Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: July 19, 1972

[ 64 ] 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.

george-meany-4

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

[ 10 ] 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.

03

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.

Norrisjp2-master675

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

[ 6 ] July 9, 2015 |

ilo-logo

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 |

hazard

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.

528e5af46b83f.preview-620

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.

002

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.

0-1-0-jacobo-arbenz

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.

Guatemalan-junta_1954

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.

JusticeforJanitors_crowdsm

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.

J4J_1990policebrutality

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.

Ricardo_and_Enrique_Flores_Magon

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.

3b35165r

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.

This Day in Labor History: May 21, 1968

[ 10 ] May 21, 2015 |

On May 21, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign began setting up its encampment in Washington, D.C., called Resurrection City. Attempting to go on after the assassination of Martin Luther King while he marched with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, this last goal of King’s would tell Americans just how tough the poor had it in this country. But it ultimately failed without his leadership, demonstrating both the limited commitment of civil rights leaders to labor issues and the increasing impatience both the Johnson administration and the public had with grassroots movements demanding continued civil rights and economic reforms by 1968.

By 1967, Martin Luther King had largely broken with the Johnson administration, first on Vietnam and then on the War on Poverty. With Johnson now consumed by the war, the War on Poverty staggered. King, deeply affected by his Chicago urban housing campaign of 1966, saw the common interests of the poor across the nation and wanted to transition into combining the civil rights and poverty movements. In doing so, he continued distancing himself from much of the rest of the middle-class minister-led wing of the civil rights movement that largely saw their goal post-1965 as consolidating their recent legal gains and working with the president who had pushed for those laws.

King announced the Poor People’s Campaign at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in November 1967 and it received a public announcement on December 4. For King, this was a way to continue his nonviolent campaigns with a more direct action feel in the era of black power and urban riots. It intended to bring at least 2000 poor people of all races from around the nation to Washington, DC to demand federal anti-poverty programs. That included African-Americans from the South and from northern cities, Chicanos from the Southwest, Puerto Ricans from New York, Native Americans, and white Appalachians. King called it “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” At the core of it was that African-Americans and other poor people would never have dignity in this nation without economic security.

Poor_People's_March_at_Lafayette_Park_ppmsca.04302

The immediate goal of the campaign was to secure a full employment bill. The march itself was intended to begin on April 22, 1968. But King was assassinated on April 4.

After King’s assassination, the SCLC decided to go through with the campaign in King’s honor, with Ralph Abernathy leading it. An impressive array of social movement leaders participated. That was especially true in the Mexican-American community as Chicano pioneers Reies Lopez Tijerina, fresh off the shootout at Tierra Amarilla, and Corky Gonzalez led around 1000 Latinos from the Southwest. Unfortunately Tijerina and Abernathy really took an extremely strong dislike to one another and that helped lead to some fairly significant racial tension in the camp. Native Americans came and protested at the Supreme Court for fishing rights, where Tijerina supported an aggressive protest that smashed some of the building’s windows, which Abernathy despised. White Appalachian residents brought a specific class-based critique to the movement as they were white yet still isolated from dominant society. The camp tried to revive the cultural protest of the early 60s through song. Folk singers like Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan were there, as were Native American chanters, singers of Mexican-American folk songs, old-timey Appalachian singers and others. But the conditions were not really right for a successful protest and with the Johnson Administration largely ignoring the protests and the absence of King looming, the campaign struggled.

poor-peoples-campaign

It didn’t help that conditions in the camp were not good, not so surprising given that Washington DC is a wet city built on a swamp. Ben Gilbert of the Washington Post:

The grassy parkland turned to trampled mud, ankle-deep, with some puddles of water hip-deep. The plywood homes were soaked. Washed clothes would not dry. Dampness and surprisingly low temperatures for May and June chilled the nights. Mud seeped in everywhere. Moving from place to place meant sloshing around in water and mud. Trash, rotting food, discarded clothing, packing boxes, cans, and liquor bottles slowly sank into the mud throughout the encampment. Huge oil drums, crammed with refuse, burned day and night. Their smoky stench carried all the way downtown and through the surrounding parkland and Mall area.

