Category Archives: Labour

Ann Stafford: A Match to Fire the Thames

In those last years of the 1800s it really did seem as if the Thames might catch fire. Ann Stafford, author of this book, wouldn’t have been entirely pleased perhaps, she consistently supports the cautious Ben Tillett as against the socialist dream of general strike and revolution. But this is a very readable story of the series of labour agitations (match girls, gasworkers and finally the dockers’ strike) that weaves together reporting from the time and is written much in the same style.

A telling, if poetic, sentence that shows Stafford’s distance from the class she is describing:

The Cholera epidemic of 1866 had startled West London into a shuddering awareness of her insanitary neighbour, East London, which coiled around her flank with its mass of ill-housed, half-starving people, breeding pestilence, many of them vicious and criminal, all dangerous, surely, to society (31).

There are lots of fascinating asides that I have made fairly listy for better or for worse…but it is similar in a way to the structure of the book, that flits around backgrounds before entering into the narrative of the strike itself. It remembers pubs that are no more, like the Blue Posts, which had ‘long been a favourite meeting places of the stevedores. They were welcome: big, well-muscled men with plenty of money to spend, you wouldn’t catch them sitting down four to a pint pot, the way the underpaid and undernourished dockers did’ (17).

Four to a pint pot, and their missus starving no doubt.

Here is more on the history of the Blue Posts:

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father’s curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s.

The Wade’s Arms is the pub most central to this story, however, at 15 Jeremiah Street, E14 (now partly Rigden Street), but it was demolished in 1944.

Almost every physical remnant of this period of labour history is gone.

Stafford doesn’t care about or question the thread of Empire that runs through this, the efforts to claim the rewards of the conquerors for the working men of the conquering race. There is, to me, a fairly incredible comparison between the dockers fighting for wages and the British soldiers under siege at Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857, John Burns in a rousing speech intertwined Empire with the struggle of labour:

I tell you, lads, we will no more surrender than the men in Lucknow surrendered. Now these men fought for a glory which was effervescent and ephemeral; but they nobly did their duty and stood up against a storm of shot and shell, disease and want, and all the miseries of that long siege. You, men, have to hold another citadel today. We are defending our Lucknow–the Lucknow of Labour. Too long have you been cooped up in the prison houses of poverty, suffering, privation and disease, and all the hardships of your lot. But courage! Relief is at hand. As our garrison in Lucknow, straining their eyes towards the horizon, saw the silver sheen of the bayonets of the relieving army, so from this parapet, I too see on the horizon a silver gleam–not the gleam of bayonets to be imbrued in the blood of a brother, but the silver sheen of the full round orb of the docker’s tanner. (quoted p 27)

And then there is this:

“I believe,” said Will Thorne, “that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers work.” (40)

White men were not the only men to work the docks, but others don’t enter this story at all except in a single cringeworthy reference to all men pulling together in the very first pages. But there is a over and over that strong sense that dock work was the lowest possible work of all, these workers the lowest of all workers: “To have worked at the docks is sufficient to damn a man for any other work,” remarked Beatrice Webb (36). Margaret Harkness in her fictional account of the fall of a young man from the country, says the same — there is little to no hope of being fit for anything else after working there with its brutal conditions and starvation wages and odd hours.

All but Ben Tillett believed it impossible to organise them until they proved otherwise.

There’s some background on the dock companies —  4 dock companies ran 7 docks, and they were famously incompetent apparently — Victoria & Albert Dock at Tilbury, The East India and West India Docks,  the London Dock, St Katharine’s Dock, the Millwall Dock, and the Surrey Commercial Dock. They competed with other docks and other ports — primarily Liverpool and Southampton, especially after opening of the Suez Canal. Revenue at East &West India Docks fell from 4 1/2 percent in 1884 to 0 in 1887, London & St Katharine stood at 1 percent in 1888. This in spite of men fighting each other at their gates for the lowest possible wages, working only the hours needed and turned away for the rest. There is a great post on the ‘call-on’ here.

