Sunday, May 08, 2022

EMAIL FROM AMERICA (11): Work avoidance and worker exploitation

 America has interesting and rather diverse views on physical labour.

While there is loud praise of the Protestant Work Ethic, an awful lot of the culture is devoted to 'get rich quick' schemes and various forms of confidence tricksters, whose scams generally feed off greed. And it seems that this has been the case for a very long time, from the gold rushes in California, South Dakota and Alaska to gambling on the stock market in the 'bucket shops' of the 1890's, and more speculation in the events leading up to the crashes of 1929 and 2008. Not to mention the lottery, the illegal 'numbers games', Florida swampland swindles, evangelists, multi-level marketing schemes, Ponzi schemes, telephone 'psychics' and so much more.

It is almost as if most people were trying to avoid 'good, honest work' and always have.

The Jamestown colony in Virginia was established in 1607 by a group of 'adventurers' (read junior sons of nobility who wouldn't inherit) to make money, yet they had no skills or tools, and eventually had to import Polish workmen to actually build things. Interestingly, this led to the first American strike, when the colonists decided to set up a democratic system, without giving those workers a vote.

The famous Plymouth colony, founded in 1620, consisted of very pious individuals, who came with no tools or skills other than firearms. They would have died, and almost did, had it not been for the local tribes making alliances with them, and a few sailors electing to stay, with their tools and practical skills.

And who did the bulk of the dirty work to build the country for the next 200 years? In the Northeast, it was indentured servants and other poor immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland. In the South, it was enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans. In the West, it was poor Mexicans and imported Chinese, who were then quite badly mistreated by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The rapid industrialization of the late 1800's demanded a concentration of workers, who then started to think about unionization. This led to cries of 'socialism' and 'anarchy' from the wealthy, who used every power of the government to stop them.

In 1920, efforts to unionize coal mines in West Virginia led to the Stone Mountain Coal Company hiring the Baldwin-Felts agency to evict the families of striking miners from the company-owned housing. In the course of their actions, the agents claimed to have a warrant (which turned out to be fake) to arrest the Chief of Police Hatfield in Matewan, which in turn led to a gunfight known as the Matewan massacre. This inflamed the miners, who embarked on a campaign of sabotage and harassment.

In the midst of this, Chief Hatfield went to an adjacent county in 1921 to stand trial on a count of sabotage. As he walked up the courthouse steps, Hatfield and his friend were murdered by Baldwin-Felts agents.

This event made things even worse, and the violence increased. This culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, where a force comprised of volunteers and members of the West Virginia National Guard and State Police met thousands of angry miners, resulting in several hundred deaths. The former used leftover bombs and poison gas from World War I in the course of the battle.

Once federal troops arrived, the miners, many veterans, refused to fire on US troops, and returned home.

After the subsequent arrests and trials, union membership in the United Mine Workers dropped from 50,000 to 10,000 and stayed low until the depths of the Depression in 1935.

It was not until the mid-1950s that unions became respected and the hard physical jobs well-paid. And that only lasted for 20 years or so, after which the Reagan administration tried to copy the model of Margaret Thatcher and reduce their power.


Bucko said...

I don't know much about the history of unions, but I know that the unions in Thatchers time were a parody and needed to be dealt with

And black African slavery wasn't just in the south, it was in the north too

Sackerson said...

@Bucko: there were ceratinly some unions with Reds running them, but there were right-wing ones too.

The union disputes in the latter years of the previous Labour Government were at least partly, I think, caused by the inflation of the mid-1970s which sparked endless rounds of struggles for pay parity between workers in similar jobs (sometimes in the same firm) and pay differentiation for higher-skilled workers.

That and the squeezes caused by membership of the EEC/EU didn't help - in all our years with them we only had an even balance of trade in one year, 1975 - not (I think) coincidentally, the year in which we had a referendum on leaving.

Paddington said...

@Bucko - there was very little slavery in the Northern states, all of which had banned the practice by 1804. That was the big reason for the Fugitive Slave Act, where Southern States, in the name of "States' Rights", demanded the return of runaway slaves who had made it to free states. They even sent out packs of slave hunters, who often kidnaped free African-Americans.

Bucko said...

@Paddington - Slavery had been around a long time by 1804. Every single slave that was imported into America came on northern registered ships into northern ports.
It may have been a bigger thing in the South due to their agricultural economy, but the north certainly played their part and it was no small one