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Franchising and Wage Theft in Fast Food

[ 89 ] March 18, 2014 |

Timothy Noah has a good run-down of wage theft in fast food and the role franchising plays in it:

What’s unusual here aren’t the claims of labor law violations, which are common enough, but rather, who’s being blamed. The wall that fast food workers hope to blast through with these class-action suits is the franchise system. All of the lawsuits name McDonald’s itself as a defendant, even though most of the targeted restaurants are owned not by McDonald’s but by McDonald’s franchisees.

Starting with Howard Johnson’s in the 1930s, franchising enabled fast-food companies largely to get out of the food business. Owning and operating the restaurants was mostly left to franchisees – usually mom and pop businesses that paid McDonald’s or Burger King or Dominos for the right to brandish their corporate trademark and prepare food according to their specifications. Today, most fast-food workers don’t work for McDonald’s or Burger King or Dominos; they work for franchisees licensed to sell their products.

Practically speaking, franchising makes it very difficult to hold fast-food corporations accountable for most labor violations that occur in restaurants bearing their name. Those aren’t our employees, the corporations can say; you got a problem with how burger-flippers are treated, take it up with their franchisee bosses. In franchise agreements – the contracts prospective franchisees must sign on a take-it-or-leave-it basis – franchisors explicitly disavow such responsibility. The McDonald’s contract, for instance, stipulates that “Franchisee and McDonald’s are not and do not intend to be partners, associates, or joint employers in any way.”

Like the subcontracting and outsourcing, franchising exists to increase profit for corporations while protecting them from liability. There is no reason at all why McDonald’s should not be held legally accountable for the actions of its franchisees, much as Wal-Mart and Gap and other apparel companies should be held legally accountable for the deaths at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh last year. In the recent past, judges have thrown these class-action suits out but as Noah points out, this one gathered a lot of evidence of McDonald’s direct involvement with its franchises that might suggest direct involvement in labor practices too that rip off workers.

Bouie on America’s Racist Housing Policy

[ 127 ] March 18, 2014 |

Paul Ryan, unfortunately the latest Irish-American politician to forget the roots of his people and become a right-winger, has had a very racist week. Blaming black people for inner-city conditions is another in a long history of rich people blaming the poor for their own poverty. Maybe like howthe English blamed the Irish during the potato famine as the English were forcing Ireland to grow crops for its neighbor to the east. Anyway, if you aren’t familiar with why inner-city conditions became so bad in the late 20th century, Jamelle Bouie provides an excellent run-down of America’s racist housing policy and the pernicious effects of residential segregation.

This Day in Labor History: March 18, 1970

[ 16 ] March 18, 2014 |

On March 18, 1970, postal workers around the nation went on strike. This illegal but pioneering strike of public sector workers not only forced the Nixon Administration to cave but ushered in a decade of working class restlessness against their own staid union officials and a decade of public sector activism that would spur an enormous growth in union organizing among public employees.

Postal workers were deeply frustrated by the late 1960s. They had a union but lacked collective bargaining rights. They had not seen a pay raise since 1967. Many worked second jobs to survive. In 1968, the Kappel Commission recommended postal workers be granted collective bargaining rights, but Congress rejected it. Working conditions were not very good–many of the post offices were old, overheated or freezing cold depending on the season, dusty and dank. Leaders of the National Association of Letter Carriers (James Rademacher was the president of the NALC) were not particularly responsive to the bubbling frustration coming from the rank and file that would mark the 1970s in strikes like Lordstown. When Congress voted itself a raise of 50 percent while refusing to do anything for postal workers and then Nixon did nothing for them in his 1970 budget, this lit the switch of fury at their employers.

The postal workers were poor and they were angry. Over the desire of their union leaders, rank and file activists in New York called for a strike. When Congress suggested a 5.4 percent pay raise, the rank and file flatly rejected it. Union leaders did not want a strike, but they could not control the membership. The president of a New York City local was chased off a podium by his own members when he opposed the strike. Rademacher said on national television that the strikers were members of Students for a Democratic Society and did not represent the good Americans of the postal workers.