Stafford describes some of the docker’s living quarters, no different perhaps, from the rookeries of Saffron Hill and Bethnal Green, but surely much colder, damper being right alongside the river:

Only the poorest of the dockers, the casual laborers, lived near their work, in the narrow dark streets which ran between the river and Commercial Road. Some of the older houses tottering on the river bank had degenerated and were now let off room by room; they were often known as ‘rookeries,’ for not only did each room contain a family much too big for it, but at night the vary stairs served as perches for men and women who could not afford a room at all (39).

I enjoyed the book’s brief bios of the working class heroes of the strike — Will Crooks, born in Shirbut Street, Poplar — now the site of the Will Crooks Maternity and Child Welfare Crisis. He would speak just outside East India Dock gate every Sunday morning:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Ben Tillett (more about him in further posts, this book takes his side in almost all things but he is a complex man at best — they were all complex in the ways that race and class and gender intersected, often for the worst, in the work and speeches of everyone named here). Will Thorne — ‘In 1881, when times were difficult in Birmingham, he walked to London, and luckily for him he got a job at once at the Old Kent Road Gas Works…’ (51). John Burns. Annie Besant — the only woman to receive her own few pages of biography in here. But the best fragment is about Beatrice Webb, who shared the speaker’s platform at one event in Canning Town:

He [Tillett] says: “…neither I nor any of the other people on the platform appeared to have made a very satisfactory impression on our rather aristocratically prejudiced visitor. She was young, clever, much petted by the intellectuals of the older generation, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending.” On the other he appeared to her as “undoubtedly sincere, but rather dull.” (57)

There comes a mention of Eleanor Marx in passing,

But Mrs. Aveling–the daughter of Karl Marx–was a sad, foreign looking lady, unhappily married, so they said, to the professor who sometimes came down to speak on socialism at open air meetings (18).

She, and the beautiful wife of Mr Burns are mentioned a handful of times as running the union accounts, but they have little further role in this story. There is a brief mention of Clementina Black — my god, Miss Clementina Black! An amazing woman, one I must read of further. But there is a long chapter on the Match Girls strike, the low wages, the sweated labour, the ‘phossy jaw’ — bones eaten away by phosphorous. It hurts your heart.

They were fierce, these women. They worked in the old Bryant and May factory just down the road from where I lived in Bow when I first moved to London. A gated community of luxury apartments now, I had always wondered about that building.

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Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike

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They went on strike, simply walked out fed up and organised union and strike fund afterwards, and still they won. After this, the tram workers organised, meeting at midnight at  Pilgrim Hall in the New Kent Rd — the only time they could all get together being off shift. They demanded five journeys a day rather than six, and got their demands. Workers at the Beckton Gas Works organised, and won an eight hour day, with fewer retorts to fill and no reduction in wages without ever going on strike. This was led by Will Thorne, and he was present at the burst of discontent that would kick off the docker’s strike.

This fills the remainder of the book — the organising of the pickets, how the more charismatic John Burns came to lead it rather than Ben Tillett who had been organising there all along.

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © National Maritime Museum, London
John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The mass meetings on Tower Hill to report back on progress with negotiations at Dock House on Leadenhall Street. The move of the campaign from Tillett’s headquarters at Wroote Coffee House to The Wade’s Arms, the reorganisation of relief for thousands of men on strike (saved in the key last days of hunger and misery by thousands of pounds collected and sent from Australia). The brakes put on the strike, when more men wanted to join, such as the engineers from Westwood and Baillie of Millwall and were discouraged from doing so.

A description of Burns from the Star, August 27, highlighting that this is a manly man’s strike:

He carried a short, stout stick. His keen, strong eye, looking out from his strong rugged face and from beneath dark brows, glanced round the room with a searching look… There is something about Burns that gives you, the moment you see him, a great sense of power. It is partly perhaps the splendid physique–like a brawny blacksmith: it is partly the straight and fearless eyes; it is partly the easy and strong pose of an athlete, as he sits on the arm of a chair, with his Inverness cape thrown loosely back; it is partly the virile voice–slightly husky now, from over-speaking, but still deep and resonant and masculine (138).

