Tag Archives: Worker’s Rights

A Crumb for Workers Rights

The State of New York's legislature is characterized as throwing "crumbs" to the minimum wage work force.
The State of New York’s legislature is characterized as throwing “crumbs” to the minimum wage work force.

As Samuel Gompers, a key 20th Century labor union leader once said, “The man who has millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day,” (Gompers 59). Corporate greed was a contentious issue of the 20th century that continues to bleed into the 21st aswell. The United States’ (US) economy shifted from an industrial economy during the era of World War II to a services economy in the contemporary era of the Internet and globalization. But the United States has not experienced a major shift in the advancement of workers rights. There was however a detrimental state-sponsored shift in labor union influence, which ultimately left millions of Americans in the working class without union representation and vulnerable to the negligence of federal legislatures.

An infamous example would be President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Labor.” He encouraged rapid de-unionization across the United States because of his direct mass-firing 13,000 air traffic controllers and “appointment of three management representatives to the five-member National Labor Relations Board (McCartin).” This decision was executed to demonstrate how tough Regan could be, which ultimately impressed the Soviets. He neglected to advance workers rights at the expense of gaining respect from Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, so that US could pressure the Soviets into resolving the Cold War (McCartin). Reagan set the precedent for future presidents. Prior to his administration, “Republican presidents never had much regard for unions…no GOP president had dared to challenge [labor unions’] firm legal standing, [which was] gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s (Mesiter Par.2)” President Ronald Reagan’s administration halted the progression of workers right up to the 2008 Great Recession and election of President Barack Obama. During the Obama era,  there were some initiatives for workers rights, particularly on a state level in the context of the minimum wage. However, the ineffectiveness of these attempts represent the inefficiency of American labor law.

There is still an utter disregard for the progression of workers rights. Today, over 7.3 million people are reliant upon on a minimum wage occupation as their primary source of income (Everyday Finance 280). This number is consistent with the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota and Alaska (US Census, 2010). Also, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation Calculator on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website, the initial mandated minimum wage of $0.25 in 1938 is equivalent to $4.38 in modern dollars, which is only $2.87 less than today’s mandated minimum wage of $7.25. While the cost of living has risen dramatically, the income for millions of Americans has not grown. Hence the debate on increasing the minimum wage: Millions of Americans are trying to provide for themselves and their families on a virtually unchanged amount of income in over 80 years. In response, many are putting pressure on their state legislatures to provide more egalitarian standards for labor.

The state of New York enacted a  progressive initiative in the advancement of workers rights in March 2016. This came as a response to a nation-wide protest that began in New York City, the so-called “fight for $15” (Nagourney 4). This was a multi-city strike lead by tens of thousands of workers that marched for a $15 national minimum wage mandate, as well as other progressive workers rights, such as fair pay for women and minorities. The state of New York mandated a $15 minimum wage in New York City by the end of 2018, and the same increase for surrounding counties by 2021 (McKinley Par. 2). Governor Andrew Cuomo, the current Governor of New York, also proposed the wage mandate because it was a feature campaign promise. The bill, nicknamed “The Cuomo Promise,” was named in reverence for his father, Mario Cuomo, who was a former New York Governor and highly praised as a “liberal beacon” (Nagourney 3).

Governor Andrew Cuomo is up for reelection in 2018, and the minimum wage increase mandate helps secure more votes, specifically from Democrats and the working class. All though historically Republicans have been opposed to raising the minimum wage, this policy proposal was met with surprising bipartisan support from New York Republicans. In an era of intense partisan divisiveness, this unprecedented consensus exists primarily because the bill allows New York to become a national “economic leader,” as a laboratory state, which is a state that pioneers a policy in order to examine the implications of leading-edge legislature both politically and economically (McKinley par. 17). Also, New York Republicans’ constituents largely consist of the working-class who are directly affected by the minimum wage increase.

