“Frenzy of Greed” – Narratives of Working Class Power in the 1970s, Part I

Dominic Sandbrook has a new book out soon called Seasons in the Sun: The Battle For Britain, 1974-79. It’s his fourth on Britain between 1956 and 1979, and the Daily Mail has excerpted a section on the Winter of Discontent, the months of strikes by local authority workers in response to Prime Minister James Callaghan’s cap on wage increases in late 1978. Sandbrook notes on Twitter that the excerpt has been “heavily abridged and slightly Mailified,” but presumably it doesn’t distort his argument too much. I like Sandbrook’s work; he’s usually even-handed and his broad approach to political and cultural history is just my kind of thing. State of Emergency, the last volume in his series, is excellent, and his book on American right-wing populism in the post-Watergate years is a decent starting point for understanding the cultural influences on the conservative movement in the 1970s. One criticism I do have of Sandbrook is that the voices of ordinary Britons and Americans rarely make it into his analysis. His narratives of the 1960s and ’70s are mainly told through the actions of political players and cultural figures, or with polling and analyses which tend towards painting the public with broad strokes. You can only tell so much about the average working Briton from the headlines of The Sun, or indeed, the Daily Mail.

The Mail’s excerpt of Seasons in the Sun follows the same pattern. There are details on James Callaghan’s mental state throughout the winter of 1978-79, cribbed from his personal diaries, and the views of Michael Palin and Philip Larkin are given plenty of space here, both heavily critical of the work stoppages. But Sandbrook doesn’t let any of the striking workers explain their actions. Perhaps this is the “Mailified” aspect Sandbrook referred to in his tweet, and not reflective of his larger manuscript. I’d hope that his book attempts to give some kind of voice to those on strike in 1978. The one quote from a named source outside of government or union leadership here is from Peter Ellis, a lavatory attendant, used to illustrate the inflationary effect of the strikers’ demands for significant wage increases on non-union workers’ purchasing power. Otherwise, there are only anonymous workers making vague threats such as, ‘It’s not whether the country can afford to pay us, [...] [i]t’s whether they can afford not to.’

This is strange, as Sandbrook’s argument here is that the strikes during the Winter of Discontent were led by the rank and file union membership, who had seized control from their weak leadership:

The trades unions scuppered this strategy [to control inflation] — not the leaders, as is commonly assumed, but the rank and file. They were not politically motivated. Most young workers dreamed of new cars, colour televisions and foreign holidays, not the inevitable triumph of socialism.

They were tired of being told to wait for jam tomorrow; they wanted it today, tomorrow and the day after.

If you’re going to make the case that the strikes were about “the pursuit of material security,” as Sandbrook does here, then you need to offer some evidence to back that up. But the strikers are almost entirely absent from this narrative, except as a singular mass of pickets besieging the city of Hull, or battling police outside Berkshire factories. Where does Sandbrook get the impression that striking bin-men just wanted a Thomas Cook package holiday to the Canary Islands? Is it wrong to assume that Sandbrook and/or the Daily Mail have an agenda in portraying the typical union member of the late 1970s as being motivated by personal gain rather than any carefully thought-through political belief? I had thought Sandbrook was more sympathetic and understanding to the working class than this.

The Winter of Discontent may well have been the “dreadful nadir in modern British history” that Sandbrook emphatically sums it up as, depending on your political persuasion. It’s surely an exercise in futility to look to the Daily Mail for sympathy towards any striking workers; but I think this piece is illustrative of the dominant narrative of working class power in the 1970s, in both the UK and the United States. This is the narrative of an “irresponsible” rank and file, who had gained too much power and were motivated simply by greed for more, as Sandbrook illustrates with the image of Downing Street adviser Bernard Donoughue “horrified to be told by pickets outside a hospital: ‘Our purpose is to get more than you offer and whatever you offer it won’t be enough.’” According to the author of the piece, this encounter “was a perfect summary of the Winter of Discontent.”

