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This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1977

[ 10 ] March 28, 2015 |

On March 28, 1977, AFSCME Local 1644, a union primarily made of African-American sanitation workers, went on strike in Atlanta, hoping to force mayor Maynard Jackson to grant them a much needed pay raise. Jackson’s anti-union positions would deeply disappoint organized labor who believed that labor rights were civil rights. It would also demonstrated the willingness of many civil rights leaders to turn their backs on the needs of the poorest workers when they reached positions of authority. Finally, the failure of this strike showed that just electing supposedly progressive people to positions for power would not be a panacea for working class people.

The background for the AFSCME action in Atlanta goes back to its successful 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike that served as the background for the assassination of Martin Luther King. Building on that, AFSCME continued trying to organize black workers in southern cities. Labor rights were civil rights and the martyrdom of King while supporting their cause was proof enough of this to black public workers around the South. The union became heavily involved in southern urban politics, seeking to elect blacks to power that would, presumably, use that power to increase the wages and working conditions of black workers.

The AFSCME-affiliated sanitation workers in Atlanta worked hard to elect who they thought was one of their own to the mayor. The Maynard Jackson campaign was an extension of the labor rights as civil rights theme. Jackson became a force in Atlanta politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jackson was the first black attorney to work for the National Labor Relations Board office in Atlanta. As vice-mayor Jackson supported organized labor, breaking with mayor Sam Massell over a 1970 sanitation strike. In 1973, Jackson was elected mayor and it was a moment of rejoicing for African-Americans across the United States, as the rise of black political power seemed a confirmation of the civil rights movement, especially in the South. At first, Jackson did work to fight for the rights of the black poor, firing the racist white police chief in 1974. But the racial tensions this built and Jackson’s desire to be reelected in difficult economic times began to win out over racial and class equality concerns.

To say the least, Jackson did not repay the sanitation workers for their help. In his first three years as mayor, the workers received no raises and salaries remained stuck at an average of $7500 a year ($29,000 today). This placed a full-time worker supporting a family of four below the poverty line. Worker anger began to grow. Jackson would not give any ground. Instead, he embraced the city’s powerful white business community. They were concerned about the growing inflation of the 1970s and so Jackson decided to alleviate their concerns and drive workers deeper into poverty without raises to match that inflation. The workers demanded a 50-cent an hour raise. He refused to negotiate with AFSCME on the pay raises. Instead, Jackson became an austerity politician, stating “There will no deficit while I am mayor.” Jackson wouldn’t even return AFSCME’s phone calls by 1975. Over the next two years, smaller labor actions began popping up such as a one day strike in July 1976 and a wildcat strike in February 1977.

Finally, on March 28, 1977, the workers marched to City Hall to demand a meeting with Jackson. While Jackson did come out, he completely dismissed them. They were shocked that their own man, a hero of the civil rights movement, would treat them so shabbily. Basically there was no meaningful difference between Jackson and the white mayors of the past when it came to their work. At this point, the workers decided to strike. The next morning, 1300 workers went on strike.

Jackson quickly moved to isolate the workers by claiming AFSCME was attacking black political power. AFSCME president Jerry Wurf, the man who brought Martin Luther King into Memphis, was called a “racist manipulator” for for wanting to see black political power in Atlanta die, which really meant siding with the black workers over the black mayor. This is particularly ironic since the 1977 strike started without Wurf’s knowledge. It came completely from the rank and file and local staffers angry over Jackson’s betrayal. Jackson accused AFSCME of seeking to eliminate black political leadership throughout the South, saying “I see myself as only the first domino in [labor’s] Southern domino theory. If organized labor makes the move on black political leadership, I think it’s going to have severe consequences for labor Southwise, particularly AFSCME.” This was a cynical attempt to undermine community support for the strikers, an open race-baiting move by Jackson.

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Meeting between Maynard Jackson and striking workers

Jackson then fired all the striking workers on April 2. The black middle class fully supported this move. Sadly, so did the civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Sr. said Jackson should “fire the hell” out of the sanitation workers. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also came out against the strikers. James Farmer was an important exception to this, appearing at rallies with AFSCME. The union also took out advertisements in the New York Times to highlight Jackson’s betrayal.

It didn’t work. Jackson simply crushed the union. By the end of April, half of the strikers had already given up and applied to get their old jobs back. Leamon Hood, the AFSCME staffer in charge of the strike, recommended on April 26 that workers end the strike. AFSCME itself cut off funding for the strike on April 29. Over the next year, the workers who wanted their jobs back did eventually return to work. Somewhat ironically, the most militant workers accused Hood and Wurf of selling out but there was simply no way to win this strike in the face of overwhelming opposition from the heroes of the civil rights movement.

In the end, the strike showed that electing supposedly progressive leadership was not a panacea for worker power. Electing the right politicians is a necessary part of what unions have to do to get their members’ better lives, but it is often difficult to hold them to their promises, even when they come out of something as transformative as the civil rights movement.

I relied on Joseph McCartin, “Managing Discontent: The Life and Career of Leamon Hood, Black Public Employee Union Activist,” in Eric Arnesen, ed., The Black Worker: A Reader and Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America to write this post.

This is the 140th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 25, 1947

[ 9 ] March 25, 2015 |

On March 25, 1947, the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine in Centralia, Illinois exploded, killing 111 workers. This disaster, caused by extremely unsafe working conditions from employers utterly indifferent to the lives of their workers, helped move forward, however slowly, the nation’s push toward safer working conditions in coal mines.

In the Centralia No. 5 mine, workers labored up to 3 miles underground. In the late afternoon of March 25, coal dust exploded. Fire flashed through the tunnels. Poison gas that builds up after a mine explosion, known as afterdamp, began accumulating in the mine, severely threatening the lives of those not killed in the explosion and fire. 142 men were in the mine. 65 died from burns and 45 by afterdamp. An additional individual died of afterdamp in the hospital. Only 31 miners survived. As the surviving workers began succumbing to the gas, they scratched final goodbyes to loved ones on the mine walls. One scribbled “”Dear wife, Goodbye. Forgive me. Take care of all the children.” Sad stuff.

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Bringing out the dead in Centralia

In the six months prior to the explosion, the Centralia mine had undergone two inspections by federal mine inspectors and both had found serious violations of the Federal Mine Safety Code. The second investigation took place a mere five days before the explosion. But the enforcement power of the government was weak and nothing was done. Centralia did have to pay small fines, but the company decided it was a good value to just pay the fines rather than fix the safety in the mines. A year before the explosion, UMWA Local 52 recording secretary William Rowenkampf wrote to Illinois governor Dwight Green, asking him to get involved in the unsafe conditions at the Centralia mine. He wrote:

This is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the department of mines and minerals enforce the laws at the No. 5 of the Centralia Coal Co. before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Green ignored the request.