The minimum wage increase also came as a

Although the Cuomo Promise was met with much bipartisan praise, some, like political cartoonist Jeffrey Boyer, met the bill with skepticism. The cartoon above, titled “Crumbs,” depicts a man seated on a bench feeding the surrounding pigeons. The man, or bird feeder, is wearing a pin that titles him as “New York Legislature,” and the pigeons are titled “Minimum wage workers.”

Boyer takes an apparent negative stance against the mandate. This is made clear by the way he portrays a simple power dynamic between the bird feeder, New York Legislation, and the birds, minimum wage workers. The cartoon characterizes the pay increase mandate as a ‘handout,’ by representing it as tossed crumbs to pigeons. The negative framing is also apparent in the characterization of the “minimum wage workers,” as pigeons, who are the receivers of the ‘handed out’ benefits. This is damagingly stigmatizing, by linking the typically unfavorable ideology behind minimum wage workers, to the commonly attributed symbolism of pigeons, such as them being bottom feeders, unintelligent, and dependent. The bird-feeder seems to be reluctant to give the pigeons food, considering the bag he is holding, titled ‘Salary Increase,’ is a large paper sack which likely contains his meal. This could indicate that the bird-feeder intended to feed himself rather than the pigeons. But, after the birds gathered around him in large quantities, he must have caved into their demands. This is an implicit metaphor for Boyer’s viewpoint of New York Legislatures, that their progressive actions were taken not in moral self interest, but from the growing coercion for the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama and their constituents. The “crumbs” are thus a metaphor for the inadequacy of the ‘handed-out’ minimum wage increase because in comparison to a full meal, crumbs are temporary and ultimately unsatisfying.

New York’s minimum wage mandate also functions as a contemporary parallel to the proactive and persistent travail of steel workers in the revolutionary Little Steel Strike of 1937. For decades, steel workers were exploited by firms nicknamed “Little Steel Corporations,” which were steel companies in the 1930s that were comparatively smaller than the leading manufacturer, U.S. Steel. “Little Steel Corporations” were able to coerce their employees into inequitable 100-hour work weeks with unreasonable low wages, because labor unions at the time lacked significant political capital to lobby to Congress. However, the National Labor Relations Board capitalized on the economic urgency for resources created by World War II to coerce steel firms into honoring the ultimatums of their employees. The Steel Corporations agreed upon a 40 hour pay week, a pay increase, and the right to collectively bargain.

The resolution, made famous by John Knott’s depiction of the resolution in a biblical allegory, was largely attributed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal, because it allowed the United States government more direct political power over corporate entities. FDR’s political presence in the battle for progressive workers rights became a critical catalyst that to this day provokes immediate political activism in the fight for workers rights: fair pay, collective bargaining, and work hour restraints.
The people of the United States, rather in the past, the present, or future, appear to be entangled in the sluggish inefficiency of change. Although the progressive agenda that strived to change and rectify corporate greed in the United States has had limited success in the past century, there is hope. New York’s recent enactment of the $15 minimum wage is an obvious milestone for the advancement of workers rights. Yet it is simultaneously indicative of how much further the people of the United States must push onward in the battle for equitable workers rights.

 

Works Cited

Labor Laws.” Everyday Finance: Economics, Personal Money Management, and Entrepreneurship, vol. 1, Gale, 2008, pp. 281-283. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2598&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX2830600117&it=r&asid=2479ea0abb5dd9387b350cefa7289042. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.

Gompers, Samuel. Samuel Gompers Papers, University of Maryland, 2011, www.gompers.umd.edu/quotes.htm.

McKinley, Jesse, and Vivian Yee. “New York Budget Deal With Higher Minimum Wage Is Reached.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2016, mobile.nytimes.com/2016/04/01/nyregion/new-york-budget-deal-with-higher-minimum-wage-is-reached.html.

Bureau, US Census. Census.gov, www.census.gov/en.html.

“CPI Inflation Calculator.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.

Boyer, Jeffrey. “Editorial Cartoon by Jeffrey Boyer.” The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, 3 Apr. 2016, editorialcartoonists.com/cartoon/display.cfm/149853/.