This narrative deliberately excludes the voices of individuals within the larger group of striking workers that might explain why a local authority employee would choose to strike in late 1978. By creating such a “frenzy of greed” explanation, working class political and economic power, through the vehicle of organized labour, is therefore discredited and ultimately de-legitimized. There is no space for working class solidarity, as each striking worker is purely looking out for his own material interests. This has almost become the accepted narrative of the labour struggles of the late 1970s, and the obvious point behind it is to imply that workers held too much power and were fundamentally unequipped to handle it. Sandbrook’s argument, similar to many others from both the political right and the centre-ground,  suggests that the working class misunderstood economics, failing to account for the inflationary effects of wage increases, and therefore proved their inability to handle the political power they had gained through the labour movement. The implications of this narrative are, firstly, that working class power and representation in the political system needs to be urgently restrained, with limits placed on the right to strike and on the ability to organize in the first place, and secondly, that the rightful political power of the elite be restored for the sake of the smooth running of the country. The Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, of course, pitched itself to Britain on exactly those two principles in the year following the Winter of Discontent.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the same political and economic struggle was playing out at roughly the same time. The idea behind the “Lordstown Syndrome” that this blog is named for was essentially that American workers had gained too much power to disrupt the economy, and that any further coddling of the rank and file would likely lead to similar scenes as those occurring in Britain’s cities in 1978-’79. “Syndrome,” of course, implies a sickness or disease at the heart of American labour. I’ll explore how the “frenzy of greed” narrative was applied to America’s unionised coal miners in a second part of this post tomorrow, but this seems a good place for a break.

A Framework for Studying Labour History

Two labour studies scholars, Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, wrote an introduction to an issue of Labor Studies Journal back in 2005 that really helped to shape my understanding of labour history, and of work in America today. They argued that as a result of the postwar agreements between American companies and unions, a period in which organised labour adopted what could be called business unionism, the focus of the labour movement shifted away form organising and addressing workers’ grievances and toward negotiating massive agreements and trade accords:

this postwar paradigm also marked the beginning of labor’s move away from work, the labor process, and workplace struggles [...] as bargaining became more centralized-across local unions and often employers-it increasingly focused on wages and benefits, and less on specific workplace issues.

Juravich and Bronfenbrenner frame this period as one in which the everyday concerns of workers, their relationship to each other, to their workplaces, and to their own unions, became alienated from the aims and methods of organized labour. In practice, the movements to reform the United Mine Workers and United Steel Workers in the early 1970s were a response to this, and were somewhat successful in forcing international unions to respond to workers’ discontent. There’s a relationship between the kind of anger and frustration hourly employees at Lordstown-which Juravich and Bronfenbrenner cite here as a key example-showed towards their jobs and the distant, unconcerned attitudes of organised labour in this era.

Juravich and Bronfenbrenner’s article outlines the huge changes that have reshaped the workplace for millions of Americans in the past 30 years, not just for nonunion workers but for those who have the security of union membership. “Forced overtime, twelve-hour shifts, seven-day weeks, job combinations, two-tiered benefit structures, cross training, are all, unfortunately, part and parcel of too many union contracts today,” the authors point out. Partly as a result of the labour movement taking its eye off the ball on workplace issues, the structure of American jobs has been radically altered over the past 50 years, often in ways which have made the traditional workday longer, harder, and more intensive.

These are the kinds of nuts and bolts issues that interest me, and that often don’t get much attention when we talk about work today. What do jobs mean to the people who work them? And how have their perceptions and understanding of their work chaged over their careers, or compared to the ways in which their parents’ generation understood those same jobs? Juravich and Bronfenbrenner summarise the importance of looking at the everyday experience of work in America quite succinctly, “Up and down the occupational ladder, what workers want is some kind of control on the job, some dignity in their work, some measure of fairness in their workplace, and some chance at life outside of work.”

Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Bringing the Study of Work Back to Labor Studies,” Labor Studies Journal, 30.1 (Spring 2005): i-vii

(Tom Juravich is also a brilliant songwriter and musician who has recorded several albums of songs on work and the labour movement in America)

The Tompkins Square Riot of 1874

Thinking about the analogy between Occupy Wall Street and the Bonus Army a bit more, I remembered the Tompkins Square Riot of January 1874, where 15,000 New Yorkers who had gathered to demand relief and jobs from the city government were met by police on horseback, who then charged the crowd and sparked off a riot. This was in the middle of the deep recession of 1873, at the time the most serious America had endured, when millions of people were out of work and suffering. It was also the beginning of the Gilded Age, a period of 30 years or more which brought the richest Americans great fortune and wealth.

