Category: Labor
McDonald’s workers on historic strike in Britain – Solidarity with their just struggle

Monday, September 11, 2017

McDonald’s workers on historic strike in Britain – Solidarity with their just struggle
Their solidarity towards the strike of the workers at McDonald’s fast food chain in Britain expressed labor-trade unions in Greece and Turkey. 
The Trade union of workers in Catering, Hotels, Tourism of Athens issued a statement expressing its solidarity to their colleagues working to McDonald’s in the UK, who went on strike earlier this week, struggling for better salaries and abolition of the “zero hour contracts”. 
More specifically, the union states:
“Every country has two faces. One face represents wealth and luxury, where a minority is exploiting the work of others. On the other hand, there is the face of the majority of the workers struggling to live with poverty wages. Even we, who daily serve food to thousands of people, we do not manage to serve food to our families.
The workers in catering, tourism and hotels of Athens, support your fair demands for better wages, working hours and union recognition.
The flight of every worker for life, working conditions and working rights, is a fight that concerns us all.”
In Istanbul, members of the Communist Party of Turkey raided McDonald’s restaurants in the city addressing the workers and customers, ‘Did you hear? McDonald’s workers are on strike!
The leaflets announced that McDonald’s has over 1 million employees throughout the world and 85 thousand of them who work in Britain are on strike. It vocalized the demands of the workers for higher hourly pay, union rights and an end to slavish treatment of bosses.
Over 200 thousand fast food workers in Turkey work in precarious, unsecure conditions, long hours standing and with low wages. Average hourly pay starts from 7 liras [about 2 dolars] and daily overtime reaches 9 hours, without week-end holiday.
The leaflet told that  McDonald’s workers under these conditions are expected to seem jocund and keep hardworking. They are monitored by cameras and a momentary rest is an excuse to get fired. Meanwhile the bosses record a turnover of 6 billlion dolars. ‘A “smiling service” in front of the kitchen and a cruel exploitation behind…
CP of Turkey stated that fast food culture speeds up the reaping of bosses and for workers the only way out is to get organized. “In Britain, Germany, Turkey and elsewhere in the world’said the leaflet, ‘either in McDonald’s or in others, the same exploitation, the same class of bosses. The only way out is to get organized and to act collectively.”
Regarding the historic strike of workers at McDonald’s, we read in the article published at the New Worker (No 1934, 8 September 2017), official newspaper of the New Communist Party of Britain:
WORKERS at two branches of the McDonald’s fast food chain began strike action early on Monday – the first strike at McDonald’s in Britain since the chain first opened in Brit- ain in 1974. The workers are members of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). They are demanding £10-per-hour minimum pay, union recogni- tion, an end to zero-hours con- tracts and an end to the bullying culture rife behind the scenes at McDonald’s.
Staff at the two branches, in Crayford, Kent and in Cam- bridge, were balloted for strike action and last month voted by 95.7 per cent in favour of the strike. Picket lines outside both branches found support from the general public and other trade unionists and progressives. Later on Monday they travelled to Westminster for a rally.
The workers are angry at the way managers use the zero-hours contracts to bully workers by cutting their hours so they can never be sure what their wages will be. This has led workers to lose their homes through not being able to pay rent. One young woman on the picket line described the bul- lying culture to reporters: “My mum passed away in January and the manager just thought I went on holiday. The way I was treated was really bad. I went into hospital because of the stress of it.”
ess of it.” Twenty-seven-year-old Lew- is Baker, who helped to organise the Crayford strike, said: “There is proper bullying going on here. The conditions have become really bad. There’s discrimination. Hours are cut if you’re not a manager’s favourite. “The fight for £10 an hour is great and it would help us all, but it won’t make working here any better.
“We’ve had bosses tell us this strike is a joke. But it’s not a joke,” he said gesturing to the crowd of supporters. “For everyone to come here and show them we have support is just incredible.”
In a statement before the strike, Ian Hodson, president of the BFAWU, said: “For far too long, workers in fast food restau- rants such as McDonald’s have had to deal with unexplainably poor working conditions, dras- tic cuts to employee hours, and even bullying in the workplace – viewed by many as a punishment for joining a union.
“Trade unions, such as mine – Baker’s, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) – have worked to support these brave workers in standing up and fighting back against McDonalds – a company which has let these workers down one too many times. “Yet, despite all the attempts to change McDonald’s approach and help them become a fairer employer, nothing has been done on their side. Nothing has changed. Empty promises have been made. Yet nothing has been delivered.”
On Monday he said: “This is the second-largest restaurant company in the world that makes $22 billion (£17 billion) reve- nues a year, and yet its workers are living in poverty. They have been the pioneers of zero-hours contracts.” This is the first strike at Mc- Donald’s in Britain but it is part of an international movement, the Fast Food Global workers’ movement. In the United States, McDonald’s has come under pressure as part of the ‘Fight for $15’ campaign.
How the ILWU Stopped Fascists
| September 4, 2017 | 8:19 pm | Fascist terrorism, Labor | No comments

How the ILWU Stopped Fascists


What role should the labor movement play in beating back the resurgence of fascism? Resistance, while a powerful concept, is far too vague. Local 10, the San Francisco Bay Area branch of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)—and perhaps the most radical union in the United States—demonstrates what can be done.

