Posted by: kokoro | 24th Feb, 2009

Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle

Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle accounts many of the things we’ve learned about labor. It handles the radical movement and the striking itself very well.

The book depicts radicals taking an important part in 1930s labor organizing. While it perhaps puts too much emphasis on strikers being drawn into the radical movement, which wasn’t always necessarily the case, it shows the extreme paranoia surrounding radicalism in the U.S. It’s presumed that Russia pays the radicals to stir up men and create a revolution, but the book is clear in expressing that people don’t need to be influenced by some ideology to realize that something is wrong with the way they are living. Nonetheless, the experiences the men go through in striking helps them develop their political beliefs.

The book also focuses the logistics of the strike in a way that we haven’t spent too much time discussing in class. In order to keep strikes going there are issues of food, sanitation, living quarters, and space for everyone. If these problems aren’t met, then the strikers are unlikely to remain unified, and the authorities can use improper living conditions as an excuse to break the strike up. While it’s up to the organization to supply the strikers, public sympathy is also important for providing supplies. Under these conditions it’s much clearer to understand why a strike is less likely to be successful the longer it lasts.

Steinbeck writes about the organized power of the valley and the brutal steps it’s willing to take, but he also doesn’t shy away from the brutal actions of the strikers either. The strikers maintain an ends justify the means mindset that leads to a willingness to sacrifice Anderson’s property, beating scabs, using a dead man to rouse up the men, and knocking around a young boy.

Steinbeck’s story does differ from the Ruiz and Weber readings on the California fruit picking and packing industry. Aside from a few Italians, Steinbeck makes no mention of immigrants, let alone the Mexican immigrants that made up a majority of the CA fruit industry in the 1930s. The Mexican immigrants had close family connections that make them more successful in their unification and strikes, something that isn’t seen in the book. Steinbeck also gives the women a passive role, which is almost insulting when considering the actions of the immigrant women in Ruiz and Weber readings. They were far from passive, and in fact, were strike leaders and even attacked scabs.

Posted by: kokoro | 17th Feb, 2009

Countryman Lecture

Countryman provided a lecture on the history of black politics, including their influence on Obama’s campaign.

Following the Civil War and Emancipation, white politicians eventually realized that blacks were an important constituency. A system of plantation politics emerged where blacks provided support for parties, but received little in return. For their votes, blacks were given bread crumbs of the party, without a say in decision making.

Following World War II, the black population increased in cities as a result of the Great Migration and white flight. These cities were more likely to have black executives in office as mayors; however, even into the 1960s, white politicians were reluctant to support black politicians taking anything more than a few legislative positions.

Inspired by the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in legal reform, black leaders were determined to make economic changes as well. In order to make economic changes, blacks worked towards controlling the institutions in their own neighborhoods. To gain community control, blacks needed to maintain strength in the Democratic Party in order to enact class change. Black politics are based on a revolution through the ballot box, in which black solidarity leads to political power which then leads to economic change.

Black power principles have basis in three main political strategies. It works from the assumption that racism is inherent in American society, that enacting change must be beyond a legal level, and that racial unity in necessary and progress can only be accomplished through the improvement of the entire community.

Black politicians recognized that they had to address the concerns of all their constituents in order to be elected to office. Harold Washington in his run for mayor of Chicago, ran his first term exaggerating anxieties in the white community and simply wouldn’t have won without the support of the black community. However, in his second run, he realized he would have to make it clear that he intended to govern the city as a whole in a way that would benefit everyone. He was reelected with far more support from the white community than in his first run. Black power grew into a stronger movement as it became a wider coalition able to gain support from blacks, while at the same time maintaining support from white and immigrant groups.

Obama has run his campaign based around black politics to a degree, based on race relations and ideas of change. However, the biggest difficulties for Obama will probably come from his job of governing institutions that are meant to maintain the status quo, while working with a policy of change.

Many of the ideas surrounding black politics are similar to what we have discussed emerging from the labor movement in the 20th Century. Black politics running on the belief of change through the ballot box is very similar to the ideals and goals of the Socialist Party. Certainly the labor movement has long been based on community solidarity and unity, much like black politics. More importantly, I think, is the recognition that expansion beyond one particular group is necessary to reach power and enact change. Unity must extend beyond race, nationality, gender, or skill. The labor movement realized and began to integrate it into their strategies it in the ‘30s, and black politicians followed that strategy in the ‘80s and beyond. For both the labor movement and black politics, political power is gained through unity and solidarity of the community and beyond, which can then lead to change- legally, economically, and socially.

