Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for May, 2012

Chart: Averge Woman’s Wages Stop Growing When She Turns 39

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Image: Pat GarofaloThe New York Times’ Catherine Rampell highlighted data from Payscale, a salary tracking firm, showing that “by the time women reach age 39, their wage growth pretty much stops altogether.” By that age, the average college-educated, full-time female worker is making about $60,000. For men, meanwhile, wage growth doesn’t stop until age 48.

womenwagechart

This post originally appeared in ThinkProgress on May 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.

Terror in the Fields: Migrant Women Face Sexual Violence on the Job

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Michelle Chen

There aren’t many jobs in the United States that are tougher than farmwork-—picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.

There have over the years been numerous reports of widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers-—everything from being called demeaning names by supervisors to brutal sexual assault. Many of the victims suffer in silence, cut off from law enforcement and social services and fearful of losing their jobs if they come forward to authorities, according to a report on sexual violence in agricultural work by Human Rights Watch.

The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face-—not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her.

Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community.  Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.

The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:

In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…

Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.

Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”

No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.

Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.

Although special immigration relief known as the U-Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.

At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U-Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.

An earlier version of this article was published on Alternet.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Unions in the States

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Written by John Schmitt and Marie-Eve Augier of CEPR

Unionization rates — and the gender and racial composition of unionized workers — vary widely across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In a newly released issue brief, based on an analysis of the Current Populations Survey, we give an overview of the size and basic demographics of the unionized workforce in each state. The brief is a partial update of some of the numbers that appeared in a 2010 release CEPR report called “Unions of the States.”

Size of the States’ Union Workforces

The figure below (Figure 2 in the new brief) shows the size of the union workforce in each state in 2011. We define a unionized worker as anyone who is a member of a union or represented by a collective bargaining agreement.

In 2011, the 13.3 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized. New York state had the highest unionization rate, at 26.4 percent. Alaska (24.3 percent) and Hawaii (24.0 percent) followed closely. Only one other state had a unionization rate above 20 percent and that was Washington (21.2 percent). The rest of the top ten most unionized states were Michigan (19.2 percent), New Jersey (18.8 percent), California (18.5 percent), Connecticut (17.6 percent), Oregon and Rhode Island (17.4 percent each), and Nevada (17.3 percent). Eight states had a unionization rate that was less than half of the national average: Tennessee (6.2 percent), Texas (6.1 percent), Arkansas and Louisiana (5.9 percent each), South Carolina (5.7 percent), Virginia (5.3 percent), Georgia (5.1 percent) and North Carolina (4.4 percent).

unions-states-f2-2012-05See the full brief for data on the number of union workers and their racial and ethnic background, by state.

This blog originally appeared in CEPR on May 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Sneak Attack on Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Rights in Pennsylvania

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

mike elk

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is preparing a bill that could stealthily strip teachers’ collective bargaining rights in some of the state’s financially struggling school districts, according to members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania State Senate Education committee passed H.B. 1307, a bill allowing the state to declare school districts financially distressed and subsequently appoint an overseer to approve plans made by the school board. To the dismay of teachers’ unions, the bill would also allow public schools to be turned over to private charter companies and give the receiver the power to null and void any collective bargaining contracts.

The legislation would declare four school districts financially distressed—Chester Upland, Duquesne City, Harrisburg, and York City—and grants the Pennsylvania State Board of Education full discretion to declare any school financially distressed in the future.

As the bill advances, teacher unions see the legislation as a sneak attack against collective bargaining, prompted by fears of union attacks like those in Wisconsin.

“I think they looked at Wisconsin and the outrage that occurred when they tried to take away all collective bargaining rights for public employees at once,” says Mary Willis, a teacher and PSEA member in the Harrisburg School District. “I think they decided that they really didn’t want to have that kind of uprising in a big labor state like Pennsylvania and I think they decided they wanted to go after it piecemeal.”

The move comes against the backdrop of a Pennsylvania schools funding crisis. Under Gov. Corbett, the state cut education funding by $860 million in the budget year 2011-12. According to PSEA, local school districts lost an average of 13.6 percent of state funding from the cuts, or approximately 3.4 percent of their overall funding. Corbett has also proposed to cut an additional $100 million in block grant funding for 2012-13. The funding cuts coincide with property value decreases in some Pennsylvania towns, decreasing the amount of tax revenue available for many local school districts.

At Willis’s district in Harrisburg—which would be declared financially distressed—schools have been forced to eliminate kindergarten classes, pre-K programs, and an emotional support program for troubled students. As of last year, the district cut more than 200 teaching positions and last year’s budget called for cutting another 153.

