Archive for January, 2009

The Hunter reading discusses African American domestic laborers, particularly washerwomen, in Atlanta from the Reconstruction period to World War I. Of the class readings so far, I found this one to be the most interesting. The fact that domestic workers were able to exert their independence and fight white supremacy so strongly and successfully without explicit organization is pretty amazing, particularly right on the heels of emancipation.

The New South Movement was an effort by businessmen to promote industrial capitalism and attract northern capital following the Civil War. To draw northern interest, the South tried creating an image of docile Southern workers who were indifferent to class struggle. While the movement gained momentum, black domestic workers were exercising their newly gained independence, which was in opposition to the docile image businessmen were trying to cultivate. Household manual labor was an attempt by whites to restrict black workers’ social and economic opportunities. However, black domestic workers, particularly washerwomen, were able to fight back.

Quitting was common if workers were unhappy. Not only were laborers able to avoid direct conflict with their employers, they were also able to strengthen their bargaining position as the whites grew to believe that there was a dearth of labor. Quitting became such an issue that the Atlanta City Council passed a law in 1866 that required recommendations from previous employers before any hiring could take place. However, employers often didn’t follow this law, even though it was meant to protect them and maintain the system of white supremacy. Furthermore, while strikes were rare, they weren’t unheard of, including a washerwomen strike in 1881 where they fought for higher wages and to maintain their autonomy.

Politicians often ran on platforms that involved revoking labor rights from blacks, and during WWI Southern legislatures took advantage of the “work or fight” law passed by the federal government to draft unemployed men. However, in the South, it was used as an attempt to break the will of black workers. It was even turned against women, and those who were in violation of the law could be attacked or arrested. Nonetheless, black women were successful in lobbying to fight the legislation.

Black women in the South were also involved in secret societies. They pooled their wages and resources to support the sick, orphaned, and unemployed, and to create opportunities for personal enrichment and race advancement. While the organizations didn’t have explicit labor goals, they brought working class women together and could act in the form of trade unions if necessary. Overall, the washerwomen’s rebellion inspired other domestic workers and beyond to organize.

Posted by: kokoro | 27th Jan, 2009

Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor

Montgomery discusses how the organizing action and social goals of labor unions require deliberate human action; working class activists foster unity through various activities, like strikes, meetings, reading circles, dances, clubs, and stores. In his examination of unions Montgomery studies the human relationships created by wage labor in the workplace, the structural changes in political and economic power as the competitive industrial capitalism of the 19th century declined into 20th century imperialism, and finally, the diverse styles of thought and activity that the working class used to understand and improve their society.

Montgomery starts with a study of the iron and steel industries. Skilled craftsmen were able to exercise collective control over the productive tasks they engaged in, as well as over the human relationships involved in the performance of those tasks. These working class leaders drew strength from workers’ autonomy on the job, from a group ethical code developed around work relations, and from the organizations they created to protect their interests.

For instance, the ethical code set how long a craftsman should would daily, which was called a “stint.” Anyone who went over the hours determined appropriate by the union was ostracized. The code also expected workers to support each other’s grievances, which the executives fought against with inside contracting.

Organization was not an easy task, and consolidation proved difficult. The Amalgamated Association was mostly concerned with skilled trades and their helpers rather than the interests of common laborers. Also, common laborers often had different backgrounds than skilled workers, as they were often rural, blacks, or immigrants. Other tensions were due to blacks often being brought in as strikebreakers. However, in 1882, eligibility became based on occupation, not race.

Montgomery argues that class conflict is inherent in industrial life. For instance, the rapid development of the iron and steel industries involved the accumulation of both capital (for the firms’ partners and shareholders) and knowledge (for the workers). Accumulation involved social conflict because of the division of a product between wages and profits, as well as because the social nature of production clashed with the private nature of ownership. Executives sought to stop workers’ collective control over operations and to cut workers’ power by removing craftsmen of their accumulated skill and knowledge.

Posted by: kokoro | 22nd Jan, 2009

Babson, Intro and Chapter 1

The introduction discussed how some people consider unions to be obsolete and irrelevant today. I think as long as workers are being exploited and mistreated by employers, unions will have a purpose. So it’s pretty likely that unions will never be obsolete, sadly.

