Tag Archives: politics

Wyndham Mortimer: Organizing the UAW

I’m not saying that I know all the ins and outs now, but having just finished Wyndham Mortimer’s book Organize! My life as a union man, I have a much better idea. And I know he has been a hero to many before me, but he is ranked at the top of those I love and admire. To stumble across people like that is always an unexpected joy in a country that seems to pride itself on rubbing out their memory.

It is a beautiful, powerful, hell-raising sort of book. Mortimer started working at the age of 12 in the coal mines, went on to organize unions in coal, auto, and parts manufacturing. He wrote of the 1890’s that “It was during this era that the Nebraska farmers decided to raise more hell and less corn.” He was one of the key people in breaking the open shop in America, a  founder of the UAW, and he stood for a broad definition of syndicalism, a union led by its members for its members, an anti-capitalist vision for the future, the equality of all races in the movement and the country… And so if you want to know just what the hell happened to the union movement in the U.S., this will tell you, and break your heart while doing it.

After organizing his own auto plant, he left for Flint to build a broad-based industrial union. Here is what happened when he arrived:

Early in June, 1936, I went to Flint, the center of General Motors operations and power. I registered at a cheap hotel (The Dresden) obtaining a room costing twelve dollars a week. I had barely time to remove my coat when the phone rang, A voice said, “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!”

“How would you like to go to hell?” I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I’d be damned if this was going to be the first time!

Here he is, second from your left, marching on Cadillac Square in 1937

Wyndham Mortimer

He was there of course, at the founding of the CIO. Here is the historic moment in his own words:

Hutcheson having protested the chair’s permitting Thompson to speak, Lewis observed to him, “I think it is pretty small potatoes when the President of a great international union takes advantage of parliamentary rules to prevent a working delegate from telling us of the problems confronting his people…”

Hutcheson replied sarcastically, “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.”

Lewis stood glaring at him. “I would think you would be ashamed to do this sort of thing.”

Hutcheson then called Lewis a “dirty bastard.” These words were scarcely uttered when Lewis struck Hutcheson on the jaw, knocking him over a table. The Carpenters’ chief landed on the side of his face, which was badly skinned.

The convention was in pandemonium. Sitting across from me was Wharton, President of the Machinists. Picking up his folding chair, he shouted, “Kill the bastard!” … Our entire union delegation moved over to the side of the Miners, prepared to do battle, if necessary.

His feelings on labour and government, written in 1949 and long since proven true:

A ‘Labour’ government, committed to the policy of ‘gradualism’ cannot come to power. It can only come to office.

And this piece of amazing writing on race, from his Newsletter #7, 1950

The fact is–and the top leadership knows it–that the Negro will never receive recognition without pressure. When discrimination is abolished, it will be time enough to think in terms of merit, not before. It took terrific pressure to abolish chattel slavery. It required pressure to have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution adopted. It has required pressure from our unions before many employers would even hire a Negro…

In a white man’s world, the Negro worker has every problem of the white worker–plus one more: he has the problem of color. No person of the white majority can ever possibly understand what this means. The claim that our Negro membership is adequately represented by an all-white Executive Board is a piece of brazen, chauvinistic nonsense, advocated by those who see nothing really wrong in racial discrimination and do not understand the harm it does the American labor movement.

It is an amazing book from an amazing man. And it is the best and the worst of the American labor movement, its brilliant spark of promise before that was crushed through red-baiting, fear, and greed.

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Reading the world through sport

The amount you can learn might come as a surprise if you don’t read the sports pages, and possibly even if you do. I (somewhat) recently went to hear David Goldblatt speak, and definitely learned a whole lot about things I didn’t really know before.

Let’s take the African Cup of Nations 2010 for starters, what did it teach us?

Now I did know where Angola was, but I did not know that there is an unconnected piece of Angola called Cabinda, and that it has been fighting for its independence for decades.