This past week, the San Francisco Bay Area—long a center of unionism, social justice movements and radicalism—took center stage. Patriot Prayer is a right-wing organization with a demonstrated history of inciting racist violence, most obviously in Portland, Ore., while ironically asserting peaceful intentions. The far-right group declared it would rally in San Francisco on Saturday.

Local 10 took a lead role in organizing counter-protests that contributed to the San Francisco event being canceled the day ahead of its scheduled event. The union’s role in this wave of popular mobilizations demands consideration.

At its August 17 meeting, Local 10 passed a “Motion to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco,” which laid out members’ opposition to the rally and intention to organize. This resolution enumerated the union’s justifications, starting with Donald Trump’s “whitewashing this violent, deadly fascist and racist attack [in Charlottesville] saying ‘both sides are to blame,’ and his attacking anti-racists for opposing Confederate statues that honor slavery adds fuel to the fire of racist violence.”

The dockworkers called out Patriot Prayer for inciting violence. “[F]ar from a matter of ‘free speech,’ the racist and fascist provocations are a deadly menace, as shown in Portland on May 26 when a Nazi murdered two men and almost killed a third for defending two young African-American women he was menacing,” they declared. The union called for a protest against Patriot Prayer’s scheduled rally in San Francisco.

The motion ended with an invitation to “all unions and anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations to join us defending unions, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and all the oppressed.”

As Ed Ferris, Local 10 president and one of the lead organizers succinctly declared in a recent interview with Dr. Suzi Weissman on KPFK, “A woman [Heather Heyer] was killed by Nazis on American soil and that’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Local 10’s planned counter-march received wide publicity in the Bay Area and across California via the internet, mass media and social media. Thousands would likely have joined the anti-fascist demonstration, were it not for the rally’s cancellation. While Local 10 was hardly the only Bay Area group to mobilize, they played a role in inspiring others to take action. As San Francisco Against Hate noted on Facebook, ILWU Local 10 “has a long history of fighting against racism” so “many other SF community groups and individuals who stand against white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia, will be marching from Longshoreman’s Hall to Crissy Field to protest.”

After its first rally was foiled, Patriot Prayer attempted a second at the city’s famed Alamo Park. However, thousands of counter-protesters—including ILWU members and union electricians and teachers—got to Alamo Park first and occupied it, overwhelming what few fascists and white supremacists appeared. These protesters joined another large contingent in the city’s Mission district, long a working-class neighborhood now suffering from rapid gentrification.

On Sunday, the focus shifted to the East Bay city of Berkeley where far-right forces planned to gather. Yet, once again, anti-fascists out-organized the right. Upwards of 5,000 people appeared, including—once more—Bay Area dockworkers and union teachers. Among ILWU members present was Howard Keylor, a 90-year-old who led the anti-apartheid boycott that Local 10 conducted in 1984 in solidarity with South Africans.

Yet, dockworkers have not been immune to the rising tide of hate. Earlier this year, multiple nooses were found on the Oakland waterfront, which followed the discovery of racist slurs spray painted on port equipment. The African-American Longshore Coalition, a caucus of black longshore workers within the ILWU, has led the efforts to combat such racism. In late May, about one hundred workers stopped work to protest these racist provocations. Derrick Muhammad, Local 10’s Secretary Treasurer, commented in late May: “We believe it’s a bonafide health and safety issue because of the history behind the noose and what it means for black people in America.”

Instead of protecting their workers, SSA Marine, the employer, responded by filing a complaint with the port arbitrator who ruled this stoppage illegal. The port’s communications director declared, “The Port of Oakland does not tolerate bigotry or discrimination of any kind,” but offered no specific comment on the nooses or the work stoppage. The Pacific Maritime Association, to which SSA belongs and which represents West Coast shipping corporations in dealings with the ILWU, declined to comment for this story.

The ILWU offers an example of a labor union being widely and deeply involved in social justice beyond its own workplaces. It boycotted ships loading material for fascist and racist regimes in Japan in the 1930s, Chile in the 1970s, and South Africa in the 1980s. It stood as one of the few organizations to condemn the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It actively fought racism in its own workplaces, cities and nation. The ILWU shut down all West Coast ports, on May Day of 2008 to protest the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Trump’s inauguration day, 90 percent of rank-and-file members in Local 10 refused to report for work.

In its anti-fascist statement, the ILWU cited its own “proud history of standing up against racism, fascism and bigotry and using our union power to do so; on May Day 2015 we shut down Bay Area ports and marched followed by thousands to Oscar Grant Plaza demanding an end to police terror against African Americans and others.”