Philip Dray kicks off his book, There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, with a description of the scene at Tompkins Square on the 13th of January 1874:

The police commissioner, Abram Duryée, strode into the park to order the crowd to disperse, a squad of officers walking behind him and using their batons to prod the reluctant. Two German workers who resented being shoved struck back, prompting police on horse to enter the square. The crowd panicked and rushed to the gates, but the pathways were narrow and the horsemen came on swiftly, charging “like Cossacks,” one Russian immigrant recalled, swinging their clubs and chasing the protestors out of the square and through nearby streets as far as the Bowery. There were injuries from the policemen’s blows and numerous arrests.

Dray notes that the city was increasingly concerned with the potential for radicals and anarchists to stoke discontent among the poor and unemployed against the young capitalist system itself, with local papers full of paranoia left over from the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. According to Dray, New York’s Mayor, William Havemeyer, responded to the unemployed workers’ calls for the city to supply jobs by telling the protest’s organisers, “It is not the purpose or object of the city government to furnish work to the industrious poor. That system belongs to other countries, not ours.”

I don’t really like to draw direct comparisons across 140 years of history, but there are no doubt some similarities involved. It’s also useful to remember that protests against economic structures which disproportionately benefit a tiny elite are nothing new in New York or the rest of America.

Occupy Oakland and the General Strike

Writing about current and ongoing protests on Wall Street in New York and in several other cities around the U.S. is probably beyond the remit of this blog, but I have been following events closely and I’ve spent a bit of time trying to understand them in a historical context of similar movements in American history. One of the more interesting things I’ve read was at The Awl, where Brent Cox likened Occupy Wall Street to the Bonus Army protest, where thousands of veterans of the Great War camped on the Anacostia Flats in Washington D.C., just across the river from the US Capitol and the White House. The Bonus Army protesters called for advance payment of their promised service bonuses, which were due to be paid in 1945.

Bonus Marchers, 1932

Brent Cox’s comparison of the Bonus Army and Occupy Wall Street mostly lies in the methods of protest, in both cases involving the intention of the protesters to stay put until their grievances were redressed, and in the general economic background at the time of each protest. Cox points out that camping out in a position such as Zucotti Park or the Anacostia Flats is not the same as civil disobedience targeted at breaking a specific unjust law; there’s no certainty that you’ll be arrested or attacked as in the case of the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Because the laws and issues protested have no real public face grounded in every day life, for both the Bonus Army and the Occupy protesters around the U.S., there’s no way to directly challenge the basis of these issues. Once the encampments are set up, what happens next is up to how the authorities choose to respond and to the demonstrators’ own ability to control the direction of their protests. In Britain, for example, the protesters camped outside St. Paul’s cathedral in London have sparked off an internal debate within the Church of England over whether removing tents and protesters would entail church sponsored violence. It wasn’t the debate Occupy London envisioned having when it first set up camp, but in some ways it’s a significant side effect of the protest.

Where the occupations get more interesting to me is in the invocation of a General Strike in Oakland this Wednesday. Last week protesters clashed with the Oakland Police Department, who were set on clearing protesters from their encampment at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway. The violence resulted in several protesters suffering serious injuries, including Scott Olsen, a 24 year old Marine veteran who served two tours of Iraq. Like in London, the official response to Occupy protests took the aims and methods in a different direction, reshaping Occupy Oakland into as much a movement focused on the city’s police department as it is on the excesses and failures of capitalism. At the same time, the protest needed to take a different form to keep itself alive, and to avoid a repeat of the confrontation that led to Olsen being hospitalised. So calls for a General Strike were another way to address the original intention of the movement, and a way of widening Occupy Oakland to the workplaces and public spaces of the city. This also allowed leaders of the movement to call on some historical memory to galvanize its followers, invoking the 1946 General Strike in the city, one of the most significant of a nationwide wave of strikes that came out of American workers’ dissatisfaction with their share of the profits American companies were making at the end of World War II.

The General Strike of 2011 wasn’t sanctioned by Oakland’s union workers, although it did gain endorsements from a string of local union chapters, and the city’s Mayor Jean Quan called for a calm and small police response. The aim of the strike appeared to be to shut down the city’s port, and by Wednesday evening it had succeeded in preventing vehicles and workers from either entering or leaving the port. According to the New York Times, the city also estimated that approximately five percent of its public workforce did not show up for work, including 300 teachers. Later on Wednesday evening, a smaller group of protesters, estimated by the Times to be around a hundred young men, broke away from the larger demonstration and clashed with police in an empty building near the port.