Without King’s vision, the movement really lacked the power to create change. But it certainly was the greatest attempt to create a truly multiracial coalition for economic justice during the civil rights era. The media largely criticized Abernathy for the movement’s failure, but the reality is that even if King lived, the white middle-class liberals who had provided the political support in northern states necessary to pass legislation were declining in influence, distracted by Vietnam and other issues of the late 60s, and disturbed by the demands African-Americans were making of them, such as jobs programs and the end of de facto segregation at work and in schools.

Certainly the AFL-CIO largely sitting the Poor People’s Campaign out did not help. All too typically of the Meany-era federation, organized labor did not do enough to support anti-poverty movements. Some union leaders were helpful, particularly Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers. The United Steelworkers of America also actively supported the campaign. But by and large the AFL-CIO did not take the full employment goals seriously, even though doing so would have made all the sense in the world. As King had rejected Vietnam and based this campaign in part on how the expense of Vietnam was undermining the War on Poverty, George Meany just could not really support it as he refused to acknowledge that Vietnam had any negative domestic consequences. This is a moment where a full commitment from organized labor could have made a real difference in expanding the welfare state and improving the lives of the nation’s poor. But unfortunately that was not the fundamental interest of AFL-CIO leadership in 1968.

The protests ended in failure on June 24. Resurrection City itself was dismantled on June 19. There has never been a coordinated multiracial alliance of the poor to descend on the capital since.

This is the 144th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 18, 1933

[ 14 ] May 18, 2015 |

On May 18, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority as a centerpiece to his New Deal. The TVA would have both short and long-term impacts on the nation’s labor history, ultimately going far to transforming an entire region of the nation, providing the raw materials and industrial capacity necessary to become a major site of American production after World War II.

The Tennessee Valley was one of the United States’ most underdeveloped areas in 1933. Despite a long-term effort by Nebraska senator George Norris to push for public power in the region, private interests prevented a major government investment until the Roosevelt administration swept to power that year. The net farm income of the Tennessee Valley was only $639 a year compared to the national average of $1835. The Roosevelt administration saw widespread regional planning as key to raising the nation’s poorest regions out of poverty. Targeting the Tennessee River Valley, the new agency built sixteen dams to prevent erosion and limit floods, provide electricity for both farmers and industrial operations, and eventually for recreational purposes. It also attempted to establish a model community with modern urban planning for the region to follow at Norris, Tennessee, north of Knoxville.

"A_group_of_several_hundred_workers_at_Norris_Dam_construction_camp_site_during_noon_hour."_-_NARA_-_532734

Workers at Norris Dam

However, it should be noted that Washington planners, fearful of alienating the white South through this unprecedented government incursion into the economy, not only reinforced segregation on the job, but created new forms of it. Much physical labor on construction sites was not segregated in the 1930s, but after the TVA introduced segregation that its planners assumed already existed, it spread through the South for a lot of hard labor. Yet even here, the federal government was employing black Americans at high rates for the first time in a very long time and despite the institutionalized discrimination of TVA and the fact that the white power structure in the South were all Democrats, it helped the process of convincing blacks to leave the Republican Party which now did nothing for them and join the Democratic Party that might do a little bit for them. TVA did eventually provide better jobs for African-Americans, but only after threatened NAACP lawsuits and Fair Employment Practices Committee investigations. But all hiring of blacks was resisted. When TVA hired three black security guards in 1943, none other than John Rankin said it would “engender more bitterness among southern representatives and southern senators than anything else I could mention.” And when blacks showed up in 1942 to help work on Fontana Dam on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, white workers threatened to lynch them.

For unions, the impact of the TVA would be ambivalent. Fourteen American Federation of Labor trade unions were involved in the construction of the dams but the agency originally would not recognize them as bargaining agents on the projects until its lawyers decided that since TVA was chartered as a corporation, it could be legally liable for not doing so. In 1935, TVA created its Employee Relationship Policy, a sort of localized Wagner Act. It granted the right to organize and choose collective bargaining agents free of management. The AFL then created the Tennessee Valley Trades and Labor Council (TVTLC) as the bargaining agent for all the AFL craft unions. But while the TVA leaders in Washington were relatively open to unionism, local supervisors who lacked any interactions with unions were openly hostile. When John Turner was fired for passing out union literature during working hours, labor appealed to TVA leadership who reinstated him in part because the TVA board itself had facilitated the unionization of the workforce. In 1940, the TVA signed the first general agreement covering its blue-collar employees and then moved on to a similar agreement with seven unions covering white-collar workers. In short, the TVA provided a small bastion of unionism in a harshly anti-union part of the nation.

