Tuesday, January 31, 2012

City League Champs. 1895

Mayor Loth's Champion Football Team
I was rummaging around in a box of my dad's old photos when I came upon the image at right. It's a photo of Loth's (the mayor's) team, Pittsburgh champions in 1895.  This is the earliest known extant picture of my grandfather (first row left), and it includes my grandmother's brother, Jesse Edwards (front, third from right), and (my dad thought) Grandpap's brother Will (top row, far right).
     What's interesting to me is the scruffiness of the players (no uniforms, little padding, no helmets) and the debris on the field where they took the picture. Note that no player has a beard and only one guy has a mustache. Everyone and everything looks completely beat to hell.
      I know that long exposures made for stiff expressions on subjects, but even so, this team seems pretty bummed for just having whupped Duquesne University 0-66 for the city title.  Could it be that they were only reflecting the malaise of the times--the dangerous working conditions, the deep economic depression following the Panic.
      What's amazing is that in the note on the back, my father writes that this photo was taken on his parents' wedding day, November 26th.  Dad says that after the wedding, Grandpap played in this game.  I assume that Grandma was there, cheering him and her brother on.  Still, it's strange to think that the only photo of Grandpap on his wedding day is of him with his football team--and this would not exist had they not won the championship.  No pictures were taken of the wedding.  My grandparents were too poor to afford such a luxury.  It was Grandpap's third year of working in the Homestead Machine Shop (for pitifully small wages), and Grandma, having finally graduated from the orphanage where she landed at age 8, had been working as a waitress for a couple of years. (Apparently that's how they met, at the restaurant.)
     One can only imagine what it was like to be in the places shown in these old photos.  What strikes me about this and most of the other images of 1890s Homestead and environs is how down-and-out the place looks. 
      Hamlin Garland's 1893 description reinforces this impression: "The streets of the town were horrible; the buildings were poor; the sidewalks were sunken, swaying, and full of holes, and the crossings were sharp-edged stones set like rocks in a river bed. Everywhere the yellow mud of the street lay kneaded into a sticky mass, through which groups of pale, lean men slouched in faded garments, grimy with the soot and grease of the mills. . . .Such towns are sown thickly over the hill-lands of Pennsylvania, but this was my first descent into one of them. They are American only in the sense in which they represent the American idea of business."
       Garland's last sentence is informative.  His description of the town and the steelworks reveals an ugly, dreary, hellish place where "the people were mainly of the discouraged and sullen type to be found everywhere where labor passes into the brutalizing stage of severity."
A street in Braddock, across the river from Homestead, 1983. (Photo by T.B.)
  Yes, this is the kind of world where industrial workers lived during the so-called "Gay 'Nineties."  What's more appalling is that wages and working conditions did not improve appreciably until after the New Deal.  Tom Brokaw has called the children of these people, those who lived through the Depression and fought in WWII, the "Greatest Generation"; however,  I don't think it's fair to single out one generation.  This late-19th-century generation who endured poverty and backbreaking labor to provide for their families are just as "great."     
I wonder what future generations will say about us.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

So Depressing! Part 2: Lockouts

When I opened my copy of the New York Times yesterday, my eyes immediately jumped to a front-page article titled "More Lockouts as Companies Battle Unions."  The article notes the recent employment (pun intended) of the lockout, not only in professional sports, but also in such diverse industries as manufacturers (Cooper Tire) and the arts (the New York City Opera).

Continued in the Business section, the article observes that the use of the lockout was "once a rarity," and goes on on to highlight the ongoing dispute between American Crystal Sugar, based in Moorhead, Minnesota, and its unionized workers.  Since the lockout began on August 1st of last year, the company has hired 900 replacement workers to keep its sugar beet plants running.  Thanks to Federal regulations, unlike 19th century Robber Barons, American Crystal cannot make make scabs permanent hires.  However, these regulations may not be enough to save the 1,300 workers struggling without paychecks in a depressed economy.