The labor movement has been greatly weakened by decades of anti-unionism, but the ILWU and Local 10 remain unbowed. Other unions should follow their lead. And, for the 89 percent of American workers not in unions, they must be reminded that individual acts of resistance—while noble—are nowhere as effective as collective action. Sadly, there will be many more opportunities to act.

Reposted from Working In These Times


Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has published extensively on labor history and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

Pop culture applies Woody Guthrie’s political barbs masked in all-American balladry
| August 30, 2017 | 8:26 pm | Labor, Woody Guthrie | No comments

Pop culture applies Woody Guthrie’s political barbs masked in all-American balladry

August 25, 2017 Updated: August 26, 2017 11:01pm

“This land is your land, this land is my land,” sang Lady Gaga, reciting the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land Is Your Land” before plunging into Houston’s NRG Stadium as the Super Bowl halftime entertainment.

“This land was made for you and me.”

Gaga’s performance, against a backdrop of twinkling red, white and blue stars, might not have seemed political. The scene appeared to be nothing more than a singer performing a beloved song during the nation’s most popular sporting event.

During the previous year’s Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé provoked viewers by trotting out a brigade of dancers dressed in Black Panther garb. It was interpreted by some as an anti-police statement. Lady Gaga was to be the nonpolitical sequel, an NFL-approved conciliator for both left and right. Yet she made her own statement, in the lyrics of Guthrie’s seemingly benign folk song. In other words, commentators were correct in interpreting Lady Gaga’s Guthrie reference as an indirect barb at President Donald Trump.

Today there exists a misconception that “This Land Is Your Land” is uncomplicatedly patriotic, an ode to the American prosperity that stretches “from California to New York Island.” Taught in elementary schools, the song sounds, well, nice, as if it were the musical equivalent of open arms or a hearth. But Lady Gaga couldn’t have made a more loaded choice that night. If he were living today, Guthrie might be the most pointed critic of the nation’s state of affairs.

In 2017, with the country in an existential crisis, with disparate factions fighting over what is or isn’t “American,” the man behind “This Land Is Your Land” remains essential. Compare his songs to the most biting protest anthems in music today – A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People,” Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” and much of Kendrick Lamar’s ouevre – and Guthrie, placed in a contemporary context, remains one of the country’s most acerbic poets of the political consciousness.

Simply put: Guthrie disagreed with nearly all politicians and capitalists.

Consider, for example, that even presentations of his music that celebrate everything else about him – the charming hobo act, the man-of-the-people Midwestern modesty, the lulling, folksy chords of his songs – carry elements of subversion.

The first scene in “Woody Sez,” a buoyant and well-timed Guthrie tribute show at Stages Repertory Theatre through Sept. 3, has a working-class Okie approach a mic to sing “God Bless America” for a New York radio show in 1940, except he tells the audience he has a better song. He sings these lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land”:

In the shadow of the steeple

By the relief office I’d seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?

The official recording of “This Land Is Your Land” omits this verse, which has made Guthrie’s song seem more optimistic about America than he might have intended. “This land was made for you and me” suggests America offers opportunity for all of its citizens.

But the same idea, posed as a question, raises an eyebrow at American exceptionalism, suggesting this is a land of the poor and powerless as much as of the prosperous.

Guthrie’s image of the poor, standing hungry outside the relief office, isn’t the harshest damnation of American capitalism in the song. He also wrote this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.

The sign was painted, it said “Private Property.”

But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing.

This land was made for you and me.

It’s one of Guthrie’s most brilliant illustrations of privilege: a barrier, presumably owned by a corporation, that separates the haves and the have-nots. The connection to Trump’s “Build the Wall” campaign is easy, but imprecise – the verse’s political message points to economic, not literal barriers.

Born into a white middle-class family in Okemah, Okla., Guthrie wrote “Old Man Trump” in the ’50s as a response to living as a tenant of President Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, whom Guthrie despised for his discriminatory housing policies:

I suppose Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate

He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts

When he drawed that color line

Here at his Beach Haven family project.

“Woody Sez,” devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, features the superb Ben Hope, who blends country twang with pop clarity in his rendition of Guthrie. The musical tells Guthrie’s story, birth to death, in the form of a Wikipedia-biography-meets-greatest-hits-collection.

Eschewing the life of a “rock star,” the singer paid dearly for refusing to censor himself, getting kicked out of radio shows and spending years wandering the country. He wrote a column, titled “Woody Sez,” in the communist paper People’s World, as well as drew anti-capitalist cartoons. His songs frequently skewer bankers and other players of capitalism. As a migrant farm worker, he saw firsthand the cruelties of the age of industry.

Again and again, we see Guthrie run into trouble for his communist ideals. But his beliefs make sense.

If his earthy, blue-collar lyrics ring truer than those of wealthy modern-day country artists, so do his class-based protestations hit harder than the criticisms of America in, say, Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which described money as a form of power rather than corruption. When it comes to money (and not race), Guthrie’s the anti-establishment Bernie Sanders, Beyoncé’s the 1-percenter Hillary Clinton. And compared to even his best-known protégés, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Guthrie remains the least self-introspective and most invested in acting as a poet of the people, and not just for the people of his time.

