Erik Loomis: Republicans Demand Return of Lochner Era Desperation for Workers

25 mins read

Historian Erik Loomis of Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog joined The Rick Smith Show to discuss the possible meaning behind Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s push for liability protections for employers in future COVID-19 Stimulus legislation. McConnell and the GOP’s drawing of a “red line” to shield employers from their workers conjures memories of the dreaded Lochner Era. This 40 year period from 1897-1937 was a horribly dangerous time in America for workers that basically said if you were hungry and desperate enough to work for poverty wages in deplorable and dangerous conditions it was your “liberty” to do so. Under the frame of Liberty of Contract, virtually all maximum hours, minimum wage, child labor, and worker safety laws were struck down as unconstitutional. The courts argued that it was a worker’s right to agree to be exploited. Today the “Liberty of Contract” doctrine is making a comeback with the only change being in the name. We now hear about “freedom.” Freedom of Contract is making a comeback and it’s just as bad as it’s predecessor.

This has been something we have discussed on the program many times over the years because it is a certain tenant of GOP ideology. They want a desperation class of pliable and disposable workers who are easily divided. Trump’s forcing open meat packing plants while shielding employers from accountability is just a small part of their overall plan to return American workers to poverty, desperation, and voicelessness.

Rick Smith: Moscow Mitch McConnell was thinking about tying any help to state and local government, tying worker liabilities into any money that would come. The federal government is basically protecting corporations from We, the People, ensuring that we can’t sue them.

Today when I see Donald Trump with the executive order opening up the meat plants and also putting these kinds of liability protections in place, it throws me back to a battle day of yesteryear.

On the anniversary of OSHA opening its doors. I’ve asked Eric Loomis to come and talk with us. Eric is a historian and author of probably the greatest book in the history of written literature. His book, a History of America in Ten Strikes, is a must read by every worker. He’s also a blogger over at Lawyers. Guns and Money blog.

Erik Loomis: McConnell’s red line,  for any deal he’s gonna make, is widespread liability reform, and reform is not the right word, right? I mean, it’s basically a protection for corporations.

This would be an enormous repeal of worker rights. And it’s very clear that while it’s being done under the guise of an emergency in a pandemic, this is intended to set the groundwork for a permanent change where effectively employers can be legally free from any responsibility to their workers.

Rick Smith: This is who the Republicans are. This is who they’ve been. 

Erik Loomis: Today is the 49th anniversary of OSHA. OSHA had the potential to be this amazing agency that really empowers workers, that changes worker safety and health forever, and it barely got off the ground.

The first couple of years [OSHA] was figuring out what it’s doing. And then the Carter administration, it’s doing some good things. Reagan comes in in ‘81 and just cuts it off at the knees. It’s never been the same. And it lines up perfectly in that timeline with the broader corporate attack on worker rights, on environmental rights, on all of the things that Americans have gained through the 20th century.

This happening on the anniversary of OSHA, an agency that today is pretty weak. Its being totally taken over by corporations is perfect timing actually, because this is the pinnacle, or maybe just the next step, in a decades-long war against workers led by the Republican party.

Rick Smith: To do it today is a major slap in the face. 

Erik Loomis: Absolutely. There’s no respect for workers out of this administration, out of Mitch McConnell, out of the Republican party. It’s been that way for a long, long, long time now. It’s unfortunate that there are some workers that bought into this culture war stuff that these Republicans throw at them as red meat to cover up for the fact that they’re going to make their lives worse because it can’t be worse than today.

This may be to start with meat packing, but pretty soon it’s going to be in trucking, in construction, in the blue collar jobs that exist throughout America. You will really not have any legal recourse if you get hurt or killed on the job.

That’s the ultimate goal here of the Republican party. And take us back to how things were a hundred years ago. 

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Rick Smith: The National Employment Law Project did a report that pointed out that OSHA,  at its height, had I think it was 1,469 inspectors.

That was 1980. Today they’re saying that we’re at a historic low of 862, a massive drop. Even though our economy’s gotten so much bigger and there are so many more people, we’ve got so fewer inspectors that we’re less safe than we were.

This shows how successful they’ve been at attacking all of those institutions that were put in place to protect the workers. 

Erik Loomis: They’ve been tremendously successful. It’s sad to say that it’s been an almost total victory for corporate power over workers.

We get occasional wins. We roll some things back, we hold the line, you know, and there’s been reason in recent years to have some optimism: teachers’ strikes and other strikes that have taken place and that kind of growth in militancy. But over the overall picture, you know, they, they won.

It’s the fight that we have to have because when you have a pandemic or you have any national disaster, what it really does is it demonstrates the inequality in America.

