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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: September 14, 1959

[ 31 ] September 14, 2014 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: August 23, 1912

[ 11 ] August 23, 2014 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: August 11, 1911

[ 27 ] August 11, 2014 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1934

[ 35 ] July 11, 2014 |

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

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

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Arkansas sharecroppers, 1930s

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

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

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Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting, Arkansas

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

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

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

stfu

Southern Tenant Farmers Union logo

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: July 5, 1935

[ 18 ] July 5, 2014 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: June 30, 1983

[ 18 ] June 30, 2014 |

On June 30, 1983, workers at the Phelps-Dodge Corporation copper mines in Arizona went on strike. Led by the United Steelworkers of America, miners fought bravely against Phelps-Dodge’s decision to bust their union, but faced with overwhelming odds, they lost the strike, bringing in the heyday of corporations busting the unions and moving aggressively toward a completely non-union workplace.

copper_strike_morenci_clifford_arizona_2_-596x361

The Phelps-Dodge mine in Morenci, Arizona had a long history. Phelps-Dodge and other big mining corporations had operated in the southern Arizona/northern Sonora borderlands for a full century by this point. Hating unions every second, they had engaged in some of the most loathsome anti-union tactics in American history, but had eventually caved to the inevitability of union representation. Phelps-Dodge had long run a workmonth of 26 days on and 2 days off before the United Steel Workers of America ended that bit of oppression, which corporate leaders always resented.

The copper industry was in deep trouble in the early 1980s. Pressure from abroad, especially the giant mines of Chile, led to a reduction in copper prices. U.S. mining corporations responded both by investing overseas and laying off workers in the United States. Phelps-Dodge had made some bad investments and was in some trouble, with its leadership taking a lot of criticism. The mine closed for 5 months in 1982.

It reopened in 1983. But Phelps-Dodge decided to use the situation to bust the union. Seeing that the USWA had caved in recent negotiations with U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, Phelps-Dodge leaders thought they would like some union contract relief as well. Instead of cost of living adjustments, workers wages would be tied to the worldwide price of copper, forcing them to bear the direct brunt of fluctuations of commodity prices. The union was flexible in its negotiations. It agreed to a wage freeze for the entirety of the three-year deal. But it would not change its COLA requests. It had good reason not to. The other mining companies had agreed to this very reasonable offer from their unions. Phelps-Dodge said they could not afford a union workforce. Others noted that despite the recent downturn in copper prices, the company had made $550 million in the previous decade and that it was the company’s own mines in Peru, Australia, and South Africa that had undercut both prices and union work in the United States.

The company terminated the 40-year continuing agreement with the USWA, an 87-page contract that had been used the whole time with moderate changes. It immediately announced not only a $2 an hour wage cut for new workers but major changes in grievance procedures, disciplinary actions, and the other day to day operations that make unions work. They also began the unprecedented step within union contracts of forcing a medical co-pay on workers, something that we see as inevitable in 2013 but which was outrageous for many workers thirty years ago.

Immediately, the unions (vast majority were USWA but there were 13 total unions) voted to strike. 2400 union members walked out and surrounded the miners to not allow strikebreakers to enter. They were immediately subjected to widespread harassment led by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency, a Tucson-based state-run undercover police force. Using tactics from the violent days of the early 20th century Phelps-Dodge executives longed for, the ACISA quickly infiltrated almost every union meeting, wiretapping about 1/2 of the union meetings. The ACISA shared intelligence information directly with Phelps-Dodge officials. Phelps-Dodge began smuggling arms into the mine.

Pretty quickly, divisions rose within the workforce. About 400 of the 1480 workers scabbed quickly. George Mungia could stay on strike or potentially lose his pension. Or he could scab for 2 months and have worked long enough for the pension his union fought to give him. He went for self-interest, knowing that Phelps-Dodge would never have a union back in the mines. This number actually disappointed Phelps-Dodge, for it thought it could break the strike easily.

Miners_stikers_Douglas_AZ_3001

On August 5, the USWA decided it had to raise the level of struggle in order to survive. On August 8, about 1000 strikers and supporters surrounded the mine entrance, chasing away the strikebreakers and forcing others to remain inside the mill. Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt called for Phelps-Dodge to announce a 10-day work stoppage to settle tensions. But this just gave time for Phelps-Dodge to plan its next maneuver. On August 19, the corporation brought in a military force to end strikers’ resistance. Calling it “Operation Copper Nugget,” 426 state troopers and 325 National Guard members, assisted by helicopters, tanks, and military vehicles, retook the entrance to the mines. They used strikers’ “violence” as the reason, which primarily consisted of a lot of swearing and some thrown eggs. Strikers could no longer keep strikebreakers out. Eight days later, 10 strikers in Ajo were charged with rioting. The strike collapsed quickly after this overwhelming display of corporate, military, and legal power.