By the end of “Woody Sez,” it’s clear Guthrie would not only have despised Trump but likely would have penned song after song in protest of him. That would have sung louder, and with more political clarity, than any tribute or quotation.

And though “Woody Sez” doesn’t shy from politics, the politics are secondary to the music in the show. Lady Gaga knew that but also realized not enough people would understand the implication of a Guthrie reference to get her in trouble – sideways commentary custom-made for keeping good PR in today’s outrage culture.

Consider, even, Stages Repertory Theatre artistic director Kenn McLaughlin’s sly suggestion of Guthrie’s politics without actually saying it:

“The whimsical musicianship inspired by much of Woody’s music and the camaraderie of a small ensemble act as metaphor for the larger promise of America’s unity,” he writes in his director’s note. “It isn’t so much political theatre as it is theatre beyond politics.”

McLaughlin is like Lady Gaga. He’s aware of the optics of staging a show about a staunch leftist during the age of Trump, but he avoids making his show partisan by suggesting Guthrie has a universal, “post-political” appeal.

The image of Guthrie as an all-American balladeer, who spoke to everyone, isn’t far off from the songwriter’s down-to-earth populism. Yet McLaughlin’s playbill writing can’t help but hide the controversial message in plain sight. Words like “promise” suggest an equality that doesn’t yet exist.

Guthrie, with his workaday attire and Okie accent, appears harmless. “This Land Is Your Land” sounds harmless. Lady Gaga’s performance seemed simply patriotic. McLaughlin’s message seems to be one of unity. But these are just appearances. Dig a little deeper and Guthrie’s harshest criticisms of American government, capitalism and idealism sound bitterly timely. Soon you realize “This land was made for you and me” was never anything more than a promise.

In the shadow of the steeple

By the relief office I’d seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering,

Is this land made for you and me?

One of the lost verses to ‘This Land Is Your Land’

Wei-Huan Chen

Wei-Huan Chen

Theater Critic + Classical/Opera Writer

FE Local 236

A Louisville union built its strength as blacks, whites took on International Harvester
| August 30, 2017 | 6:44 pm | African American history, Labor | No comments

They crop up right around now, along with the ads for mattress sales: the annual assessments of the state of the American labor movement. There will be a certain mournful sameness to these Labor Day reflections.

While wages stagnate and inequality escalates, union membership rates continue plunging.

The Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress are not, to put it mildly, looking to reverse that trend.

“Right-to-work” is now the rule in most states, as Kentucky and Missouri passed such legislation earlier this year.

And just a few weeks ago, the high-profile organizing effort at Nissan’s Mississippi plant ended in failure.

If you’re a union supporter, all that might well put a damper on your backyard barbecue.

Inevitably, these analyses will focus on the American South. They’ll note the region’s lack of union tradition, the chronically sub-par standard of living, the toxic division sown by racism. The Mason-Dixon line serves as firewall, sustaining an employer-safe zone that undermines organized labor’s ability to secure a firm foothold anywhere else. This deeply-rooted reality makes it hard, these days, to envision how working people can unite to challenge corporate power.

Except that not too long ago, and right here in Louisville, a different story was being written.

“We’re not going to be second-class citizens in the South.” That’s what the 2,000 workers at the sprawling new International Harvester factory — which once stood where planes now take off from Standiford Field — declared in 1947. They objected to the lower pay scale that Harvester management had imposed, and to underscore their point, they walked out of the plant. They then kept it shut down tight in a raucous strike that dominated Louisville’s headlines for over 40 days.

What made this action run contrary to much conventional wisdom is that Harvester’s wages were generous by Southern standards. And nearly all of those who walked out had never been in a union before. And during the strike, whites and African-Americans demonstrated a level of solidarity unprecedented in then heavily-segregated Louisville. And one more thing made the “Southern differential” strike of 1947 noteworthy, then and now: With only $61 in their local union’s treasury, the workers took on one of the world’s most powerful corporations — and won.

Industrial empire built on anti-unionism
International Harvester ceased to exist in the mid-1980s, so it bears reminding that it was one of America’s original industrial empires. Cyrus McCormick began production of his namesake reaper in Chicago before the Civil War and soon became one of the nation’s richest men; in 1902 the company — which the McCormick family continued to control — morphed into International Harvester, a farm equipment monopoly employing hundreds of thousands. IH was a global enterprise well before “globalism” became common parlance, with factories, mines and mills scattered from Australia to Russia to Benham, Kentucky (a coal operation and company town Harvester built and owned in its entirety).

But from its early days the company also garnered a reputation for something else: anti-unionism.

Police violence during a strike outside the McCormick factory triggered the 1886 protest at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which devolved into chaos when a bomb suddenly exploded. In the aftermath four anarchists were hanged and the eight-hour movement died with them. Cyrus McCormick II played a prominent role in securing both outcomes.