“There is a serious funding crisis in a growing number of our schools,” says PSEA President Mike Crossey. “But this bill isn’t a solution. The problem was manufactured largely by state underfunding in the first place. This bill is a bureaucratic power grab masquerading as a fix, and it leaves these struggling schools guessing about how to balance their budgets and educate their students.”

PSEA says that giving the state the power to null collective bargaining costs is a wrongheaded approach to fixing the state’s fiscal problems. The union argues that increasing labor costs are not behind the financial revenue shortfalls plaguing many school districts. According to “Sounding the Alarm,” a PSEA report, “Even with projected increases in pension contributions, salary and benefit costs will only increase from 62 percent of district budgets in 2009-10 to 63 percent of district budgets in 2017-18.” Instead, the union argues that the budget crisis is caused by a dramatic revenue shortfall.

In addition to the $850 million state-level budget cuts and decreasing local property taxes, a big part of the revenue shortfall stems from a law forcing local school districts to pay for children that opt into charter schools without any consideration of the cost to the school district. In 2010, Pennsylvania reimbursed school districts a total of $219 million, but in 2011-12, Gov. Corbett eliminated state reimbursement for schools that send students to charter schools. Many school districts are forced to pay for children that opt into charter schools, but since the number of students that leave does not facilitate closing down schools or ending of bus routes—there are often very little savings for the public school districts in sending their kids to charter schools.

Two school districts that would be declared financially distressed under the legislation—York City and Chester Upland—have been hard hit by the requirement to pay students to go to charter schools. Both school districts had already lost 7.5 percent of their budget from state budgets cuts. On top of that, Chester Upland paid 20 percent of its budget and York City paid 9.3 percent to reimburse charter schools, according to a report put out by PSEA.

Instead of implementing the draconian financially distressed school legislation, PSEA says the state is underutilizing potential sources of tax revenue to fund schools, like taxing profits produced by fracking in the Marcellus shale, closing a loophole that allows companies to incorporate in Delaware to avoid paying taxes in Pennsylvania, and implementing a tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco. In addition, PSEA says Gov. Corbett could roll back the $475 million in tax credits and cuts in his budget proposal.

“It’s amazing—I have been a teacher in Pennsylvania for 27 years, I have never seen anything so devious in my life,” says Mary Willis. “This budget crisis is a manufactured crisis being used to go after collective bargaining and expand charter schools.”

Willis fears that if the legislation advances, it would be used to launch a witch hunt against teachers unions.

“Instead of a collective bargaining agreement, where people are laid off in a fair and equitable matter, this legislation would allow them to lay off anyone. They would go after the union leaders. I am two years from retirement and I’m at the top of the retirement schedule. Who do you think they are going to go after first?” says Willis.

PSEA spokeswoman Lauri Lebo says that at this point, the “bill could go either way,” which is why PSEA is launching a mobilization effort to defeat it. Lebo stresses more than just public education could be at stake, pointing to the fact that Corbett’s largest campaign donor is for-profit Charter School Management Company owner Vahan Gureghian.

“Corbett is trying to privatize education,” Lebo says. “This is why there is this slow strangling of teachers unions. This is what these education cuts are about. He is trying to privatize education.”

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.

Hey, Let's Fix Health Care

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Written by CEPR

Former White House adviser Ezekiel Emanuel offered in a recent New York Times column his bipartisan solution to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security reform: Graduated eligibility for Social Security and Medicare, or linking “the age of eligibility to lifetime wealth.” The idea, according to Emmanuel, is that “[t]he richer you are, the older you would have to be to be eligible for Social Security and Medicare.”

As Dean Baker notes over at Beat the Press, there are two problems with this approach. First, the budget deficit is a health care problem, not a Social Security problem. Lumping Social Security in with Medicare and Medicaid certainly makes it look like a problem, but if you replace “Social Security” with “muffins,” suddenly we are experiencing explosive growth with muffin costs.

Second, Emanuel’s proposal states:

People in the bottom half of the lifetime earnings distribution would become eligible for normal retirement benefits at age 65 for Medicare and 66 for Social Security, just as they are today. But people in the next quarter of the lifetime earnings distribution would become eligible for the respective programs at 67 and 68, and those in the top quarter would become eligible at 70 and 71. All eligibility ages would increase over time, as they are scheduled to now.

Dean points out that “Emanuel’s proposed cuts in these programs would hit people with average lifetime earnings of $40,000 and above.”* Dean and Hye Jin Rho wrote a paper about means testing last year, which you can find here.

* See Social Security data on Average and Median Amounts of Net Compensation.