b32

Building the Big Ridge Dam, Tennessee

Interestingly, the early TVA also worked with the Highlander School, the radical Myles Horton-led educational center in Tennessee that would later train Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and then be closed (it moved to a different part of the state). TVA’s first chairman was Arthur Morgan, who had socialist ties, including through his son who was an avowed socialist. Morgan had the TVA pay for a few workers to attend Highlander for industrial training and, while Morgan had to publicly keep his distance from the radical center, the Highlander-trained workers played a central role in organizing the TVA craft unions. The connection between the two institutions continued to thrive over the next few years, although Morgan ignored Horton’s pleas to integrate the workforce.

No American could be sad about new economic opportunities for the Southern working class. But would those jobs be union jobs? In fact, for the most part, outside of the TVA itself, they would not. It was an intentional move on the part of the Roosevelt administration to reshape the geography of American industrial production in the New Deal and especially in World War II. There were many good reasons to do that. But TVA-produced power also provided the infrastructure necessary for corporations to move production from union jobs in New England and the Great Lakes states to anti-union southern states. As early as the late 1930s, textile manufacturers escaping unions in the northeast found the newly electrified areas of the TVA appealing places to move production. The CIO knew this was a problem and understood that the ability to organize these jobs would go a long ways to defining the postwar labor movement. So it initiated Operation Dixie in 1946 to begin organizing the South. And while not all those campaigns were related specifically around TVA-created jobs, its planners knew that TVA-provided power would open up the region to massive capital mobility as manufacturers saw the potential for a non-union workforce again within American borders. But Operation Dixie largely failed for complex reasons and those jobs largely, although not entirely, remained non-union for the existence of the workplace.

In the end, the TVA transformed the South and provided a great deal of new opportunity for Southern workers. It did however contribute, indirectly at least, to the decline of American unionism in postwar America.

TVA-sites-map

TVA sites as of 2005

The material on segregation comes from Nancy Grant, TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo. Other material comes from F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South and Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.

This is the 143rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 17, 1905

[ 20 ] April 17, 2015 |

On April 17, 1905, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Melville Fuller, decided the Lochner v. New York case, overturning a New York law limiting the hours bakers could work to sixty a week. This landmark case gave official SCOTUS sanction to the idea of free contract between employer and employee. Calling such laws, “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract,” the Court effectively ruled that corporations have full rights to set any conditions of employment they chose. This classic statement of the Gilded Age has inspired conservatives and outraged liberals ever since.

By 1900, the rise of the Progressive movement and an increasingly aggressive American working class that ranged from conservative organizations like the American Federation to Labor to radicals like the Industrial Workers of the World led to a growing amount of state and local laws to regulate labor. The rank exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism had increasingly moved large swaths of Americans, including a growing number in the middle and upper classes, to understand that basic protections must be granted if the nation was to remain socially stable and if future generations would grow up to be good moral Americans.

And this attitude, while often paternalistic toward workers, had its benefits as workers really struggled to live lives of basic dignity in the Gilded Age. The combination of extremely low wages, very dangerous work, strikes met with state violence, and an economy constantly in turmoil thanks to the corruption of politicians and illegal machinations of capitalists meant that the American workforce had few options to improve their lives. They tried but usually failed because of the combination of overwhelming combined state and corporate resistance, something Lochner would reinforce. Accessing middle-class support for basic rights was necessary in order to achieve even the most rudimentary improvements in workers’ lives.

New York was one of these states with a strong Progressive movement. In 1895, the state passed the Bakeshop Act. This law regulated the sanitary conditions of bakeries (a prelude to the national Pure Food and Drug Act that would become law in 1906) and read “no employee shall be … permitted to work in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery or confectionery establishment more than sixty hours in any one week,” as well as more than ten hours in a day. In 1899, Joseph Lochner, a baker in Utica, was indicted for violating the act by requiring employees to labor for more than 60 hours. He drew a $25 fine. Not learning his lesson, he was charged again in 1901; this time the state fined him $50 ($1400 in 2014 dollars) and sentenced him to up to fifty days in jail if he did not pay the fine.

lochner

Joseph Lochner, standing on right

Lochner appealed this second fine, attempting to overturn the law. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the law by a 3-2 vote and then the New York Court of Appeals, where he lost 4-3. The Supreme Court was divided on this law. But by a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Lochner and overturned the Bakeshop Act.

