Union-busting: First as tragedy, then as [fart]
Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.
Some of you know, but others mercifully don’t, a website called Barstool Sports. Nominally a sports news blog, it proudly cultivates the atmosphere of a frat house living room the morning after several Class C felonies were committed.
Its founder, Dave Portnoy, made a business model out of being an ass. His site got early notoriety for posting naked pictures of quarterback Tom Brady’s infant son and joking about the size of his penis. He announced before a planned forty-city party tour: “I’d like to reiterate that we don’t condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties … However, if a chick passes out, that’s a gray area though.”
Tucker Carlson called Barstool “the internet’s greatest website.”
I’m boring you with this because, this week, Portnoy did a cannonball into the world of labor law. The founder had caught wind that the staff of a rival sports site, The Ringer, was planning to form a union.
Portnoy, who posts as “El Presidente” (Twitter bio: “Worshipped like a 3rd world dictator (sic)”), re-upped a fantasy he’d written in 2015:
“BAHAHA! I hope and I pray that Barstool employees try to unionize. I can’t tell you how much I want them to unionize. Just so I can smash their little union to smithereens … Oh you think you deserve health insurance? You don’t think you should have to work with squirrels in the office? You don’t think I should duct tape Hank to the walls? Well now yis can’t leave! No more free water! No more vacation days! I’m gonna dump rats into the walls! You haven’t seen anything yet!”
Live Science’s Rafi Letzter, whose newsroom is part of the Writers Guild of America East, replied that Barstool employees interested in banding together for better working conditions should contact him.
Portnoy responded with this:
Rafi Letzter @RafiLetzter@stoolpresidente @ringer If you work for Barstool and want to have a private chat about the unionization process, how little power your boss has to stop you, and how you can leverage that power to make your life better: my DMs are open.
And with that, the political internet got into formations. The AFL-CIO and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez each noted that Portnoy had likely broken the law. (The Labor Department gestured in support of this reading.)
As with so many things in 2019, this is a stupider version of a movie America has seen before. It’s a movie that, in turn, helped get us to this very stupid time.
The Long Version
Back in the mid-20th Century, before we became a country of Grubhubbing shitposters, Americans made stuff. One of our major products was clothes. And one of the biggest textile bosses was Roger Milliken.
Milliken was the rich son of a rich New England family. They’d gotten their start selling woolen textiles to the Army, but soon branched out, becoming sales agents, Manhattan real estate investors, and owners of a bank and department stores.
During the Great Depression, Roger’s father and uncle also snapped up bankrupt cotton mills across the Carolinas. The mills were located near the fields where poor black sharecroppers often worked the same land their enslaved parents and grandparents had made profitable in the first place.
Cheap labor was what drew the younger Milliken’s attention too. When Roger took over the family company right after World War II, organized labor was mounting a historic wave of national strikes for better wages and conditions. But things were quieter at their mills in the South, where a major CIO organizing effort had just failed.
One reason the unions couldn’t break into Dixie was its plantation-like factory system. Workers lived on remote campuses under constant surveillance, leaving little breathing room for organizing. They also got an embarrassment of benefits, from free healthcare and rental subsidies to free sports equipment. These private welfare fiefdoms built loyalty to the bosses and cultivated a real fear of losing their freebies.
The other reason unions struggled to recruit in the South was white supremacy. Whites had the best jobs in the southern mills. Many preferred to stick with lower wages and worse job security than to join forces with—or end up having to work beside—black colleagues.
The result was that textile wages, already low compared to other forms of manufacturing, were 40 percent lower in the South. When South Carolina declared itself a “Right-to-Work” state (the Orwellian term for laws that strengthen management and weaken labor unions) in 1954, Milliken moved his family and headquarters to the upstate town of Spartanburg.
Soon after arriving, Roger learned an important lesson: Labor organizers can be beaten (often literally, as they had been by southern police and guards during the CIO’s failed effort). But workers’ desire for a better life is hard to wipe out completely.