When postal workers went on strike on March 18, 1970, it was illegal because they did not have the right to strike. Writing to AFL-CIO president George Meany, Brooklyn postal clerk Steve Parise argued that the illegality of a strike was irrelevant: “Our union and our rank and file feel that the government has forfeited its immunity to a strike, not only because its open disdain for these men, but also the humility of financial hardships they have forced upon our families, such as seeking welfare to survive.” Said another postal worker to the New York Times, “Everybody else strikes and gets a big pay increase. The teachers, the sanitation and transit workers all struck [in violation of the law]. Why shouldn’t we? We’ve been nice far too long.”

President Richard Nixon called for postal workers to immediately return to work and said the government would not negotiate so long as the strike continued. Nixon said, “What is at issue is the survival of a government based upon law,” a statement we also know he applied to his own actions. Yet for the next week, the strike continued to expand, eventually leading to 210,000 postal workers off the job. He directed his Secretary of Labor George Schultz to agree to negotiate with the NALC as soon as the postal workers returned to work. This actually empowered Rademacher, who saw the rank and file rebellion as a direct attack upon his leadership. A wildcat strike that led to a massive victory would hurt him as much as Nixon. The rank and file totally rejected this offer, seeing it for what it was.

By March 25, the nation’s entire postal system had ground to a halt. This was as serious as the railroad strikes of the late 19th century because of the necessity of the USPS for communications in a way hard to imagine today. Like with the railroad strikes, Nixon ordered Operation Graphic Hand, sending the military to operate as scabs and deliver the mail. However, they were incompetent at this task. Moreover, this angered the workers who feared violence. In New York, some of the postal workers were actually National Guard members then called up, and they convinced their fellow troops to not do anything to move the mail. In less militant parts of the country though, the arrival of the military did bolster a back to work movement and some began trickling back.

Nixon was forced to negotiate despite his earlier pledge. What finally did get the rank and file to give up the strike was some dissent within the workers–the New York locals were far more militant than the rest of the country’s unions and many of those returned to work after the military became involved. So when Nixon and Rademacher announced the outline of a final agreement, militants wanted to continue striking but the rank and file generally approved and returned to work. The final agreement gave the postal workers an 14% pay increase (6% retroactive to 1969 and 8% for the next year) and collective bargaining rights on wages and working conditions, although not the right to strike. The workers were not punished for having engaged in an illegal walkout. This was a landmark moment in the history of public sector unionism, ushering in a decade of enormous advances for these workers, until Reagan kneecapped them with the PATCO strike.

The strike led to the Postal Reorganization Act, creating the United States Postal Service out of the old Post Office and guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for postal workers, albeit not the right to strike. The collective bargaining rights led to the creation of the American Postal Workers Union in 1971 from five preexisting unions. Continued rank and file activism against Rademacher’s leadership forced major reforms in the postal union, creating a more democratic organization. Vincent Sombrotto, who was a key leader of the postal workers movement, finally won the union’s presidency as a reformer after Rademacher retired in 1978. Before the 1970s strike, Sombrotto had to work a second job as a truck driver to feed his six children. Rank and file militancy continued in New York and New Jersey locals, led by civil rights activists and Vietnam veterans until 1978 when a wildcat strike led to the firing of 200 workers.

In the 21st century, Congress has undertaken a project to destroy the USPS entirely. The APWU has taken a lead role in fighting for the institution but it is probably doomed thanks to Republican evil.

This is the 99th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Water in the West

[ 63 ] March 17, 2014 |

As I have said for many years now, agriculture is going to lose out in the water wars of the West. With continued urban growth and the political weight behind water-guzzling energy production, there just isn’t the water and despite agribusiness’ power, the don’t have the political weight because they can’t mobilize the votes (the decentralized nature of agricultural production also matters here since it’s left to these local farmers who are forced to work with Monsanto or Cargill or whoever left to do a lot of the local political work). Of course, short of meaningful water planning that sharply rethinks western water law, there won’t be enough water to go around anyway. And no politician wants to touch this problem.