There are other short notes I found of interest:

‘The once notorious Mahogany Bar in Ratcliffe Highway, since 1888 a Non-Conformist Mission Centre, provided 700-800 breakfasts daily and soup for wives and children at mid-day’ (140).

The outpouring of support, the women who cooked and raised money were tremendous. There is another mention of someone I know:

That mysterious figure, Miss Harkness, who had been constantly in touch with the Committee at The Wade’s Arms, came to him [Cardinal Manning], he says, “from the strikers.” Old Newman, his butler, was disinclined to admit her…But within half an hour, the persistent Miss Harkness had seen the Cardinal… (155)

And this on other unions from my side of the river:

The only trade of any great importance was the coal trade. The men of Clapham and Wandsworth struck on the persuasion of the North London men. The Brixton men seemed likely to join (154).

14,000 tickets were being handed out to men on strike by the men, an extraordinary logistical effort requiring immense resources. The role of the women running this cannot be underestimated though it does not appear here really.

Again from the Surrey side, the unexpected actions of Mr Henry Lafone, who ran Butler’s Wharf and allowed his own men on strike two shillings a day.

I’m not sure how to take Stafford’s description of the ‘No Work Manifesto’ — essentially calling for a general strike if the Dock Companies did not move towards an acceptable compromise. Stafford is clearly not in favour and saw this as the move that hardened the opposition and lost the support of the public. She describes with great favour the Conciliation Committee — the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor, Cardinal Manning, Mr Sydney Buxton, M.P. for Poplar. This is not a committee I would trust particularly to negotiate on the behalf of working men, even though the shipowners and many men of wealth and business were on the side of the dockers at the end. I do think Stafford’s class identity consistently betrays her in the telling of this story both in its focus and in its view of strategy and acceptable goals. But there is nothing about her online, only that Stafford is a pseudonym and her real name was Ann Pedlar, this in spite of the fact she is the author of nine other books listed inside the cover. It’s as if no one cared about women writing histories of the unions, imagine that.

Back to the dockers though, I am looking forward to hearing this in their own words and there are multiple autobiographies, but to finish with Stafford’s account.

There was some last-minute negotiating, rushed conferences, lack of full consultation — so familiar, it is all so familiar. They reached a compromise finally, called it a victory though it was debatable how much exactly the dockers had won. Stafford writes:

This then, was the great achievement: unskilled men had learned how to combine, and as a result, the ‘New Unionism’ of 1889 laid the foundations of the Trade Unionism of today. Almost overnight the tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was in time to become the Transport and General Workers Union with its Headquarters at Transport House (202).

[Stafford, Ann (1961) A Match to Fire the Thames. London: Hodder and Stoughton.]

More on the East End…

 

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William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Pt. 1

detail_256_William_morris150(1955, 1976, 2011) E.P. Thompson, PM Press

A book this size (810 pages!) is always daunting to start, long to finish, but it feels like you’ve really accomplished something by the end of it. Of course there is no way to condense or summarise the contents. Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, near Epping Forest, went to Cambridge, studied medieval history and wrote poetry. Ruskin was the great influence of that period and throughout Morris’ life, but he’s on my list of things to read so I won’t discuss him too much here. This is also the period he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed Rosetti when he said to paint was the thing, and so he painted. Romance was also the thing, romance and authenticity, and somehow Morris was given the nickname of Topsy which he never lost amongst his friends from these days. There was revolt of a kind in his life and art, but a revolt of what? Thompson pulls out key phrases:

‘Truth to Nature.’ ‘Stern facts.’ ‘Flight of little souls in bright flames.’ ‘Maisons damnees.’ ‘Mystery–the main thing required for the surprise of the imagination’ (54).

