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Why Unions Matter

[ 30 ] January 30, 2013 |

I know that this is kind of Unionism 101, but since we as a nation are now in a remedial state when it comes to understanding why we need labor unions, Eric Liu’s piece on non-unionized workers should be concerned about organized labor’s decline is important:

First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better. Unions restore demand to an economy by raising wages for their members and putting more purchasing power to work, enabling more hiring. On the flip side, when labor is weak and capital unconstrained, corporations hoard, hiring slows, and inequality deepens. Thus we have today both record highs in corporate profits and record lows in wages.

Second, unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage. Even if you aren’t a member your pay is influenced by the strength or weakness of organized labor. The presence of unions sets off a wage race to the top. Their absence sets off a race to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the relegation of organized labor to tiny minority status and the fact that the public sector is the last remaining stronghold for unions have led many Americans to see them as special interests seeking special privileges, often on the taxpayer’s dime. This thinking is as upside-down as our economy.

This country has gotten to today’s level of inequality because, ironically, those who work for a living think like atomized individuals while those who hire for a living organize collectively to rig policy in their favor. Today’s 97-year low is the result of decades of efforts to squeeze unions and disperse their power.

I will add that unions have also historically set new standards in benefits for industries, providing nonunionized workers improved health care, shorter hours, vacation time, pensions, etc. Companies will often expand union gains to the rest of the industry in order to undercut unionization at other worksites. In addition, organized labor’s support for laws ranging from the minimum wage to OSHA have vastly improved the lives of all American workers. Without a strong labor movement, it’s hard to see how similar advances are achieved.

Amateur Hour

[ 121 ] January 30, 2013 |

I thought this Laura Seay piece lambasting English language coverage of Mali pretty outstanding. I know nothing about Mali and thus haven’t commented on it except to express sadness at the loss of cultural heritage (and yay! most of the Timbuktu manuscripts have survived thanks to people taking them into their own homes). But that hasn’t stopped many “experts” from talking on an issue about which they know little. The best part is Seay showing the foolishness of cheap, meaningless comparisons between Mali and Afghanistan.

Of course, it’s not just major publications doing this. It’s also famous critics of American foreign policy.

This also reminds me of an old professor of mine who worked on the Philippines telling me that the large majority of “experts” writing and talking about the Philippines during the Marcos-Aquino years had no knowledge of Tagalog and really didn’t know what they were talking about. I suppose that’s pretty common with countries off the radar of most Americans.


[ 39 ] January 29, 2013 |

Today, I turned 39. In my ripe old age, I’d like to share some advice from the WPA. From 1941:

The more you know.

Southern Problems

[ 274 ] January 29, 2013 |

George Packer’s comments on the terribleness of Southern politics has inspired a number of responses, most notably from Gary Wills.

These discussions frustrate me though for a number of reasons. First, the South is equated with reactionary white people in both articles. The reality is much more complex. Second, it ignores the fact that 35-40% of the South votes for Democrats and that many of these people are extremely liberal (and not just African-Americans). Third, it holds Southern culture to be entirely negative.

No one has to tell me how the politics of white supremacy has damaged this nation. But let’s be bloody well clear, this is not a Southern problem. It is perhaps a greater problem in the South than other parts of the country. Still, my reading of American history remembers the Detroit Hate Strike of 1943. It remembers the Boston busing protests of the 1970s. It remembers the Zoot Suit Riots. It remembers the lynching of Malcolm X’s father. It remembers the housing campaign conducted by Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1966, when King said he never felt so much hate.

And my understanding of the present is informed by white supremacy in Idaho, by Michigan-native Timothy McVeigh, by Paul Ryan and Steve King and Sam Brownback and any number of awful northern politicians.

My understanding of both past and present is also informed by the reality of poverty in the South, both black and white, and how capitalism played the races off against each other. If this failed, and the races aligned too closely, then you saw the real backlash, in Wilmington at the end of the 19th century, in the killings of Populist organizers, in the backlash against Operation Dixie.

This stereotyping is why I’m not comfortable with American elites like Packer and Wills talking about the South. Even if, like Wills, they have southern roots, they ignore the basic fact that racism and right-wing politics are national problems. Yes, they might be 20% worse in the South for reasons of the slave legacy, capitalist playing of the races of each other, etc. But none of these problems are southern problems. They are national problems and until we think of them as such, we are going to do more work in stereotyping the South than solving said problems.