In March 1956, the Textile Workers Union of America launched a recruitment drive at Milliken’s print cloth plant in Darlington, S.C. Roger started driving back and forth, 140 miles each way, to pressure the workers in person. He threatened to fire anyone who voted to unionize, and protect anyone who voted against it. (There is no record of squirrels or duct tape being involved.)
On Sept. 6, 1956, the plant defied Milliken and voted 256-248 to join the TWUA. Milliken’s board closed the plant and fired everyone, no matter how they’d sided.
It was like dropping a bomb in Darlington, a tiny town where everything depended on the plant. The mayor, who had backed management, was left begging for federal food assistance.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because you read the profile of Roger Milliken I wrote a few years ago. More likely, it’s because of the Supreme Court case that came out of the plant closure. In Textile Workers Union of America v. Darlington Manufacturing Company, the high court ruled that Milliken had violated the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which says bosses can’t “dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization.”
Shutting down part of a business to beat the unions, the court said, is illegal. (If, on the other, hand Milliken had closed everything—all his mills, stores, the bank, etc—the justices said that would have been OK.)
The boss still managed to drag his feet on paying court-ordered restitution until 1980. By then a quarter of the fired workers were dead. Some got as little as $50. For years, union opponents handed out bumper stickers that read: “Remember Darlington.”
Time to Party
Milliken left Darlington with his ego bruised but otherwise just fine. He was born rich and would die richer, his workers’ lives crushed like so many Carolina junebugs under the soles of his brown leather shoes. But he was still livid. He called the Court’s decision “a damaging blow of unprecedented proportions at the economic liberties of American businessmen.”
Instead of fighting the unions in the streets, he would do it with politics. He’d make a party so fiercely anti-union that organized labor wouldn’t stand a chance.
At the time, the Democratic Party still ruled the South, a vestige of the old ex-Confederate faction that had lined up against Lincoln’s Republicans and their efforts at racial justice and economic redistribution.
But with liberal Democrats starting to embrace civil rights as a principle elsewhere, Milliken spotted an opportunity: He would marry the conservative white supremacists in the South with existing conservative Republicans elsewhere.
Milliken convinced Barry Goldwater to run for president on an anti-civil rights platform, and lured his adopted state’s segregationist senator, Strom Thurmond, to the GOP. He helped start the Heritage Foundation. He financed the libertarian seminars Charles Koch attended. And he bankrolled his fellow South Carolina Yalie, William F. Buckley, Jr., to start a new conservative (segregationist) magazine, the National Review.
In 1976, Milliken became an early backer of Ronald Reagan. As president, five years later, Reagan would reduce what was left of the once-powerful labor movement to rubble.
A la mierda el presidente
Milliken died in 2010, believing the Reagan-Bush Republicans had sold him out. Realizing they and their donors could make more from finance than manufacturing, they ended protections for domestic industry. The next generation of capitalists found their cheap, exploitable sources of non-union labor in places like Bangladesh, Mexico, Vietnam, and above all China. Much of the South and Midwest ended up like Darlington: the factory closed, and everyone screwed.
The potent, toxic mix of white supremacy, anti-labor/pro-rich-guy economics, and aggressive tariffs the old textile boss helped concoct finally found their champion in Donald Trump. In places crushed by industry’s flight, left defenseless without the unions that kept their forebearers secure and invented the weekend, angry whites cheer the billionaire huckster as he hurls invective at the places their jobs fled, even as he further impoverishes their towns.
Meanwhile, in in the luxury suite, Trump’s rich friends toast their good fortune.
It’s no surprise that a guy like Portnoy ended up a Trump fan. The two have plenty in common:
Nor is it weird that the president’s eldest failson would love a boss who reacts to the specter of unionization by threatening do dump rats in the walls and fight a Latina congresswoman.
Half a century after Milliken lost to the union and the law at Darlington, the party he built is doing just what he designed it to do.
And now some local business …
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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist, author, and national fellow at New America. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, will trace the origins and contradictions of American empire. You can find him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth