In the current state of our globalized economy, corporations have no incentive to protect their workers or the environment. Jobs moves seamlessly across national borders while the laws that protect us from rapacious behavior remain bound by them. As a result, labor exploitation and toxic pollution remain standard practice.
In Out of Sight, Erik Loomisa historian of both the labor and environmental movementsfollows a narrative that runs from the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013. He demonstrates that our modern systems of industrial production are just as dirty and abusive as they were during the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age. The only difference is that the ugly side of manufacturing is now hidden in faraway places where workers are most vulnerable.
In this Choice Outstanding Academic Title, Loomis shows that the great environmental victories of twentieth-century Americathe Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the EPAwere actually union victories. Using this history as a call to action, Out of Sight proposes a path toward regulations that follow corporations wherever they do business, putting the power back in workers’ hands.
“The story told here is tragic and important.” Bill McKibben
“Erik Loomis prescribes how activists can take back our countryfor workers and those who care about the health of our planet.” Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
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STANDING UP TO CORPORATE DOMINATION: A BRIEF HISTORY
Americans live in a society where media portray corporate leaders as heroes. The race to be the richest man in the world is now an unofficial competition detailed by Forbes and reported on TV, websites, and Twitter. The twenty-four-hour news cycle always makes plenty of time for stock market reports and stories of how business can solve all our national problems. Capitalists are the "job creators," or so we hear. Congress passes tax cuts to businesses and the rich to create jobs, although the cuts lack stipulations that the wealthy don't use that money to buy new yachts. Wealth alone creates policy expertise. For our problems with public education, politicians turn to for-profit schools as a solution. Bill Gates can help solve health crises while Mark Zuckerberg helps design public school reform plans for Newark, New Jersey. What these people know about health policy or public school education can be put in a thimble, but it doesn't matter in the United States, because they are rich. Wealth is something to aspire to. Being the next John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Donald Trump, or Mark Zuckerberg — that's the dream of many. People watch films like Oliver Stone's Wall Street or Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and perceive their corporate executives as models, even if they are meant as critiques of Wall Street excess. Greed is good indeed.
Americans' national myth is that we are all individuals who can succeed if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We can all become Andrew Carnegie, rising from nothing to magisterial wealth. The flip side of the myth is that if you do not become a success, it's your fault. Never mind that you do not have the advantages of rich white men in American society, that you are African American, a woman, transgender, or lack running water or Internet in your house. Those are just excuses in our supposed Horatio Alger paradise. If you can't find a job, you are the lazy one, the person who drinks, who has sex outside of marriage, who is on welfare, who is a loser. National mythology ignores structural inequality in favor of cheap narratives of individual responsibility.
Corporations and their lackeys in politics have pushed this line of thinking for 150 years. Andrew Carnegie said, "People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity." John D. Rockefeller expressed similar sentiments: "God gave me my money. I believe the power to make money is a gift from God." When you believe your money is a gift from God, that probably means you think God has blessed you because of the values and ethics that separate you from others. You become the worthy rich while the 99 percent are poor because they are lazy, drunkards, shiftless.
But just because this myth has great power today doesn't mean that Americans have always accepted it. We have always challenged and rejected it, fighting against inequality and for a just society. Those who have fought it have come in all stripes. Some wanted to overthrow capitalism, others reform it. Some were unemployed workers demanding jobs. Radical labor such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) wanted a socialist or syndicalist society and worker control over the shop floor, while more conservative unions such as many of those affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) wanted worker power to force concessions from the capitalists on wages, hours, and working conditions. Farmers revolted against the exploitation they faced from railroads and bankers. Miners wanted protections from dying on the job. Early twentieth-century middle-class reformers found the conditions workers lived in disturbing, unfair, and a threat to social stability, lobbying for the end of child labor, restriction on the hours of women workers, garbage collection, workers' compensation laws, and a host of other reforms. Wealthy reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt believed the nation needed to protect its trees from rapacious timber corporations and thus created the U.S. Forest Service. Reformers and radicals both rallied for the most popular economic justice movement of the early twentieth century: the federal income tax, which became the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1913. What all of these people wanted was for corporations to take at least some responsibility for their behavior.
Eventually, after great struggle, the American working class forced corporations to treat them like people. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, protesting workers and a federal government increasingly sympathetic to their plight (and scared about what would happen if they did not finally help the poor) moved to clamp down on the corporate greed that had created such suffering. The government mandated the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, Social Security, workplace safety regulations, pollution restrictions, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Head Start, and much more. The catastrophes of capitalist America became rarer. After World War II, the nation's workers saw a huge increase in their standard of living, as the working class became the middle class thanks to union contracts, an expanding economy, and progressive taxation that created the modern welfare state. With disposable income and vacation time, Americans wanted to preserve their natural spaces from corporate despoilment, and the modern environmental movement developed in the 1960s, saving ecosystems from degradation and animals from extinction. Americans in the 1960s believed they could have good jobs and clean environments. They believed catastrophe could be avoided entirely.
That seems like eons ago. Today, we are losing ground on every issue American workers fought for during the twentieth century. At the core of this problem is capital mobility. Moving jobs overseas allowed corporations to undercut the gains made by the American people. Throwing off the controls that limited catastrophe allowed corporations to return to the days of dominating the national and world economy without restraint. Within the United States, unionization rates are the lowest in a century. The environmental movement's political power has declined precipitously in the past thirty years, and with the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, greens are struggling with how to revive their power in Washington. The nation does next to nothing to fight climate change. Student debt hamstrings an entire generation of young people. The dream of home ownership is dead for millions. Corporations now rule our politics in ways they have not in a century. The Supreme Court has given corporations and the wealthy enormous power over our elections. The Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and other right-wing plutocrats spend millions in every election attacking Democrats and rigging the political game in their favor. When Republicans win state elections, they gerrymander legislative districts to keep themselves in power and pass laws to reduce the voting power of people of color. Their friends in the Supreme Court then rule the key clause of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, allowing further voting suppression of people of color. Extreme gerrymandering has ensured that a conservative minority controls the House of Representatives and many state legislatures, repealing progressive legislation there. The catastrophes of capitalism have returned, not in the United States, but exported to India, Bangladesh, Honduras, and Guatemala while Americans lack any stable work. Will our children inherit a better nation than we did? Unfortunately, I am skeptical.
This chapter provides a brief history of the battle between American corporations and working people over whether the economy should serve the many or the few. Corporations have always sought to exploit their employees and the people who live near their plants. They are never partners with the working class. Never. Corporations exist for one reason: profit. If you don't help shareholders make money, you have no value. Corporations have done an excellent job of fooling Americans into believing they are responsible members of our society. For instance, petroleum companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP produce "greenwashing" advertisements that disseminate a message of them as environmentally accountable organizations when in fact they do more than anyone to transform the climate and block environmental reform on the state, national, and international levels. Corporate leaders demonstrate their immorality by moving all the jobs away and then seeking to repeal the entire realm of twentieth-century regulations that created the good life for the American people. Understanding the history of corporate misbehavior and citizen activism is necessary to recover what we have lost.
English workers in the eighteenth century were the first to experience the world-changing impact of the Industrial Revolution. At its most fundamental level, an industrial economy processes the raw materials of the natural world into finished products through the use of human, water, and fossil fuel energy. This has cascading effects on both workers and the planet. In nineteenth-century England, workers struck over dangerous mines and dank mills. Charles Dickens portrayed these dark, horrid places in his novels, bringing international attention to the intense poverty created by capitalism. Events such as the 1819 Peterloo massacre of striking Manchester textile workers meant British labor would first feel the iron fist of a military force serving industrialists. This incident took place after an economic collapse led the working poor to demand political and economic reforms to British society. Centered among the cotton weavers of Lancashire, sixty thousand to eighty thousand workers gathered in a field near Manchester in protest. A frightened British upper class sent in the army. A cavalry charge led to eleven to fifteen dead, and the upper class clamped down on all reform efforts. This is far from the last time the wealthy would respond to working-class revolt with violence.
The Industrial Revolution came to the United States in 1793, when Samuel Slater opened a textile factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Americans feared the nation's nice little towns would become domestic versions of the nightmarish English industrial cities. Industrialists created Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1822 as an experimental factory town that would foster morally upright workers while spurring intensive production of textiles. Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectable fashion. The "mill girls" lived in dormitories under the watchful eyes of older women and attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other early nineteenth-century intellectuals. Workers produced their own magazines, took classes, and, in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves for marriage while producing profit for their employer.