That’s exactly what’s happening here, whether you’re talking about African-Americans or Latinos dying at higher rates, or the ability of corporations to take advantage of this, to engage in a form of disaster capitalism and increase their profits while hurting small businesses and hurting everyday workers.

And you’re seeing this happen in any number of ways, from the Los Angeles Lakers taking small business money to today’s executive order. Corporate power is seeking to use this opportunity to take greater control over the economy.

Rick Smith: We’re seeing mass consolidation of power. The fact that the Lakers got the money shows that they have the ability to navigate the system where the small business down the street from me who’s probably going to go out of business because of this, doesn’t have those connections or that ability.

Erik Loomis: The whole system is set up so that the people who already have get more: This is the whole point of the Republican party. This is why they exist. This is why Mitch McConnell was so intent on transforming the judiciary so that even if Democrats win the Senate and the Presidency, this is doctrine. A full corporate power will still have a bulwark in the court system. If Republicans controlled the house, we would see it in legislation.

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Rick Smith: Again, elections have consequences. We’re going back to the days of Lochner cause we’ve got a Supreme Court that’s already there. I think they’re even worse than Lochner was.

Erik Loomis: This liability quote reform is pure Lochnerism. This is saying that you as a worker take on the risk of work if you choose to take the job. You know Iowa is also going to basically force you off unemployment if you don’t go back and work in the meat packing plant.

We believe this sets the precedent that you could choose not to work. Of course, that choice is poverty, homelessness, hunger. But it’s a choice and that was the Lochner ethos. That is exactly what Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are pushing here. He’s not going to stand up for the working class; instead, he’s basically telling you, well, you die on the job or you get hurt on the job left. That’s your fault. That’s you. That’s your problem, not mine. 

Rick Smith: If you’re hungry enough, if you’re desperate enough to work in deplorable conditions for poverty wages, it was your Liberty.

Now we’ve just changed Liberty with the word Freedom. It’s not your freedom to be able to do that. 

Erik Loomis: That one word is almost the only difference between Republican party in 2020 and the Republican party in 1905.

Rick Smith: How did we get this evil? How do we get these people, how did they come to power, and how did we allow that to happen?

Erik Loomis: There are a couple of things there. The 1956 platform was relatively pro-union because they were scared of you. The Republicans were already plotting to get out of these unions and move the factories, to find ways to bust the unions. It’s right about that time the meat packing plants close in Chicago and move out to these non-union places in Iowa and Kansas, Nebraska, places like that, but they had to respond to the fact that unions were so strong in America. They had to respect them. 

About 1970, ‘71, you have the beginnings of a broad organized corporate effort to repeal all those worker rights that had been won, to repeal the consumer rights movement, to repeal the environmental movement, the victories of other social movements. 

This really begins in the ‘70s. Nixon pushes this forward to a certain extent, and then it grows President after President from Ford to Reagan to both Bushes. By the time you get to the 90’s Democrats, seeing where the money is move in this direction and it just gets more and more extreme, as well as this corporate lobby that has gained more and more and more power. They haven’t become satisfied. They’ve become more determined to roll things back even to a further extent. And that’s why Lochner is the right comparison to today because that is their vision.

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Rick Smith: It was the labor money that backed a lot of the civil rights, the consumer rights, the women’s rights movement. It was the union money that did a lot of that.

Erik Loomis: Absolutely. A big part of the reason why McConnell said that he didn’t want to fund these blue state bailouts to begin with–he wants to union-bust off of this. He wants to destroy these last public sector unions in blue states.

If [McConnell] can say that states should declare bankruptcy instead, that gets them out of their union pensions. Destroying these very strong public sector unions, one of which I am a member of, is his ultimate goal.

He wants to take us back to that non-union, exploitative, deadly, poisonous economy of 125 years ago. 

Rick Smith: Especially on the public sector pension side of things, you could see this plan in the works for a couple of decades now here in Pennsylvania. Anyway, they were, they were not funding it.

Erik Loomis: It’s the classic definition of what we call disaster capitalism. Basically, big companies and the powerful use disasters and the fear and the insecurity that that creates to consolidate their power. We see this across the world.

This is what’s happening in the United States. Trump wants to destroy the Postal Service, and the only reason the Postal Service is in trouble anyway is because Congress forced it to fund the pension obligations far into the future.

Something no other federal agency has to do is an excuse to try to basically bankrupt the Postal Service. It should be said that many of us are going to have to do a mail-in ballot for the Presidential election. 

Rick Smith: I don’t like to be conspiratorial, but it all just seems to fit so perfectly, like someone may have planned it. 

Erik Loomis: I don’t think it’s conspiratorial to simply look at what Republicans have been doing for decades, and note the plans they have stated. They didn’t plan the pandemic, but the pandemic becomes useful–all you have to do to follow what the Republican party wants is to read what they have to say, listen to their speeches. They’re doing exactly what they said they were going to do.