Morris writes:

When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or other to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation (56).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection

He was to meet his wife Jane Burden here in this circle, a model for Dante Rossetti and daughter of a stable worker. She’s someone I want to read more about — as in this tale as it is told, her last name is particularly apt for their relationship. E.P. Thompson isn’t the best on gender issues, and it is certainly clear that they were not very compatible together and in a rational world would have split, but there is little sense of her here apart from a woman firmly committed to her own comfort and distant from any of Morris interests. He seems to have fallen in love with the ideal that he wrote in his romances, the same ideal that Rossetti painted, all surface and yielding and mystery, no living breathing woman (for an interesting view on this from another model, see Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up). They seemed to have come to an open-marriage arrangement over the years, Morris seems to have had a very practical and what I think of as a modern view of it — in a society where there can be no divorce. This is echoed in  views from his fiction, like News From Nowhere, and important in shaping his views on ideal gender roles and relationships under socialism. But it’s hard to tell what the reality was, Jane’s own biographies beckon. What is certain is that Rossetti remained very much in her life long after he and Morris ceased to agree on anything. The William Morris gallery has an exhibit devoted to her image and what they call Rossetti’s obsession with her until January 2015.

But meanwhile Morris was embarking on a revival of the decorative arts — and the relation of arts to society remained central to his thinking throughout his life. In my own ignorance, I associated his wonderful designs with the Victorian era — which of course they are — but were in fact part of a revolt against so much of what characterises the Victorian. I love the distinction between the superficialities of gothic style and feature employed by so many Victorian architects, and Morris own focus on process, the way in which medieval workers created and crafted and the materials and tools that they used. This would become the essence of Morris’ own craft. He consulted archives, interviewed old craftsmen, experimented with his own weaving, synthesised his own natural dyes. I’m much more fascinated by that stuff than Thompson was I’m afraid. I was surprised just how much of the book tries to come to grips with his poetry and prose instead. His poetry isn’t really stuff I like much, the book opens with a discussion of Keats as an influence — whose work I really don’t like either. But it’s a good reminder of how important his poetry continued to be, so much that Thompson writes that the weakness of his middle period ‘reveals much of the change of attitude from revolt to disillusion in his personal outlook during these years. And it marks a stage in the degeneration of the English Romantic movement’ (114). Harsh, but I am inclined to agree.

It was a slow movement to socialism, and he never left behind this love of the medieval past, the goodness of the country and the evil of the big city, the value of work and craftsmanship. Part of the journey was the foundation of ‘Anti-Scrape’, a society to protect and preserve old buildings from demolition or ‘restoration’ into something essentially new. Of course any work to put alternative values or aesthetics above profit or desire to make a show of wealth will bring you ‘directly into conflict with the property sanctions of capitalist society (231).’ I think a lot of things will do this, but the work around the preservation of ancient properties is also very tied up in conservatism, in the maintenance of the past, feudal, inequalities and oppressions that created these buildings. Ruskin, for example, writes

It is…no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings pf past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right to them…What we have ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death… (234 – from the Seven Lamps of Architecture)

But if we do not have the right, than who? How does society grow, improve, change? This seems a bit mad, pushing to an extreme this veneration for what has come before. I much prefer Morris’s approach, and how he believed that ancient architecture:

bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what he may hope for in the time to come (236).

In the end Morris becomes an important voice for socialism, Thompson writes of it as almost beginning a new life at the age of 50. He leaves the disillusionment and depression behind to enter wholeheartedly into this cause he believes can transform the world. Thompson writes:

The Socialist propaganda brought to such people as these exactly what it had brought to William Morris–hope. Wherever the aspirations for life stirred among the workers–the clear-headed hatred of capitalism, the thirst for knowledge, beauty and fellowship–the Socialist converts might be won (300).

