993. The building owner finally caved and placed pressure on the contractor to settle. This led to the establishment of a master contract in Los Angeles in 1991.

This of course did not transform the lives of janitors overnight. Other cities, especially Washington, saw even more intransigent resistance than Los Angeles. To coordinate these national campaigns, critics noted how SEIU leadership rode roughshod over locals who refused to follow the international’s strategy. They claimed the aggressive actions against these locals undermined union democracy, while the practice merging small locals into larger state and region wide locals that could have greater collective political power but which isolated the former officials of those locals who didn’t have the power to win office in the larger organizations. I have to admit that I don’t have all that much sympathy for those arguments, as the need to get lame locals to actually do something may supersede idealized union democracy and the benefits of concentrating worker power into large locals has real political advantages. I know many disagree with me on this point and I guess it depends on what one wants out of the labor movement.

The campaign was one of the greatest victories for organized labor in the era and announced SEIU’s arrival on the national labor scene. By 2000, the Justice for Janitors had organized janitors around the country with companies seeking to sign new contracts in order to stave off more trouble. By 2005, SEIU represented 70 percent of janitors in 23 of the nation’s 50 largest cities. For the 21st century, that’s impressive density, especially for private sector work.

The campaign is also notable for representing the new inclusion of Latinos in the labor movement. For most of organized labor’s history, unions had been hostile to immigration, feeling that the competition undermined their wages and ability to win contracts. Sometimes this could get quite ugly, such as the Chinese Workingmen’s Party role in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the American Federation of Labor’s active support of immigration restriction in the 1920s. But the decline of immigration helped undermine the labor movement as immigrants have consistently provided new ideas and propensity for direct action to the movement, often in opposition to the relatively conservative unionism of native-born Americans. SEIU’s open embrace of immigrants recognized that Latinos were likely to be very good unionists, in part because of traditions of social justice they experienced in their home nations. Ever since 1990, immigrants have played a larger role in the labor movement, especially with the last industrial-style unions seeking to hold on against the corporate onslaught against unions, such as SEIU and UNITE-HERE.

SEIU has named June 15 Justice for Janitors Day to commemorate the event.

This is the 146th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 1, 1906

[ 12 ] June 1, 2015 |

On June 1, 1906, copper miners in the city of Cananea, Sonora, a few miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, went on strike against the American companies dominating the mines and Porfirian Mexico. Widely seen as one of the most important events influencing the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Cananea strike is also one of the most important events in Mexican labor history.

In the early twentieth century, the U.S.-Mexico border was quite fluid for both workers and capital. Mining companies like Phelps-Dodge had major investments on both sides of the border. The government of Porfirio Díaz committed itself to bringing in foreign capital as part of its modernization plans that included reshaping everything about Mexico to look as European as possible. In the north, this meant granting enormous economic concessions to American mineral and cattle companies.

On the U.S. side of the border, mining operations required Mexican labor. The Southwest was lightly populated and while some Italian and Greek immigrants made it all the way to Arizona and Colorado to work in the mines, for the most part, the mine operators recruited Mexican labor. On both sides of the border, the mines operated with American capital and Mexican workers. As was typical of mine labor throughout the United States and especially mine labor that was not white, the conditions and pay for Mexican workers were very bad. Mexican miners engaged in a tough 1903 strike against Phelps-Dodge at the Clifton-Morenci mines in southern Arizona and that strike was well known throughout the region, helping to create an atmosphere of general resistance to the racist treatment by the mining companies.

After 1900, overall resistance to the Diaz regime grew. Many dissidents moved to the United States, usually just over the border. This allowed them to influence the border workers. The most influential group was the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) headed by the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. Magón, along with his brother Enrique, were dissidents who had served time in Díaz’s prisons. They moved to San Antonio and then St. Louis, where they sent followers back to the border. Clifton and the nearby town of Douglas was the center of this agitation and the PLM began to influence workers on both sides of the border.

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Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón

This was certainly true in Cananea, about 25 miles south of the border. The town and everything for ten square miles around was owned by Bill Greene and his Consolidated Copper. There was a lot of racial tension on the border early that year, with significant anti-American sentiment and a race riot at a baseball game where four Mexicans were killed. Greene has received enormous concessions from Diaz, including 350,000 acres of timber, 37,000 acres of mineral lands, and thirty miles of railroad. The Cananea Mine employed 5360 Mexicans and 2300 foreigners, primarily American managers and executives. On May 31, two foremen at one mine told workers they would start having to work on piecework rather than salary.

The next morning, June 1, 1906, the miners in Cananea walked off the job. They demanded the 8-hour day, a minimum wage of five pesos per day, a merit system to eliminate hiring discrimination, and the promotion of Mexicans into some management positions. Green armed his American workers. The strikers marched to the copper mine’s lumberyard where two Americans fired on them. This enraged the workers, who burned the lumberyard and killed both their attackers and another American. The governor of Sonora then invited the U.S. Army to come into Sonora. The Mexican army arrived about the same time, arrested about 100 miners, and sent dozens to prison. The strike was completely suppressed within two days.

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The Cananea strikers

This event was a loss for the workers, but it had long-standing reverberations. It was the first moment that a widespread rebellion against American domination of the region took place and it showed that workers were ready to take direct action against the American corporate domination of their lives. The PLM had hoped this strike would be the first step in a revolutionary movement against Díaz and while it wasn’t quite that, it was very important. The PLM and other radicals built on this event and workers themselves clearly moved to the left, which may have had something to do with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was always active in mining and had relative success organizing workers on the border. The use of U.S. troops also rankled in Mexico. The Flores Magón brothers began working with the IWW and bringing the organization’s syndicalist ideology to Mexican workers. Over the next four years, repeated actions along the border, with Mexican workers increasingly involved in both labor and revolutionary groups and angry over the systematic racism and despoliation of their nation by Americans, which by no means improved after 1906, laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican and American governments worked together on both sides of the border to repress these movements, including American agents harassing Mexican political refugees when the Diaz government brought them to American attention. By by 1910, the Mexican workers of the north were ready to play an important role in what would become the Mexican Revolution. Cananea strike leaders Manuel Dieguez and Esteban Baca Calderón became revolutionary leaders as well.

Cananea

During the strike, with burning buildings in background.

As the Revolution wound down, the new government produced the Mexican Constitution in 1917. That document reflected the concerns of Mexican workers, especially those of El Norte. Specifically, Article 27 makes it illegal for foreign citizens to own land within 100 miles of the nation’s borders, albeit with plenty of caveats. This specifically reflected how corporations like Phelps-Dodge and Consolidated Copper had made northern Mexico their personal fiefdoms and how workers demanded this never happen again. The Mexican government would eventually turn its back on the need to help the nation’s poor, but in its early decades, the PRI’s actions did reflect the influence of the Mexican working class on the revolution.

Ricardo Flores Magón never returned to Mexico. He was caught up in the Wilson administration’s World War I repression of radicals. He died in Leavenworth prison, probably of untreated diabetes, in 1922.

I consulted Rodolfo F. Acuña, Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933 in the writing of this post.

This is the 145th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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