In the early 20th century, IH pioneered in the new field of industrial relations, developing more sophisticated methods to quash workers’ organizing efforts. Consequently, even with the upsurge of activism in the Great Depression, International Harvester remained union-free, holding out even after behemoths such as General Motors, Ford, Republic Steel and General Electric had succumbed. It was not until 1941 that Harvester president Fowler McCormick (grandson of both Cyrus McCormick I and John D. Rockefeller) finally signed a multi-plant contract. By the end of World War II, Harvester’s many manufacturing operations — all of them located in the Midwest or Northeast — were at long last unionized.

No surprise, then, that the union that broke through at IH was bold and unflinching. The Farm Equipment Workers, known as FE, was officially formed in 1938; it was one of the founding unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations — the CIO. It was never a very big operation but garnered an outsized reputation for its militancy, with many of its key leaders connected to the Communist Party. “The philosophy of our union,” an FE official explained, “was that management had no right to exist.” In practice, this meant, among other things, a preference for addressing workers’ complaints at once, instead of adjudicating them through a grievance procedure; plants represented by the FE thus registered exceptionally high levels of walkouts between contracts. It, then, was at the least ironic, and perhaps constituted some measure of poetic justice, that historically anti-union IH would find itself saddled with the relentlessly radical FE.

So, as Fowler McCormick planned his company’s postwar expansion, he looked to the largely nonunion and low-wage South. In 1946 IH purchased a former aircraft facility in Louisville and began retrofitting it to manufacture small Cub tractors. When it opened, all the employees were men, most quite young; a hefty percentage were recently-returned World War II veterans. The factory would become the largest in Kentucky, employing by the 1950s over 6,000 people — more than 15 percent of them African-American, as IH applied its equal opportunity policy to its Southern plant — and was once the biggest tractor production facility in the world.

But Harvester did not achieve all it had hoped for in its move South: In July 1947, FE Local 236 secured bargaining rights at the Louisville plant.

‘Hell, a Negro couldn’t even look at a machine’
The leaders of this new local, said FE literature, believed in “something hitherto almost unknown in Louisville — their policy of militant trade-unionism, their conviction that once the Negro and white workers were united, the low-wage system of the South would collapse.” Its president was hard-charging, hard-drinking and politically radical Chuck Gibson, a white worker from the assembly department. Fred Marrero, already known in Louisville as an outspoken African-American activist, was the Local’s Secretary-Treasurer. African-Americans Sterling Neal and Jim Wright were also key leaders. And the FE staffer assigned to Louisville was Bud James, a patrician-turned-firebrand, who’d abandoned his University of Chicago education first to join the Communist Party and then to sign on as an FE organizer. Within this group, the oldest was in his early 30s and all but Neal had seen active combat during World War II.

As their first undertaking, they decided to challenge International Harvester over the very reason the company had come to Kentucky in the first place.

Harvester claimed a “belief in Louisville and its future” brought it to town, but Local 236 insisted the company was instead drawn by “bright dreams of cheap Southern labor.” Wages “are set in accordance with the generally prevailing rates in a given community,” so Harvester said to defend its Louisville pay scale, the lowest at any IH factory.

It was this “Southern differential” that Local 236 leaders vowed to eliminate.

But before taking on management, they first needed to convince the Louisville workforce that they were owed more than they were being offered. Initially, it was a tough sell. Harvester’s wages were at least as good as those paid by nearby employers, and for blacks, in particular, the plant promised opportunities unavailable elsewhere. Jim Wright remembers that even he had to be persuaded at first:

“To the common guy on the street, that got a job at Harvester, well, you’d think he’d gone to heaven. They give those guys jobs, give them a machine — hell, a Negro couldn’t even look at a machine nowhere, wouldn’t even let him clean it up — and here they were running it, had all these benefits, and things. If a guy in Indianapolis, or someplace like that, doing the same job like I was on, and I was getting 35 cents an hour less than he was getting, I used to think that was all right …”

Yet the Local 236 leadership hammered away at the differential.

“We make the same tractors [Harvester] sells to the same farmers; they don’t sell a Southern tractor one penny cheaper than they sell another tractor,” Sterling Neal said, recalling the arguments they used. “We’re not going to be second-class citizens in the South.”

To prevail on this point, Local 236 leaders insisted that racial unity was essential. FE literature emphasized that “the Southern bosses for generations had played Negro against white, and white against Negro” and insisted “there was a direct connection between that and the fact that Southern workers were the lowest paid in the country.”

Given the characteristics of the workforce — the vast majority white, many from outside Louisville — Jim Wright was not sure this would prove a winning argument. “We had hillbillies, that’s all we had,” he said. “Farmers. Guys who wore overalls. Chewed tobacco, spitting on the floor. And those kind of guys were racist — I mean real racist.”