I feel partly supportive of the aims behind a General Strike. If you listen to Boots Riley, one of the leaders of Occupy Oakland, speak during the group’s press conference announcing the strike (from 2:58 in the video below), there’s a valid agenda linking the Occupy movement’s concerns with twenty-first century capitalism with the struggle of International Longshore and Warehouse Union members at Local 21 in Longview, WA. The following speaker, Clarence Thomas of the ILWU, demonstrates further the investment that workers have in a movement such as Occupy Oakland, suggesting that this is more of a “dry run” than a full-blooded General Strike.

That said, there’s a whole host of problems involved in calling a General Strike today. Fred Glass, a Labour History professor at the City College of San Francisco, pointed out in this interesting primer on both the 1946 and 2011 General Strikes that the leaders of the Occupy Oakland movement need to consider the contractual obligations union workers in Oakland have, which might include No-Strike clauses or strict limitations on their ability to miss work, not to mention the financial hit they would be taking by missing a shift. Whether the dock workers at the Port of Oakland had much say in the blocking of trucks from entering or leaving the port on Wednesday night is unclear. So I think there are valid concerns about Occupy Oakland advocating a General Strike. The movement itself, whether in Oakland or New York, has some clear, well thought out arguments on workplace issues, as a key part of its wider agenda, and obviously a large number of participants are workers (or would like to be), so labour has a big stake in this. If workplace-based direct action is going to be the next step for Occupy protests, then the movement will have to be more responsive to the needs and difficulties which face American workers in 2011, chiefly among which is the limitations on being both an employee and a participant in a political movement critical of capitalism run amok.

Credit for photos:

1. From the National Archives’ Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985. http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=593253&jScript=true

2. http://www.occupyoakland.org/2011/10/awesome-posters-for-nov-2-general-strike/

Polling the American Public on Organised Labour

Over at the New York TimesEconomix blog, Steven Greenhouse, the Times‘ labour correspondent, notes a recent Gallup poll asking Americans for their opinion of labour unions. The results of the poll show that 52% of Americans approve of unions, while 42% disapprove.

Gallup has been polling Americans on this question since 1936, the year after the Wagner Act was passed, at regular intervals, and the historical results show public approval for unions remained high (near or above 60%) throughout the twentieth century and right up until 2009, when approval suddenly dropped eleven points to a record low of 48%. Disapproval reached an all-time high that year of 45%. In 2010, approval for unions rebounded slightly to 52%, with disapproval at 41%, so this year’s results suggest some flattening out of public opinion, and perhaps the beginning of a new era in how Americans understand and relate to organised labour.

Back in 2009, when Gallup’s poll recorded the nadir of public approval for labour unions, Nate Silver pointed out that public support for organised labour was closely related to the unemployment rate. Silver used Gallup’s polling on this question going back to 1948 to conclude that “for every point’s worth of increase in the unemployment rate, approval of labor unions goes down by 2.6 points.” Silver didn’t speculate as to why the two factors seemed to be related, but it doesn’t really need pointing out that when Gallup asked this question in August 2009, the U.S. was in the midst of the harshest period of the Great Recession, with unemployment above 9% and rising. Now, unemployment in 2011 is still up around 9%, whereas public opionion of labour unions has risen by 4 points since 2009, so Silver’s trend line can’t fully explain the phenomenon. Nevertheless, there’s a substantial link between the American public’s concerns over unemployment and the state of the economy as a whole, and their view of labour unions. It might be fair to say that more Americans sympathise with the belief that unions hinder the American economy and prevent employers from creating jobs in a tough climate when economic growth is stagnant. That’s not to say that this is true of unions, but it is a major image problem the labour movement faces in convincing the public of its relevancy in the twenty first century.