Also, the title of this post is totally stolen from my friend Andy Bowen’s DC-based band. Check them out.

Perhaps Alan Dershowitz Should Not Be the Arbiter of Who Speaks on American University Campuses

[ 317 ] January 29, 2013 |

Brooklyn College’s Department of Political Science, the home department of Corey Robin among others, is under attack for inviting speakers such as Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to speak on the subject of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Right-wing fake outrage is building, a topic which I know well. Alan Dershowitz is leading the charge and now the New York Daily News is on the case with an editorial basically accusing the department of anti-Semitism. The campaign is on to shut this event down.

Regardless of how you feel about the issue (personally, I support this movement until Israel tears down the settlements and removes its citizens to the 1967 boundaries), what’s important here is that academics be allowed to host public forums on important political, social, and economic issues, even if they challenge the status quo. This is another attempt to silence voices critical of power structures that ensure inequality and injustice.

Contact Info for Brooklyn College administrators:

President Karen Gould (718.951.5671;;
Provost William Tramontano (718.951.5864;;
Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeremy Thompson (718.951.5882;

Do what you can do.

…Says Scott in the comments about the linked article:

Seriously, talk about yer classic moments in passive-aggressive weasel wording:

Do all support welcoming to campus an event that will verge on anti-Semitism?

“We won’t actually call the speakers anti-Semitic. But they might do something other than criticize the Likud platform for being insufficiently dismissive of Palestinian rights, so close enough.”


Good Advice

[ 33 ] January 28, 2013 |

Robert Stacy McCain, the man who defended the lynching of Emmett Till, has some really good advice for the Republican Party. Double down on white supremacy and reject those anti-capitalist Latinos.

As a Democrat, let me give a full-throated recommendation that Republican leaders listen to this wise, wise man.


[ 94 ] January 28, 2013 |

While I guess I’m glad that McDonald’s is using a certified fish that is theoretically sustainable (although I doubt it really), I don’t know what karma the entire noble species that is pollock had in the past to deserve being harvested for such a loathsome product as the Filet-o-Fish.

Also, y’all should know what an Alaskan pollock actually looks like. Turns it is not actually a breaded, tasteless fish that swims between two awful slices of bread and a dollop of tartar sauce.

Running Taft

[ 57 ] January 27, 2013 |

As baseball fans know, every stadium has some version of the “race” between innings where the fans can root for a meaningless computerized competition between different colored objects. In Seattle for instance, it’s speedboats. Usually these remain computerized.

The Washington Nationals have taken a different tack, having people in president outfits run the race. They have 4–the Mt. Rushmore presidents. Until now:

The most anticipated move of the Washington Nationals offseason was finally made Friday night, as the club announced that William Howard Taft would become the 5th Racing President.

The justification for this is that Taft was the first president to throw out a first pitch, for the Washington Senators in 1910.

The real reason: the world likes to see fat men run.

The clear next frontier is to have a James Madison character. The battle between a fat man and a tiny man who barely weighed 100 pounds is sure to enrapture the baseball-game attending public.

Right-Wing Talking Points in Sports

[ 48 ] January 27, 2013 |

Some dude won $75,000 by making a half-court shot at a basketball game.

The story on ESPN: said dude has to pay, gasp, taxes on his earnings!

The horror. The horror.

This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1941

[ 30 ] January 25, 2013 |

On January 25, 1941, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the most important civil rights leader of the World War II era, called for a March on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industry work. The success of this movement in convincing the government to act on employment discrimination both opened unprecedented economic opportunities for African-Americans during the war and helped lay the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement after the war.

The civil rights movement was perking up in the 1930s. Between the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, cases that led to the integration of the University of Maryland and University of Missouri law schools, and other small but significant victories, civil rights leaders had hope for the future. As the nation turned its attention to fascism in the late 1930s and President Franklin Roosevelt began to prepare the nation for war, civil rights leaders hoped that African-Americans would see their share of economic advancement. But persistent discrimination from both employers and labor unions meant that defense work remained strictly segregated.