Posted by: kokoro | 16th Feb, 2009

Kelley, Three Strikes, 1936 Musicians’ Strike

Kelley discusses the unsuccessful, mostly unforgettable 1936 strike by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) against theatres due to their firing at the advent of sound pictures. Nonetheless, the strike provides some interesting observations about the nature of labor and labor unions. The musicians’ strike shows the limits of solidarity. What happens when employees don’t see themselves as workers or aren’t seen by others as workers? What happens when the interests of laborers of the arts clash with the desires of working-class consumers? What kind of music exists under capitalism, where new inventions are created for its mass-production and distribution?

Early movie theatres’ productions closely resembled variety shows. They showed newsreels, vaudeville performances (including blackface minstrelsy), and a feature film, with a varying number and types of musicians providing the music. In the late 1920s, soundtracks were added to pictures, removing the necessity of musicians, and standardizing the musical accompaniment, which many studios had tried to due with cue sheets for the musicians.

Most musicians were fired, and they tried to gain support from the public. However, the public enjoyed the talkies, particularly because the admission price dropped with the removal of the vaudeville acts. The musicians simply couldn’t gain public and trade union support.

Posted by: kokoro | 12th Feb, 2009

Ruiz and Weber readings

Both the Ruiz and Weber readings discuss the place of Mexican women in the labor movement in California. Both in the canning industry and farming, women played a major part in creating social systems of community and solidarity within the workforce, which was able to translate into union organization.

During the interwar period many Mexicans immigrated to the United States. Most became agricultural workers, but food processing also employed a fair number of Mexicans, especially women.

In the canning industry a “cannery culture” was created during the 1930s, based on a collective identity created by family ties, job segregation by gender, and harsh working conditions. Mexican women encouraged their friends to take jobs, and they initiated newcomers into the rigors of cannery life. Working under common conditions with common concerns also created friendships or alliances that crossed family and ethnic lines.

In 1937 the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America was organized as a CIO affiliate. UCAPAWA was left-oriented, and deliberately recruited black, Mexican, and female organizers and aimed many of its organizing campaigns at minorities. All but thirty California Sanitary Canning Company (Cal San) workers joined the union, but the owners, the Shapiro brothers, refused to recognize the union.

On 31 August 1939, the nearly all four hundred and thirty workers at Cal San walked out and created a picket line. They demanded higher wages, better working conditions, dismissal of supervisors, recognition of their union (Local 75), and a closed shop.

Early in the strike, organizers made use of another tactic, the secondary boycott. Leaders approached the managers of local groceries in LA and urged them to not purchase Cal San products. Forty grocers followed the request, making the tactic successful. Another successful tactic was sending children to walk picket lines on the Shapiros’ front lawns, which created community pressures on the brothers to negotiate.

The workers failed to win an elimination of the piece rate system, but they were given a wage increase, and many supervisors were fired. They also successfully negotiated a closed shop contract. The Local 75 also helped in organizing other unions.

The second reading uses an oral interview with a Mexican farmer worker, named Mrs. Valdez. Before 1930, the protests that arose from agricultural workers towards their employers were unorganized and spontaneous reactions to poor wages and working conditions. In the 1930s, laborers began organizing with unions, a process made easier by the mutual aid societies and close community/heritage ties already in place between Mexican workers. In 1933 there was a strike by cotton workers in the San Joaquin Valley, in which Mexican women played an important part, including Mrs. Valdez.

During the strike Mexican women ran the kitchens, cared for their children, and marched on picket lines. They even confronted strikebreakers and willing restored to violence against them. Mrs. Valdez distinctly recalls her two major concerns as providing for her family and her role as a striker. Her interests as a Mexican worker were shaped in the context of her interests as a woman, mother, and wife, and as a result her biggest concerns and memories about the strike revolve around the issue of food.

The reading also provides as interesting discussion on the usefulness of oral histories. While they have certain limitations regarding the memory, perspective, and knowledge of the interviewee, oral histories contain valuable information. They provide human dimensions to history that words alone can’t express. Mrs. Valdez, for instance, expresses how she felt about the groups and people and events around her, not just through words, but also through tone of voice and through movement and expression. Oral histories, particularly those of minorities, added to the written word, can provide a fuller picture of historical events.

Babson discusses how workers entered the 1930s with unemployment, starvation, and violent suppression of protests, and ended the decade with a larger and more inclusive labor movement, support from the federal government, and recognition and legitimacy of labor concerns.