Nagourney, Adam. “Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Jan. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/nyregion/mario-cuomo-new-york-governor-and-liberal-beacon-dies-at-82.html.

Meister, Dick. “Ronald’s Reagan’s War on Labor.” Labor – And A Whole Lot More, www.dickmeister.com/id89.html.

McCartin, Joseph A. “Opinion | Reagan vs. Patco: The Strike That Busted Unions.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Aug. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/08/03/opinion/reagan-vs-patco-the-strike-that-busted-unions.html.

Not a Good Place to Sit

 

“Not a Good Place to Sit” (Knott)

The cartoon Not A Good Place to Sit by John Knott refers to the Sit-Down Strike Law proposed by Texas Democrat Senator Martin Dies and its continuation within Texas, which made it a felony for workers to perform sit-down strikes. Sit-down strikes are a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at factories or other centralized locations, take possession of the workplace by “sitting down” at their stations. (Encyclopedia Britannica) These strikes occurred throughout America in the 1930’s as a result of unsafe labor conditions and inadequate pay. (Encyclopedia Britannica) The cartoon is a supplement to an editorial published in the Dallas Morning News titled Texas vs. Illegal Strikes published on April 7, 1937.

The cartoon itself is visually simple. It depicts a prickly pear cactus with the words “sit-down strike law” written on it. The cactus is growing out of the center of Texas. The humor in this cartoon can be found through the use of the cactus because if can be interpreted in two ways. At the most basic level and without knowledge of the sit-down strike law, it is obvious that Texas, a place with an abundance of cacti, is not a comfortable place to sit. Additionally, because the cactus is specifically a prickly pear, the name adds to the idea that Texas is inhospitable and prickly. It also strengthens the link to Texas because the prickly pear cactus has a long association with Texas and other southern states, and was even named the official state plant of Texas in 1995. (Cain) On a deeper level, it is clear that the cartoon is referring to the sit-down strikes and legislation taken against them at the time in the state of Texas. It is specifically referring to Texas because Texas legislation took the national sit-down strike law one step further. This made it, quite literally, more dangerous to “sit” in Texas than in other places in the United States.

Sit-down strikes were met with such intense opposition due to their ability to render huge businesses entirely helpless. They effectively prevented their employers from moving production to other locations because the strikers would need to be physically moved in order to continue production (Encyclopedia Britannica). Furthermore, this form of protest prevented their ability to bring in “strike breakers” (Encyclopedia Britannica). These were people brought into the company to replace the workers on strike alleviated pressure on the companies being protested against (Encyclopedia Britannica). Because sit-down strikes made it impossible for companies to get back on their feet without adhering to the strikers’ wishes, they were extremely controversial throughout the United States.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were the first American union to use the sit-down strike (White). On December 10, 1906, at the General Electric Works in Schenectady, New York, 3,000 workers sat down on the job and stopped production to protest the dismissal of three fellow IWW members (Authors of History.com). A decade later, the United Auto Workers staged successful sit-down strikes in the 1930s, most famously in the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937 (Authors of History.com).  GM argued that the strikers were trespassing and got a court order demanding their evacuation; still, the union men stayed put (Authors of History.com). GM turned off the heat in the buildings, but the strikers wrapped themselves in coats and blankets and hunkered down (Authors of History.com). On January 11, police tried to cut off the strikers’ food supply; in the resulting riot, known as the “Battle of the Running Bulls,” 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) took over the adjacent Fisher Two plant (Authors of History.com). On February 1, the UAW won control of the enormous Chevrolet No. 4 engine factory. GM’s output went from a robust 50,000 cars in December to just 125 in February. Despite GM’s enormous political power, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy refused to use force to break the strike.
Though the sit-ins were illegal, he believed, he also believed that authorizing the National Guard to break the strike would be an enormous mistake. “If I send those soldiers right in on the men,” he said, “there’d be no telling how many would be killed.” (Authors of History.com) As a result, he declared, “The state authorities will not take sides. They are here only to protect the public peace.” (Authors of History.com). Meanwhile, President Roosevelt urged GM to recognize the union so that the plants could reopen (Authors of History.com).  In mid-February, the automaker signed an agreement with the UAW (White).  Among other things, the workers were given a 5 percent raise and permission to speak in the lunchroom. A wave of sit-down strikes followed, but diminished by the end of the decade (White). This was due to legislation proposed by Texas senator Dies, which led to the courts and the National Labor Relations Board holding that sit-down strikes were illegal and sit-down strikers could be fired (“Texas vs. Illegal Strikes”).