This blog originally appeared in Center for Economic and Policy Research on May 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Is Income Inequality a Partisan Issue?

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Few would argue that the nation’s increasing income inequality is a growing and dangerous concern. But for Chris Anderson, “curator” of the annual TED conference where hip people go to hear innovative talks, income inequality is a “partisan” issue that must not be discussed.

Last week, Anderson announced he would not make public a TED video from billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer discussing the negative impacts of income inequality on the economy. Yet after online outrage and a petition telling Anderson to post it, he relented.

Check out Hanauer’s talk here.

Anderson couldn’t let it rest there. After TED released the video, Anderson’s comments that Hanauer’s talk is “needlessly partisan” and “unconvincing” earned him the title “Petulant Plutocrat of the Week” by the Institute for Policy Studies.

What do you think—is income inequality a partisan issue?

This blog originally appeared in ALC-CIO on May 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Michelle Chen The United States isn’t unique when it comes to political and social crises related to immigration. Migrants in other parts of the world face similar, sometimes much harsher struggles. Even those who are “legal” are often extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. Abuse and enslavement of migrant and domestic workers from Asia and Africa has become epidemic in the Middle East.  In the wake of the suicide of an abused Ethiopian worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, whose story helped galvanize migrant rights campaigns, the issue has moved into the media spotlight lately:

Justice for Alem D

Stories of migrants dying on the job or taking their own lives are not uncommon, underscoring how their lives can be undervalued once they’re swept into a “disposable” household workforce. Migrant women in particular struggle often with abusive employers and sexual harassment.

This video is part of a grassroots anti-harassment media campaign led by women in Lebanon:

Resist Harassment

Some migrant women are organizing and documenting their struggles in their own voices. One Ethiopian domestic worker-turned-filmmaker, Rahel Zegeye, has created a feature film, Beirut, which narrates the wrenching struggles of migrant women in Lebanon. In an interview with Tadias, Zegeye describes a plight that may sound familiar to domestic workers in the United States:

TADIAS: What are the biggest problems that Ethiopian domestic-workers face with their employers?

RZ: There are many. Most common issues include bad treatment, abuse from employers, no rest and no day off. It is also very common that the maids are not paid on time or at all, and that the employers limit their food or let them stay without food. Many employers are very racist and do not treat their workers with respect, dignity or humanity. Sexual harassment and abuse by employers also occurs. For example I know three girls who were made pregnant by their mister and were threatened not to tell their madam, and had to leave the house to go to the hospital to make an abortion.

TADIAS: How true are some of the horror stories we hear and read about in the media? And what can women do to protect themselves from such violence?

RZ: The horror stories are real and they occur. There are many more horror stories that are not reported and written about. There is very little protection for the women coming to work in Lebanon. She can try to communicate with her employer but many times there will be language problems and if the employer is abusive then there is little chance they will listen to her. She can ask them to let her go to the embassy and to return home. If she returns to the agency that brought her here they will not help her, just change employers, which may be for the better or for the worse. If she runs away from her employers she will not have her passport and papers and cannot go back to Ethiopia.

On the eve of May Day 2012, many migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan and other countries came out from behind closed doors and took to the streets to rally for fair treatment. As with many “guestworkers” in the U.S., one of the critical policy issues tied to the systemic abuse of migrants is the structure of labor sponsorship. As legal guarantors, employers can basically impose legal shackles on workers to make it all but impossible to leave or challenge abuse.

Domestic workers across the United States, many of them women escaping hardship in their home countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, also suffer from poverty, harsh conditions and sexual abuse. And they’ve also used grassroots organizing and media to bring to public light to the injustices they suffer day-to-day on the job.

The Caring Across Generations Campaign—an initiative for home health care workers led by National Domestic Workers Alliance—has shown that here, too, giving workers a media platform to tell their own stories is crucial for educating and mobilizing the public.

Video

Last summer, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with migrant workers’ groups from around the world, pushed through the groundbreaking International Labour Organisation Convention for Domestic Workers. The accord codifies basic labor rights for domestic workers, including the right to organize, and sets standards for the treatment of workers in households, like a mandate for a genuine employment contract and immigration relief for victims of abuse.

But the challenge facing globalized concepts of labor rights is that they’re eclipsed by the laws of nation states. Despite campaigns for pro-migrant labor protections on the local and national level, like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights initiative, the absence of strong international standards makes workers everywhere more vulnerable. While multinationals assert corporate sovereignty over national systems, workers see their rights shredded by the sharp borders they’ve traversed.