John Marshall Harlan, the best justice of the era and often the only one with the welfare of the average citizen in mind, wrote one of his classic dissensions. He wrote that it was “plain that this statute was enacted to protect the physical well-being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments.” He went on, “If the end which the legislature seeks to accomplish be one to which its power extends, and if the means employed to that end, although not the wisest or best, are yet not plainly and palpably unauthorized by law, then the court cannot interfere.” Oliver Wendell Holmes also dissented, using his ideology of limited court activism to accuse the majority of asserting their own economic preferences into the Constitution where they did not belong.

The majority in fact did that, but didn’t care. Rufus Peckham wrote the majority opinion. He countered the argument of New York that “has a right to safeguard a citizen against his own lack of knowledge” by stating that citizens “are … able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State, interfering with their independence of judgment and of action.” And this really sums up the doctrine of free contract. Theoretically this sounds like the language of freedom because it places control over one’s life in his or her own hands. But of course such an analysis, which libertarians love today, completely ignores power relations. No baker could assert his own rights because it was the employers who constricted those rights. When the option is a) work 65 hours or b) don’t eat, that’s not a freedom of choice.

Moreover, Peckham went into the health of working in a bakery, writing the law was unnecessary because “To the common understanding, the trade of a baker has never been regarded as an unhealthy one.” Of course, such a judgment from a judge should not matter when deciding the constitutionality of the law–the question is whether it is constitutional, not whether the judge personally agrees on the merits of the law. But of course the Supreme Court has long operated as little more than the assertion of personal political position as constitutional principle, a problem which plagues the Court today. Moreover, the question of health and work in the Gilded Age was one of huge importance because work was so starkly unhealthy. It’s entirely possible that compared to paint workers having their brains disintegrated through unbelievable levels of lead poisoning and radium workers dying from horrendous cancers that bakers didn’t have it so bad, but that doesn’t mean that working in unsanitary conditions for long hours did not have an effect on their health. Even when employers and states decided to something about workers dying or suffering grievous injuries on the job, it would take until the establishment of OSHA in 1970 before workplace health per se was really taken that seriously in the United States.

250px-Rufus_Wheeler_Peckham_cph.3b30513

Rufus Peckham

However, Lochner was also the peak of corporate rights superseding that of workers and the public. The Muller v. Oregon decision three years later carved out room in the freedom of contract ideology for hours limitations on women workers, which began to slowly build toward the principle of government regulating the workforce. From 1905 on, Lochner became the case that progressive labor activists such as Louis Brandeis sought to overturn. Yet this would be a long fight lasting until the New Deal, with the Court reviving the Lochner doctrine in the 1923 case Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, declaring a Washington DC law setting minimum wages for women and children unconstitutional.

Conservatives would like to return to a Lochner-era America today and are working hard to make sure that happens.

This is the 142nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 7, 2000

[ 15 ] April 7, 2015 |

On April 7, 2000, the Workers’ Rights Consortium formed at a New York conference. This apparel industry monitoring organization developed in response to the anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s and still exists today, trying to bring attention in the United States to the plight of foreign workers making apparel for our colleges and universities.

By the 1990s, almost all American textile production had moved overseas, largely to Latin America and Asia. The conditions in these factories were little changed from what workers in the United States had dealt with a century earlier. Moving from the northeast to the South to Mexico to Central America to Asia has been part of a long-term strategy by the apparel companies to find new workers to exploit and not have to improve working conditions or acquiesce to unions. Also in the 1990s, stories began appearing in the American media about the terrible working conditions in these sweatshops. Most famous were stories about Nike and the clothing line branded by TV host Kathie Lee Gifford. College students began campaigns to improve these conditions as they applied to the production of university licensed apparel.