The editorial Texas vs. Illegal Strikes focuses on the legislation passed specifically in Texas in order to take the sit-down strike law a step further (White). The national anti-sit-down strike law had already been passed, but the Governor of Texas, James Allred, wanted to make sit-down striking a felony (White). This was a generally agreed-upon stance in Texas, so when the Welmert bill to make sit down strikes a felony was proposed, it was immediately and unanimously accepted by the Texas Senate (White).

Although this legislation was widely supported by Texans, it caused others to become fearful of being charged as felons for past actions. One of the most prominent dissenters of this legislation was John L. Lewis,  the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which established the United Steel Workers of America and helped organize millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s (White). At the time, Lewis was attempting to organize the vast Texas Oil Industry and was worried that his unionizing activities would be stopped if he were to be charged for organizing any sort of sit-down strike.

The growth of the CIO was phenomenal in steel, rubber, meat, autos, glass and electrical equipment industries (White). In early 1937, Lewis’ CIO affiliates won collective-bargaining contracts with two of the most powerful anti-union corporations, General Motors and United States Steel (White). General Motors surrendered as a result of the great Flint Sit-Down Strike, during which Lewis negotiated with company executives, Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan, and President Roosevelt (White). U.S. Steel conceded without a strike as Lewis secretly negotiated an agreement with Myron Taylor, chairman of U.S. Steel (White). The CIO gained enormous strength and prestige from the victories in automobiles and steel and escalated its organizing drives, now targeting industries that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) have long claimed, especially meatpacking, textiles, and electrical products (White).

Harvey C. Fremming, a colleague of Lewis in Texas, demanded that Governor Allred look into Lewis’s activities and exonerate the CIO organizers completely (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”).  This was based on the grounds that the CIO had only fostered sit-down strikes in states other than Texas, and should therefore still be allowed to operate within Texas (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”). Lewis was never charged with as a felon, but the  entire CIO group was expelled from the AFL in November 1938 and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with Lewis as the first president (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”).

In conclusion, this cartoon is a commentary on the sit-down strike law and the turmoil it caused in Texas. It shows how the Texas government caused sit-down strikes to become almost non-existent due to legislation passed which made such strikes felonies. It clearly shows that this legislation made it exceedingly dangerous to attempt to perform a sit-down strike. In all its simplicity, the cartoon fully conveys the prickly climate of Texas at the time and all the turmoil that would come out of a group of workers simply wanting to be paid a decent wage. Though this seems ridiculous, echoes of this time are still heard today and these issues continue to fester in the broken labor force of America.

Works Cited:

“ALLRED AND PEERY AGAINST SIT-DOWNS.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 40. Apr 04 1937. ProQuest. Web. 22 Feb. 2017 .

The Authors of History.com. “Sit-down Strike Begins in Flint.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Cain, Delman. “Prickly Pear Cactus, Our State Plant.” Native Plant Society of Texas. Native Plant Society of Texas, 03 Aug. 2015. Web. 2 Jan. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Strike.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

Knott, John. “Not a Good Place to Sit.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 7 Apr. 1937: 6.America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

“Texas vs. Illegal Strikes.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News 7 Apr. 1937: 6. America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

White, Ahmed A. “The Depression Era Sit-Down Strikes and the Limits of Liberal Labor Law.” Seton Hall Law Review 40.1 (2010): 1-82.