Almost immediately, American apparel operators sought to hire women because they viewed them as easily controlled labor with dexterous fingers. This process of gendering work, or defining work as naturally belonging to men or women, had the effect of making textile work low paid, because women's work was poorly valued in American society. The struggles for decent working conditions and for women's rights became intertwined. The mill girls liked the working conditions far less than the book salons and camaraderie. They labored fourteen-hour days, from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The factories roasted in the summer with windows that brought in maximum sunlight and heat to make it easier to work the fabric. These were young farm women used to work, so they had no problem with the strenuous nature of the labor, but they did not like being locked up in that factory tending those machines minute after minute, day after day, month after month. Historians have dated the beginning of the American working class's romanticization of the environment to these early textile factory workers who began believing nature was something to escape into rather than tame. As more factories opened around New England, other employers hired women at lower rates, without the supervised housing and Emerson lectures. The Lowell operators felt threatened by their competition. In 1834, the owners announced a 15 percent wage reduction to compete with this lower-paid labor. The Lowell mill girls went on strike, and they struck again in 1836 over another wage cut.
Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty-five cents a week toward the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on "I won't be a nun."
"Oh isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I — Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die? Oh! I cannot be a slave I will not be a slave, For I'm so fond of liberty That I cannot be a slave."
Employers sought to replace these empowered and therefore rebellious young women with a new group of workers. Over 1.6 million Irish immigrated to the United States between 1840 and 1860. The New England factory owners happily gave these immigrants work — at the wages, hours, and working conditions determined by the employers. Soon apparel factories became a place of first employment for recent immigrants who needed to contribute to their meager family income. When the Irish moved out of the industry, Italians and Jews took their place. Poor, desperate, and easily exploitable, they became the ideal labor force for textile mill owners. These were hard, brutal jobs, and the vile conditions of English factory towns indeed did appear in the United States.
These factories needed cotton for their spinning wheels, so the other side of the textile economy was the Southern plantations where slave labor grew that cotton. Northern factory owners benefited directly from the exploitation of enslaved African and African American labor. In the South, slave owners drove their human property to the point of death in order to grow as much cotton as possible. Maximizing profit and dehumanizing the slaves went hand in hand. Malnutrition, overcrowded and dilapidated housing, insufficient clothing that did not keep slaves warm, forced reproduction through sexually assaulting female slaves: all of this meant profit. Slaves fought back in any number of ways, from breaking tools and stealing food to running away and murdering their masters. Slave rebellions were rare, but Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 killed sixty white Virginians, and Southerners constantly feared their slaves slaughtering them in the night. Still, Northern textile mills led to a rapidly expanding slave system that fueled westward expansion into Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas in search of more sources of cotton. Southern elites dedicated their society to the production of this key crop for American economic growth. The early capitalist system relied on both slave and free (but exploited) labor for the textile mills, a system with increasing tension in the 1850s that eventually led to the South seceding from the Union.
When the Civil War broke out, the Confederacy fought to defend its institution of slave labor, but Northerners held a range of opinions on slavery. Some were strongly opposed to the institution; others had no sympathy for the slaves. Witnessing the horrors of slavery while in the South turned many Northern soldiers into abolitionists. Most Union soldiers were from small towns and farms. They traveled little and may never have even seen an African American, not to mention never having visited the slave states. Seeing slavery firsthand, with its whippings, beatings, and degradations, mortified the soldiers. Even if they had opposed Abraham Lincoln in 1860, many wrote home to their anti-Lincoln families about slavery, and their support pushed him over the top in a tough reelection fight in 1864.
The Civil War ended slavery in 1865, but it did not end the reliance on black labor for harvesting cotton for the textile mills. After a brief period of federal occupation that ensured some rights for the 4 million freed slaves, by the mid-1870s the white South began retaking control over their former slaves and instituted a system of sharecropping combined with segregation and organized violence that ensured African Americans remained cheap and exploitable labor. Sharecropping replaced slavery, but economic exploitation and Jim Crow were far from the land-ownership and political freedom African Americans demanded during Reconstruction. It would take a century for the federal government to again care about advancing the African American freedom agenda, and even then, the civil rights movement never successfully rallied for a long-term federal commitment to economic justice.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Out of Sight"
Copyright © 2015 Erik Loomis.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Scourge of Capital Mobility,
1. Standing Up to Corporate Domination: A Brief History,
2. Workplace Catastrophes,
3. Outsourcing Pollution,
4. Concealed Food, Broken Workers,
5. The Climate Is for Sale,
6. The Way Forward,