FE leaders in Louisville hoped they had convinced workers, both black and white, to challenge their status as “second-class citizens” within the Harvester empire. It was nonetheless a gamble when, on Sept. 17, 1947, a union contingent went to the front office with petitions calling for the elimination of the “Southern differential.” But when the plant manager refused to discuss the matter, “a lot of the workers spontaneously began to shout, ‘Let’s hit the bricks,’” Sterling Neal recalled.

“It wasn’t started as a strike — it was merely a demonstration in the shop,” Bud James said, adding, however, “the guys were so startled by seeing their own strength that they pulled out together” and the plant emptied out. The Local didn’t have a union hall yet, so James scrambled to find one; FE leaders were also uncertain whether their walkout was legal — especially because a new law, the Taft-Hartley Act, had just been passed — so they dubbed it “a continuous meeting.” And they didn’t even have a membership roster or a list of employees, so the day after the strike began they put out a call for workers to come by the new union hall in downtown Louisville to sign up for picket duty — or rather, register as “meeting notifiers” — figuring that way they’d be able to collect some names. The response stunned even the leadership, as James recalled:

“Well, the next day something like 2,000 people showed up, and there was a double line, and the girls at the typewriters spent the whole day giving them their slips and their duties. This double line stretched out into the hall, down the stairs and onto the sidewalk and clear around the block. They waited all day in line to register for that strike. I’ll never forget that line.”

Courier-Journal photo, 1949

Arrests did not stop strikers
With this early demonstration of enthusiasm, the walkout became what Jim Wright called “a humdinger.” Production was entirely halted at the plant, as sizable picket lines patrolled the gates, at first turning back even management personnel. This was too much for Harvester to accept; “unlawfully and by force,” the company argued in court, Local 236 had effected “a seizure of the Louisville Works [which] resulted in the denial to Harvester of access to its own property except by permission of the union.” Ten days into the walkout, IH got the injunction it sought, limiting to two the number of strikers at any of the plant’s six entrances.

This didn’t change things much, however, as Chuck Gibson seized on the fact that the order omitted any mention of how often substitutions were allowed. “Nothing can prevent you from replacing a fellow worker every 30 seconds,” Gibson told the Local’s members, and so they still congregated near the plant — sometimes over 1,000 strong — waiting to take their turn on the line. Since the surrounding area was then largely vacant countryside, the police tolerated the throngs, so long as they “stood away from the gates.”

But they frequently pressed too close. In one two-day stretch in October, for instance, 30 union members, both black and white — including Chuck Gibson, Bud James, Fred Marrero and Jim Wright — were arrested for various forms of picket-line misconduct. Gibson was charged with overturning a plant foreman’s car — while the foreman was still in it. Once out on bail, they went back at it again: James was hauled in at least six times during the strike. Though Harvester invited employees to return, few did; the union claimed only a few dozen white workers, and no African-Americans, crossed the picket line.

“In Louisville there hadn’t been a successful strike in an industry,” Sterling Neal indicated, “since anybody could remember … it wasn’t like Detroit or Chicago or Pittsburgh, or someplace where shops had been shut down. It just had never been done here.” Yet the Local’s rank-and-file took easily to aggressive, and creative, labor activism. One morning, 800 World War II veterans in the Local, wearing their old uniforms, paraded around the plant, led by an African-American, former Marine sergeant. On another occasion, they parked their cars, three abreast, on the street leading to the plant; traffic was gridlocked as the union conducted a meeting in the middle of the road.

The FE also appealed to the broader public, insisting that “Harvester is not being a good citizen of this community.” The differential enriched the company and the McCormicks, while Louisville workers “can afford to buy less consumer goods, less services, less of what the farmer produces.” On their lone hand-operated mimeograph machine, Neal said, “we ran off about 10,000 handbills a day” and union members “went out into the street corners and left the stuff all over town.”

Some material was distributed even farther afield. “Quite a few of the boys had relatives all around through what we call Kentuckiana, between here and Indianapolis and as far South as the Tennessee line, and those fellows making the trips over the weekend while we were on strike, they’d take a lot of those handbills and they’d leave them off in these little hamlets [and] the general stores,” Neal recalled. Strikers’ wives, as well, visiting “scores of rural communities” helped circulate fliers pointing out to small farmers — the IH Cub’s customer base — “that they would not get the tractor any cheaper if the tractor was made in Louisville but still the company wanted to pay a cheaper wage.”

Courier-Journal, photo by Jim Harlan, taken Feb. 28, 1952.

Black and white on the picket lines
This activity transformed the Local’s membership. “Everybody was cutting everybody’s throat in this area,” Sterling Neal said of race relations among workers, and thus outside the FE “everyone was sure we were going to lose” when the strike began. “This is a Southern town, and the thinking of the guys is Southern,” Neal said. “But one thing that happened during that strike: The fellows met together in the hall, they ate together, they picketed together and they practically lived together down in the hall, which was an unusual thing … it was the first strike in Louisville when Negro and white guys were really out on the picket lines battling together.” As a result, Jim Wright said, the 1947 walkout “unified the people” in nascent Local 236.