United Mine Workers of America president John Lewis made workplace health and safety a major issue for his union as World War II concluded. In 1946, Lewis led over 300,000 workers on strike in demand for an employer-paid health plan. President Harry Truman responded by seizing the mines and Lewis began negotiating with Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug (Interior has regulatory responsibility for most mines) instead of the employers. The Krug-Lewis Accord was signed in May 1946 and established a jointly operated health plan between the UMWA and the government funded by a five cent tax per ton of coal. However, the operators resented both federal intervention and the entire agreement and Krug did little to enforce it either. The miners continued to seethe over the lack of safety and health on the job.

Lewis announced a six-day national walkout after the mine disaster, using the union’s right to call memorial days to remember dead comrades. Lewis was furious. He attacked Krug for failing to enforce existing mine safety legislation. He stated, “The killing must stop. Coal is heavily saturated with the blood of too many brave men and the tears of too many widows and orphans.” Lewis demanded that President Truman fire Krug. Truman refused (and it’s not like Lewis had that many friends in the highest reaches of the Democratic Party in 1947 anyway). Rather, Truman and his advisers believed that Lewis called the walkout as a way around an injunction against a previously planned strike to begin April 1. However, this did elicit a response from the Truman administration. Krug ordered 518 mines to remain closed for federal inspection even after the UMWA walkout ended.

Unlike the many mine disasters of the past, this one got the attention of Congress. Both the House and Senate conducted hearings on mine safety. Lewis furiously attacked Krug for failing to enforce the heath plan of the previous year. He testified:

If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die.

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John L. Lewis testifying before Congress, 1947

Congress began to move toward a more permanent regime of federal mine inspection, which was extremely weak in 1947. The House and Senate passed a joint resolution urging the Bureau of Mines to continue inspecting mines for safety and passing along any found violations to the respective state regulatory agencies. But of course state regulations are almost always extremely pro-business and the reporting to the states provision demonstrates just how weak the federal presence was in workplace safety as late as 1947. Congress also passed Public Law 328, which asked the states to comply with federal mining regulations. Yes, asked them. There was no enforcement. Of the 26 coal mining states, 17 reported fully, 2 partially, and 7 not at all. Even Congress wasn’t really that serious here; the Senate’s appropriation for the investigation of the disaster was all of $5000. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Mine Safety admitted that only 2 mines in the entire nation actually were safe for workers.

Eventually, in 1952, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act passed which for the first time gave federal mine inspectors the ability to shut down mines in extremely dangerous conditions. Yet this still remained a relatively weak law and it would not be until 1969 and miners’ own activism against the indifference of their union leadership at that time before a strong act would pass to protect them on the job. Even today, the health and safety of coal miners is treated with contempt by companies and indifference by the regulatory agencies of the government.

To remember the Centralia mine victims, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Dying Miner.”

Some of this material is borrowed from James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry. See also Daniel Curran, Dead Laws for Dead Men: The Politics of Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Legislation. The letter from the UMWA to the Illinois governor is found in Joe Allen, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.

This is the 139th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 22, 1914

[ 18 ] March 22, 2015 |

On March 22, 1914, Mary “Mother” Jones was arrested on a train in southern Colorado for her work in fighting for the coal miners on strike that area. This was her second arrest in this conflict, as she had previously been detained by the state militia in Trinidad and then sent to Denver. Upon release in Denver, she immediately went back to the coal fields, daring the mine owners and their bought police forces to arrest her again. Her work here was typical of the sacrifices this iconic organizer made in the second half of her life as she fought for the miners so badly exploited in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

Mother Jones is one of the most fascinating characters in American history. An Irish housewife who had little connection to political activism for much of her adult life, she emerged in middle age as a fiery agitator after her husband and all four of children died of yellow fever in Memphis and her dress shop burned in the Chicago fire of 1871. She quickly became the voice of the mineworkers, especially in the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She bridged generations of activism, being extremely close friends with Terence Powderly while also hailing the rise of the United Mine Workers and radical activists that Powderly could barely understand at his peak in the 1880s. She said she was much older than she actually was, which had both rhetorical powers and helped cement her in our historical memory, as she claimed to be 100 years old the year she died when she was probably 93.

By 1897, she was known as Mother Jones, wearing out of style Victorian black dresses and using the mantle of motherhood as central to her organizing prowess. Calling her “mother” both established her as a maternalistic figure among the miners but also centered her emphasis on childhood and motherhood in organizing. For instance, she opposed women’s suffrage and ultimately believed that women should be taking care of their children rather than getting involved in politics. Her own life story made this stance not hypocritical. She also used children in her organizing, including the 1903 Children’s Crusade, a march of miners’ children from Pennsylvania to Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York where the children carried signs reading, “We want to go to School and not the mines.” Roosevelt refused to meet with them. She worked for the UMWA but attended the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of World in 1905 and worked as an organizer for the Socialist Party in the late 1900s, returning to the UMWA as a paid organizer in 1911.

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Though all of these actions, Mother Jones became known as “the most dangerous woman in America,” a title given to her by a district attorney in West Virginia by the name of Reese Blizzard. During a 1902 trial where she was charged with ignoring injunctions against miners’ union meetings (1st Amendment in the coal fields indeed!), Blizzard pointed at her, saying “There sits the most dangerous woman in America. She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.” That wasn’t true and served the interests of the owners to say that their employees were actually good people but stupid and easily led astray by outside agitators, instead of admitting their employees had a bloody good reason to go on strike. Anyway, the nickname stuck and this attitude from employers was something Jones reveled in.

In the fall of 1913, a 76 year old Mother Jones traveled to Colorado to participate in mine workers’ organizing in the coal fields in the southern part of that state. Conditions in the coal fields were all too typical of the time: complete industry control over a workforce that was polyglot and desperate. Working conditions were horribly dangerous. Between 1884 and 1912, 1708 workers died in Colorado coal mines (out of a total of over 42,000 nationwide). Companies controlled not only the mines but housing, stores, and education. Union organizing was met with brutality and murder. Effectively, the coal companies controlled workers’ lives in Colorado as they did in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. These were Mother Jones’ people.

Jones’ presence was not welcomed by the mine companies. She was thrown off company property several times. She was arrested twice. After the first arrest, she was placed in a comfortable hospital for a month. After all, she was an elderly woman and a bit harder to crack the whip on than the miners themselves. But on March 23, 1914, she was arrested again. This time, the companies were less kind. They threw her into the Huerfano County jail in Walsenburg. This was no nice hospital. She was forced to spend 23 days in the jail.

The United Mine Workers tried to capitalize on Jones’ arrest. They issued a pamphlet describing (and perhaps exaggerating a bit) the conditions this old woman had to suffer through as she lived her faith of defending the miners. The pamphlet discussed the filthy conditions, the rats in the cell, the snow pouring in a broken window, a guard jabbing her with a bayonet. On the other hand, the mine owners and their friends accused Mother Jones of having been a prostitute in a Denver brothel in 1904 and said her support for Coxey’s Army had consisted of procuring women for sex. On both sides, Mother Jones elicited strong opinions.