Randolph and other leaders, including Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, and T. Arnold Hill, met with Roosevelt, hoping to convince him to desegregate defense work. But for as great as FDR was, he basically didn’t care much about discrimination against African-Americans. The New Deal in fact reinforced segregation on the job. For instance, TVA administrators were so worried about offending local racial sensibilities, they segregated what were previously integrated manual labor work. The result of this meeting was that FDR agreed more African-Americans should be in the military. In 1941, the Army had 230,000 members, but only 5000 African-Americans. But in creating more black units, Roosevelt explicitly said they would remain segregated.

A. Philip Randolph

Angry at Roosevelt’s indifference to advancing racial equality, Randolph and other civil rights leaders turned to more direct pressure. After planning the logistics of this in the fall of 1940, on this date in 1941, Randolph officially announced the March on Washington. He created the March on Washington Committee in Harlem, involved the NAACP, and began spreading the idea around the country. It was to take place on July 1 with estimates of up to 100,000 African-Americans attending.

Originally, much of the nation’s African-American leadership was skeptical that Randolph and the NAACP could pull this off. But Randolph’s tireless work and alliance building made the idea a real threat to the Roosevelt administration. Working with groups such as the National Negro Congress, as well as Randolph’s own close ties to socialist groups, the infrastructure to create what would have been a truly unprecedented protest in African-American history took shape. Most important was Randolph’s union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which not only used their privileged positions within African-American communities to give the movement legitimacy in cities across the nation, but also chartered buses and trains to take people from around the country to Washington before July 1.

Roosevelt was desperate to avoid the embarrassment of a nation preparing to fight fascism having its own caste system publicized before the world. He asked Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia to intervene, but Randolph refused to budge. Roosevelt finally decided to use his personal charm on Randolph, calling him for a private meeting, but again, Randolph remained firm. Randolph told the president:

Mr. President, time is running on. You are quite busy, I know. But what we want to talk with you about is the problem of jobs for Negroes in defense industries. Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can’t live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Roosevelt caved on June 25. He issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. The order also established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice to investigate and resolve discrimination on the job. Under last-minute pressure from Randolph, Roosevelt also agreed to end official discrimination in federal employment as well, although actual implementation of this was quite varied and depended on the agency (Hoover’s FBI, no).

This milestone cannot be overstated. It was the first federal action to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of race in American history. It also opened the door for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to achieve high-paying jobs during World War II, working in factories and building the economic and political base that would be vital to laying the foundation for the postwar push for civil rights. It was a key part in the NAACP’s Double-V campaign–V for victory against racism both at home and abroad.

In the end, the sheer need for workers was more important in African-American employment than the FEPC or anything else Roosevelt did. Desperation broke employer resistance. But the institutional framework for involving the government in racial discrimination on the job was absolutely necessary to these changes. African-Americans held about 3% of defense jobs in 1942, mostly janitors. But by 1945, that number had risen to 8%, including a lot of craftsmen, as well as industrial laborers more broadly. Black employees of the federal government tripled. In all of this of course, significant discrimination remained. Blacks were the last hired and first fired, were often paid less for the same labor, and had few chances at advancement on the job. That said, the World War II black experience at work helped create the postwar world.

The employment of African-Americans in the defense industry reshaped the geography of African-American life. Blacks moved in huge numbers not only to northern cities but to the American West as well, establishing large communities in important manufacturing centers like Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. 750,000 African-Americans moved during the war. This caused massive tensions of its own, including the Detroit Hate Strike of 1943. In the South, blacks usually worked in segregated jobs, but in northern cities integration caused wildcat strikes, particularly among the recent white migrants from the South for those same jobs. Yet despite violence, de facto segregation, white flight, and massive employment discrimination, African-Americans kept coming after the war. Why? The prospect of decent work in the wartime and then Cold War defense industry offered the hope of a better life.

Randolph’s inspiration for the March on Washington was recognized by Martin Luther King and other leaders of the postwar movement; although isolated from the movement in the 60s, Randolph was asked to be on stage in 1963. Perhaps his most notable contribution to the March was talking John Lewis off the ledge when an increasingly infuriated SNCC demanded change now, with a tone that made a lot of allies, including United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, organized labor’s most important ally with the civil rights movement, nervous. Lewis agreed to tone it down slightly after a discussion with the godfather of civil rights.