International Harvester, of course, made its own appeals during the walkout. In late October, Harvester sent a letter to all its employees represented by the FE, decrying the “situation” in Louisville. “The Company wants good relations with responsible unions,” but with the FE that was impossible, the letter said, since its officials were “irresponsible radicals.” The letter concluded with this advice to the FE membership: “Get yourself some new leaders.”

Those “irresponsible radicals” in the union’s top leadership responded by threatening to pull all 35,000 Harvester workers in the FE out on strike, because the “precedent in Louisville” would allow the company “to cut wages … throughout the chain.”

Harvester capitulated, granting hefty wage increases to end the walkout. On Oct. 27, the members of Local 236 returned to work with “two smashing victories in hand,” so said the FE News, “one over International Harvester, the other over the Mason-Dixon, low-wage line.”

‘A religious feeling of them sticking together’
The “Southern differential” fight was over, but its lessons reverberated. Local 236 waged “a constant campaign” about racial solidarity, said civil rights leader Anne Braden, who began working with the FE in 1948.

“I never went to a meeting that somebody didn’t get up and make a speech about the reason we’re so strong and we can win — and they always said that they had the highest wages in the South, and I never saw that refuted anywhere. The reason we’ve got all that is because we stick together, black and white. They attack a black worker, and we’re there to do something. We’re going to walk out of that plant — this is the reason we’ve got the strong union. And they preached that constantly.”

This “constant campaign” carried into the community as well, with Local 236 at the forefront of battles in the late 1940s and early 1950s to desegregate Louisville. But to Jim Wright, perhaps the FE’s biggest impact came at the personal level, as those whites who had come into the Harvester plant as “real racists” became friends with black workers there.

“They’d go along with [blacks], eat with them, go places with them, go hunting with them, walk out with them, work on a machine with them, have fun in the shop with them. That was a new thing for [the white workers]. That union had put what people call some kind of religious — I don’t mean a biblical religion — I mean a religious feeling of them sticking together.”

But the militant FE, beset not just by International Harvester but the labor establishment too — was declared “communist-dominated” and expelled from the CIO in 1949. It was unable to survive. In 1955, the FE merged into the much larger United Auto Workers.

So the union and the company are both long gone. But something remarkable happened at the plant that once stood on Crittenden Drive: Black and white workers there decided that none of them should be “second-class citizens,” and fighting together, they got what they deserved.

On this Labor Day in particular, that’s worth remembering. •

Toni Gilpin, a labor historian, is working on a book about the Farm Equipment Workers union, entitled “The Long Deep Grudge: An Epic Clash Between Big Capital and Radical Labor in the American Heartland.”

“Our co-workers are executed in cold blood”: PAME denounces new occupational murders in Greece
| August 14, 2017 | 8:11 pm | Greece, Labor, PAME | No comments

Thursday, August 10, 2017

“Our co-workers are executed in cold blood”: PAME denounces new occupational murders in Greece

“Our co-workers are executed in cold blood” points out a recent statement issued by the Executive Secretariat of the All-Workers Militant Front (PAME) in Greece, regarding the new occupational “accidents” in the country.
It must be noted that on August 1st, two workers were killed and two were severely injured during work inside a biological waste treatment shaft in the town of Skala, in Laconia, Peloponnese. A 51-year old worker was cleaning the shaft when he started having breathing problems and called for help. A 37-year old Greek rushed to his assistance and jumped in the pit but he also felt unwell. Two more men, a 66-year old and a 22-year old who jumped in the pit also suffered from respiratory problems. Furthermore, two firemen and one policeman who participated in the efforts to save the men were also treated for breathing problems.
Other recent victims of occupational murders include a 43-year old fishery worker in Magnisia, central Greece, as well a worker at the Corfu airport.
“The worker isn’t a number in statistics”, writes the PAME statement and continues: “These colleagues will not go back to their families. They can’t anymore dream and struggle for a better world and a decent life for their children”.
“Capital kills. It does not care about the life of the workers. Above all, it has one god, the profit. That is vefiried by the 6,515 occupational “accidents” that took place only in 2016, 73 of which were fatal”.
“It means that it is cheaper (for the employers) to have the workers killed, as long as they do not take the necessary measures for their safety”, stresses out the PAME statement and adds: “The occupational murders bear a political seal. They are premeditated. They are the antiworkers policies which sweep the labor rights, which increase exploitation in the working places, with endless 12-hours long labor in miserable conditions, without any measures of hygiene and security, with hunger wages, under the terrorism of the employer…”.
The statement of the All-Workers Militant Front (PAME) strikes against the current SYRIZA government, as well as the previous ones: “All the New Democracy, PASOK governments, as well as the current SYRIZA-ANEL one, offered with their laws a free field for the activities of business interests, they offered free and flexible labor. They removed whatever “prevented” their profitability. They handed over (public) Health to the private capital and the working class is paying a very high price.”
PAME demands the legal punishment of the employer-contractor of the biological waste treatment shaft in Skala, as well as compensation to the families of the murdered and injured workers. Stating that “the life and health of the working people is more valuable”, PAME also presents a list of demands to the government and calls the working class people to invigorate their fight for their rights.
| August 5, 2017 | 7:58 pm | Analysis, Labor | No comments

Special to the Houston Communist Party

Confined Space blog has been writing (over and over again) about OSHA’s failure to issue more than a tiny number of enforcement-related press releases since the beginning of the Trump administration, despite the fact that they actually educate employers and workers, and apply pressure on employers who may need a bit of urging to provide a safe workplace. TrumpOSHA has issued only nine (9) enforcement press releases since January 20.