After her second release, Mother Jones went to Washington, DC to testify on the conditions in the coal country. A few days later, the Colorado coal wars would see their most violent incident, with the Ludlow Massacre. Between Ludlow and the aftermath when enraged miners went on a rampage against anyone associated with the coal companies, up to 200 people died in this strike, possibly the most deadly in American history. John D. Rockefeller Jr. agreed to meet with her about the conditions of the miners as part of his public relations effort when we was savagely attacked for his role at Ludlow.

Mary Jones died in 1930. Earlier that year, on the day she turned 100, Mother Jones was filmed with sound about workers’ rights.

The key book on Mother Jones is Elliott Gorn’s The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Read it. The most important history of the Colorado coal wars is Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Read it too.

This is the 138th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 18, 1871

[ 10 ] March 18, 2015 |

On March 18, 1871, the French military attacked the worker movement in Paris with the aim of retaking the city for the nation’s government. Workers foiled the military’s invasion and ten days later they formed the Paris Commune. This socialist workers movement controlled Paris for two months and was the first revolutionary challenge to European government in the industrial age (which 1789 really was not in France). It would start the long tradition of revolutionary movements based upon working-class radicalism that would help to define the next century around the world.

The Paris Commune came about as a result of political crisis in France. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 led to embarrassing losses for the French and Napoleon III. This led to the French abolishing their monarchy and replacing it with the Third Republic. The workers of Paris, already radicalized and far to the left of the rest of France, feared that the new government would not truly embrace republicanism and instead just be another form of oligarchic rule by the powerful. They also held the creation of this kind of order contemptible because they had already organized themselves to defend the city against the Germans with little help from the elite. Workers began establishing their own government as a challenge to the new national government. Urban French workers, especially in Paris, had grown increasingly radicalized over the nineteenth century. Socialism was much more accepted in the French working class than in the United States and the French workers were working out its tenets at the same time Karl Marx and others was figuring out its theoretical basis.

Of course, the Third Republic was not going to let a bunch of radical workers supersede its power. When the army came into Paris, the national guard refused to hand over their weapons. The government was forced to flee to Versailles. Obviously this situation was untenable but in the mean time, things got very interesting in Paris. The workers tried to run an alternative government. Louis-Auguste Blanqui, an early communist, headed this government. It abolished conscription and created a citizens’ army, which also granted the right to bear arms to all citizens. It reestablished the calendar of the French Revolution, building connections with that earlier revolutionary movement. Interest payments on debt were suspended. It issued a lot of radical statements, especially empowering radical women to play a central role in the struggle. Paule Mink (born Paulina Mekarska) had a long history of radicalism in Paris, including publishing anti-Napoleon III newspapers. When the commune began, Mink jumped into the fray to demand gender equality, arguing that all workers deserved deliverance from the oppression they faced but that was especially true of women who faced both gender and class oppression. She set up an ambulance service during the commune and also traveled to other cities around France to try and spur the movement there. One leading radical woman stated, “The social revolution will not be realized until women are equal to men. Until then, you have only the appearance of revolution.”

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But the Paris Commune also struggled to consolidate power and alienated most of the remaining power structure from the old Paris. It also angered most of the rest of France. Having limited connections with workers outside of Paris and almost none the still largely rural peasantry that made up much of France, this was a urban-based revolution without consent from the majority of the theoretically governed. The communards also lacked any real way to even spread their message to the provinces, relying on vague hopes of working-class revolt than a meaningful plan.

The Commune was also incredibly fractured ideologically. Some called themselves Jacobins and directly connected themselves to radicals of old. Followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wanted a loose federation of communes. Blanqui’s communists wanted to use violence to create a revolutionary state. If anything held them together, it was anti-clericalism. All church property in Paris was confiscated by the revolutionary government. The Commune captured the Archbishop of Paris and executed him on May 24.

The French government was not going to tolerate this radicalism in its capital. Finally, the army marched from Versailles. But retaking the city would be very difficult. On April 2, troops started the attack but the communards held out for several weeks. The revolutionaries had built 600 barricades around the city that had to be cleaned out one by one. The French army entered Paris on May 21 and crushed the movement by May 28. The small commune movements in other French cities were also decimated by this time. Along the way, much of Paris burned, some claim by the radical feminists of the Commune although it seems more likely that most of the fires originated from the general chaos of a civil war. The French army claimed about 887 dead; estimates of Parisian citizens killed usually revolve around 20,000, although some recent totals suggest more like 10,000. At the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the army lined up and executed 147 Commune members. About 6000 communards fled as the fighting doomed their experiment, fleeing to surrounding nations.

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Paris Commune barricade after its capture by the French army.

In the United States, the Paris Commune itself did not have a major impact on American workers, but scared the capitalists, police, politicians, and journalists of the nation as it entered the Gilded Age. During the next decade, any workers’ movement in the U.S. was darkly compared to the Paris Commune as the future if these workers continued to organize. For example, the response to the unemployed organizing in New York’s Tompkins Square Park was completely disproportional with the threat these workers posed. Only wanting to march to the meet with the mayor, they were beaten by the cops while journalists screamed about the Paris Commune coming to the United States. To put this into perspective, the head of this movement was Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, even at its founding one of the most conservative unions in the United States. One can argue, as the sociologist Kim Voss has, that what placed the United States on a more anti-union path than western Europe was not anything about the American character and instead was about American employers busting heads and organizing themselves into anti-union organizations much sooner than in Britain or France. How they took the smallest American workers movement, compared it to the Paris Commune, and called for its violence repressions suggests evidence for the thesis.

In Europe, the story of the Paris Commune was one of possibility, not failure, as it provided evidence that workers could act collectively to build an alternative society, as well as the use of political violence to defend that society against counterrevolutionary forces.

This is the 137th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 10, 1925

[ 31 ] March 10, 2015 |

On March 10, 1925, the New York Times first reported the story of the so-called Radium Girls, as U.S. Radium Company employee Marguerite Carlough had sued her employer for $75,000 for the horrific health problems caused by her work with radium that would soon kill her. The story would garner national headlines and would demonstrate both the awfulness of working conditions in the early 20th century and the failures of the workers’ compensation system to deal with health problems caused by poisonous work.

The 1910s saw the development of two phenomena that would come together in horrible ways for workers. The first was the wristwatch, invented during this decade. The second was the entrance of radium into the marketplace. Because radium glowed in the dark, it became a popular method of painting watch faces, since it made the watches useful at night. For soldiers in World War I, these watches were a godsend and this made them popular nationwide.

The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation (later U.S. Radium Corporation) plant in Orange, New Jersey caused a lot of problems in the neighborhood. Residents complained the company’s emissions turned their drying clothes yellow. For the workers, the radium was as much a delight as it was to the consumers. With little health research into its effects on the workers, the young dialpainters suffered heavy exposure to it. They were taught to hold the paintbrush with their mouths as they worked, wetting it with their tongues and thus ingesting the radium that way. They also played with the radium paint. They’d paint the fingernails with it. One woman had a date with her beau. So she painted radium on her teeth so her smile would glow in the dark when they were alone that night.