Why does Angola care? Cabinda contains a third of Angola’s oil. So to hold soccer games in this rather out-of-the-way place, miles from any other stadium, was entirely a political decision. Cabinda, we own you.

But that’s still up for rather violent debate, as rebels proved by attacking the Togolese tour bus with its Angolan military escort. Three people died in the ensuing thirty minute firefight. So wasn’t there a peace accord signed in 2006? Well, if you could call it an accord when you pull a rebel out of a Dutch prison where he has been languishing for some time and make him sign something on behalf of loads of other people he hasn’t talked to recently, and that contains nothing about disarmament or amnesty. I’d prefer to call it fraud.

And so the rebels attacked a soccer team’s tour bus. The dark side of national politics, you can read more here.

And of course, there are the direct connections between teams and politics, Goldblatt gave another example of a trip to Israel, where soccer teams correspond to different political factions. He looked particularly at Beitar Jerusalem. Over the past 70 years it has become increasingly tied to the extreme right wing, fans planting soccer club flags beside those of settlements. During half-time you will customarily see  some fans gather to pray. When asked why, the leader of “La Familia” faction said “This is my country … When I see one million Muslims praying in my country, it makes me nervous.”

The even darker side of fans, read more here.

And at the other end? The joy of football, and sport furthering positive resistance. The Mathare Youth Sports Association. Started in the slums in Kenya, it essentially began as a one man operation. He acted as a referee and lent soccer balls to youth who organized themselves to clean up a place to play.

Entire leagues run by youth themselves formed this way, so much time spent volunteering in community self-help, and then they could play. This has since spread to work on other issues from Aids to child labor. I don’t know how well it addresses structural issues, but mutual aid is always good in my book. You can read more here.

So! There’s so much more to say, so to hear the entire podcast, click here. It’s highly recommended. Another great sports blog that connects sport, resistance and politics is Dave Zirin, the Edge of Sport. And I didn’t even start on the Premiere League or hooligans or…well. There’s time.

To the claim that team sports are only bread and circuses? If you’re like me you’ll say “oh hell no,” and then think, and say, “well, some of it is.” Not the love of the game, the love of play, that feeling of solidarity with others. But I’d say we should be critical of the politics of it, and it’s probably as good a way to learn about the world around us as many others. 90 days to the World Cup, and all the world will be holding its breath at the politics and wonder.

[also posted at www.drpop.net]

Why editing Gary Phillips’ Underbelly is such a god damn pleasure!

I’m not usually one to bring certain aspects of life to the blog realm, as you can tell. But who else could write dialogue like this? Politics, comics and old school rap all in the same few paragraphs? My job is so often a joy…

“Who you supposed to be, old school?” Savoirfaire taunted, flexing his shoulders and shifting his weight onto his back foot. “Captain America don’t live here no more.”

“I’m telling you it’s through,” Magrady repeated calmly, eyes moving from the man’s hands to his face, locking onto the faux designer shades the discount desperado wore.

“You and Floyd are done.”

“You his older brother, cousin, somethin’ like that?”

“You’re missing the point, Flavor Flav,” Magrady said. “My message is what you should be focusing on. Floyd Chambers is no longer on your loan list. No more vig off his SSI checks.”

The two men stood on Wall, smack in the womb of L.A.’s Skid Row. Unlike the street’s more famous incarnation in Manhattan, the west coast version didn’t boast of edifices as testament to giddy capitalism. Trickle-down had long ago trickled out down here.

“Oh, uh-huh.” The bottom-feeder nodded his head. “You lookin’ to take over some of my territory, that it? Don’t seem to me like you got enough weight between your legs to be doin’ that, nephew. Don’t appear to me you got enough left to run this block.”

It will be available in June at PM Press, just click on the cover for more…

Zero Tolerance Policing (in the Dominican Republic?)

