Saturday, January 14, 2012

Questions that Either Have Been, or Might Some Day be Asked of Me (What Less Wordy Blogs Might Call "FAQ")

Q: So, wait. What's steampunk?

A: The boring question first! Awesome. Steampunk is a genre and subculture based on the idea of alternate history and science fiction, based in a 19th century setting or aesthetic. There's a lot more to it than that, but yeah, that's a lot of it.

Q: So what exactly is a Steampunk Emma Goldman?

A: My character is based on the idea that at some point during her life, Emma Goldman acquired the ability to time-travel. Don't think about it too hard. All you really need to know is that she runs around throughout time and space participating in revolutions, and that she also sometimes makes posts here about political activists of the 19th century whom she feels are worthy of your attention and/or admiration.

Q: Who is Emma Goldman?

A: An excellent question! Emma Goldman was an anarchist during the late 19th and early 20th century. She kicked epic amounts of ass. Want to learn more? Start here!

Q: So are you some type of crazy person who thinks she's, like, Emma Goldman reincarnated?

A: Not at all. I'm some type of crazy person who thinks Emma Goldman was an amazing person who deserves more attention than I think she usually gets, and who I think could be a valuable source of inspiration to activists and aspiring activists in the present day.

Q: Are you an anarchist?

A: At this point, I'm going to say no, but I greatly admire a lot of historical and modern anarchists, and I think that anarchism is a really wonderful philosophy. I think it adds something very important to the political conversation, even if I don't entirely agree with it. It's possible that one day I will come to consider myself an anarchist, but right now, I don't.

Q: What are your politics, then?

A: Honestly, I'm not sure right now. I'm about 80% ready to declare myself an anarchist, though I've been a left-wing progressive for most of my life. I'd say I'm at the stage where I'm comfortable admitting I haven't figured it out yet, but I'm doing a lot of thinking on the subject.

Q: So, how did this become a thing for you?

A: Two ways, really. First, I was getting sick of the way the steampunk subculture, (in which I have been an active participant since about 2006) tended to be apolitical. I saw a lot of admiration for artists and scientists of the past, but none for activists. I figured people with an interest in history were in a great position to talk about politics, so when all the Scott Walker drama in Wisconsin was heating up, I decided to stage a Steampunk Pro-Union Rally to talk about the history and present status of organized labor. And it was amazing. It happened that I decided to dress up as Emma Goldman for the event, and people loved that, so I continued doing so at steampunk events as way of politicizing things. Then when I started participating in Occupy Wall Street, I realized that the real world of politics needed a little Emma Goldman too, and did a few performances in Zuccotti Park.

Q: Is what you do political performance art?

A: Uh, yes, yes it is. Gosh, I'm pretentious, aren't I?

Q: Would you find it awesome if other people started dressing up as political activists of the 19th century at steampunk events?

A: Yes. Yes I would, thank you for asking. As it happens, I can personally attest to a Steampunk Voltairine de Cleyre, and a Steampunk Subcomandante Marcos, and I'd love to see more.

Q: Why do you perform in sparkly red lipstick?

A: The red is for Red Emma, the sparkles are because Emma believed in everyone's right to beautiful, radiant things, and also it looks awesome.

Q: What's that thing you wear on your arm?

A: That's my time-travel device! I call it the Means of Production. I seized it, you see. For the people.

Q: What about this blog...are all the people you write about anarchists?

A: Not at all. Many of them are, but the only thing that they all have in common is that I find them politically admirable in some way, and that they lived at least part of their lives in the 19th century.

Q: I have a really good idea for someone you should write about!

A: That wasn't a question, but yay! If you suggest them to me, it is very possible that I will write about them. It is also possible that I was already planning to do so, but your suggestion may spur me into action.

Q: Where can I go for updates about Steampunk Emma Goldman's performances, as well as blog updates and other random links and thoughts about politics and history?

A: It sounds like you're looking for the Steampunk Emma Goldman Facebook Page! Like the page, and you will get all sorts of fun things.

Q: I know that Emma Goldman has been spotted in various time periods and locations. She seems to look different now than she did during what is generally thought of as her natural lifetime. Tell the truth. Is Steampunk Emma Goldman a Time Lord?

A: As an anarchist, who abhors hierarchy of any kind, Steampunk Emma Goldman prefers the term "Time Comrade."

Q:I had a question, and you didn't answer it!

A: Sorry! Put it in the comments and I will edit this post to include it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The New Orleans General Strike of 1892 Laughs at Your Shitty Attempts to Divide the Working Class With Racism

You know what's key to a successful strike? Numbers. Well, a lot of things are key to a successful strike, but numbers are definitely on the list. So it's no surprise that the 1892 New Orleans General Strike looks formidable off the bat: between the actual strikers and their families, half of the 1892 population of New Orleans were participants. This wasn't some group of dudes being like "hey, working conditions suck, let's strike! Hey, why is everyone either ignoring us, or, since this is the 19th century, beating twelve kinds of shit out of us?" This was literally half of the city of New Orleans standing up and calling bullshit on the city's Board of Trade and their tendency to stick their fingers in their ears and go "lalalala, I can't hear you" when unions tried to negotiate with them, which is a thing that can get really fucking annoying.

Before I really get into this, I want to make it clear just why this particular historical incident was so full of win. It was an anomaly. The striking (haha!) thing about the New Orleans General Strike of 1892 (spoiler!) was the refusal of the various unions and labor organizations to engage in racism or to divide along color lines, and the reason that is something worth talking about is because it was unusual. Unions of the 19th century were appallingly racist, using organized labor to keep people of color out of jobs they felt should be held by white people, even jobs that had, prior to the rise of organized labor, been traditionally held by black people. I want to make it clear that I do not intend this article to imply that the events we're going to be talking about in New Orleans in 1892 were an indication of some kind of lack of racism in the 19th century labor movement. I do mean to imply that the 1892 General Strike was pretty much the best thing ever, because it stood out like an awesome thing in a sea of racist bullshit. (Yes, just like that.) Anyway, to continue.

The whole thing started with three local unions, which happened to be fully racially integrated, one of them being predominantly black, deciding that they wanted better pay, and a shorter work day. Not the legendary 8 hour day, you understand, no, these guys were going for a 10 hour day. Now, it happens that all of these unions were affiliated with the AFL. New Orleans had, just that year (which was 1892, weren't you paying attention to the title?) seen a huge increase in union membership, and the AFL was actually pretty huge right then, which meant that having the AFL on your side was a definite Good Thing. Within New Orleans, the workers had formed something called the Amalgamated Council, an organization of unions that represented over 20,000 workers. Keep them in mind, we'll get back to them. But let me back up a bit here, because I sort of forgot to tell you guys what the political climate of the 19th century Deep South was in regards to the labor movement.

It. Was. Shit. Strikes tended to result in brutal retaliation and bloodshed, and Louisiana in particular had seen a horrific massacre of striking black sugar cane workers at Thibodaux, in what was aptly known as the Thibodaux Massacre, probably the single bloodiest conflict in American labor history, and woefully ignored by a lot of people (googling "Thibodaux Massacre" will get you less than one tenth the hits of "Haymarket Massacre" despite the second incident going by a lot of other names and having a lot fewer corpses) because, say it with me kids, ALL THE MEN WOMEN AND CHILDREN WHO WERE MURDERED AT THIBODAUX IN COLD BLOOD FOOLISHLY FAILED TO BE WHITE. That's no way to get in the history books, guys!

Before I move on to a far less rage/depressing-inducing strike (the one this article is actually about), I want to share with you an irrelevant factoid about another failed strike by black agricultural workers in the late 19th century south. I couldn't rationally fit this factoid into any part of the essay, so I'm just going to share it with you here and hope you appreciate it as much as I do. It seems, you see, that in 1880, black agricultural workers were on strike for a minimum wage of a dollar a day, and threatening to leave the state if they didn't get what they wanted. I bring this up, not because the strike was successful (it was broken, and the strikers jailed) but because it had the best slogan I have ever heard, "A Dollar a Day, or Kansas." See, it makes sense in context, since they were threatening to leave the state for better jobs elsewhere, but seriously, how awesome is "or Kansas" as a threat? I'm going to use it from now on. Hey adbots! No posting on this blog...or Kansas! Hey trolls, no posting trollish bullshit on this blog...OR KANSAS! Try it sometimes, I like it.