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Advertisement for radium watch.

As early as 1922, workers began falling sick. The dialpainters were the first industrial victims of radium poisoning. Katherine Schaub and her cousin Irene Rudolph started working in the new dialpainting studio at the Radium Luminous Materials plant in 1917. They were both 15. In 1920, both Schaub and Rudolph quit, finding nonindustrial jobs, although Schaub would briefly return to dialpainting the next year. By 1922, they were both 20 years old. That year, Rudolph had mouth pain. She had a tooth extracted. The socket never healed. Her jaw begin to fester with rotting bones. Other dialpainters began coming down with the same problems. Randolph died in July 1923 after a year and a half of suffering. Schaub started to have health problems in November 1923. By this time, other dialpainters such as Amelia Magggia, Hazel Vincent Kuser, and Marguerite Carlough had died or were dying. Schaub’s continued mouth problems began to be known as “radium jaw.”

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Workers at U.S. Radium, 1922 or 1923.

Medical researchers began to pay more attention to these sick women. So did the New Jersey Consumers’ League, the largely women-led industrial reform movement of the Progressive Era. That era had ended, at least in the years as it is classically classified by historians, but the national and state level organization still existed. The sole paid employee of the New Jersey branch was Katherine Wiley, but she was effective. In 1923, she had successfully lobbied for a bill banning night work for women. After hearing the legendary industrial reformer Alice Hamilton talk about workplace health, Wiley began exploring this in her home state. She soon found the dialpainters. In 1924, Wiley went to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Dr. Andrew McBride. He was furious that these meddlesome women were getting involved in these cases and denied that the radium companies had anything to do with the women’s illnesses.

Working with Hamilton, Wiley began trying to access the medical research. At Harvard, researchers working with U.S. Radium had done initial studies on the substance’s health effects. Wiley and Hamilton sought to acquire that data. The main researcher was loyal to the company and refused to release most of the information. But Frederick Hoffman, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Labor, did find at least some connections, although he was pretty sympathetic to the company too. All of this work did lead to the state labor department closing U.S. Radium, although it just moved to New York. Katherine Schaub kept pushing, convincing Hoffman to write to U.S. Radium about her condition. The company had her visit one of their doctors, who promptly told her that none of her illnesses had anything to do with radium.

Based on this research, in 1927, Schaub joined a dialpainters’ lawsuit organized by the New Jersey Consumers’ League in the state Supreme Court. But this was a difficult task. Not only had the statue of limitations passed since all these workers had quit several years earlier, but the dialpainters needed to prove both that U.S. Radium had caused their illnesses and that the company was negligent in their actions. The lawsuits were a struggle because workers’ compensation generally did not cover health related issues. The workers’ compensation came about as a way for corporations to cut their losses and enter a rational system for dealing with workplace health and safety because after 1890, workers were increasingly suing them successfully for compensation, a slow rejection of the doctrine of workplace risk established early in the nation’s industrial period.

Similar cases were happening at the Waterbury Clock Company in Waterbury, Connecticut (I can’t drive past this factory on I-84 without thinking of dead radium workers) and at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Workers at all three plants struggled to achieve compensation. But in New Jersey, all the bad publicity convinced the company to settle with most of the workers in 1928, although it also made it very difficult for workers to prove any corporate culpability. In more conservative Connecticut, women played a much smaller role in state politics and despite a longer statue of limitations provision in the workers’ compensation law of 5 years, business controlled the state. Workers here received only relatively small settlements, even if Waterbury Clock admitted it had caused 10 deaths by 1936. In Illinois, the workers compensation system was such a mess that not a single sufferer received a cent until 1938.

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Newspaper article publicizing plight of Illinois radium poisoning victims.

In the 1980s, high levels of radon were discovered in homes near the old plant in Orange. The company had long ago been purchased by Safety Light. Homeowners and the current corporate owners of the old plant sued Safety Light. In 1991, the New Jersey Supreme Court found U.S. Radium “forever” liable for the radium near its old factory. Workers laboring with radium however continued having problems, even as safety nominally improved. In the 1970s, radium workers in Ottawa, Illinois were found having radiation levels 1666 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved levels.

This post is based on Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.

This is the 136th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886

[ 23 ] March 6, 2015 |

On March 6, 1886, the Great Southwestern Strike began, marking the start of a year of worker revolt against the exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism. Over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike, but the failure to win helped usher in the decline of the Knights of Labor.

The widely and publicly loathed Jay Gould was one of the leading railroad capitalists and financiers in the United States and he had invested heavily in the massive expansion of railroads into the southwest after the Civil War. This rapid expansion gave workers some level of power and for awhile they achieved good wages. But Gould’s managers consistently sought to cut costs and gain power over workers they thought far too independent.

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Jay Gould

By 1885, Gould had succeeded in gaining control over many of his competitors and he started looking to cut labor costs. That year though, railroad workers had success striking against Gould-owned railroads. Management attempts to cut wages sent workers off the job and the Knights of Labor, a rising labor organization attempted to organize all workers, stepped in and helped negotiate a settlement that included rehiring strikers and paying back wages. Specifically, Terence Powderly personally sat down with Gould and convinced him to grant the workers’ demands. Defeating Gould was the biggest victory the Knights would ever achieve. Feeling hope that a national organization could fight for their demands, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined the Knights in the next few months.

Gould however was not going to take his defeat lying down. He was determined to crush the Knights. The managers’ war on independent labor continued and another strike quickly seemed likely. As these things often go, the strike itself started over an isolated incident. In Marshall, Texas, a Knights member attended a union meeting on work time. He was fired and his fellow workers walked off their job to demand he be rehired. The strike spread like wildfire among workers infuriated with Gould for the terrible wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions along his rail line. Within days, the strike had spread across Texas and into Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

This became the largest of the nation’s 1400 strikes in 1886. Eventually, 200,000 workers (out of a total of 700,000 Knights members that year) went on strike. The strikers were hurt by the lack of solidarity from other unions, as the skilled labor union The Brotherhood of Engineers continued to work. On the other hand, one of the leaders Texas Farmers’ Alliance, William Lamb, declared a boycott of the railroads in support of the strikers, although this was controversial within the Alliance. The rapid growth of the Knights also was a problem. Powderly was generally opposed to strikes and the new members didn’t understand that the Knights actually had a pretty limited vision for labor reform that did not include very much direct action. While Powderly’s role in the strike is not entirely clear, he did not approve of the second strike, certainly did not grant it very strong support and stayed mostly hands off. In any case, when he did reach out to Gould to hash this new strike out, the plutocrat refused, seeking to crush the union entirely. Perhaps apocryphally, he said about the workers, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Ultimately, the strikers had trouble maintaining the popular support necessary to overcome the overwhelming odds against organized labor in the Gilded Age. This certainly wasn’t because everyday people loved Jay Gould. He was largely considered a villain at the time as he is today. But people were so reliant on the railroad for goods and transportation that the shutdown of the system made their lives difficult. And if we know one thing about labor struggles today, it’s that for many people, their support of workers remains in the abstract and at the first moment they are personally inconvenienced, that theoretical support dries up. In popular opinion, strike leader Martin Irons began to be portrayed as Gould’s equal in oppressing the needs of the farmer, both monopolists of a sort, a sign of the limited ability for farmer-worker solidarity in these years.

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Martin Irons

Gould also worked with local politicians to crush the strike. The governor of Missouri called out the state militia, while the governor of Texas built on that by calling out the militia and the Texas Rangers. The governor of Kansas however refused, noting the lack of worker violence that Gould claimed was the reason for the troops. U.S. marshals also assisted in ensuring the trains ran. Gould also called in the Pinkertons. What did cause property destruction was the state repression, which led workers to retaliate by burning machine shops and letting train engines go cold, which delayed trains for hours until they warmed back up. In both Fort Worth, Texas and East St. Louis, Illinois, actual violence eventually took place against Gould’s hired thugs, leading to the death of at least nine workers. Shootouts began taking place between workers and trains running through the strike. But the violence caused by the Pinkertons and state forced workers back on the job. The strike was mostly over by May and accomplished little.

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Battle between workers and U.S. marshals at East St. Louis

This was the first major defeat for the Knights of Labor. Up to this point, it had seemed a growing force in American life. A few weeks after the strike’s defeat, the Knights convened a special assembly where it banned the organization from participating in strikes. This was a terrible idea as employers who had previously capitulated to the Knights immediately rolled back workers’ gains, knowing the central organization had taken away their best weapon to maintain those victories. Combined with the Haymarket incident a couple of months later (Powderly himself refused to do anything for the anarchists thrown in prison for it), the corporate-dominated media was able to paint the Knights as violent radicals and public sympathy turned against them. Moreover, workers felt betrayed by Powderly for his actions during the year. The organization would decline soon after, with a loss of 90 percent of members by 1890, and the American Federation of Labor would rise in its place as the primary union organization of American workers, or at least the ones the AFL would accept.

Martin Irons would be banned from the Knights for leading this disastrous strike and was blacklisted from the railroad. He died in poverty in 1900.

This is the 135th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1936

[ 16 ] March 1, 2015 |

On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.

The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.

The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.

The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.

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Building Hoover Dam

Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.

But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”

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The 1931 strike

The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.

The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.

This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1908

[ 20 ] February 24, 2015 |

On February 24, 1908, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Muller v. Oregon. This landmark decision upheld the idea that, at least for women, laws restricting the hours of work were constitutional. This would be a major victory in the long fight to bring working hours down to eight hours nationally, a dream that had already extended for more than two decades and would not be realized for another thirty years. It also created gender inequities in labor law with implications that continue today.

In 1903, Oregon had passed a law limiting the hours of women to ten hours a day and sixty hours a week. Curt Muller, a laundry business owner in Portland, sued the state. Muller believed, for good reason given the predominant legal climate of the time, that he signed legal contracts with individual workers when he hired them and that those workers freely agreed to the terms of hours and wages when they took the job. Yet, these ideas were increasingly challenged during the Progressive Era, as activists sought to create a more fair America that protected basic rights of workers to a decent life. This was especially true for women workers, who many Progressives saw as both uniquely exploited and mothers responsible for raising the next generation of Americans. Progressives argued that whatever the merits of the freedom of contract interpretation of labor legislation, the state had a unique interest in excepting women from that principle. Progressives were especially prominent in states like Oregon, as well as Wisconsin and Washington, which would see the first workers’ compensation legislation a few years later. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the the state’s law and Muller then appealed to the Supreme Court.

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Laundry workers

Supporting Oregon’s case was Louis Brandeis, who filed a lengthy brief, mostly created by his sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, an activist with the National Consumers League, about women’s working conditions and lives, helping to sway the case. Brandeis employed this paternalistic ideal of women as mothers to justify upholding the law because the state had an interest in the health of future generations of Americans. He used four specific arguments. First, women were physically different and weaker than men. Second, damage to women’s health on the job might affect their reproductive capacity. Third, the health of children might be damaged if the mother was overworked. Fourth, long workdays deprived family members of their wife and mother.

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Louis Brandeis

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the law’s constitutionality. David Brewer wrote the opinion. Part of the reason this was such a landmark decision was its partial repeal of Lochner v. New York , decided just three years before. Lochner invalidated state laws on the hours of bakers and thus hours legislation nationwide based on the idea of the liberty of contract that it read into the 14th Amendment. But Brewer was clear that this was no rejection of Lochner. Rather women were different than men and thus deserved protection:

That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

In short, the justices had a gendered construction of freedom of contract. They held to the Gilded Age belief that individual male workers freely signed agreements with employers (thus making labor legislation unconstitutional because it would violate that freedom of contract) but for women workers the state’s interest was greater than this freedom. This was not completely unprecedented however, for as early as 1876, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had founded similarly, as had several additional states between then and 1908, although Illinois had overturned a law restricting women’s hours that applied freedom of contract to women as well as men.

The legacy of Muller is complicated because of the paternalism at its core. It fit the ideals of many Progressive reformers, who used ideas of femininity and motherhood to protect women and children in a number of ways, but especially at the workplace. For people like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, these sorts of decisions were validations of their larger campaigns to protect poor women from the ravages of industrial life. But the small more explicitly feminist movement disliked the decision because it created artificial differences between the sexes.

Still, placing Muller in the context of the time, we should see it as an important victory because of its precedent setting approval of hours laws for anyone. Lochner reinforced the idea so prevalent in American business that corporations had no responsibility to anyone and that the halls of Congress and federal courtrooms would reinforce this if necessary. Even if Muller was sexist, for a lot of labor activists getting these principles applied to women laid the groundwork for all workers, which may not have been the goal of all Progressives, but was for labor activists. Establishing this principle did indeed start chipping away at the freedom of contract idea and within a decade, many industries would have 8-hour days.

States followed up on Mueller by passing night work laws for women to ensure they were not laboring during hours deemed by the state to be hours when they should be taking care of their children. Between 1909 and 1917, 19 states passed new legislation limiting the hours of women’s work, leaving only 9 states in 1917 that lacked any restrictions at all, a number that decreased to 5 by the mid-1920s. However, in most if not all of these states, the laws did not cover domestic or agricultural workers. The decision itself was rendered irrelevant by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 since it provided equal coverage for men and women. Yet gender inequities on the job have never fully been overcome, not even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The struggle for real equality on the job continues today.

I relied on Andrea Tone, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America and Nancy S. Jackson, “Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-Based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract” in Labor History, September 1989.

This is the 133th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 23, 1864

[ 10 ] February 23, 2015 |

On February 23, 1864, Kate Mullaney (sometimes spelled Mullany), leader of the Collar Laundry Union, the second all-female union in the United States (the Lowell Female Reform Association, established in 1845, was the first), led union members in Troy, New York out on strike. The CLU wanted higher wages and better working conditions. The strike succeeded, marking a rare union victory for women workers during the era.