It sends chills down my spine really, to know Bratton’s out there making mad money as a consultant and spreading this everywhere. I know it’s considered a controversial issue but I stand pretty squarely on the side saying fuck the (U.S.) police. You add the proven corruption and racism to a larger political program and developer and business dollars? You get Giuliani and Bratton’s policies to clean up neighborhoods not by stopping crime but by criminalizing all of its inhabitants (of color) and getting them the hell out of there so the new wealthy (white) people moving in can feel safe, that’s what zero tolerance policing means to me. Just to be clear.

Funny though, Bratton’s plan is not exactly what’s going on in the Dominican Republic according to professor David Howard, nor has he been involved. They’ve just taken the prestigious name as proof of their ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ method, and have applied a particularly nationalistic twist. Of course, throwing 16,000 armed policemen into a small area (approximately 1 for every 13 people), instituting a curfew and 24 hour surveillance, and randomly arresting anyone looking at a cop wrong…well, that sounds about right. Though the scale is a bit mind boggling.

And of course,  approximately 3,000 of those police have been trained in New York and Miami. (I was going to throw in the possible effects of America’s military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1917-21 and 1965-66 as well, but realized it’s maybe a tiny stretch to connect these facts. Or not.)

The placas have the jargon down as well, they are sanitizing these neighborhoods, cleansing them. But generally speaking they’re not criminalizing the entire population, nor is it parallel to the gentrification and displacement sweeping New York or L.A. Essentially they’re reinventing the image of the police, making a show of dealing with crime in a media friendly way, and hunting down Haitians. I’m not quite sure if this has slowed down since the earthquake, but I’m doubtful.

So. If you haven’t read Junot Diaz, either Drown or the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, do not even finish this, proceed directly to buy these books and read them. He writes like a razor blade about the dark absurdity that seems to lie at the heart of Dominican politics (not that they’re alone in that). But here are some choice new facts.

First the Haitian thing. (Read Edwidge Danticat too, she’s amazing.) Dominicans, very generally speaking, hate Haitians. Particularly the ones who want to move to the Dominican Republic. The law says anyone born on Dominican soil who is not in transit (ie in the airport etc) is Dominican if they have a birth certificate to prove it. Trouble is, you often can’t get a certificate if either of your parents doesn’t have one, so you have some cases of 4th generation kids (dunno if you could even call them Haitian at that point), who don’t have birth certificates. And without a birth certificate you cannot get an ID. And without an ID you can be immediately arrested, and shortly thereafter deported.

But it gets better, because they’ve legally broadened the definition of ‘in transit’ to include all migrants. It’s called fun with words. And it means a lot of people in these neighborhoods have suddenly found themselves heading back to their ‘home’ country.

So the second thing. As part of re-branding themselves the police have seen technology as a major factor. So as part of this zero tolerance thing they have bought all these new jeeps equipped with the latest and greatest in tech. First, they all have laptops. Of course, they have no computerized data on crime or criminals to bring up on those laptops, but I suppose it’s the theoretical ability that counts.

Their other new gadgets? GPS units. Of course they are policing informal settlements with no paved roads and regular flooding. You can give coordinates but that will never help anyone actually get to you. And as for using it to get anywhere, forget about it.

And still I sat through the lecture with my stomach disappearing into itself and its fear of power combined with a legacy of immense violence and corruption embodied in 16,000 officers and neighborhoods essentially on lock down.

Battle for a Living Wage, UK and US

I saw Jane Wills of Queen Mary University of London speak last night on the battle for a living wage in the UK, a great talk and fascinating in its comparisons to the US…though the comparisons are all my own!

I think graphs always speak so much louder than words, so just a quick snapshot in the most comparable format I could find of growing inequalities in the two countries.

On inequality in the UK from The Guardian:

UKtop1%

On inequality in the US from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (via The New York Times)

US Inequality

The US retains its role as a world leader… as of 2005, the top 1% in the US held 21.8% of the wealth, and it is perhaps more frightening to look at the other lines. But many of us aren’t so happy about this, as it means we’re generally fighting each other for the little that is left. So what is being done?