Steven Greenhouse notes the explanations both Labour movement officials and business leaders give for this year’s polling results, suggesting the former blame the recent decline in union approval on conservative groups’ messaging of union responsibility for such issues as the bankruptcy of General Motors, while business groups claim that workers “no longer see a need for unions.” Clearly many Americans do still see a need for unions, and the discrepancy between the 52% who approve of labour unions and the 11% of American workers who belong to a union suggests that there’s something other than workers’ hostility to organised labour preventing unions from reaching much of the workforce. The gap between Americans who approve of unions and those who disapprove is undeniably shrinking, though, and as both Greenhouse and Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones point out, that might have a lot to do with the increasingly partisan debate over the role of labour unions in American society. The recent skirmishes in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican Governors led conservative state legislatures in attacking public sector unions, have intensified a much longer trend of Republican antagonism toward the labour movement.

If you look at Gallup’s polling data, the first time public support for unions dipped below 60% was in January 1978, right in the middle of the long, bitter coal miners’ strike that had huge effects on energy markets in the eastern U.S. Often, the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike is referred to as the key moment in changing the attitudes of both the Federal government and the general public toward labour unions in the U.S., but I’d say that the 1977-78 coal strike was arguably more important in setting that change in motion. It’s not the beginning of the story by any means, you could go back to several Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s forcing significant changes that would affect that relationship, or as far back as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the subsequent failure of several Democratic-controlled Congress’ to repeal that law. But the 1978 coal strike was perhaps the beginning of the public belief that unions were overly pampered and too willing to hold the rest of the economy to ransom for the sake of their high wages and great benefits, an attitude which has now been transferred onto public sector unions in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey. I’d suggest that both Greenhouse and Gallup are right in arguing that the politicisation of labour issues is key in shaping this tightening of public opinion on unions. For all intents and purposes, to many of the respondents to Gallup’s 2011 poll, labour unions have been definitively tied to electoral politics as an arm of the Democratic Party. As a result, I would expect that public approval of unions will remain as polarised as public support for each of the main political parties for the forseeable future, even if unemployment drops and the U.S. emerges from the current recession.

The full historical results of Gallup’s polling on labour unions can be found here (pdf).

Obscure Political Heroes

Jonathan Bernstein asks, “Who are your great American (political) heroes?” Outside of obvious choices such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr., his commenters choose some less well known names, like Ella Baker, or Walter Reuther. Matt Yglesias picks A. Phillip Randolph, Thaddeus Stevens, and Gouverneur Morris. They’re all great choices, I think, because they encourage us to read a bit deeper into parts of American History that we think we know well enough already. I’d never heard of Randolph before I read John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day in college, and before that my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement was limited to a narrow view of the period between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and King’s death in Memphis. One lesson I’ve learnt over the past few years is that successful political movements are always built on years (sometimes generations) of organising by people who end up being forgotten or purposefully ignored when the history of each movement is written.

With that in mind, my American political hero is Ernesto Galarza, a Mexican-American renaissance man and union leader in the middle third of the twentieth century. I stumbled across Galarza when I was researching my undergraduate thesis, digging through the archives of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Galarza led several attempts to organise farm workers in California’s Imperial and San Joaquin valleys in the late 1940s and 1950s, and laid a lot of the groundwork for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers to take advantage of in the 1960s. Galarza hasn’t been completely written out of this history, but it’s only when you look through the documents collected in the STFU archives that you realise how much of a role he played in the building of a movement among Californian farm workers.

Photo from Occidental College Library's Ernesto Galarza collection

In mid-1946, the STFU had diverted its attention from organising agricultural workers in the South to California, where lots of the Okies and Arkies who had left the Dustbowl in the 1930s had managed to build a presence in the vineyards and large-scale industrial farms around Kern County, what Carey McWilliams called “factories-in-the-fields”. The union estimated that there were 200,000 potential members working in Californian agriculture. Californian farmers held a powerful influence in state politics, and had successfully and violently resisted attempts to organise farm workers for many years. John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle is a great read on the clashes of the mid 1930s. Senator Rober M. LaFollete’s investigation in the late 1930s revealed some of the tactics used by groups such as the Associated Farmers, a collective of the largest Californian growers, to prevent farm workers from organising. Once these were out in the open, with the possibility of swinging the weight of public opinion behind agricultural labourers, the leadership of the STFU saw a chance to build a movement in California. In mid-1946, they changed the name of the union to the National Farm Labor Union, and joined the American Federation of Labor. NFLU President Harry L. Mitchell sent Hank Hasiwar, and later Ernesto Galarza, to Kern County to scout for a potential opening for the union in California. They settled on workers at the DiGiorgio Corporation’s 22,000 acre farm and packing plant, where workers were paid 80 cents an hour and lacked any control over their working conditions or hours.