Rick Smith: To steal a line from Milton Friedman, he said it’s the ideas that are lying around that we use when crisis happens and never to let a good crisis go to waste. I know Rahm Emanuel gets credit for that, but it was Uncle Milty who said it as well. 

Erik Loomis: And Mitch McConnell is the master of it.

Rick Smith: This Presidential election cycle was part of the reason, in my view, why Sanders had to be taken out because he was actually talking about the kind of worker power, of making us demand more from our government, in the form of health care and education and better jobs and all of those things. I think it’s the reason Bloomberg came out of the woodwork to take his public thrashing like he did. 

Erik Loomis: In terms of the Democratic party, obviously a lot of people aren’t super thrilled with Biden. He’s not exactly the most dynamic person, nor the most progressive. There are obviously reasons to be concerned there. I do think that there’s reasons to be positive. The kind of positions around worker rights and the things Sanders talked about are more popular now than they have been. We can talk about why Biden won, but I think that, over time, what we’re going to see is that the Sanders campaign and his ideas are going to be the kind of base for building a longer-term movement that’s not only about Presidential politics, but is also about a broader politics.

Assuming that the government does not step up the way it should is going to lead to more and more people believing that the kinds of things Sanders has said over the years are correct. I think that that’ll have longer term implications than that.

This is the beginning of a much longer movement, maybe 2016 as the beginning of a much longer movement and these things take time. You have to remember that the Republicans have been organizing around these questions and these right-wing issues for a long, long time. It took them decades to repeal the victories that we had gained. 

Rick Smith: This is a 70-year plus endeavor of theirs, starting with the John Birchers. You’d be moving right on through the Powell memo and all of this stuff that came after that. All of the think tanks and all the money that they’ve invested in the takeover of the various media outlets.  You’ve got to give them credit. They’ve done a masterful job. Do you think there’s been a sufficient amount of organizing through this period that there may be that explosion like we saw after World War II?

Erik Loomis: We’re going to have to find out. How strong is the left now? Is the left there to force the kind of political changes necessary? Is there going to be the kind of protests, are people ready to organize workers? We’ll see protests in the streets.

I think right now everyone’s so thrown off and not really sure what’s going on. It’s not too surprising. We haven’t seen a whole lot yet, but what happens when millions of people can’t pay their rent? Protests are probably not going to happen on May 1st, but June 1st? July 1st?

We’re going to find out in the next few months just how effective a resurgence of the left is. That’s going to be a critical moment for us. 

Rick Smith: I see Ro Khanna and a couple of other people have legislation to try and get people two grand a month.

You need a kind of basic income thing to get through this. Sadly, I don’t see it as something possible at this moment. It’s something they should have done right from the start. Instead of that one time, $1200, and then giving huge amounts of money to corporate interests, a $500 billion slush fund that should have been divvied up and handed out instead of giving a dime to Corporate America.

Erik Loomis: Either we’re going to provide that kind of income to get everybody through this, or people are going to be forced to go back to work and risk their lives.

It’s pretty clear that a lot of states are openly aiming for the latter. Iowa, Texas, Georgia. Do we have the power to force better bills through? 

That’s the thing that we need to keep us healthy and safe as we see our way through this. But the Republican party doesn’t want to keep you healthy and safe.

Rick Smith: As people like to remind me, they are the death cult, so why would we be surprised?

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In 2005, The Rick Smith Show stepped into a local radio world devoid of progressive talk. Rick took his straight shooting no nonsense Teamster outlook to the air and started mixing it up with conservatives from one of the reddest areas north of the Mason Dixon line. His show grew steadily, attracting listeners starved for a voice that spoke to working stiffs who felt the economic floor crumbling beneath them.
Five years after the start of his weekend program, Rick moved to new time slots and new stations. His show now airs Monday-Friday 3pm-6pm on several stations across the state of Pennsylvania where he offers hard truth and commentary with a unique blend of clear-headed, gruff analysis and bemused observation. Lest things get too serious, he spices things up with a laugh or two.

Rick comes by his outlook honestly. He grew up in the projects of Cleveland, ducking local gangs while doing paper routes and odd jobs to help feed his family. After high school, he went out on his own, driving 18 wheelers as a proud union member. Nowadays, Rick, a father of three, is on the front lines of the class work every weekday from 3pm-6pm. He feels the calling to spread the word about the desperate needs facing workers, and to make the world a better place for kids growing up in what is becoming an America of rich and poor.

Rick believes somebody has to wake up the American working class to engage in the democratic process, but not in the corporate-funded Tea Party fashion. He has the rough edges and the grit of a Teamster; he’s a street talker, but a street talker with charm.

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