Among Phelps-Dodge’s leaders was John Coulter, vice-president for personnel. When the company used force to end the strike, it decided to never hire the old workers back. According to Coulter, “As far as we’re concerned the strike is over.”

The strike lasted three years but was basically over in three months. In September 1984, the workers voted on whether to work without a union or maintain their union without a job. They voted out the union. In 1986, the NLRB rejected the last union appeals. It was a complete victory for Phelps-Dodge. The company became entirely union-free in Arizona.

Some labor scholars call the Phelps-Dodge strike the private sector equivalent of the air traffic controllers in 1981. From this point forward, corporations became far more aggressive about busting unions, using increasingly sophisticated tactics with tacit support from the federal government.

Almost as soon as the strike ended, copper prices rose dramatically. While this was no conspiracy, Phelps-Dodge happily combined rapidly increased profits with a union-free workplace.

John Coulter had a daughter named Ann. She became very annoying. She loves her papa though because he was a unionbuster.

The ACISA was disbanded in 1984 after state legislators thought having an undercover agency was a waste of state money.

The mines of Arizona remain union-free today.

This is the 112th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 27, 1905

[ 123 ] June 27, 2014 |

On June 27, 1905, at a convention in Chicago, the Industrial Workers of the World was founded. The IWW would play a major role in the industrial warfare of the early twentieth century, scare the employer class, and capture the imaginations of late 20th century and early 21st century radicals.

The IWW had many roots. Socialists and anarchists looked to form a broad-based labor organization. The Western Federation of Miners, a radical union with strongholds in the Rocky Mountains, wanted to expand their form of industrial unionism nationwide. Radicals of various stripes came to Chicago in late June to form this union. Among them was WFM leader Big Bill Haywood, who would become the union’s leader, although it was always a decentralized organization, especially when compared to both the American Federation of Labor and its constituent unions that were quite top-down, even in this era. Eugene Debs, former head of the American Railway Union and socialist candidate for president attended. The legendary matron saint of the United Mine Workers, Mary “Mother” Jones was there. Socialist leader Daniel DeLeon played a major role. Lucy Parsons, leading anarchist, African-American pioneer in American radicalism, and widow of one of the Haymarket martyrs attended. Haywood was the clear leader of this motley crew. The radical western miner stated the goal of the IWW was to form “a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”

While most of the people at the convention were independent operators, representatives of small groups, or famous radicals, the most important constituency was the Western Federation of Miners, who had faced significant repression from mine owners throughout the Rockies and who had found out firsthand how bad the AFL was with industrial solidarity. The radicals controlling the WFM realized that only industrial unionism could fight the aggressive and repressive tactics of American corporations, which included martial law and the murder of union organizers. The WFM formed after the 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike, brutally repressed by the mine companies. This led to the belief among radical miners that only organizing throughout the West could bring the mine companies to heel. Taking this idea nationwide was the next logical step in 1905. In 1902, it named Haywood its Secretary-Treasurer, aligning it with the Socialist Party.

The IWW called for direct action, putting power in workers’ hands to make their own battle against capitalism. Ultimately, for many this might mean full workers’ control over the means of production or revolution, although in 1905 this was less clear. While Wobbly organizing could be pragmatic and its ideology flexible depending on the campaign (my own interpretation after a long time studying Wobblies in the Pacific Northwest forests is that they were really quite opportunistic and thus frequently contradicted themselves over time, a situation exacerbated by the union’s decentralized nature and multiplicity of voices), it became most known for its version of anarcho-syndicalism where workers would win power not through violent revolution but a general strike that would ground the economy to a halt and allow them to take over. Yet the IWW never defined itself as an anarcho-syndicalist organization, rather focusing on the One Big Union concept that focused on democratic control over the union rather than ideology. I’d argue that historians have overstated the importance of Wobbly ideology and understated the importance of pragmatic action; there is a significantly above zero chance this is the topic of my third book.

Outside of ideology, the IWW filled a necessary void in the American labor movement. Since the decline of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor had come to define American unionism. The AFL genuinely represented the workers of its affiliate unions, but those workers saw themselves as working-class elites, white, male, Anglo-Saxons. They were uncomfortable with the changing American workforce (and larger society) that included millions of immigrants, women, children, African-Americans, and Asians. They also longed for an era of skilled labor in a society where mass production had taken over. This meant that the AFL and its constituent unions had little interest in organizing most American workers. Outside of a belief or lack thereof in radical Wobbly ideology, there was a huge demand for organization by millions of workers. The IWW had its limitations, but did more than anyone else to provide an avenue for American workers to attempt to improve their lives.