In the UK, as in the US, there has been a growing movement for a living wage. It is only a very small step towards the truly just world that I believe possible on alternate Wednesdays, but I will never say that such small steps do not require a most inhuman amount of work by an admirable and massive number of people.

Essentially the minimum wage (only introduced in the UK in 1999, upon which 2.1 million people received a raise averaging 10%!) is the maximum salary that the market says it can afford to pay people. The living wage is the minimum salary that people actually need to live. A bit simplified I know, but they reduce nicely to moral foundations.

The UK living wage campaign (inspired by the US living wage campaign, begun in Baltimore in 1994) is spearheaded by a non-profit called London Citizens, a group closely based on the organizing model of the Industrial Areas Foundation, working to create a broad and powerful coalition of those already involved in churches, mosques, schools, unions and community groups.

The victories have primarily been won in London. One of the main problems has been identified as the widespread, almost ubiquitous, practice of employers outsourcing every job possible (see the brilliant new book co-authored by Jane, Global Cities at Work). This forces contractors to compete amongst themselves and underbid each other in a mad rush to the bottom. So a huge push of the campaign has been to negotiate with large employers (hospitals, office buildings, the Olympic contractors) to only outsource to businesses providing a living wage.

This reminded me a great deal of SEIU 1877’s strategy in the Justice for Janitors campaign. So I asked, and indeed! They were here at the beginning, working with one of the unions involved in the struggle. Governmental authority works a bit differently here in London and so there hasn’t been a push for anything like a city-wide ordinance, but there are talks of a campaign to get any organization receiving Government funding to ensure the living wage.

It’s a small world, and hopeful to know that some of the lessons of struggle are crossing the Atlantic (and Pacific). May that continue and grow.

So to end not on a cliche, but on John Cleese (because I’m smitten with him), here is a final graphic from The Guardian. Of course, it’s a load of doom in pretty colors really. The only bright light is the success of civil partnerships. I haven’t anything as pretty from the US, I just know (in my gut) everything is worse…

GuardianBig

[Also posted on www.drpop.net]

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.

Baudelaire, Benjamin, Gramsci

Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness. This ideal, which can turn into an idee fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconneting relationships.
–Baudelaire, quoted in Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

I’ve been thinking about dreams, prose, cities…

Benjamin collected quotations, in the sense of the ‘true’ collector, which is just one of the reasons I love him.

He was also haunted by “The Little Hunchback”

When I come into my room,
My little bed to make,
A little hunchback is in there,
With laughter does he shake.

And I wonder at the coincidence of myself reading Gramsci at the same time, himself a little hunchback, a man of action not reflection (though prison changed that), a man who would never have yearned for a kept life where he could wander aimlessly, collect books he valued more for never wanting to read, but who instead starved and sacrificed himself remorselessly to finish his studies and change Italy…both variations of Marxist, and both dearly loved by me. I was originally struck by how they were opposite, but as I think about it, they approach one another…

Daily dose

of tears over coffee, Haiti, I am entirely sadness and rage. Thinking about the way suffering on this scale is always political…the utter inability to deal with famine, flood, earthquakes is always a failure of government. Thinking about Katrina. This insane racism and fear of black people that in both cases has demanded blockade, occupation and armed soldiers rather than the provision of food, water. medicine, shelter…and thus they fulfill their own prophecies of hate and desperation. People know that the mobilization of 12,000 warm to bodies to guard and secure could more easily have provided for their actual needs. I watch soldiers stand around with huge semi-automatics filling their hands when there are bodies and medicines to be dug out of rubble, shelter to be built…as a human I find this utterly inconceivable. As a cynic, I find it all too believable. There is no middle ground between these two sides, which I find to be just another cost of the world we live in.

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/20/stream

Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.

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