His commitment to it was as total as it had been to relearning ancient weaving techniques, and I am full of admiration at his hating public speaking and yet forcing himself too it, knowing that his fame would bring people and that would be his greatest contribution to the movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

He had escaped middle age, passing quite suddenly from a circle of artistic revolutionists, mostly university men gone Agnostic or Bohemian or both, who knew all about him and saw him as much younger and less important than he really was, into a proletarian movement in which, so far as he was known at all, he was venerated as an Elder…Once or twice some tactless ghost from his past wandered into the Socialist world and spoke of him and even to him as Topsy…. (302)

They were quickly sent on their way. These were the days of speeches and more speeches, the tours by key left figures talking up how to change the world in homes and halls and on street corners. They were also days of meeting in pubs and over pubs and next to pubs, the old guard from the Chartists and the 1848 uprisings and workingman’s international still around linking past to present (but cantankerously sometimes), the anarchists infiltrated by agents provocateurs, the Paris Commune, liberals disillusioned with Gladstone, the ‘Land Question’ the question of the 1870s and 1880s (with the rise of Henry George and the Irish Land League),  though nationalism of land was not specifically a socialist demand (way-hey!), as Thompson argues it distracted from robbery of the people through land as opposed to robbery through ownership of the means of production.  But Socialism was on the rise, 1881 saw the rise of the Labour Emancipation League under Joseph Lane. H.M. Hyndman had read Capital by 1880, introduced himself to Marx, and formed the Democratic Federation in 1881 as well. I like that Thompson notes that despite their belief in socialism, many middle class socialists/marxists still feared the proletariat and the ‘mob’ more than loved them — Hyndman believed their revolution was simply inevitable ‘whether we like it or not’ (294). Nor for Hyndman did his views of socialism conflict with belief in Empire, the strength of Anglo-Saxon blood, or the ‘presentation of the Colonies as the special heritage of the English working-class’ (293).

William Morris on the other hand, spoke out against those who have ‘ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt…’ (326). This was just one of the issues that would work to fracture and split the new Socialist movement in a long and complicated and more than frustrating history with which I shall come to grips a little more in part 2. Eleanor Marx’s biography deals with it, as does the history of the Labour Party I’m reading at the moment…hopefully with all of them together and whatever else the future holds I can get a more clear idea of what is important to remember about this period, because I’ve had more than enough fracture and in-fighting in today’s left politics to last me a lifetime… my eyes glazed over at times I confess.

[Part 2 can be found here]

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Wyndham Mortimer: Organizing the UAW

I’m not saying that I know all the ins and outs now, but having just finished Wyndham Mortimer’s book Organize! My life as a union man, I have a much better idea. And I know he has been a hero to many before me, but he is ranked at the top of those I love and admire. To stumble across people like that is always an unexpected joy in a country that seems to pride itself on rubbing out their memory.

It is a beautiful, powerful, hell-raising sort of book. Mortimer started working at the age of 12 in the coal mines, went on to organize unions in coal, auto, and parts manufacturing. He wrote of the 1890’s that “It was during this era that the Nebraska farmers decided to raise more hell and less corn.” He was one of the key people in breaking the open shop in America, a  founder of the UAW, and he stood for a broad definition of syndicalism, a union led by its members for its members, an anti-capitalist vision for the future, the equality of all races in the movement and the country… And so if you want to know just what the hell happened to the union movement in the U.S., this will tell you, and break your heart while doing it.

After organizing his own auto plant, he left for Flint to build a broad-based industrial union. Here is what happened when he arrived:

Early in June, 1936, I went to Flint, the center of General Motors operations and power. I registered at a cheap hotel (The Dresden) obtaining a room costing twelve dollars a week. I had barely time to remove my coat when the phone rang, A voice said, “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!”

“How would you like to go to hell?” I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I’d be damned if this was going to be the first time!

Here he is, second from your left, marching on Cadillac Square in 1937

Wyndham Mortimer

He was there of course, at the founding of the CIO. Here is the historic moment in his own words:

Hutcheson having protested the chair’s permitting Thompson to speak, Lewis observed to him, “I think it is pretty small potatoes when the President of a great international union takes advantage of parliamentary rules to prevent a working delegate from telling us of the problems confronting his people…”

Hutcheson replied sarcastically, “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.”