The IWW directly rejected craft unionism at its founding convention, noting:

The directory of unions of Chicago shows in 1903 a total of 56 different unions in the packing houses, divided up still more in 14 different national trades unions of the American Federation of Labor.

What a horrible example of an army divided against itself in the face of a strong combination of employers

Such a critique of craft unionism would continue among industrial unionists for decades.

The IWW got off to a pretty rocky start as many of the founding figures peeled off in the inevitable infighting and destructive focus on personalities that has always plagued the American Left and continues to do so today. By 1908, the Western Federation of Miners had left their national project behind as moderates gained control over that union and returned to the Rockies. Daniel DeLeon was expelled, trying briefly to operate an alternative One Big Union from Detroit. The reformist socialists split with the revolutionary socialists in 1906. Some of the radicals believed the union’s political goal should have focused on mobilizing a working-class vote; others felt American democracy worthless for workers to take part in. Yet the IWW slowly gained credibility with real workers, with it leading a silver mine strike in Goldfied, Nevada in 1906 and sawmill worker strike in Portland in 1907; the latter made the AFL realize what a real threat the Wobblies could be and it worked with employers to bust the strike. in 1908, the IWW reorganized and became a tighter organization, dedicated explicitly to organizing the industrial masses into the One Big Union and focusing on direct worker action to take control of the means of production.

Over the next 15 years, the IWW would go on to be involved in many of the era’s most important and famous labor conflicts, including at Paterson and Lawrence. Organizers like Frank Little and Joe Hill would be murdered. Police and corporations would take extra legal action against them at Bisbee and Everett. When they fought back, such at Centralia and Wheatland, they would be railroaded into prison and even lynched. The Red Scare made the IWW largely irrelevant by the 1920s, but part of that was also the Bolshevik Revolution. The success of a leftist movement overseas meant that most radicals became communists in the 1920s and 1930s and the IWW was an irrelevant rump of just a few workers scattered here and there.

The literature on the IWW is tremendously large. For an overview, I still recommend Melvyn Dubofsky’s 1969 book (there are more recent editions and an abridged edition as well) We Shall Be All, in no small part because too many writers for the IWW are openly cheerleading for them, even the professional historians, and Dubofsky does a good job of maintaining a more even treatment of their failures and successes.

This is the 111th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1938

[ 48 ] June 25, 2014 |

On June 25, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation, while flawed as almost all progressive legislation must be to pass Congress, set the standards of labor that defined post-war America, including minimum wages, overtime pay, and the banning of most child labor.

Sweeping laws to regulate wages and hours had been bandied around for some time, including a bill sponsored by Hugo Black in 1933 to reduce the workweek to 30 hours. Black continued to push for some kind of comprehensive labor regulation bill, although against significant Congressional opposition from conservatives. Roosevelt campaigned on wage and hour legislation in 1936. In 1937, a new fight was undertaken for such a bill and it took nearly a year of contentious negotiations to make it happen. On May 24, 1937, FDR had the bill introduced through friendly congressmen. The original bill included a Fair Labor Standards Board to mediate labor issues, and a 40 cent an hour minimum wage for a 40 hour week, as well as the prohibition of “oppressive child labor” for goods shipped between states. FDR told Congress, “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling worker’s wages or stretching workers’ hours.” The administration tried to stress that this was actually a pro-business measure. Commissioner of Labor Statistic Isador Lubin told Congress that the businesses surviving the Depression were not the most efficient, but the ones who most ruthlessly exploited labor into longer hours and lower wages. Only by halting this cutthroat exploitation could a more rational and well-regulated economy result.

Organized labor was split on the FLSA. Many labor leaders believed in it wholeheartedly, including Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky. Interestingly, both AFL head William Green and CIO leader John L. Lewis supported it only for the lowest wage workers, fearing a minimum wage would become a maximum wage for better paid labor. This reflected the long-standing mistrust of government by labor, lessons hard-learned over the past half-century, but ones that could get in the way of understanding the potential of the New Deal. Of course, today’s reliance upon the state by the labor movement would confirm much of what Lewis and especially Green believed, but that’s a subject for another post.

But all this happened while FDR was also engaged in his court-packing scheme. The embarrassing failure of that idea threatened the FLSA’s passage. It was quickly moved through the Senate but the House stalled, leading to it taking over a year to make it through Congress. It was only after Claude Pepper beat off an anti-New Deal challenger in the Florida primary that enough southern Congressmen would vote for the bill for it to pass, even in somewhat weakened form. The bill FDR finally signed over covered about 25 percent of the labor force at that time. It banned the worst forms of child labor, set the labor week at 44 hours, and created the federal minimum wage, set at 25 cents an hour.