The irony of the global economy is that the suffering comes from the two extremes of economic mobility. The workers who are stuck in Rust Belt towns, while behemoth manufacturing companies ship job overseas, find their communities devastated by “capital flight.” Meanwhile, wealthy communities absorb droves of migrants who chase the fleeting promise of higher-paying jobs—only to become ensnared in a marginal underclass. Until the workers abandoned by capital, and those held hostage by it in a foreign land—realize that their plights are interlocked, labor remains fractured across divides of language, race and politics.

Still, domestic worker campaigns show that global communications can counter global exploitation. Creative protest through film and media are forming a common language for a dialogue on migrants’ rights, breaking their silence with one collective voice.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Amid ‘Sabotage’ Investigation, Honeywell Lays Off Plant’s Entire Union Workforce

Friday, May 18th, 2012

mike elk

Last Thursday, May 10, at around 2 p.m., managers walked into Honeywell’s uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill., and told workers—both union and nonunion—they had to leave the plant immediately. Multiple workers present say a manager explained the sudden dismissal by noting that the company had to investigate “sabotage” of plant equipment.

Since May 10, Honeywell has allowed 100 of 170 nonunion salaried workers to return to work, and has allowed 90 of its 100 nonunion contactors to continue working in the plant. But none of the plant’s 168 hourly union employees have been allowed to return to work—the company has informed them that they’ve been laid-off indefinitely. All laid-off union workers were immediately left without pay and health insurance. In contrast, when Honeywell locked out USW union workers in June 2010, it waited nearly three months to cut off their health insurance.

The Metropolis plant is no stranger to contentious labor relations. In 2010 and 2011, it  was the scene of a tense 13-month long lockout of United Steelworker (USW) members. That dispute was resolved last fall when the union ratified a new contract. Since then, however, the work environment has been tense; several key USW Local 7-669 leaders have been fired by Honeywell. Local 7-669 leaders say Honeywell is trying to bust the union.

For many workers, the order by management to leave the plant felt like lock-out déjà vu. “I have been through a lockout and it felt like this. If this isn’t a lockout, I don’t know what it is,” Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech says.

But unlike a lockout—a tactic companies sometimes resort to when contract negotiations have stalled—laid-off union members cannot picket the worksite location. If the union did so, a company can claim that the union is engaged in an “illegal strike” and the union would then be subject to heavy fines. Lech says the union is looking into all legal options and being very careful.

“I would not suggest that company would create a circumstance to frame the union, but if they were presented with a circumstance, I know they would love to find a way to use it somehow against the union,” Lech says.

The sudden layoffs may be a violation of their contract language, he says. The contract states that Honeywell must give workers at least five days notice of any layoffs. Metropolis workers were given no notice. “If the circumstance allows it, we will certainly picket and go down the road of action,” says Lech.

Asked Wednesday whether or not the lay-offs were legal, Metropolis plant manager Larry Smith hung up. Honeywell, which is based in New Jersey, did not respond to further request for comment. Company spokesman Peter Dalpe told the Chicago Tribune that he “can’t comment on the specific damage, but added that the equipment was not operational.” Dapel also told the Tribune “that the company intends to resume production after it assesses the damages and inspects the plant.”

Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the plant, told the Chicago Tribune, “We are standing by watching their investigation and we will do our own follow up.”

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at [email protected].

Wages for Young College Grads Fall

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Image: Mike Hall Most recent young college graduates are a carrying a heavy debt load for their education, and they face a harder time paying it off because their wages have plummeted as well—part of a decade-long decline, according to a new Economic Snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

“Between 2007 and 2011, the wages of young college graduates dropped by 4.6 percent (5.1 percent for men and 4.1 percent for women). However, the wage growth of young graduates was weak even before the recent recession began. They have fared poorly over the entire period of general wage stagnation that began during the 2000-2007 business cycle. Between 2000 and 2011, the wages of young college graduates dropped 5.4 percent (1.6 percent for men and 8.5 percent for women).”

For more information on the job prospects of this year’s graduates, read EPI’s recent report, “The Class of 2012: Labor Market for Young Graduates Remains Grim.”

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on May 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Pearls Along the Mississippi: An Unsung Labor Hero Gets Her Due

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

kari-lydersen

MUSCATINE, IOWA—Today the town of Muscatine, Iowa, which overlooks the Mississippi River, looks relatively inconspicuous—one of many working-class river towns with grassy parks abutting the flood-prone wide river, brick factories-turned-bars along the main street and ornate but peeling Victorian homes up on the hill.