And now there’s more than my rants. Francie Diep of Pacific Standard reports on a study that proves that OSHA press releases make workers safer and what the change in OSHA press release policy means for American workers:

One recent study suggests the prospect isn’t good. Every OSHA press release leads to fewer injuries and to 73 percent fewer safety violations by nearby companies in the same industry, Duke University economist Matthew Johnson found in research he has submitted for peer review. Although Johnson didn’t study what would happen if OSHA halted its press release strategy, he was willing to “extrapolate” from his findings that “injuries might increase if this policy goes away.” (Johnson is less comfortable speculating on any increase in deaths. The way he conducted his study, deaths and hospitalizations were rolled into one measure.)

Although every previous administration, Republican or Democrat, issued enforcement-related press releases, Obama’s OSHA, led by Assistant Secretary David Michaels, significantly increased the quantity and the quality of OSHA press releases.

In the first six months of 2009, OSHA was putting out an average of 13 press releases a month about enforcement. By the first six months of 2016, that number had risen to 44. In fact, Michaels’ OSHA eventually became infamous—especially in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and other industries that put workers at risk of immediate physical danger—for its press releases. The releases got out the information quickly whenever OSHA cited a company for safety violations, whether it was unstable trenches or unguarded band saws or wobbly piles of grain large enough to suffocate. The releases were often colorful and compelling, with stern quotes from OSHA officials and details such as whether workers killed on the job had children.

Infamous, because some employers hated it. “It was obviously to publicly shame employers,” says Robert Box, principal consultant for Safety First, a firm that helps companies make sure they’re OSHA compliant. “I think that had a lot of employers running scared.”  Box ascribes the change to a new Trump strategy: “The new administration wants to go on a different route. It’s more along the lines of assistance, free training opportunities with regards to safety and health, partnerships established between different agencies and employers, things of that nature.”

How that’s different, I’m not entirely sure. The Obama administration also provided assistance, free training activities and partnerships. And strong enforcement and press releases. In fact, the Trump administration is proposing to kill an important OSHA training program, the Susan Harwood Worker Training Grant program.

Some in the business community may not have liked press releases, as Michaels says “No one ever complained that OSHA press releases didn’t work as intended.”  Not even Box:

Even Box agrees that they were effective: “It had a lot of employers talking about it amongst each other about the new, aggressive OSHA and maybe that was the trigger to get them to spend a little bit more time and effort on the safety programs,” he says.

Other Voices

Coincidentally, Industrial Safety and Hygiene news also published a piece today on  “The OSHA blaming and shaming game: Does negative press change corporate misbehavior?” where they interviewed a bunch of people. Predictably, the worker/union people said that press releases were effective in improving employer behavior, while business advocates opposed them.

Examples included retired head of Ford Motor Industrial Hygiene Hank Lick: “My view is that it is hard to see blaming and shaming as a very effective strategy. OSHA has never seemed to have a pulpit to convince a lot of medium to small companies to see the light.” to Steelworkers staffer Jim Frederick:   “I believe the press releases are a statement of fact and the large citations are newsworthy events.”

Then you have the frequently fact-challenged but always entertaining Mark Drieux, a Partner at Arent Fox LLP, “The prior administration at OSHA’s policy of shaming employers was an abuse of its power and unfairly damaged the reputations of good companies. Following a significant citation, OSHA would often issue a press release designed to embarrass the company. Unfortunately, the facts underlying the citation and the press release were frequently incorrect.”

And an anonymous former OSHA official (not me): “Having worked with employers for well over 30 years while at OSHA I always felt, (especially when the penalties were so low) that what really got an employer’s attention and what was successful in making change was the media attention. When other employers saw bad press against an employer in their community, I felt it spurred them on to look at what they had in place and make some changes.”

So what is a small agency like OSHA to do to leverage its resources? You decide. But consider what Michaels told the Pacific Standard:

OSHA is supposed to oversee the safety of 130 million Americans at more than eight million workplaces—most of the private companies in the United States, in fact. Yet the agency only has about 2,100 inspectors, who do about 40,000 inspections a year. “You can’t count on inspections alone to change employer behavior,” Michaels says. “We said, ‘If we start issuing press releases, employers will remember OSHA is on the job and they have the chance of being inspected.'”

Well we didn’t “start” issuing press releases, but we did more, and we did them better, and if they saved a few lives, I’m not going to lose any tears over embarrassing a few employers who were endangering their workers.