I’ll write a separate post on the DiGiorgio strike of 1947-48, because it was really a key moment in the beginnings of a farm workers’ movement in California, and among other things, it was one of the first legal tests of the recently passed Taft-Hartley law, which the A.F.L. and especially the C.I.O. saw as a serious threat to the survival of the labour movement in America. Because of this challenge, the National Farm Labor Union was central to the political agenda of the A.F.L and the wider labour movement in 1947-48. Until Chavez’s Delano strike in the mid-1960s, the DiGiorgio strike was also the longest ever by agricultural workers. The NFLU also established the secondary boycott as a successful tool later utilised by Chavez against Delano, although the earlier union was prevented from using it to full effect in the DiGiorgio strike.

Here though, I want to concentrate on Ernesto Galarza, and his efforts to build the NFLU in California past the DiGiorgio strike. One side of this was an attempt to end the Bracero Program, an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments to allow Mexican farm workers into the United States as guest workers, lobbied for by groups such as the Associated Farmers, who claimed that there was a labour shortage in border states. On arriving in California, Galarza found that there were several thousand American labourers out of work, and that those who did have jobs working for farmers like DiGiorgio had their wages severely depressed by the importation of Mexican workers who had no choice but to work for less than their American counterparts, sometimes as low as 25 or 30 cents an hour. Galarza was instrumental in challenging this agreement, and kept up his efforts to repeal it until the U.S. government finally agreed to end the program in 1964. His book, Merchants of Labor, describes his position and the struggle to end the Bracero program.

The second part of Galarza’s strategy in California was to go out into the tiny communities of Mexican-Americans all over the state to identify and educate what he called the “colonies” on the labour movement and wider political issues. These were off-the-grid communities, where residents often spoke no English and had no contact with the wider social and political infrastructure of the state, although they were American citizens who could literally say that “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Galarza produced surveys and analytical studies of these communities and recognised the potential they held to swing elections in the coming years and to solidify into a movement of the poor and socially excluded. “These United States citizens are just now beginning to grope their way toward those forms of action which in the long run are the basic defences of civil liberty: (a) economic organization, (b) education, (c) political action and (d) community acceptance,” Galarza wrote in a November 1948 report on the Southwestern states. In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez, who went to NFLU organising meetings in 1948 and struck with the union in 1949, would use Galarza’s groundwork and connections to organise the same communities around the same issues his predecessor had identified.

The NFLU faded away quickly in the early 1950s, but ultimately led to the creation of the Filipino-led Agriculutural Workers Organizing Committee, and later the United Farm Workers. Without Galarza’s work in California in 1948-49, it’s fair to say that Cesar Chavez would have started from a much weaker position in organising farm workers in the state. Galarza’s name is not completely unknown, but many of the details of his work in California are not in any book on the subject, even the ones he wrote himself. He’s a real unsung hero to me.

UMW Journal

One of the reasons I wanted to blog on occupational safety and labour studies was to try to compile all of the resources I’ve been using into one place. At the moment my hard drive is a mess of files, newspaper articles, official reports, photographs, songs, etc. I’d like to build a website from scratch, as a digital history project maybe, but I don’t really have the skills to do that at this point in time.

One thing I can do right now is compile a list of links to some of these resources, most of which I’ve found in various corners of the internet. The United Mine Workers Journal is an important one, and the UMWA have kindly hosted several issues on their servers, from the current issue going back nearly five years to January-February 2006. The current issue is available here. These have been indispensable to me for understanding the union’s outlook and positions over this period. I haven’t been able to find older issues anywhere online, except for the occasional single issue on eBay, but this is a really useful source of information for research on coal mining in the 2000s. I’m really grateful to the union for making these available online free of charge.