This is the 49th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Value Proposition

[ 34 ] January 25, 2013 |

DS Wright with some valuable commentary on major union leaders wanting to retire Scabby the Rat because it doesn’t fit their “value proposition.

A sad and familiar refrain among the now fading trade unions – foregoing confrontation for illusory accommodation. There is perhaps no dumber talking point than that of the “value proposition” or the idea that union labor is of higher quality therefore brings more value to a job than non-union. First, there’s flimsy evidence to support that being true and second, no one cares anyway.

Labor unions, especially trade unions, were not developed because of a lack of job training, they were developed to ensure fair compensation for workers. The “value proposition” makes no sense for an employer or developer – they care about profits, that’s their value proposition. If globalization has proven anything it is that cheaper unskilled labor is considered more valuable to capital than more expensive skilled labor (see Walmart for details). Which makes complete sense – the honor is in the dollar. Even if, for some odd reason, there was higher quality and less cost overruns with union labor why the hell would management care if they have to pay more than the difference in wages and benefits?

This accommodation strategy is essentially Third Way economics, pretending labor unions are somehow both good for Capital and Labor – news flash: they aren’t. That’s why Capital has been trying and succeeding at crushing Labor for the past 30 years. They don’t want to pay higher wages and provide benefits they want to cut those costs so they can have higher profits.

Playing Capital’s value game hasn’t been working for Labor so far. Maybe it was Scabby’s idea to leave the AFL-CIO, rats know how to leave sinking ships.

You can certainly debate the efficacy of an inflatable rat. It might be a bad, or at least lazy, tactic. But that’s not really the point here. The larger question gets at the failure of union leadership to understand why the labor movement became successful and what creates a culture where the risks of an organizing campaign are acceptable to workers.

The ability to talk and negotiate with employers is important. But it only matters if you have an organization that actually organizes workers. Fundamentally, if you think that making nice with CEOs is more important than organizing culture or building workplace solidarity, you don’t understand why the labor movement succeeded. I know these labor leaders have been active for decades and so maybe deserve a break, but they’ve overseen the collapse of organized labor. Much of that isn’t their fault. But then there’s parroting corporate speak, prioritizing the boardroom over the shop floor, and trivializing workplace culture and solidarity. When you do these things, you aren’t creating a movement that will exist in 10 years.

Today in the Coming Republican Coalition

[ 34 ] January 24, 2013 |

I can see why Republicans are trying to rig the 2016 elections. Their politicians are utterly hopeless in appealing to the mainstream of this nation. A couple of fresh examples from today’s news.

Here’s James Lankford, Republican congressman from Oklahoma and #5 in the House leadership.

SALLY: I want to know if you’re aware of the Substances and Mental Health Services Administration that has a book called the Provider’s Introduction to Substance Abuse Treatment for Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Individuals.


SALLY: They are going around the nation, they just did this here in Oklahoma, December 7th, and having conferences that are educational…. About 2 percent of the conference is dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. 98 percent is doing indoctrination or pushing the homosexual agenda. This is what our president is doing. He has a federal agency doing it. Our state, the Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Department, put this conference on and is indoctrinating our citizens who are totally against this. Is there any way you can look into this?

LANKFORD: Oh yes, sure. You know I can absolutely get a chance to take a look at it. We’ll start the process, try to see what we can do to identify it. Some of those things you have the power of humiliation where you can raise it and put in sunlight. They love functioning in the dark. You put some sunlight on it, that does help. But, we’ll see. I’m glad to take that on.

The Power of Humiliation. I think we have the 2016 Republican presidential campaign slogan already picked out.

And then there’s the state-level insanity. Let’s go to my former home of New Mexico. State Rep. Cathrynn Brown has introduced a bill that would criminalize abortion in cases of rape. Why? Tampering with evidence.

Yes, you read that right.

Criminalizing abortion in the case of rape because of evidence tampering.

“Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime,” the bill says.

Of course, we all know that legitimate rape means you don’t get pregnant. So these sluts deserve it. Or something. Anyway, doesn’t the election rigging make so much more sense now?

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