Of course, corporate leaders howled about the impact of this 25 cent minimum wage. It was a big enough threat that Roosevelt addressed it in a Fireside Chat, telling Americans, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

The impact of this law cannot be overstated. The minimum wage had been a major project of labor reformers for decades. During the Progressive Era, reformers had made some progress, but the Supreme Court ruled a minimum wage for women unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923, killing the movement’s momentum. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 set an important precedent for federal regulation over wages and hours, but the Supreme Court overruled this in 1935, leading to the National Labor Relations Act and FDR’s attack upon the Supreme Court as an antiquated institution destroying progress.

It’s worth noting how important the child labor provisions were. Child labor had been the bane of the country for a century. Children were often expected to work through most of American history; they had always worked on farms or in the apprenticeships that defined pre-industrial labor. But in the factory systems, children were employed explicitly to undermine wages and increase profits. Organized labor and reformers had fought to end child labor for decades, with industries such as apparel and timber leading the opposition to it. This largely, although not entirely, ended with the FLSA, to the benefit of every American.

There were unfortunate exceptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most notably, agriculture received an exemption, part of its long-term exploitative labor methods. This was something of a compromise as southerners complained about having to pay northern wages in an area of the country long used to cheap labor; in fact, those disparities had long been used by northern and western industrialists against a minimum wage in their states since they said they couldn’t compete with southern employers as it was. Other groups still largely excluded include circus employees, babysitters, journalists, and personal companions.

The agricultural exemption is the most damaging. Farmworkers remain among the most exploited labor in the United States today. The federal government still has no child age limit on farm work and only 33 states have stepped in to create one. Most of the states that exempt farm work from child labor laws are in the South, but among the other states is Rhode Island. Those state laws are limited, as state regulation often is. Washington for instance allows children as young as 12 to pick berries, cucumbers, spinach, and other groups when school is not in session. Workers under the age of 16 are prohibited from hazardous jobs on farms, but who is checking that? Not enough inspectors, that’s for sure. Farmworkers under the age of 20 only receive $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of their work. In short, there are still huge gaps in FLSA coverage and in today’s political climate, they are more likely to grow, not shrink.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was significantly expanded over the years. Each increase in the minimum wage is an amendment to the FLSA. In 1949, Harry Truman expanded its reach to airline and cannery workers. JFK expanded it to retail and service employees. The 1963 Equal Pay Act expanded its reach to require equal pay for equal work for women and men.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was the last major piece of New Deal legislation. FDR was facing a backlash from the court-packing incident and the alliance of southern Democrats and Republicans determined to limit the power of the liberal state. After the 1938 elections, FDR’s ability to create groundbreaking programs declined significantly and then World War II came to dominate American political life.

This is the 110th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 23, 1855

[ 97 ] June 23, 2014 |

On June 23, 1855, a 19 year old slave woman named Celia murdered her master rather than allow him to rape her. She then attempted to burn his body, nearly succeeding in erasing all traces of the crime. She was arrested, convicted, and executed. This story gets at both the inhumanity of slavery and the sexual labor forced upon millions of African and African-American women during two centuries of chattel slavery in the United States.

Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer in Callaway County, Missouri, purchased Celia in 1850. She was 14. In the 1850 census, Newsom owned 800 acres and five male slaves. Celia was the first female slave he purchased and it seems that he did so in order to use her for sex, as well as to serve as the house cook. His wife had died in 1849 and he decided on a sex slave rather than a new wife. He first raped Celia before they returned to his plantation. She eventually had two children by him.

In 1855, Celia took a slave named George as her lover. George pressured Celia to end Newsom’s rapes. Of course, he could do nothing about it himself, a subject that has gone far in defining the history of black masculinities in this country (there is a large literature on this topic). Celia did everything she could. She asked Newsom’s daughters to intervene. She pleaded to Newsom. Nothing helped. The rape continued.

On June 23, Newsom told Celia he was coming to her cabin that night, which he did at around 10 p.m. When he made his advances, she picked up a stick and beat him over the head. The first blow knocked him down and the second ended his life.

She hadn’t really intended to murder him. She just wanted him to not rape her. Not knowing what to do, she thought for about an hour. And then decided to burn him in her fireplace. Her house, an actual brick house built for her status as Newsom’s concubine, was a good distance from the main house so she had some ability to conceal her activities. She did a pretty complete job, smashing bone fragments and throwing them back into the fire, then spreading some of the ashes outside. The next morning she even got Newsom’s young grandson to hide the ashes, meaning he likely literally inhaled his own grandfather.