Lewis stood glaring at him. “I would think you would be ashamed to do this sort of thing.”

Hutcheson then called Lewis a “dirty bastard.” These words were scarcely uttered when Lewis struck Hutcheson on the jaw, knocking him over a table. The Carpenters’ chief landed on the side of his face, which was badly skinned.

The convention was in pandemonium. Sitting across from me was Wharton, President of the Machinists. Picking up his folding chair, he shouted, “Kill the bastard!” … Our entire union delegation moved over to the side of the Miners, prepared to do battle, if necessary.

His feelings on labour and government, written in 1949 and long since proven true:

A ‘Labour’ government, committed to the policy of ‘gradualism’ cannot come to power. It can only come to office.

And this piece of amazing writing on race, from his Newsletter #7, 1950

The fact is–and the top leadership knows it–that the Negro will never receive recognition without pressure. When discrimination is abolished, it will be time enough to think in terms of merit, not before. It took terrific pressure to abolish chattel slavery. It required pressure to have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution adopted. It has required pressure from our unions before many employers would even hire a Negro…

In a white man’s world, the Negro worker has every problem of the white worker–plus one more: he has the problem of color. No person of the white majority can ever possibly understand what this means. The claim that our Negro membership is adequately represented by an all-white Executive Board is a piece of brazen, chauvinistic nonsense, advocated by those who see nothing really wrong in racial discrimination and do not understand the harm it does the American labor movement.

It is an amazing book from an amazing man. And it is the best and the worst of the American labor movement, its brilliant spark of promise before that was crushed through red-baiting, fear, and greed.

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GM destroys the American Middle Class

Well. I am as amazed as you are to actually find this stated out loud, I am rather leery of it in fact, it seems something that is far too good (well, good only in terms of my research) to be possibly true. And I can’t be the only one to have found this buried deep in a rather bad book called Why GM Matters, but here is the exact quote from Rick Wagoner, (ex) CEO of General Motors:

The toughest question I ever asked Wagoner was, Did you have to destroy the American middle class to save the company? “If you look at the circumstances we’re facing today, if we hadn’t done that, it would have been very dire for all three of the U.S.-based auto businesses,” he responded. “So, unfortunately, the answer is yes.”

So I was originally quite struck with a bit of anger…but what in the book didn’t make me angry? And then of course, a friend pointed out that as a quote it is really quite absurd, though typical of some good old-fashioned GM megalomania. And as an attitude it is stunning. So what is the greater good of such a business really, if not the jobs it provides? Apart from retaining American industrial capacity? Because surely there must be a cheaper way to do that than giving such a company billions of worker’s dollars…

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.

The streets and strikes of Clifton

Apart from being the final resting place of Santa Teresita, and an old nesting place of white vigilantism as shown by the case of the kidnapped Catholic orphans, Clifton is a photographer’s delight and full of ever more stories. Here is Chase Creek Street, with my folks wandering romantically hand in hand

They escaped the heat over ice cream while I reveled in it, down one of the more amazing Arizonan streets I have encountered, with buildings well loved (where boarding rooms and banana splits and guns are available) side by side with buildings now derelict. And I have so much love for the derelict

Here there is an opulence of decay I’ve seldom found, as the buildings of old mining towns are usually ruins or rigorously and shinily preserved for the tourists. This place is just itself instead, still standing in spite of everything and even ready to make a come back.

Though there are ruins here too…

And I wondered very sadly when exactly it was that the bar shut down, El Rey, here I am in spirit…

With all the attitude a bar tan cabron requires, I am sure que sigue siendo el rey (aunque no mas adentro, because outside? Oh no)…

I would have a given a great deal to have gotten in though! Even more for a cold bohemia.