The Great Depression resulted in massive layoffs, which the government and businesses were quick to deny. The AFL was slow to act on the shared misery between whites and minorities and the growing resentment towards business leaders and government officials. Radicals stepped forward to take advantage of these feelings and organize people into nationwide protests and networks of mutual aid among the jobless. While this did not increase a shift toward radical politics, it did signal the reemergence of working class communities’ solidarity and organization for common purposes.

In 1933, FDR created the National Industrial Recovery Act, which allowed industry trade associations to establish codes of fair competition, permitting price fixing and restriction of production. Under Section 7 companies were also forced to comply with minimum wage and maximum hour regulations prescribed by the president, and workers were given the right to organization and collective bargaining. Union membership grew and there were successful actions against companies in coal and clothing industries; however, most unions lacked the strength to make employers comply with the law.

The 1935-37 period proved to be the most victorious in labor movement history. Despite holds on the National Labor Rights Board, the Wagner Act of 1934 provided validation of Section 7 rights, sanctioning them by law even without government enforcement. The AFL stopped dragging its feet and the Committee for Industrial Organizational (CIO) was created; it used locally based organization efforts and was willing to work with radicals. The economy was temporarily on the rise. The 1936 elections lead to the ratification of the New Deal and a political trend against business leaders, and union followers became more involved in yearly politics.

Union growth and success stopped in 1937 for several reasons. Despite success against large companies like GM and US Steel, unions encountered violent resistance form companies like Ford and Republic Steel, which were huge companies less concerned with public image and less prepared to compromise. There was an economic recession making workers more cautious and companies less accommodating. Public opinion towards the strikers became less positive due to the continuous disruption of the strikes and the recession. Factionalism also split the workers, and craft distinctions and organizational rivalries reemerged. The CIO became an independent federation (called the Congress for Industrial Organization).

Despite this, the NLRB was back in action and was able to provide support for unions, particularly industrial organizations. It was able to help retain the gains of 1937, but it also created a dependency on government intervention, which was fine as long as the government supported union growth, but it could compromise the union’s autonomy.

One example of the successful 1937 strikes is the Detroit Woolworth Strike, discussed by Dana Frank. On 27 February 1937, Floyd Loew, an organizer for the Waiters’ and Waitresses’ Union of Detroit, called for action, and the 108 women began their tightly coordinated plan for a sit-down strike. The women demanded union recognition, a ten-cent hour raise, an eight hour workday, time and a half for overtime after 48 hours a week, 50-cent lunches for soda fountain workers, free uniforms and free laundering of them, seniority rights, hiring new workers only through union offices, and no discrimination against strikers once they returned to work.

These women were occupying one of the largest transnational companies in the US. However, Woolworth had a series of public relations problems that proved to be useful to the strikers. During the 1920s there was a rise in chain stores, and a reaction against them grew in the early and mid-1930s to the point that the federal government became involved in investigations. Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton also showed how much money the company was making and just how offensively it was being spent. Hutton’s frivolous spending was especially repulsive to a nation going through the Great Depression. The public was also aware of the conditions workers faced. The company deskilled sales operations to keep down labor costs, and it employed young women with few labor choices, assuming they would be working temporarily and less likely to unionize. The women often worked over 50 hours a week, 6 days a week. They were standing for over 9 hours a day and had to always be doing something, and their managers were often unpleasant and sexist.

The Woolworth women were inspired by the successful UAW (United Autoworkers) sit-down strike against GM. Sit-ins were extremely successful because they prevented scabs from being employed. They prevented violence because the company was less wiling to cause harm to their property, and dragging people out by force could create bad publicity. The strikers were able to avoid bad weather conditions. Sit-ins were also successful in raising the morale of strikers by putting them in close contact with one another as opposed to isolation. This was able to create further solidarity, a key to keeping the strike going. By 1937, unions had worked out a strong support system which kept the strikers well supplies with food, bedding, and other necessities.

From the beginning of the strike the women were able to enjoy themselves. They made themselves at home in the Woolworth store. The media jumped on the story instantly. Though the media did not take the strikers seriously, the “silly girl” image gave the women power and protected them from violent action.

The strike spread to a second Woolworth store, and other Detroit service workers and factory workers sat down. Employers even raised wages to prevent strikes from starting. Negotiations with Woolworth began and by the seventh day of the strike on 5 March, an agreement was reached. Though the women did not get a vote to approve the agreement, all of their demands were met and were applied to all 40 Detroit Woolworth stores. The women were partially paid for their striking time, and the non-striking male cooks had their wages increased and given shorter hours also. Woolworth got a small clause saying union employees were not allowed to coerce non-union workers. The Woolworth strike had a ripple effect throughout the nation, where store and restaurant employees went on strike during the following year.

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