Because Newsom was so brazen about raping Celia, everyone knew that’s where he went the night before. So the blame immediately focused on her when he could not be found the next day. She went to work as normal and when confronted, denied everything. The police threatened to take away her children, but of course she knew that being caught meant death for her, so this was unsuccessful. She did admit Newsom had come to her cabin for rape. And finally she confessed after hours of continued questioning. After an official inquest the next day, Celia was hauled off to jail in the county seat of Fulton.

This all took place within the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and growing violence on the western frontier over the expansion of slavery, a labor system that increasing numbers of northerners either found abhorrent or at least a threat to their own status as free white workers. The Republican Party, founded the previous year, held the threat of slavery to white labor as central to its ideology. Three days before Celia’s trial began, on October 9, a man named John Brown arrived in Kansas for the first time, soon to become infamous for his use of violence to free people from slavery. Celia’s trial therefore was not just about punishing a crime, rare and salacious as it was. It was also about defending a system of labor that increasingly seemed to masters as threatened on all fronts, even as it was more profitable than ever. On top of all this was the constant fear slaveowners had that their bonded labor would rise up and kill them. Haiti was always on their minds, especially after the Nat Turner revolt. At the heart of this fear was the knowing injustice of the slave system that no amount of mental gymnastics and philosophical musings could erase.

Celia of course had no chance of an acquittal. The judge was William Hall, later a staunch Unionist in the Civil War, But in his instructions to the jury, he explicitly told them that if they believed she killed him to stop her own rape, this was not enough to be found not guilty. Hall really had no choice as he was ambitious and judges were elected positions in Missouri. Yet the defense pushed a radical line that slaves had the right to defend themselves from rape. Given that slave owners could legally do anything they wanted to their slaves without punishment, setting a legal precedent that there were limits to masters’ behavior would have overturned the entire moral basis of slavery. There is not a single known case in the American South of a slaveowner facing criminal charges for raping a slave, even though it happened every day all over the region. Giving slave women the right to resist would have been a major blow for slavery, yet in a slave state, that’s exactly the argument made by the defense attorneys, who seem to indeed have believed Celia was morally innocent. The attorneys were part of a small group of southerners who wanted to use the law to reform slavery’s worst abuses, saving the system while rejecting the attacks of abolitionists by undermining their ability to tell what seemed like sensationalized (regardless of their actual truth) stories about the horrors of slavery. But such reforms were impossible without granting slaves something like human rights.

On October 10, the jury found Celia guilty of first-degree murder. While in prison, Celia delivered a stillborn child. She was not allowed to testify, but that wasn’t only because she was a slave, but because the accused could not testify on their own behalf in Missouri at this time. She was scheduled for execution on November 16, but five days prior, she was moved out of jail to an unknown location and not returned until after her original date. Probably the defense attorneys were involved in this, although it’s unclear. They wanted to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which was not going to happen before the 16th. A new execution date of December 21 was scheduled. On December 14, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution. Celia was executed by hanging on December 21.

Other than the quite exceptional act of murdering her master, Celia’s story is the story of millions of black women, forced into sexual labor for their masters.

There is an excellent book on this case that I recommend for your own reading and for assigning to students, Melton McLaurin’s Celia, a Slave: A True Story.

This is the 109th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 29, 1943

[ 81 ] May 29, 2014 |

On May 29, 1943, Norman Rockwell published a cover in the Saturday Evening Post of a woman working an industrial job. This cover represented the millions of women entering the workforce during World War II to build the material needed to defeat the Axis. This image was part of a larger cultural phenomena referring to these women workers as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter may not have been a real woman, but she does open an entry way to talk about a key point in American labor history: women and work in World War II.

RosieTheRiveter

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter cover

When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, it created an instant labor shortage. With immigration not a possibility except from Mexico, it opened up unprecedented economic opportunities for both women and minorities. The number of women working increased from 12 to 20 million. Before the war, most working women labored in poorly paid service jobs, clerical work, or sales positions. When they did work in manufacturing, it was in the ever exploitative apparel industry, mostly in the South and still a bit in New England. During the war, their labor became much more valuable. The number of women in manufacturing grew by 141 percent and in industries making material for war skyrocketed by 463 percent. Women working in domestic service declined by 20 percent.