I lost all of my attitude in the jail. It was blasted out of solid rock long ago, and sits by the side of the main road with an iron gate swinging open. It is wired for light, but there are no light bulbs, so you go down about 10 steep stairs into a cave of absolute blackness…there is a small room off of which there are three cells with horrible iron doors. Using the flash of my camera I got this picture

Of course, I never saw it like this, just the quickest of glimpses in the camera light, and the fear growing and growing every second. You can see nothing in the darkness, but you know the cells are there, and there is no way to know if they are empty. There is one window in the rock that lights up the cell on the right and I crept over to it, but the fear of what lay behind my back, maybe just the fear filling the whole place up like a well, kept me out…and I fought it and lost and scampered back up the stairs as fast as I could possible go.

The story goes that the man who blasted it into being was the first man locked inside of it, he started shooting his gun into the air at the opening celebration after the townsfolk refused to toast him for his good work. Anyone who could think such a place was a good idea definitely deserved to spend some quality time there.

The employment in Clifton all comes from the earth, from copper and gold, and the huge pit mine in Morenci only a couple of miles away. It belongs to Phelps-Dodge…funny to think that I did a great deal of work for them in the old family business of Orbis Geographics…they even now hold maps I hand colored, and never paid on time if memory serves me correctly!

But here is one of the well-kept buildings along Chase Creek St.

There is a long history of strikes, and a history just as long of atrocities committed by mining companies and local government against striking miners in Arizona…not that we ever learned any of it in school. One of the best resources on this is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner’s Strike of 1983 Recast Labor Management Relations in America by Jonathan Rosenblum, which contains a great general history of labor and copper. There was a strike in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in 1915-16 led by the Western Federation of Miners.

Then Jerome and Bisbee, 1917: The IWW organized and called a strike, a very successful strike. President Wilson had refused to send in federal troops at local request, and appointed the Arizona governor to mediate instead, just imagine… In Jerome, where the IWW was striking against PD, over 100 men were kidnapped by vigilantes and held in the county jail, before being moved by train and dumped in Needles, CA. In Bisbee the strike was against the owners of the Copper Queen mine. 1,186 men (some of whom were neither miners nor on strike) were rounded up at gun point by vigilantes and put in cattle cars still full of manure and trucked into New Mexico. Many then continued to be held there by the federal government for months. An IWW organizer, Jim Brew, was shot when he resisted the round up, after shooting one of the ‘deputies’. It is believed that Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge and son of the owner of Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine, orchestrated the actions as a way to break organized labor in the state, which he did. The cattle cars belonged to him, and he probably supplied the guns…he was indicted, but charges were dropped. And armed guards were stationed at the entrances of Bisbee and Douglas, to pass them required a passport signed by Sheriff Wheeler…so almost none of the men ever returned. You can read more here.

Back in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf a union was again organized in the early 1940s. Mexicans were still not allowed to hold any of the more skilled jobs. When David Velasquez began helping the Bulldozers shovel what he had once shoveled by hand he became eligible to join the Operating Engineers under the AFL. He tried to join, but they old him that Mexican ‘boys’ would be better in their own union, called the Federated Labor Union. There was no possibility of rising into the better jobs. So he and Andres Padilla organized a branch of the CIO, meeting secretly along the river. After two years they won certification, Morenci Miners local 616 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. Originally they represented all miners, but racism divided the union and crafts split from it; Mine Mill became known as the Mexican union. In 1946 Mexican American veterans returning home from the war gave the impetus for a strike, seeking health benefits and equal wages for all races. Mine Mill won its first contract. And then followed a long period of strength and broad activist unionism (if only all unions could say the same) in spite of  the witch-hunt for communists, where union leadership was put on trial by the CIO itself. It suffered constant attack from the federal government, as well as hostility from other unions who all looked to appropriate its membership. In 1967 it merged with the steelworkers.

In 1982 PD announced it was laying off 3400 workers in Arizona and Texas. Negotiations began, and in July of 1983 a strike was called, and a picket line formed at the Morenci pit. Morenci is entirely a company town…workers were evicted, harassed, arrested, put under surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. Very creepy, but Arizona likes to know what dissidents are up to, particularly when they dare to stop mining. Local government was entirely on the side of PD, putting injunctions on pickets and protests. PD announced it was hiring replacement workers, and 1,000 people gathered at the gate to the mine to prevent it. PD shut down production.