Central to this movement was United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Formed in July 1998 by students at 30 campuses, USAS began providing a national organization for all these anti-sweatshop movements on American campuses. USAS members began conducting fact-finding tours, visiting Dominican Republic sweatshops making baseball hats for colleges where young women earned $40 in a 56-hour week. The movement continued to grow through that fall, with new chapters opening at campuses across the United States. Universities refused to sign any code of conduct with the exception of Duke University. Instead, schools sought to avoid responsibility through the Collegiate Licensing Corporation, a corporate front that claimed to monitor apparel industry conditions. It created a CLC code that forced no responsibility onto universities. This intended to make a claim that the schools cared, but it only made the anti-sweatshop activists more determined. Protests and sit-ins grew at schools around the country by 1999. Schools continued trying to cover themselves, now joining the Fair Labor Association, another corporate front group that provided only voluntary guidelines for schools.

sweatshop

Through this campaign, the students gained the support of the United Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). UNITE formed in 1985 as a merger of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU). Both of these unions were decimated by 1985 from the outsourcing of their jobs overseas. UNITE hoped that combining forces would help marshal resources to fight this, although the job losses continued. Facing the end of the union, UNITE quickly saw the growing sweatshop movement as useful allies in the war against the exploitation of apparel workers that these unions had fought since the beginning of the century. UNITE offered professional assistance, funds, and training to the burgeoning sweatshop movement. The AFL-CIO also chipped in, giving USAS $40,000 in 1999-2000.

In April 2000, activists met in New York City in order to develop strategies to help hold universities to anti-sweatshop pledges. It created the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor monitoring organization dedicated to the ethical sourcing of clothing for colleges and universities. It is supposed to define standards, conduct independent external monitoring, and force contracting companies to disclose wages, hours, and working conditions, with an independent agency to determine violations of the code. It places reports of factory inspections online that you can peruse.

sweat-shop-bangladesh-007

The WRC developed connections with labor unions and NGOs in the nations where clothing production took place. It based its investigations on complaints it heard from the workers and affiliated agencies on the ground. It took that information, conducted investigations, and sought to press university administrations on its findings to ensure their contractors were complying with the agreed upon codes. In January 2001, the WRC took on its first case. Workers at a factory in Atlixco, Mexico complained that their employer, the Korean operator Kukdong, which had contracts from Nike and Reebok, used child labor, subjected workers to verbal harassment and physical violence, fed workers spoiled food in the company cafeteria, did not provide mandated maternity leave, and illegally fired workers. In other words, standard treatment of workers in the global apparel industry that continues today. Within a week, the WRC was in the factory and interviewing workers. It filed a report and began to pressure university administrations. This all led to Nike and Reebok forcing Kukdong to rehire the fired workers, improve the cafeteria food, increase wages, and recognize the factory’s independent union (an important point considering the corrupt official Mexican unions).

This early victory provided the WRC needed legitimacy. At that time, the WRC had the support of 44 universities. Ultimately, the WRC provided much needed American attention on apparel sweatshops, but the reality is that there is not a whole lot the WRC can do to force a fundamental transformation of the entire industry. So long as students were actively forcing change, they could create some real victories for workers. But the fundamentals of the global apparel system require government action to force real changes. Simply put, the WRC even at its height had no conceivable way to monitor conditions at the thousands of sweatshops scattered around the world. No independent monitoring organization will ever have those resources.

The WRC was never able to get the U.S. government to take the issue seriously enough to force its corporations to make changes or to pass laws that would create enforceable standards for outsourced production imported back into the United States. Instead, the free trade mania continues in this nation that encourages the exploitation of the world’s workers by American corporations for cheap goods that we can buy without knowing anything about the conditions of production. Despite all this work by the anti-sweatshop movement, a WRC/Center for American Progress report from 2013 showed that real wages for apparel workers around the world fell between 2001 and 2011.

After 9/11, the sweatshop movement faded from prominence in young activist communities, with opposing the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and other actions of the Bush administration taking precedence. Yet the movement remained relatively strong at some campuses and has been rekindled to some extent in recent years, partially through events like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 workers again drawing the attention of young Americans. Today, the WRC has 180 college and university affiliates, as well as 6 high schools. This affiliation, which includes the University of Rhode Island, can often be pretty loose. URI has no real anti-sweatshop movement and while the university is aware of it, to my knowledge anyway, there’s no real active movement on these issues coming from my school.

This is the 141st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Page 1 of 1312345...10...Last »