Just because women were needed of course didn’t mean that employers had any intention of paying them the same as men, a policy which unfortunately was acceptable to too many unions as well. Men working in a defense production factory averaged $54.65 per week with women receiving an average of only $31.50. While women did join the big industrial unions to work in these factories, because of seniority provisions, they were at the bottom, setting them up to be the first fired after the war. Some contracts for women even stipulated that women would only hold the job until the war’s conclusion. Still, the wages were vastly higher than before the war and women were able to partake of greater economic benefits than any time in U.S. history.

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Women welders, Landers, Frary, and Clark Plant, New Britain, Connecticut

The majority of women entering the workforce were older. 60 percent of the women were over the age of 35 and most of them did not have young children. Generally, younger women with small children did not work although of course there were lots of exceptions. Few employers provided childcare and the government did not recruit these women. One exception to this was at the Kaiser shipyards on the west coast, which had 24-hour child care and therefore employed a lot more young women.

The term Rosie the Riveter first appeared in a 1942 song that became a hit for Kay Kyser. A woman named Rosalind Walter was the inspiration for the song. Walter was an elite woman who took a job in an aircraft factory before entering philanthropy after the war. The always-influential Rockwell popularized the image even more with his cover. Rockwell based his woman on a phone operator he knew in Arlington, Vermont named Mary Doyle Keefe, who he then apologized to for making her look so burly. The image then toured the country as a fundraising drive for war bonds.

The popular image of Rosie the Riveter at the time was associated with a Kentucky woman named Rose Will Monroe who moved to Michigan during World War II and worked as a riveter building bombers in a Ypislanti factory. Monroe was asked to be in a promotional film about the women workers and received some short-lived fame that way.

The most famous Rosie image, the “We Can Do It” poster in fact was not designed for the campaign at all. Westinghouse hired a Pittsburgh graphic designer named J. Howard Miller to design an image of a woman worker for its War Production Coordinating Committee. It is believed Miller based his image on a photo of a woman named Geraldine Hoff, who worked as a metal-stamping machine operator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was only shown to Westinghouse workers as part of a good morale, corporate-values drive (read, anti-union drive) for 2 weeks in February 1943 and was then forgotten. In fact, the poster did not become widely associated with Rosie the Riveter until the 1980s.

So to repeat, the image you think of when you think of Rosie the Riveter was an image intended to discourage women from joining unions. The “We” in “We Can Do It” is Westinghouse workers following the leadership of Westinghouse management. Of course, there’s certainly nothing wrong with co-opting right-wing materials for our purposes; certainly conservatives do this all time to images and ideas of the left.

We_Can_Do_It!

Westinghouse-commissioned corporate propaganda, later erroneously associated with Rosie the Riveter

The war meant a lot of hard work. But wartime work could mean a lot of fun too, perhaps too much for some. Senator Prentiss Brown (D-MI), member of the Army Ordinance Committee, spoke out about fun getting in the way of war production:

The pumps were found to be in perfect condition and no reason could found for their failure until a pair of ladies panties were taken from the suction pipe. These were undoubtedly discarded during the construction of the vessel in a moment of thoughtlessness and left lying in the tank, later finding their way into the pipeline…In order that all may cooperate one hundred percent in the war effort and the total destruction the Axis Powers, it is respectfully requested that lady workers keep their pants on during working hours for the duration.

Many women wanted to continue working after the war (one poll put the number at about 75%), but the postwar economy would be nothing if not patriarchal. Nearly all the women working in factories lost their jobs by the end of 1946. Yet despite overwhelming popular support for women staying at home at letting men working in a single-family economy during the 1950s, women soon entered the workforce at rates surpassing that of World War II. In one poll, 86% of Americans said that married women should not work if jobs were scarce and a husband could support her. Yet by 1952, 2 million more women were working than in 1945. But instead of well-paying industrial jobs, they were effectively filling service positions in the booming postwar economy, going back into sales, office work, flight attendants, and domestic service. The fight for women to become an accepted part of the industrial workforce would not be fully engaged again until the 1970s.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton created the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park at the site of a former Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California, giving the National Park Service a site to interpret this history. I haven’t visited unfortunately.

The original Rockwell painting was sold in 2002 for $4.9 million and now resides in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Today, the image of Rosie the Riveter has become a feminist icon, despite the facts of its origins which are almost totally unknown.

This is the 108th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1924

[ 32 ] May 26, 2014 |

On May 26, 1924, the doors of the United States closed to most immigrants as President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924. The law set the yearly quota for a nation’s population to immigrate to the U.S. at 2% of its U.S. population in the 1890 census. Beginning in 1927, immigration would then decline even further, to 150,000 total. This law put an end to the immigrant flows to the U.S. that had provided the labor force for the nation’s stupendous industrial growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also demonstrates the great discomfort many Americans had with the diversity that became a byproduct of the need for such an expanding labor force.

Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe seemed to threaten American values for reasons outside their funny religions, peasant clothing, and garlic-eating ways. Most people came to the U.S. for the precise reason they do today: to make money for their families back home. Like Mexicans and Guatemalans today, many hoped to make money and then return and maybe buy some land and build a little house in their home village. And many did that–for groups like the Italians and Greeks there was significant out-migration.

But some of these immigrants, even if they just wanted to work, also believed in the need for a better world. That was especially true among the immigrant group least likely to return to Europe–Jews. They, and to a lesser extent other groups such as the Italians, Greeks, and Finns, had been introduced to socialist ideas in Europe and brought them to the United States. The Jewish women leading the Uprising of the 20,000 against apparel company exploitation in 1909 and after the Triangle Fire in 1911 were the cheap labor the department stores and clothing designers wanted but they had radical tendencies of standing up for their rights that was definitely not what the capitalists wanted. The corporations intentionally brought in different and competing ethnic groups to undermine workplace solidarity (not to mention basic communication). This could be successful but as companies found out at Lawrence, Paterson, and Ludlow, diverse workforces could unite for decent wages and living conditions. And individual acts like Russian Jewish immigrant Alexander Berkman trying (and failing in spectacular fashion) to assassinate plutocrat Henry Clay Frick after Homestead or the native-born but son of immigrants Leon Czoglosz killing President William McKinley was a sign of the very real violence that some would commit in the cause of punishing capitalists.

While unions like the Industrial Workers of the World embraced these new workers, mainstream organized labor considered them competition for jobs already poorly paid and thus disdained them, a choice that was as much cultural and racial as it was about principles of labor. The American Federation of Labor strongly supported all anti-immigration legislation despite being headed by an English immigrant by the name of Samuel Gompers. But of course Gompers and others came out of an older Protestant immigration that had caused little tension in American history, outside of some anti-German sentiment around the time of the American Revolution. Gompers would have no patience for these southern and eastern Europeans and especially those with ideas about labor movements more radical than he.

Despite the strikes many of these new immigrants engaged in, for most corporate leaders, the need for cheap labor won out over concerns about radicals. The plutocrats buying the Republican Party managed to keep the door open long after nativists wanted it shut. But the events of World War I changed the equation. The unfair equation of the IWW with pro-Kaiser sentiment (absurd on the face of it and the IWW in the U.S. only opposed the war in theory, allowing their members to take whatever position they felt right) meant that immigrants were more suspect than ever and that everything about them needed watching. This is also how the 18th Amendment also finally gathered the necessary support to pass since even beer drinking was now German. The Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Bisbee Deportation, the Centralia Massacre, the Palmer Raids and Red Scare, and the deporting of 566 radicals including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman all helped influence a more comprehensive solution to the fears middle class Protestants had of what this nation was becoming, which was just ending immigration almost entirely.

This trend had been coming for some time and the 1924 act, properly known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was only the final straw. The Immigration Act of 1917, passed over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, barred “undesirables” from entering the U.S., a category which included criminals, the insane, and alcoholics, and imposed a literacy test which led to 1400 immigrants being denied entry in 1920 and 1921.

Perhaps the most notable feature about the Immigration Act was setting the racial quotas to 1890 level. The quotas of immigrants from each country would be based upon their numbers in the United States according to the 1890 census. It meant that Germans, Irish, and English could still come over in relatively undiminished numbers. It meant basically no Asians, which eliminated the rather sizable immigrant stream of “Syrians” (what we would call today Lebanese Christians).

There was one core exception to the Immigration Act, which was Mexicans crossing into the U.S. to provide cheap farm labor in the Southwest. This would begin a long history of American labor law making exceptions for farmworkers, eventually creating long-term inequality in the sector that continues today.

Was the end of immigration the boon for organized labor that its proponents claimed it would be? Not really. The same conservative movement that ended immigration also crushed organized labor. The powerful union movement flexing its muscles in 1919 was at a low point a mere decade later. And that was before the Great Depression created 25 percent unemployment and another 25 percent underemployment.

In 1927, Albert Johnson said of the act he sponsored that it protected America from “a stream of alien blood, with all its inherent misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed.” Or in other words, people who would challenge capitalism.

The nation would finally revise its racist immigration policy with the Immigration Act of 1965.

This is the 107th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1869

[ 55 ] May 10, 2014 |

On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines met at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad itself was key to the growth of the American nation after the Civil War, but it came at a terrible cost to workers, particularly the Chinese for the Central Pacific. Examining the treatment of the Chinese shines a lot not only the conditions of labor of the most despised group of workers in the United States, but also on the limits of Republican Party free labor ideology.

While the Union Pacific relied largely on Irish labor, the Central Pacfiic hired mostly Chinese laborers to build the railroad. There were certain dangers with all railroad construction and the UP did build across the territory of still pretty powerful Native American tribes, but the land itself was slowly rising and without major physical obstacles in the way. On the other hand, the CP had to build across the Sierra Nevada and then through the difficult terrain of Nevada. It was going over the Sierra that tells the most compelling labor history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Central Pacific hired James Strobridge as its construction superintendent. It was his job to hire the men and build the road. Strobridge liked to beat his workers with a pick handle. While Charles Crocker, one of the CP top executives, objected to this treatment, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, were fine with it. In 1865, Strobridge started hiring Chinese laborers, the most easily dominated in the country at that time, even more so than the newly ex-slaves. The low wages meant that even the Irish were hard to get. CP wanted 4000 workers and had 800. By 1868, 80% of the 12,000 member CP workforce were Chinese. The Chinese presence was hated in California but was also necessary in the early years to do the work white miners did not want to do. When everyday whites left mining after not striking it rich, they saw the Chinese as competition for the white man’s republic they hoped to build in the Golden State.

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Image from Harper’s of Chinese railroad workers building the Transcontinental Railroad

Few would object than if Strobridge turned his legendary labor methods on the Chinese. And turn on them he did. He only brought the Chinese on when the Irish began demanding higher wages. The CP explicitly divided workers by race, forcing the remaining Irish to take lower wages. They wanted about $50 a month. The Chinese were paid $30 and the Irish $35. The Irish had their food and board provided, but the Chinese had to pay for theirs. The Irish of course blamed the Chinese for keeping wages down.

The conditions of work were extremely difficult. Building through the Sierra meant cold, rain, and lots of snow. The Chinese labored on blasting 16 tunnels through the Sierra, an extremely dangerous proposition at any time, and especially during an era when employers had no legal responsibility for workplace safety. It is impossible to know how many Chinese workers died building the railroad, from avalanches, explosions in tunnel building, and other causes. No one kept track because the CP didn’t care. A 1870 newspaper story in a Sacramento paper reported that a train carrying the bones of 1200 dead Chinese workers to San Francisco had passed through town. We can probably see that as a bare minimum of the dead and the number was almost certainly much higher.

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As word of the horrible conditions got back to San Francisco, fewer Chinese signed up. Strobridge raised the wage rates for the Chinese to $35, but this was not enough. In late June 1867, thousands of Chinese went on a short strike. They had concrete demands. They wanted $40 a month, a 10-hour day for above-ground work and an 8-hour for tunneling work instead of the 12-hour day they faced, and end to beatings, and the right to quit without harassment from the company.

Strobridge’s response was to stop feeding the workers. Crocker looked into hiring newly freed slaves (at the same time that southern planters were exploring hiring Chinese) to replace them but this was unrealistic. So simply refusing to send supply trains carrying food was the best answer. The Chinese were high in the mountains, far away from home, and with no means of survival. They were at the mercy of the Central Pacific. After a week, the strike ended and they returned to their brutal, deadly work.

Once they crossed the Sierra and started building in the baking hot and dry alkali flats of the Great Basin, the Chinese had enough. Hundreds of workers fled back along the railroad lines to California. Strobridge sent horsemen to round them up just like they would round up cattle. Free labor this was not.

This story suggests the very strong limitations of Republican labor policy and I want to once again push back on the idea that the Republican Party was a revolutionary political party. The vast majority of these railroad executives were Republicans. Many Republicans were perfectly fine with coerced labor so long as it wasn’t the actual conditions of slavery in the American South. That’s because for them, the problem with slavery was not the treatment of blacks, but the effect on whites, making them lazy, violent, and unconcerned with industrial progress. The abolitionists had different views and at least some of them were not horrible toward the Chinese, but they were always a pretty stark minority in the Republican Party. There was a revolutionary element in the Republican Party, yes, but their views of labor with the mainstream were more an alliance of convenience than a broad set of commonly held views. Far more common and growing ever more powerful in the years after the war were people like the Central Pacific executives, who would happily drive labor to the point of death for profit.

The Chinese would go on to build many western railroads, facing discrimination and violence wherever they went. Hatred of the Chinese eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislative victory for organized labor in American history. Violence however continued and it was only with the rise of Japanese immigration and declining Chinese populations due to the immigration restriction that the violence subsided.

I based part of this post on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, which is not primarily a labor history, but which contains detail of these issues in its railroad chapter and which is worth you reading for more on the importance of nature for understanding key events in American history.

This is the 106th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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