A locked-out worker walks by an American Crystal plant.
As the lockout drags into its seventh month, the locked-out workers are sinking into financial ruin.  Many have defaulted or will soon default on their mortgages; many bills and insurance policies have not been paid. Layoffs are starting in other sectors, like education.  In this war of attrition, the company has the upper hand.  How long can these people hold on before, like the Carnegie Steel workers in 1893, they are forced to give up and try to move on?  The economic ripple effect of the lockout is spreading through the Red River Valley. I ask you, who is benefiting from this situation?  Replacement workers, union members, public workers, taxpayers?  Not.
Pickets on the line at American Crystal in the January cold.
Sugar workers in default on their mortgages are not being thrown into the street by sheriff's deputies, as they were in 1892 Homestead--at least not yet.  But nationwide, we've witnessed homeowners, deep in debt on properties bought during the housing bubble, kicked out by the same banks that caused the crash in the first place, banks bailed out by American taxpayers.  Then, maddeningly, those banks put the house up for sale at a price below what the dispossessed owner owed.  Crazy, crazy.      
As in all of these company vs. labor disputes, the two sides have very different perspectives.  Labor attorney Robert Batterman (metaphorical name?),who represents companies, declared that "the pendulum has swung too far toward the unions, and in these tight economic times employers are looking for givebacks."  But according to union member Paul Woinarowicz, the lockout is "just another way of trying to break the union." As in 1892 Homestead, the Red River Valley community has been torn apart by the pitting of worker against worker. As Woinarowicz put it, "[Being locked out] was just like a knife stuck in your heart."

Members of the Pennsylvania militia on patrol in Homestead, securing the mill for replacement workers, 1892.
In an ironic twist, it turns out that American Crystal Sugar is a co-op, formed in 1973 when growers bought out a corporation founded in the 1890s.  Co-ops have long enjoyed the image of the "Little Guys" banding together to get free of "The Man."  However, some co-ops have become huge companies, with boards of directors far removed from the workers toiling in their plants.  These company executives and boards have their eyes on the bottom line, just as do those in same roles in corporations.   
During the Homestead lockout, anarchists came to town to urge the workers to take over the mill.  The workers threw them into jail.  What the anarchists did not understand is that American workers did not want to run the company; they wanted decent pay and decent working conditions.  How ironic, then, that American Crystal actually is a company that was taken over by the farmers that the corporate company was kicking around.  Now they've been in charge for forty years, they are acting like the company they took over.
A Trygve Olson editorial cartoon.

American Crystal has spent a lot of cash keeping government subsidies flowing their way.  According to opensecrets.org, through the first years of this century, the co-op's PAC routinely spent between $300,000 and $600,000 each election cycle. Again, irony:  the same elite minority that want to keep their own tax percentage low are asking the rest of us taxpayers to keep subsidizing their profits. But alas for American Crystal, despite their efforts, it's virtually guaranteed that the government subsidies on sugar will be taken away in the next congressional session.  On top of that, a bad crop last year caused a drop of 39% in company profits.What to do?  Take a lesson from H.C. Frick and cut employees' earnings to shore up your bottom line.

Looking at nightmarish economic and political turmoil in the nation and world, it's tempting to give into despair. However, throwing in the towel never changed anything for the better. Take to heart the message of Mother Jones, champion of the Little Guy: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
Mother Jones exhorts workers to stand up for their rights.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

So Depressing! 1893, 1929, and 2008

Most Americans have heard of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many Americans today are suffering from the effects of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crash.  But few are aware of the so-called "Panic of 1893," which sank the US and other industrialized countries into a depression that lasted for a decade.  Some aspects of the '93 Panic bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the current economic mess.

The economic motivations for the 1892 Homestead Strike are harbingers of the Panic.  In 1891 Carnegie and Frick, casting their eyes upon the great flood of unemployed Americans and immigrant labor entering the country, decided to slash workers' wages to take up the slack in their sagging bottom line.  Theirs was a conscious, orchestrated move to take out unions and their negative impact on Robber Baron income.  The Strike, after all, began with a lockout. Frick planned to keep control of the situation by enclosing the Homestead Works in a huge fence (aka "Fort Frick"), then bringing in Pinkerton guards, who would secure the mill for scab workers.

The flaw in this strategy proved to be the bringing in of Pinkertons.  Frick did not anticipate that his mercenaries would encounter a few thousand angry, armed townspeople on the river bank.  But this defeat did not deter Frick.  He convinced the Pennsylvania governor to send in the State militia to occupy the site to allow replacement workers to come inside the Works.  End of strike. What the strikers had not realized is that for every one of them, there were several hungry, unemployed workers desperate for any income.  A torrent of scabs flowed into the mill, and that was that.

During the previous decade, the US had enjoyed a tremendous period of economic expansion, driven by speculative building of railroads.  No one seemed to care that there were too many railroads, all being built with shaky financing.  Banks, investors, and railroad workers were all profiting from the building of this economic house of cards.  What, them worry?
A run on a bank in 1893.

But then, in February of 1893, the first cards came tumbling down with the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, followed by three other major railroads, including the Great Northern. A series of bank failures followed, with thousands of small investors losing their life savings. The mining industry, heavily reliant on railroad building and the silver standard, went into a deep depression.

Bankrupt, many people couldn't pay their mortgages and were forced to abandon the homes they'd recently built.  Brand-new houses stood unoccupied and unsalable. The ranks of the bankrupt and unemployed swelled, driving wages on existing jobs even lower. Double-digit unemployment continued for nearly a decade, reaching a high of 18% in 1894. The US Treasury was in such bad shape that President Grover Cleveland took out a loan of $65 million in gold from banker J.P.Morgan (the future owner of U.S. Steel) to keep it afloat.
A soup line, with ironic billboard, 1930s.

While the government implemented some reforms during the next several decades to try to stabilize the economy, it took the horrors of  the Great Depression for things to change significantly for the average American worker.  Roosevelt's New Deal spurred the creation of government agencies that not only brought economic stability, but a social safety net for ordinary American workers and their families: the WPA, Social Security, the United States Housing Authority and the Farm Security Administration. Regulation was imposed not only on banking, but also on other commercial enterprises, like the sale of foods and pharmaceuticals.
A farm foreclosure auction in Iowa, 1933.

But then, in 2008 Americans found themselves facing the unimaginable: an international crisis of debt.  The cause: the bursting of the real estate speculation bubble.  Shaky lending practices (subprime mortages) had spurred an enormous housing boom, driving up real estate prices while creating enormous debt.  Worldwide, banks and  governments got suckered into helping build this house of cards.  Then the crash came, with painful consequences: banks failing, governments on the verge of bankruptcy, companies downsizing or folding, mass layoffs, huge numbers of unemployed.
Editorial cartoon: I thought we were just buying a house."

While the economic situation in 1893 is in many ways different from our current one, the parallels are nonetheless stunning: financial speculation driving overbuilding, resulting in bank failures and mass unemployment. In both cases, a tiny privileged minority acquired fabulous wealth, elections were partisan and fiercely contested, and ineffectual and/or corrupt elected representatives were reviled by the people who elected them.  Instead of Robber Barons and banks, we have international corporations and banks running the show.  Either way, it's still a very small, elite group in control of the wealth of nations.

A brand-new house, abandoned.
Amazing to me is the solution that some today are trying to implement to fix this mess: dismantle the regulations and social safety network put in place in the last century.  Let's get rid of safety and environmental regulations, the workers' right to bargain collectively, and expensive programs like Medicare and Social Security, and all will be well, they say.  Let capitalism work its magic on the economy, they say, staring dreamily into their Brave Newer World.  Emulating Frick, they would like to take advantage of American workers by eliminating their jobs and benefits and handing over the profits gained thereby to the Fortunate Fewer.  The workers with gainful employment will continue to shoulder the tax burden, while the rich sit by and build up their fortunes.

I say, you folks must be nuts to consider even for a second catapulting our country back into the ugly, filthy, brutal economic free-for-all of the 1890s. Yours is neither a practical nor ethical vision.

Take a lesson from history.  As George Santayana famously remarked, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."
'Nuff said.