Women working in commercial laundries faced the terrible working conditions that were becoming so common as the nation industrialized in the mid-19th century. They worked 12-14 hour days in extraordinarily hot workplaces. The Collar Laundry Union workers labored specifically with collars. This required the use of harsh, caustic chemicals and boiling water. Workers frequently suffered severe burns. Like in the rest of American work in the second half of the 19th century, rapid technological advancements came at the price of worker safety. In this case, it was new starching machines that were known for causing horrific burns for workers. Of course, companies were not held responsible for workers getting hurt or dying on the job. The pay for this labor: $3 a week.

Kate Mullaney was an Irish immigrant born in 1845, emigrating during her teenage years. Her family ended up in Troy, New York, a growing industrial city that specialized in iron foundries and collar production. Troy was one of the nation’s most prosperous cities at this time. In 1864, about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collar production (a popular fashion of the time) was located in Troy. In the 1860s, about 3000 women worked in the Troy collar laundries. Mullaney was forced into the labor force in the early 1860s when her father died and with her mother an invalid, she became the family’s primary breadwinner. Like the vast majority of the collar workers, Mullaney was a young unmarried woman. 92 percent of the Irish collar workers were single, and another 5 percent widows. Generally, the Irish worked in the collar laundries while native-born Protestants labored in collar sewing, as it paid better and was seen as more respectable, not to mention was less dangerous. Like much work as well, these jobs tended to be passed through families, as workers got jobs for their younger family members.

It did not take long for Mullaney to become a leader of the collar workers movement to make a better life for themselves. On February 23, 1864, she led about 300 workers out of the job and onto the streets. Within a week, 20 Troy laundries increased workers’ pay over 20 percent and agreed to work on safety issues. The strike made the union a successful operation. The CLU lasted for five years, which may not seem long to us today, but that in an era of nascent labor organizations, that was a pretty long run. In 1866, the CLU again went on strike, forcing employers to raise wages to $14 a week, over four times what workers made just two years earlier.

Under Mullaney’s leadership, the CLU was pretty radical for its time. It donated large sums to striking male unions in a time when that was not so common. In 1868, National Labor Union president William Sylvis appointed Mullaney to the NLU’s national office as assistant secretary and women’s organizer, probably making her the first woman to hold a position in a large national labor union. The NLU was also a Troy-based organization, with Sylvis the head of the Iron Moulders Union that had made that city a strong union town for the era. Sylvis also had long supported the idea of women’s unions and so was quite favorably disposed to the CLU. Mullaney was actually elected second vice president of the union at the 1868 NLU convention but she declined that offer.

In March 1869, the CLU won another strike, but this convinced operators to destroy the union. That May workers again walked off the job. But the owners were starting to follow a strategy that would prove very effective throughout this period at forestalling unionization in the United States–they organized and planned a common strategy against the unions. They pressured smaller operators to hold out against the CLU, began to recruit scab laborers, and worked to control press coverage of the strike in Troy. The workers protested the bad press coverage, but while the Troy Times published a letter by the workers, it refused to endorse their actions. New York City newspapers provided more sympathetic coverage, but that was relatively far away. Perhaps the most effective action was to lockout union members. The owners offered more wage increases to workers, but only if they agreed to leave the union. This proved effective. The strike was lost and the union destroyed.

In its wake, Mullaney and some of the other collar workers formed their own collar manufacturing cooperative, Union Line Collar and Cuff Manufactury. Mullaney became president of that cooperative and, working with friends in the women’s rights movement, sought wealthy investors to fund the enterprise. Alas, the cooperative failed in the wake of both struggles to keep up with the latest technologies and the replacement of cloth collars with paper collars, which led to the slow decline entire Troy collar industry, although factories were still active into the 1880s. In 1870, Mullaney dissolved the CLU, which was also suffering after the death of Sylvis and the loss of support from the National Labor Union.

At this point, Mullaney and her fellow workers returned to work for their employers at the May 1869 wage levels, but again, this did not last long because of fashion changes. Mullaney eventually faded from view after 1870. We know she married at some point and that she died in in 1906 in Troy. She ended up remaining poor, being buried in an unmarked grave until the 1990s, when women’s rights and labor rights advocates fought to create a National Historic Landmark to remember Mullaney and the CLU. She was given a proper headstone and her home marked with a plaque.

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Dedication of Kate Mullany National Historic Landmark

Collar workers continued to organize, with hundreds joining the Knights of Labor in the 1880s.

I borrowed much of this material from Tiffany Wayne, ed., Women’s Rights in the United States: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Events and People, Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York, 1864-86, and a bit from Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, eds., America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present.

This is the 132nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 2, 1848

[ 15 ] February 2, 2015 |

On February 2, 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war the U.S. launched against Mexico to steal land and extend slavery. Mexico was forced to cede the northern half of the nation to the United States. That would have enormous implications of the lives and the work cultures of the Spanish-speaking people who lived there. This post considers that issue with the farmers of northern New Mexico.

The Spanish (and then the Mexicans after independence in 1821) settled the far northern lands of New Spain/Mexico through creating land grants. Some of these were given to an individual, others to a group of families to start a village. It took a good long while to get most of these going because the northern edge of New Mexico was also the land of the Comanches, who in the 18th century were the stronger nation. Those settling on these land grants were taking a big risk with their lives, and warfare, capture, slavery, and death was common until after 1779, when the defeat of Cuerno Verde mostly moved the Comanche out of the Rockies and onto the Plains.

On these land grants, the Spanish settlers created their own work culture. Living in centralized small villages, the settlers engaged in a pastoral economy. They grazed sheep and goats, raised cows, sold timber, did a bit of mining, fished, and hunted. They build acequias to irrigate their crops. Some of the land was privately owned but the vast majority of these grants were ejidos, or common lands. They were somewhat connected to larger markets through Santa Fe, but this was largely a self-sufficient life. They were certainly not getting rich off this work. This was hard labor for very little money. Periodic droughts and high elevations made life pretty precarious. But it was their work culture and their land.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the land grants. This was very important to the Mexican government. Article VIII stated:

Property of every kind, now belonging to Mexicans now established there shall be inviolably respected. The present owners, the heirs of these, and all Mexicans who may hereafter acquire said properties by contract, shall enjoy with respect to its guarantees equally ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States.

But of course once the treaty was signed, it was only the United States enforcing the agreement. And these lands were among the best in New Mexico Territory. Anglo lawyers, often working for wealthy land owners and eastern investors, began to discover ways to break the land grants. The grants had to be reviewed and confirmed by American courts through a surveying process and a then a patent filing. Of the around 1000 grants, only 48 were confirmed before 1891 and only 22 of those patented. American courts didn’t understand (and didn’t try to understand) the communal property of the grants and made little effort to do so. Every territorial appointee until 1897 was an Anglo; the land grant residents had no access to the a political system they didn’t understand, which was infused with white racism against them in any case. The Hispano farmers were poor and colonized. Legal proceedings were conducted in English and often without translators. Conditions were ripe for whites to rip them off and acquire the common lands.