So. New Orleans, 1892. Like I said, there were a lot of issues being struck for, but the main one, the one that got everyone on board, was just the recognition of the legitimacy of unions, period. Yeah, the Triple Alliance (the name given to the three racially integrated unions who started the whole thing, namely the Teamsters, the Scalesmen, and the Packers) wanted certain specific things; a preferential union shop, overtime pay, that ten hour day I was talking about, etc, but what brought the rest of the unions in was the fact that the city Board of Trade didn't just refuse to give them those things, it refused to fucking sit down and talk to them like grownups. During the first week, 3,000 workers (or about six percent of the people in New Orleans) were on strike, and NO NEGOTIATIONS TOOK PLACE. The Board of Trade, who I'm going to start calling The Board because it sounds kinda like The Borg and therefor appropriately evil was all "no, we will not talk to you about these issues, unions. Instead we will form a committee to raise money for 'defense,' ask the governor to send in the fucking state militia, and wait for the press to launch a series of really gross racist attacks."

So, with The Board being assholes, all the other unions in the city kind of sat back and went "huh. I wonder how well we'll do at being taken seriously if the city is basically announcing its intention to screw over unions, always, for no reason. Probably not well." Essentially, they realized that the Triple Alliance's problems were their problems. Or, to quote a slightly later, but awesome labor organization, they realized that An Injury to One is an Injury to All. The Board made no secret of the fact that they basically thought unions in general were the enemy here, and, surprisingly enough, by doing that, they got a whole lot of other unions to be their enemies. I believe the term for that is "solidarity." And we're going to get back to that word, I just want to talk a little more about the strike first.

The Board had a cunning plan, though! Remember how there were three unions in the Triple Alliance? I mean, that makes sense. Well, only one of them was predominantly black; the other two were mostly white. So, what the hell, The Board said. We'll totally sit down and negotiate. With the white guys.

There have been countless times when exactly this happened, when the white workers were quick to say "sure! We never liked black people anyway." The Board did it because it was a strategy known to work; it was a great way of getting workers to turn on each other.

This time, though, the white unions responded with a resounding "are you fucking kidding me?" I'm actually going to turn this one over to Jon Stewart, they responded like this:

Photobucket

(I did not make this gif. I have no idea who did. If you did, I will gladly credit you, if you let me know.)

Anyway, after refusing to sit down with The Board in the absence of the black union, dancing around in front of a gospel choir and asking The Board precisely which part of the concept of a Triple Alliance they didn't understand, the two white unions returned to the picket lines, and solidarity was maintained. No one was going to be agreeing to any terms until those terms applied to everyone.

Despite the clear awesomeness of the strikers, there was not a lot of public support for this strike. Well...that's kind a misleading thing to say. With half the population of the city affiliated with either the Triple Alliance or the Amalgamated Council (which wasn't striking just yet, but were eagerly standing by with pom poms yelling "we love strikers! Go strikers!" and hoping to go on strike themselves as soon as the Council would agree on it), how much public support do they really need? They were the public, right? But the newspapers were pretty anti-strike. The New Orleans Times-Picayune in particular seems to have been hilariously pro-strikers' goals, but anti-any-means-by-which-such-goals-might-be-achieved. They were all "what? why won't The Board just recognize that unions are a thing? Why is that a problem? Damnit, the Board should recognize unions!" while at the same time being like "going on strike? What are you people, animals? What is wrong with you?" It's also kind of remarkable how many of their headlines proclaim that the strike is totally over and done with, thanks for your time, we're so glad everyone's going back to work yay! that were incongruously published right when the strike was really getting going. I'm not sure if that was like, bad information, wishful thinking, or just a flat-out attempt to lie to the public. Possibly some combination of the three.

However, just a few short days after those incorrect headlines, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which I am going to be shortening to NOT-P, even though that looks weird, was forced to publish the following headline:

"THE STRIKE-

A Majority of Union Bodies Hold Meetings-

And Agree To Strike Whenever The Amalgamated Council Say the Word"

That was November 1st, 1892. So now all we need was for the Amalgamated Council to say the word. Meanwhile, the NOT-P was publishing almost daily reports that the strike was definitely over for sure this time, despite the fact that it totally wasn't, as well as occasional bits of strike-based "humor' in a little joke column called "Our Picayunes" which I guess would be the equivalent of a modern-day column called "Our Two Cents." These jokes are painfully unfunny. Sample (for which I apologize, but it feels necessary for establishing context for the strike jokes): "seamless dresses are coming into use. If they seem less than the ball dresses that have been worn, they should not be allowed."