“Bonecrusher” – The United Mine Workers and Mine Safety

There’s a 2009 documentary called Bonecrusher, which is well worth seeing for some insight into modern coal mining. It focuses on a young coal miner in Dante, Virginia, Lucas Chaffin and his relationship with his father, Luther, who is a retired miner with black lung. There’s a lot of attention given to mine safety in Bonecrusher, particularly on Luther Chaffin’s concerns for his son’s safety at work. In one scene Luther is watching a CNN report on the Sago disaster (the documentary was filmed over 2006 and 2007), and there’s definitely a sense at that moment that he is deeply worried about his son facing similar dangers as the miners at Sago. This concern turns out to be well justified; at one point Lucas tells the film-makers, ‘Two weeks after I left [a job at a mine in Cucumber, WV] up there, they had two men get killed in the pillar line. It was on the section I worked.’

What’s left unsaid in the film are the two men’s thoughts on the United Mine Workers’ relationship to safety. Luther Chaffin wears a UMWA baseball cap and a shirt with a UMWA badge embroidered on it in many of the film’s scenes, and the cancer treatment he gets in the film is largely provided by union health insurance. Luther Chaffin is actually quoted in the United Mine Workers Journal July-August 2006 issue, talking about the importance of the 1989-90 Pittston stike in securing his own health and retirement benefits. He’s clearly proud of his union membership and the effect it’s had on his life. As far as I can tell, the mine Lucas Chaffin works at is not represented by the UMW, which might suggest that Luther’s concerns are linked to his son’s lack of access to UMW safety practices and rules. The film doesn’t really make a link between the Sago disaster and the fact that the mine wasn’t organised, though. This was quite a divisive topic in 2006, and again after the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010; some of the Sago miners objected at the time to the way the UMW and the media portrayed them as exploited workers who did not have a say on their working conditions.

I think it says something about what the film-makers wanted to show of coal mining in the 2000s that they chose not to touch on this debate. The documentary is political in that it focuses on Lucas Chaffin’s experience of the work he does, rather than being political in finding a scapegoat for unsafe working conditions. I think it’s quite admirable that it doesn’t weigh in with an opinion, although I understand why someone might not feel the same way. The film deals carefully with its depiction of Lucas, who is of course a working coal miner who would not say anything on camera which might threaten his job, and I think the absence of any explicit discussion of the union reveals something about non-union coal miners’ relationship with the UMWA in the mid-2000s.

Here’s the trailer for the film. It’s a very moving, detailed look at being a coal miner today.

Upper Big Branch Investigation Transcripts

The Upper Big Branch mine disaster of April 5th, 2010 was the catalyst for my interest in mine safety, and I’ve spent much of the 14 months since reading about earlier disasters, mostly the 2006 Sago disaster. The transcripts of interviews with the Sago miners, part of the investigation by federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training officials, are really the most interesting and revealing sources for understanding Sago. They’ve largely been the focus of my research, and they go into great detail not just on the aftermath of the explosion and the rescue attempt that followed, but also into the jobs that each worker did before the disaster.

MSHA and the WV OMHST have been carrying out a similar investigation into the Upper Big Branch Disaster, and a month ago released its report, which can be found here. J. Davit McAteer, who was head of MSHA during the Clinton presidency, led both the Sago and UBB investigations, so there are a lot of similarities between the ways in which both gather evidence from miners working at the two mines at the time of the disasters.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette covered MSHA’s release of some of the interview transcripts from the UBB investigation, released at the same time as the report. I haven’t had the chance to go over these fully yet, and at the moment the released transcripts are of interviews with mine rescue team members, not Massey/Performance employees who worked at UBB in the time leading up to the disaster.* They’re still incredibly interesting in revealing how these team members understand their jobs

The parts of these interviews, and of the Sago ones, that I like reading the most are the first few pages where the interviewee details their employment history. Some of them are guys with long careers, literally covering the whole span of mining history that I’m trying to understand, working at companies that don’t exist anymore, or ones that have been swallowed up by larger competitors. Hoy Keith at Sago for example, began his mining career in 1962, before working as an auto worker in the late 60s and early 70s, then coming back to coal mining  in 1976. Here’s Mike Shumate, an MSHA resue team member at UBB, describing his 40 year career path:

Well, before —MSHA, [I] was a production foreman with U.S. Steel, Pinnacle operation, in Pineville. Before that, Maben Energy, as a foreman and a belt man. Wolf Creek Collieries before that in eastern Kentucky as a production foreman. The Eastern/Associated/Peabody Coal at numerous locations as safety inspector. And Westmoreland Coal Company as a production foreman and as union worker, and Island Creek Coal Company as a union worker.**