And on August 19th, 1983, the National Guard and state troopers were called in to break the strike. They arrived with military vehicles, helicopters, tanks. They forced entry for the scabs. 10 days later they arrested 10 miners in Ajo for ‘rioting’. And that was really the end, though the strike dragged on slowly until February of 86 when the NLRB rejected the unions appeal to stop decertification.

It is often seen as the great symbol of defeat for American Unions. And here is what the pit looks like now:

It has engulfed the towns of Morenci and Metcalf, swallowed them up and lost them forever in the search for more copper. And I suppose you could say, for a moment, it swallowed the labor movement as well. But just for the moment.

[also posted at www.pmpress.org]

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Sheepherders and the CA Minimum Wage

So I’m doing a wee bit of research for a fellowship I’m applying for…money is money, and money paid to do something akin to what I want to do is good money so I’m applying. So I’m trying to explain the abysmal situation that most working folks in LA find themselves in, and from there heading down the ladder to all those who are sometimes with work, out of work, unable to work. And what my writing might be able to do about it…I’m writing a good line to be sure, but it’ll take a hell of a lot more than writing for damn sure.

At any rate, I was looking some stuff up about the California minimum wage and discovered this juicy tidbit from off of the official California Department of Industrial Relations (a misnomer if the below quote is anything to judge by…you can read all about it yourself at http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm):

Q. What is the minimum wage?

A. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum wage in California is $8.00 per hour.

For sheepherders, however, effective July 1, 2002, the minimum wage was set at $1,200.00 per month. Effective January 1, 2007 this wage was increased to a minimum monthly salary of $1,333.20. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum monthly salary for sheepherders will be $1,422.52. Wages paid to sheepherders may not be offset by meals or lodging provided by the employer. Instead, there are provisions in IWC Order 14-2007, Sections 10(F), (G) and (H) that apply to sheepherders with respect to monthly meal and lodging benefits required to be provided by the employer.

Yeah, I thought that was pretty sweet. Sheepherders. I’m glad they’re taken care of, or are they? I suppose a minimum monthly means they can’t be paid less then that for their work…how many hours do sheepherders work anyway? The ones in the bible seemed to be on pretty much 24/7 but it’s been many years since I spent time reading about them…

Actually this minimum wage takes care of no one really. A full time worker will earn $16,640 a year. That means a mom with her two kids is living below the federal poverty limit even though she is working full time. Though I guess she’ll be better off working at Burger King than herding sheep. Perhaps.

It’s really too bad that the Department of Industrial Relations’ Frequently Asked Questions section doesn’t include just how people are expected to live off of under $1,400 a month when the average 2 bedroom apartment in LA is now renting at $2,100. Forget about healthcare, car insurance, clothes, utilities, food…

For general info on just how badly you are fucked on minimum wage look at California Progress Report 2008, of course, the folks earning minimum wage already know all that.

Rent your own Hermit

This book is brilliant! I am learning that back in the day wealthy Englishmen actually hired hermits to come live on their lands in specially created faux ruinous grottoes, adding a picturesqueity (I made that word up, but super muppets are allowed to do that), and a certain special something which must have been above and beyond the smell…just imagine…a steady income AND no more wondering what to wear today, no more cooking, no more shoes, no more dental floss? Paradise I say, I might even have time between prayers and the 5 hours of required crazy talk about the coming apocalypse to live my dream of teaching a crew of black squirrels to sing Beethoven’s fifth while dancing the cancan. To be honest, I don’t like bathing in cold water which could be something of a challenge, but a hermit’s idiom requires dirt so I think I’ll be fine.

I can submit a resume and references to anyone who is hiring, and I’ll even buy my own plane tickets…my motto is, *have bible, will travel*, so text me!