Leading this charge was Thomas Catron, a wealthy lawyer who acquired (either in whole or in part) 34 New Mexico land grants and at one time owned three million acres of land, making him the largest private landowner in American history. Eighty percent of the land grants were lost to residents in the late nineteenth century. Catron and others would approach individual grantees and offer to buy their claims for a pittance; economically desperate and without knowledge of the American legal system, some began to sell for as a low as a quarter an acre. Soon entire grants were being purchased for almost nothing, often without the consent of all the people who had a stake in it. The speculators and lawyers would get farmers to sign a power of attorney agreement for the land in a language they could not understand and without being told what it meant–which was the loss of the right to use the common lands. Some lawyers even told people to sign a document they said was of no real importance, but was in fact selling their land. This land was then usually sold to mining or timber companies, used for huge grazing operations as railroads were built connecting New Mexico to east coast markets or sometimes to wealthy east coast barons for private hunting reserves.

The farmers were still there, but they lost most of the ability to survive even in the meager way their pastoral work and barter economy had allowed before. They were forced into greater dependency at the same time their land was being stripped. They tried appealing to American courts but the same white supremacist Supreme Court that had just issued Plessy routinely denied them their rights for common land. The Cañon de Chama Grant was reduced from 472,737 acres to 1,422 acres when the Court denied the grantees rights to the commons. Wage labor was the result, often for almost nothing working on the same lands they used to own. Others left to work in the fields of Colorado, picking sugar beets and other crops. The pastoral economy collapsed and so did the sustainable lives of the farmers. They became part of the rural proletariat of the American West.

The dispossession of Hispanos from their land and their work had long term implications. It just deepened the poverty of the people, forcing them into whatever wage labor they could find. Many ignored the government restrictions on the use of land and sometimes violent confrontations with forestry or grazing officials was not uncommon. During the 1960s, the desire to regain that lost land (if not necessarily the precise lost work culture) led to the Chicano movement in New Mexico being centered around the recapture of the land grants for the descendants of the owners. Many of the land grants became what are today the national forests of New Mexico, so this organizing was also against a government that had facilitated the theft of the land and now owned it outright. The 1965 raid of Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico briefly brought this issue to national attention, but it soon faded, as did the Alianza. Today, the impact of the land grant thefts on employment and culture remains strong. The former land grant communities have some of the highest heroin death rates in the country. Today, there are a few land grants still in New Mexico. Their owners are forbidden to sell their property.

For this post, I borrowed from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico and William DeBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range.

This is the 131st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1984

[ 8 ] January 25, 2015 |

This is a guest post by Paul Adler, lecturer at the Harvard History and Literature program. He received his PhD in history from Georgetown University in 2014. Paul’s dissertation, Planetary Citizens: U.S. NGOs and the Politics of International Development in the Late Twentieth Century examines efforts by U.S. groups like INFACT and the Sierra Club to influence international institutions like Nestle and the World Bank during the 1970s and 1980s. Previous to graduate school, Paul worked for several years on global justice issues at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

On January 25, 1984, William Thompson, a leader with the International Nestle Boycott Committee (INBC) met with Nestlé executive Carl Angst in New York City. There, the two men announced a surprise: after seven years of a global boycott of Nestlé, U.S. organizers were suspending this effort in light of new Nestlé initiatives intended to address activists’ critiques. Ending ten months later, the Nestlé boycott set important precedents for liberal and left-wing activists in challenging multinational corporate power. However, the memory of the campaign as a great success does not stand well against close scrutiny.

The controversy that prompted the campaign concerned the marketing practices employed by multinational companies selling breast milk substitutes throughout the Global South. Given living conditions often characterized by lack of access to clean water, the use of products such as infant formula heightened the possibility of newborns contracting any number of dire, even deadly diseases.

Multinational companies advertised breast milk substitutes as embodying a “modern” lifestyle. To spread this message, they used an array of aggressive marketing practices. Among other techniques, companies produced booklets on infant feeding that accentuated the difficulties of breastfeeding and hired nurses to serve as salespeople in newborn wards.

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Example of Nestlé advertising, Malaysia, 1978

During the 1960s and early 1970s public health experts labored to publicize the dangers associated with breast milk substitutes. They met with little success however, causing one doctor to muse in 1974 that some “group may have to take a more aggressive, Nader-like stance.” Fortunately for him, that same year, activists in the United Kingdom released a pamphlet on the crisis called The Baby Killer followed soon after by activists in Switzerland becoming embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with Nestlé.

In the United States, the key figure who transformed the breast feeding controversy into an activist campaign was Leah Margulies. The daughter of a staffer at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (her parents met through the Young People’s Socialist League), Margulies was, by the early 1970s, a veteran of the civil rights and radical feminist movements. In 1974, working as an organizer for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Margulies began devising ways to make the breast milk substitutes scandal into a campaign.

To Margulies, this controversy appeared a perfect issue to use in energizing activists to engage with questions of economic inequality and multinational corporate power. As she explained to Mother Jones in 1977, “it is very difficult to make graphic that the world is starving, not because of drought or floods, but because of economic dependency.” From 1974 to 1977, Margulies worked with church groups to spread awareness, launch several shareholder resolutions, and mount a lawsuit against Bristol-Myers. However, these efforts produced few tangible results. Looking to escalate her efforts, Margulies reached out to fellow anti-poverty activists with the intention of starting a boycott of Nestlé. The Swiss multinational offered a promising target: not only was it the world’s largest purveyor of breast milk substitutes, but it also sold household products (such as coffee) around which a consumer boycott could easily be organized.

Teaming with activists in Minneapolis, in early 1977 Margulies helped to found the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT). On July 4, 1977, INFACT commenced a nationwide boycott of Nestlé. Organizing through a broad array of organizations (from public health associations to churches to left-wing solidarity groups), INFACT rapidly assembled local boycotts in towns and cities across the country.

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A Nestlé Boycott Picket Line

One constituency the boycott’s organizers sought out was organized labor. Activists tried to enlist labor in part by portraying the boycott as an experiment in corporate campaigning. Writing to a number of union presidents in 1982, Americans for Democratic Action president Robert Drinan illuminated this point, describing the boycott as “an act of international solidarity with working people in the Third World” and arguing that “organized labor has long recognized the need to develop an international capability to deal with the problems presented by multinational corporations. The leaders of the infant formula campaign have shown that it is not only necessary, but possible.”

Even as they built the boycott coalition, the leaders at INFACT searched for other avenues to influence. After months of organizing focused on the U.S. Senate, on May 23, 1978 activists descended on Washington, D.C. to participate in a hearing chaired by Ted Kennedy. While activists effectively presented their case, the representative sent from Nestlé delivered a calamitous performance. He accused church groups of being part of a “world-wide church organization” conspiring to “undermin[e] the free enterprise system,” while also arguing that Nestlé bore no responsibility for ensuring that consumers safely used its products.