West Virginia Inspector-at-Large Bill Tucker’s 34 year career is just as interesting:

I started out at a little punch mine, Ellis Creek Coal Company, right there by the old Marsh Fork High School. Worked there a year and a half and then went to work for — then it was ARMCO Steel. Worked for them until Peabody Coal Company bought them out, until ’91. Then I went to work for the [WV] Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.***

These descriptions are mini-histories of the coal industry since the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969. They don’t go into the economic and regulatory forces which have shaped the industry in that period, but you can tell from Bill Tucker’s timeline some of the broad trends of the late twentieth century, the collapse of the steel industry in the late 1980s, and the short lifespans of small, independent mines that went bust within a year or two after mining out as much coal as they could. It’s fascinating to me. I wish there was more of this kind of information available from people who have lived through the 1968-2010 period.

* I should add that some of the interviews posted online by MSHA are with Massey Mine Rescue team members.

**from Testimony of Michael Shumate, June 22, 2010, pp.11-12

*** Testimony of William A. Tucker, May 12, 2010, pp. 10-11

Blogging Troubles

I’ve been putting off writing a second post on Lordstown for a month now. I really wanted to talk about the actual work that Lordstown’s autoworkers were asked to do by General Motors; the structural changes to their jobs on the production line. Stanley Aronowitz’s book, False Promises, describes a lot of these changes, and I’ll link to a good passage below. I haven’t had time to finish Aronowitz’s book and I honestly can’t say when I’ll have time to get back to it. I’d kind of felt as though I’d committed myself to looking at Lordstown, and it was stopping me from blogging about other things that I’ve spent the past month reading about. So, for the time being I’ll compress my Lordstown post into this one note and get back to some other topics.

Here’s the section of Aronowitz’s case study on Lordstown workers which interested me:

At Lordstown, efficiency became the watchword. At 60 cars an hour, the pace of the work had not been exactly leisurely, but after GMAD* came in the number of cars produced almost doubled. Making one car a minute had been no picnic, especially on a constantly moving line. Assembly work fits the worker to the pace of the machine. Each work station is no more than 6 to 8 feet long. For example, within a minute on the line, a worker in the trim department had to walk about 20 feet to a conveyor belt transporting parts to the line, pick up a front seat weighing 30 pounds, carry it back to his work station, place the seat on the chassis, and put in four bolts to fasten it down by first hand-starting the bolts and then using an air gun to tighten them according to standard. It was steady work when the line moved at 60 seconds an hour. When it increased to more than 100 cars an hour, the number of operations on this job were not reduced and the pace became almost maddening. In 36 seconds the worker had to perform at least eight different operations, including, walking, lifting, hauling, lifting the carpet, bending to fasten the bolts by hand, fastening them by air gun, replacing the carpet, and putting a sticker on the hood. Sometimes the bolts fail to fit into the holes; the gun refuses to function at the required torque; the seats are defective or the threads are bare on the bolt. But the line does not stop. Under these circumstances the workers often find themselves “in the hole,” which means that they have fallen behind the line.

*GMAD stood for General Motors Assembly Division, which was the new efficiency program GM was testing at Lordstown Assembly to try to compete with foreign competition in the early 1970s.

What’s interesting to me about this is just how much GM’s ability to compete with Japanese cars was reliant on the willingness (and capability) of Lordstown’s workers to go along with this intensification of the production line. It says a lot about why the workers’ reaction to this, the “Lordstown Syndrome” that the media latched onto, seemed such a threat to the auto industry, and to the United States’ economic power in the 70s.

Aronowitz’s book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, is a broader New Left critique of organised labour, but the first chapter focuses on Lordstown, mostly through Aronowitz’s own interviews with autoworkers. Aronowitz argues that labour unions are inherently conservative and restrictive to any real working class power. That’s quite a significant part of New Left thinking, and it’s very relevant to reform movements within the United Mine Workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Lung Association and Miners For Democracy both formed out of dissatisfaction with the UMW. Like in the quote above though, what’s really significant to me about this critique of labour is the focus on the types of job and the physical and mental content of work. The disconnection of the AFL-CIO, or of Tony Boyle’s UMW administration, from their members’ labour is really the starting point for looking at work and the labour movement in the 1970s.


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