Big laffs. Anyway, the, and I use the term with hand-injuringly large finger-quotes (or just regular quotes, since I'm actually typing this, not speaking it) "humor" they had to offer on the strike was:

"There are many things in nature which are strikingly beautiful; but nature has not yet acquired the habit of going on strike." I guess the point of that one is that...strikes are bad? But not as bad as puns? Fuck you, NOT-P, if that pun is the best you can do.

"Man earns his bread by the sweat of his brow, until his brow strikes." I don't think I get this one. Maybe this one could actually be construed as pro-strike, if you assume that the "man" stands in for the bosses, and "his brow" for the workers? Am I reading too much into this? I'd love to know if people at the time found this shit funny. Was this like, the Stewart/Colbert of the day, or was it more like old Family Circus reprints? If anyone has any knowledge of 19th century reactions to "Our Picayunes" please put them in the comments.

"It is hoped that the hearse drivers will not strike. It would be awkward to make a man walk to his own funeral, and the coach drivers strike would be crowding the mourners."

Ok, that last one is actually worth a morbid chuckle. That is legitimately a little bit funny. Good job, NOT-P! Now, let's get back to your misleading coverage of the labor conflict. By November 4th, NOT-P couldn't keep pretending the strike wasn't going to happen; the meetings with that committee The Board had formed were going nowhere, and the Amalgamated Council was on the verge of calling for a general strike, just like they kept saying they would. So the newspapers abruptly switched tactics. Instead of denying the existence of the strike, they started hand-wringing about what an awful thing this strike would be. Not because it would be bad for commerce; they'd been doing that for weeks. They started raising the possibility that the strikers would turn violent. Where they got this idea, it's not exactly clear. NOT-P actually tried to attribute it to the labor leaders themselves, but it didn't quote anyone, instead just said that the leaders "know" that it will be hard to stop 25,000 strikers from turning violent. Ominous, NOT-P! Very ominous.

The papers seemed to take it as a given that a strike of that many people would be violent. Just...well, because. Because 25,000 people! Because strike! BECAUSE, DAMNIT! Because of reasons. And because, though they mostly (but not entirely) left this in the subtext, because a lot of the people on strike were black.

After a couple of false starts, the general strike began on November 8th. One half of the city was now officially on strike; black and white workers, almost all of the unionized work force of New Orleans. 43 different unions. Think about the fuss in your city the last time there was like, a transit strike. THAT WAS ONE UNION THIS WAS 43 AND INCLUDED THE COAL SHOVELERS AND THE SHOE SALESMEN. DEAL WITH THAT.

That violence everyone talked about kind of failed to materialize. What did happen was the almost complete shut-down of New Orleans. Stores were empty. Street cleaning stopped, as did gas service, leaving buildings dark. The lamp-trimmers responsible for keeping the streetlights going stopped working too, and eventually the streets went dark as well. Even firefighting stopped. Performances at the opera house were suspended. Shit was getting real.

But see, November 10th front page headlines were a bit odd. They talk about the governor calling for a militia, and the forming of a "volunteer police force" which sounds to me like a mob with badges, but I could be wrong (they might not have had badges). What those headlines don't mention is any reason why the city would need such things. They make absolutely no mention of strikers doing any of the violent things that the papers had been so worried about. Basically, they wanted this force to help protect scabs. Booooooo!

Meanwhile, though, there were people with something interesting to say about all this business. A newspaper called the Boston Traveler (a fairly radical journal) spoke up noting that it was really amazing how all of these white people were on strike in support of the black people in the Triple Alliance. Of course, they made the same points I did earlier in this article; this was a huge anomaly, and really only an example of people doing, for once, what they should have been doing always, but still, people were noticing an odd amount of unity and, dare we say it, solidarity.

Hey, can we talk about that word for a second? Let me just break down really quickly how I think it should and should not be used:

Correct:

Black Activist: We're trying to get stuff done here, and the authorities are mistreating us and our labor union!
White Activist: Hey, the authorities are mistreating those people of color and their labor union. Let's go on strike, in solidarity with them!
Everyone: Yay! Solidarity!