But there are hints of Muscatine’s illustrious past: a riverside sculpture of a man in a flatboat with clams surrounding his feet, raising two shellfish rakes above his head; the word “buttons” emblazoned in chipped paint on some of the old brick structures. In its heyday, this area produced an astounding one third of the buttons sold worldwide—shiny, delicate “pearl” buttons produced from shells of the wealth of clams and mussels that once filled this stretch of the Mississippi, where a bend taking it east-west (rather than north-south) calmed the current enough to allow the shellfish to proliferate.

The local button industry was started in 1891 by an enterprising German immigrant, John Fredrick Boepple, skilled in making buttons from sea shells, who brought his manual-operated button press machine to Muscatine and launched a quickly mushrooming industry. Soon thousands of men were collecting shellfish from the river and its tributaries, and thousands of women and teenagers turned them into glistening buttons sewed onto decorative small cards with names like Mermaid and Blue Bird.

Pearl was the name for the shell interiors used to make the buttons, and it was also the name of a fiery young labor activist renowned in her time but relatively unknown in more recent decades. But she appears to be enjoying a resurgence of fame now.

Industry spy turned crusading organizer

Pearl McGill started working in the button factories as a teenager as a sort of spy for the industry, recruited by her uncle’s friend to see if workers were as “shiftless and lazy” as bosses suspected. More likely, many say, was that the company wanted her to report on union organizing activities. McGill was also trying to earn money to study to be a teacher.

Though her job was to report to the button industry power brokers, young Pearl soon found herself sympathizing more with the workers. Soon she was an activist and prominent member of the Women’s Trade Union League and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helping to organize the button workers and also traveling around the heartland and the east coast to make speeches and play a key role in the famous textile workers strikes of 1912.

The Muscatine button workers battled with politicians and bosses, with strikes, violence and intrigue common. All the drama ended several decades later when much-cheaper, similar-looking plastic buttons became available. The pearl button industry basically died, except for small demand for vintage buttons for designer clothing.

(The industry’s sharp decline was good news for native mussels and clams, which have been wiped out in many parts of the Mississippi River system, though efforts are underway to help restore them.)

A free museum in Muscatine pays homage to McGill—who did end up getting a scholarship to study teaching, from fellow union activist Helen Keller—and to the role of socialism and unions in the button industry and the workplaces of that time. On my visit to the museum last week, the author of a new book about McGill—along with one of McGill’s now-elderly relatives—happened to be there.

Jeffrey Copeland’s new book—”Shell Games: The Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist”—is a fictionalized take on McGill’s dramatic life, including her murder on the banks of the Mississippi River and the question of whether her union activities played a role in her killing, in 1924 when she was just 29. A jealous and unstable ex-husband was blamed.

Meanwhile in recent years, others have published nonfiction accounts of McGill’s life, based in part on the young worker’s letters, including to her parents, who lived a simple, conservative country life on an Iowa farm.

One of those letters, provided to the Iowa Women’s Archives by Kate Rousmaniere, said:

The militia got out in the streets at Muscatine the other day to break the crowd away from one of the factories and some of the girls caught a solider boy up on fourth street and took his gun and cap and coat away from him and beat it. Ha! Ha!

A play was also staged in the area in March, during Women’s History Month:  “Bread, Roses and Buttons: Pearl McGill and the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, written by Janet Schlapkohl at the University of Iowa Theater Arts Department.

100 years later, a Muscatine lockout

Meanwhile a dramatic and bitter labor conflict has played out in Muscatine in recent years, though without the prominence or massive community support of a century ago. For the past three years, about 300 union members with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union have been locked out of a corn products plant called Grain Processing Corp (GPC) on Muscatine’s river bank, which makes corn syrup, corn oil, corn-based alcohol and other products for the global market.

Tattered signs supporting the locked-out workers still adorn the windows and porches of some local houses, but for the most part, after a burst of solidarity, the town has moved on.

The UFCW workers were locked out after refusing to agree to a new contract that gave the family-owned company the right to replace them with nonunion contractors. Now the plant is indeed up and running with nonunion workers. The union continues to demand members’ right to go back to work, and they say safety and productivity have suffered since the new workers were brought in.

Meanwhile the plant poses a health and environmental risk to nearby residents and a swath of the Mississippi River valley, since it emits high amount s of particulate matter that is linked to respiratory and cardiac disease. The emissions also contribute to the area being out of compliance with federal standards, meaning it is much harder for new job-creating industries to open if they would release any particulate.

A community group has for the past several years been working to draw the connections between the labor issues and the environmental issues around GPC and other area industries, including filing a lawsuit against GPC and framing the struggle as an environmental justice fight. The group is called Clean Air Muscatine, so the acronym—fittingly evoking the town’s storied shellfish past—is CLAM.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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