One statistic I found to be very interesting is that medieval farm laborers worked less than seventeen hundred hours a year, while American manufacturing wage laborers in 1901 worked twenty-eight hundred hours a year. Hm, laborers working more than serfs in the land of the free.

It’s interesting to see how unions developed within the thirty-ish year period described. 1877 shows the start of the modern American labor union, as well as the deadly force often used to suppress unions. The Knights of Labor was all-inclusive to women and blacks and had a particularly political agenda, but it declined following the Haymarket riot. It lost skilled craftsman to the American Federation of Labor, which had more selective, less political demands and more exclusive membership, with an increasingly hostile view towards blacks and immigrants. Nonetheless, organizations like the United Mine Workers of America were willing to accept black workers, showing that unions can be both a force of racial inequality as well as racial equality.

Posted by: kokoro | 20th Jan, 2009

Lott and Saxton readings

At first I had trouble figuring out exactly how the Lott reading on blackface minstrels was related to labor. It made more sense to me when he started discussing how ideologies of white working class manhood supported racist tendencies. The fear and hatred, but also envy (linked to genitalia) that white men had towards blacks is something that my anthropology professor discussed, but I had not thought about it in the context of labor and class. Blackface allowed white men to take on the enviable aspects of and fulfill the curiosity towards black culture, while also mocking blacks and making them less threatening for both the performers and the white audiences.

Lott also made a good point that blackface minstrelsy and other unfortunate aspects of American culture, should not simply be condemned, because they make us aware of racial attitudes that remain today. Painful or not, we need to consider all parts of our past if we are to understand ourselves.

The Saxton reading provides an example of the darker side of unionization by discussing the way anti-Chinese sentiments in California were used as a tool in organizing unions . In the late 19th century, unions perpetuated racism and supported exclusion acts and closing ports against immigrants in order to prevent jobs from being taken from American workers, an issue still argued over today. Chinese workers were excluded on the basis of being inferior, but that thinking was harder to extend to Caucasian Eastern and Southern Europeans who began immigrating to the U.S. in larger numbers at the end of the 19th century. They were charged with being uneducated, not as a result of inferior intellect or even inferior social conditions, but as a result of their own laziness. However, by being linked with Chinese and blacks, they were essentially excluded from the Caucasian race, and as a result the definition of Caucasian became exclusive to those of Anglo-Saxon or Nordic heritage. There are far too many examples of that sort of thinking ending very badly, and unions, for all their good qualities, can help support the racial and ethnic intolerance that leads to hate crimes, eugenics, and genocide.

Posted by: kokoro | 15th Jan, 2009

Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight; Yates, Why Unions Matter

The Lipsitz reading certainly made me consider many things that I had not before. I never really thought about the impact America’s deindustrialization and increasing overseas production would have on labor and workers. Usually, my thoughts are on how odd it is to see things that are representative of American culture being made in other countries. For instance, in one of the antiques shops downtown, I saw some replica Civil War hats with tags that said, take a guess, “made in China.”

Also, I’ve studied several aspects of post-WWII America, like the economic boom and consumerism, military demobilization, and social and racial tensions, but the closest I’ve come to considering the impact of labor on our current economic, political, and cultural life is studying the result of WWII veterans returning to the workforce.

In the Yates reading, I was reminded of an experience of my own when he discussed the actions of his wife and other daycare workers. She spoke up against her employer and that inspired her co-workers to do so as well, and that led to them making a change in their working environment. I also spoke up against my supervisor about something I perceived to be unfair. However, the other workers didn’t join me, and as a result nothing changed.

I would almost say that Yates is being paranoid in his ideas about corporations, all levels of government (local, state, and federal), and the media being in cahoots against unions… but from what I know about union history, he’s pretty much right on. While the federal government finally offered a hand on behalf of unions during FDR’s presidency, the process of organizing under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) sounds like a nightmare. And apparently corporations are still allowed to basically harass and legally lie to people to convince them not to join a union.

Most of Yates ideas about unions struck me as very Marxist, which certainly isn’t surprising, but I think that it does draw light to some of the reasons why corporations, the government, and the media are resistant to unions.

Funnily enough, when I was originally writing this there was a commercial on in which Erin Brockovich talked about the exploitation of working people by large corporations.