Incorrect
:

Black Activist: I've noticed some racism within this movement.
White Activist: Why are you being so divisive? Where's your sense of solidarity?

Incorrect:

Female Activist: I've been sexually assaulted by a male participant in this movement.
Male Activist: Shhhhh! Where's your sense of solidarity?

Also, just for the hell of it, Correct:



Very correct. (Also, the video totally has an image in it of Lucy Parsons! Remember her? No? Go back and read what I wrote about her.)

In the case of the New Orleans General Strike of 1892, it was definitely the correct kind, not the other kind, which is cool. And yes, the white union members were motivated by their fear that one day their own unions would have the same trouble getting recognized; this wasn't some kind of act of pure altruism, but see, in a way, I think that's what makes it awesome. Everyone, black and white, was just like "hey, I see we have mutual interests. Want to fight for them? In solidarity? Fuck yeah."

So with all this good-type-of-solidarity running amok, what could the authorities do? Cave to the demands of the strikers? Hmm, that sounds hard. How about racism! Racism would probably help, right? (This was the 19th century south. Racism was their fix for everything. People used racism to repair clothing, and to get rid of aphid infestations. If you went to the doctor he would tell you "take three racisms and call me in the morning." If tech support had existed, and you called them up, the first thing they would say, instead of "have you tried rebooting?" would be "have you tried racism?" I'm not sure what the hell I'm talking about anymore, but what I'm saying is, dudes were racist.)

So the papers started making all kinds of clearly racist accusations and implications about the strikers. The New Orleans Times-Democrat published articles about how the black strikers wanted to "take over the city," and the NOT-P ran a story about white women and school-children being insulted by "the blacks." Interestingly, the article doesn't actually say "white women and school-children." It just says "ladies and school-children" but it's pretty clear that, as is frequently the case, white is meant to be read as the default setting for human beings. No evidence whatsoever is provided that this incident actually took place, and, come on, if you were a black striker in 1892 in Louisiana, would you be more concerned with, like, trying to get recognition for your union, or for some reason insulting passing white school-children? Who bothers to insult school-children anyway? The accusation that white "ladies" had been insulted was clearly a dog-whistle, intended to stir up animosity and violence against the black strikers.

Here's the thing about racist, mob-inciting dog-whistles in the 19th century south: they usually worked. This one...didn't. No mobs formed. No violence happened on the picket lines either, to the point where the authorities were actually kind of confused about it. The mayor sent out a call for those volunteer "deputies" to fight the strikers...and less than sixty people turned up. The mayor banned public gatherings, which is a totally awesome and constitutional thing to do, especially when there's no sign of violence at all, and The Board finally convinced the Governor to send in the militia for...some reason, but when they showed up and found exactly zero people behaving in ways worthy of militiaing, they just kind of turned around and went home.

It was awesome. All these racist white people just WAITING for the black strikers to get violent so they could have some reason to shoot them, and a whole bunch of nothing happening, and The Board and everyone else just panicking about all the violence they were SURE was going to happen any second now, because I mean, come ON, there were BLACK PEOPLE, and just...nothing.

Finally, The Board agreed to sit down and enter binding arbitration with the unions. And...well, here's where the story gets kind of...not sad, but complicated. Because you really want this story to have a happy ending; I mean, I do, but it's a mixed bag. A lot of workers ended up with higher pay, and shorter hours, but they did not get the union shop they wanted, and none of the unions of the Triple Alliance ended up gaining recognition. At the time, a lot of people saw this as a victory for the unions; it certainly increased union membership substantially in Louisiana, but in the end, the unions lost a lot, too.

Here's what I say, though. This was less a victory of organized labor than it was a victory against racism. The fact that the unions didn't gain recognition sucks, but the fact that they were unwilling to divide along racial lines, even if it would have allowed some of them to get that recognition is awesome. This isn't a story about unions winning in a fight against the bosses; this is a story about a multi-racial group refusing to let their opponents use racism to incite violence or divide them in their struggles, and for that, I think the New Orleans General Strike of 1892 does represent a victory.

Causes: Workers rights, anti-racism.
Specific lessons for modern activists: Solidarity forever (or Kansas)!