Excerpt from the Kennedy hearing

Feeling humiliated after the hearing, Nestlé and the other multinationals searched for a way to end the boycott. Negotiating among the activists and the companies, Kennedy helped to steer both sides towards finding a solution under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). In October 1979, a meeting cosponsored by the WHO and UNICEF in Geneva ended with the WHO agreeing to draft a global code of conduct for the marketing and promotion of breast milk substitutes. For the next year and a half, lobbyists from activist groups and multinationals each tried to influence the code’s language, while activists also intensified and internationalized the boycott.

In the end, companies (backed by the U.S. government) succeeded in ensuring that the code would take form as a voluntary “recommendation,” as opposed to a legally-binding regulation. However, the code’s strictures significantly constricted corporate advertising, causing the companies to condemn the code (while activists offered critical support). When the code was voted on at the WHO in May 1981, the only nation to oppose it was the United States, acting at the behest of the Reagan administration. Following the May 1981 vote at the WHO to create the code, activists and Nestlé spent the next two and a half years battling over the company’s implementation of the code, leading to the January suspension and then the October announcement by Nestlé that it would fully abide by the WHO code.

The Nestlé boycott was an early example of a coordinated, international effort targeting a multinational industry. During the early 1980s INFACT coordinated closely with boycott efforts in Western Europe, as well as in Australia. Even more significantly, NGO activists from the Global North and Global South came together to work under the auspices of a single organization, International Baby Food Action Network. The connections forged in this era continued through the 1990s anti-WTO fights and remain significant to the present. While the boycott did terminate with a seemingly monumental victory in October 1984, subsequent events have been more dispiriting. Four years after this triumph, activists relaunched the Nestlé boycott, accusing the company of not abiding by its commitments to the code. The boycott, while mostly dormant in the U.S., is active abroad to this day, in part reflecting the difficulty of monitoring the code (given the ease with which improper advertising can occur) and in part the vast power of multinationals like Nestlé.

This is the 130th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 5, 1914

[ 92 ] January 5, 2015 |

On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous $5 a day wage to his workers. Ford is often lauded for his efforts here and he was surely forward-thinking in creating this salary. But this post will also challenge his reputation as a good employer, for Ford expected plenty in return from those employees, far more than any employee should have to accept.

Turnover was a massive problem for employers through the early 20th century. The horrors of industrialization combined with callousness of employers to lead to workers constantly seeking a job that was just a little bit less terrible than the last. The growth of assembly line work made this worse because it was so boring. Treating a worker like a machine, as Henry Ford did, deskilled and depressed workers who had once partially defined themselves through their physical labor. This labor was just as physical and exhausting, but required no thinking and provided no satisfaction. Thus the Ford Motor Company had the same turnover problems as other industries. In 1913, the turnover rate for the company was 370 percent. Ford decided he needed to do something about this turnover. So he began to think about what would become known as welfare capitalism. He thought that if he paid his workers a bit more and helped them take care of their basic needs, they would live with the fact that the work was so mindless.

So on January 5, 1914, he announced a reorganization of his company. Workers could be part of a profit-sharing system that would raise their salary to $5 a day. While this has been remembered as Ford wanting to pay his workers enough that they could buy the cars they made, that really wasn’t what this was about. Reducing labor turnover was the reason, which is fair enough. Ford also took power away from the foreman and centralized hiring decisions. Like many industrial worksites, foremen had almost complete authority over workers, including the power to hire and fire, as well as the setting of pay rates to some extent. Ford did not want these little dictators making these decisions and instead created a personnel department that the foreman had to check with before firing. If the personnel department disagreed, the worker would merely be transferred. The introduction of standardized wages (the number of wage rates were reduced from 69 to 8) also took power away from foremen.

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The Ford assembly line

Ford had a requirement for acquiring those wages. Workers had to live up to his moral standards. Ford romanticized rural life and what he saw as traditional values. He wanted to inculcate this in his workers and seeing himself as a father figure, he believed he had the right to interfere in their personal lives. Thus if they wanted to work, they had to subject themselves to inspections from his Sociological Department. The department inspected workers’ habits and lives, discharging those seen as unfit. It gave advice, expected to be followed, on money management and family relations. Ford’s foreign employees had to undergo Americanization programs if they wanted their wages. Fore required English on the shop floor in a society and industrial workforce that was very heavily dominated by immigrants. Ford, a staunch prohibitionist, banned his workers from drinking alcohol. The SD would visit the homes of employees to inspect their lives. They would do so without warning so they could see what the inside of your home really like and whether you had liquor in the house. To say the least, no Jews were hired. Some workers were upset about this intrusion, but it seems that most accepted it, even if they complained about the violation of their personal liberties, because they needed the money.

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House purchased by Ford worker after Sociological Department assistance

Not all workers could earn those wages. Only men over the age of 22 shown to be taking care of their families, single men who were seen as thrifty, and men younger than 22 who were the sole breadwinner for their family. Female workers could also qualify after 1916 after women’s movement leaders protested their exclusion. The Sociological Department would make the judgment as to which workers qualified. Ford hated quitters, thinking them slackers and undeserving. So he also worked to reduce turnover by making the process to get hired onerous, with full inspections from the SD each time a worker quit. What this really led to was a certain amount of bribery of Sociological Department inspectors. Eventually over 200 SD inspectors pried into every corner of workers’ lives to see if they fit Henry Ford’s personal standards of how they should live. If workers didn’t follow the line, their pay was reduced back to $2.34 and if they didn’t improve in six months, they were fired.

And Ford would work these employees to the bone. Agreeing to work at Ford not only meant agreeing to the moral standards. It meant a lifetime of hard drudgery that gave you little real pride in the work you did. Said one of Ford’s production managers, “Ford was one of the worse shops in town for driving the men. I have been an S.O.B. with everybody in town.” But with wages so bad in 1914, the impact of Ford’s announcement was overwhelming. A crowd of 15,000 people descended on Ford to ask for jobs. They were dispatched with fire hoses.

Ford-Headline

Workers themselves certainly took the $5 day as a good deal at the time. But Ford became increasingly ossified in his ideas of labor relations and refused to raise the pay. What was a good wage in 1914 became less so year by year. In the 1920s, the Sociological Department’s influence declined and conditions worsened in the factories. By 1927, Ford was driving his men with a bunch of ex-boxers and thugs led by Harry Bennett, who violently put down any protest. By the 1930s, workers were furious with Ford’s labor relations and the plants became centers of labor resistance to employer domination of their lives and home to some of the great battles of the 1930s struggle for unionization.

In other words, we can certainly say that Ford was forward-looking in the sense that he advanced the corporate control over the workforce by giving them a small amount in return for the control over their lives. And the money was real enough, at least for awhile. But to point to the $5 wage as a good thing without placing it in context is problematic and should be avoided by people on the left.

I used Sanford Jacoby’s Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945, Joan Shaw Peterson’s American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, and Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, in the writing of this post.

This is the 129th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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