Rat Counting

[ 38 ] March 17, 2014 |

Well, the revamped 538 site is up and if it’s going to feature articles about attempting to count the number of rats in New York, I’m on board.

Republicans: Concerned with Big Gubmnet and Scary Mexicans. Democrats: Concerned with Equity and Maybe Not Destroying the World

[ 142 ] March 15, 2014 |

The first thing I noticed when reading this Gallup poll of what concerns Americans is how low environmental issues and climate change are on the list. The second thing I noticed is how Republicans are concerned primarily with resentment and fear while Democrats are concerned with equity and a fair shake for people. And at least more concerned with the greatest problem facing the world in the 21st century, if not concerned enough.

Rush Limbaugh Needs that Children’s Book Award. Will You Help Him?

[ 94 ] March 14, 2014 |

I don’t need to read any of these children’s books to know Rush Limbaugh deserves the Children’s Choice Book Award for his no doubt outstanding magnum opus, “Rush Revere and The Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans.” I think you know you need to force your children to “choose” this book for America and white pride.

Southern Masculinity and the UAW Defeat in Chattanooga

[ 96 ] March 14, 2014 |

Mike Elk’s long piece on southern white masculinity and the defeat of the UAW in Chattanooga is well worth your time. There’s a long history in the South of working-class whites showing political deference to their social and financial superiors and it came to play again in Chattanooga. This deference is based on ideas of masculinity that promote individualism for yourself but loyalty to your superiors in rejecting invading forces.

The pro-union workers believe that statements by Jackson and the low-level supervisors were a major factor in turning the tide against the union.

“There is a reverence of the lower-level management,” says worker Feinauer. She attributes this attitude in part to a paternalistic culture at the plant that rewards loyalty over all else. “I … suspect the good ol’ boy system appeals to some of [the workers] because it may be the only strength they have to get themselves ahead,” she says. “If the playing field were more fair and level, they may have nothing to offer in skill, merit or education.”

Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett agrees. “Yes, I see it daily. [Workers] are yes-men. They are ass-kissers. … All this, hoping to get ahead, and it works, because the supervisors eat it up.”

Experts and workers say this reverence for low-level supervisors may be strengthened by aspects of Southern culture. “There is this long tradition in the region of a (sometimes intense) personal identification with the company, especially among floor-level supervisors, [which] undermines solidarity and union organizing,” says Beth English, director of the Program on Women in the Global Community at Princeton University and author of A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry.

English, whose work centers on the textile industry in the South, notes that even as management positions became increasingly professionalized over the past century, with decision-making isolated from the reality of the shopfloor, “upper-level management continued to frame relations between workers and themselves as intimate and personal. “The long-standing paternalistic culture of seeing an employer as a benefactor … perpetuated among floor supervisors,” she explains. “The floor supervisor was the embodiment of that personal management style, so … floor supervisors’ loyalty to management wasn’t framed as disloyalty to the rank and file.”

“One of the rewards of being a supervisor in the South is the power that you wield over the people that work for you,” agrees Volkswagen worker Gravett. “When this power is threatened, many members of management go to extremes to keep their power. Harassment and the targeting of employees that threaten the system that gives management their power is fairly common.”

Of course as Elk points out, there are lots of white southerners who reject these ideas of masculinity and rethink southern resistance in ways that promote causes of equality. They have existed since the Civil War and today they use an alternative history of the Civil War as inspiration. The only problem is that they never manage to win over enough working class people to make a difference at the polls or in the union elections.

The Right Never Uses Violent Language

[ 136 ] March 14, 2014 |

If there’s one thing I learned when the gun nuts attacked me in late 2012, it’s that conservatives take the specifics of language very seriously and abhor violence. That’s why I expect this person from American Family Radio to be attacked like I was in approximately never days.

That is the nonsense that they teach in women’s studies at Duke University, this is where she learned this. The toxic stew of the modern university is gender studies, it’s “Sex Week,” they all have “Sex Week” and teaching people how to be sex-positive and overcome the patriarchy. My daughters go to a little private religious school and we pay an arm and a leg for it precisely to keep them away from all of this kind of nonsense. I do hope that they go to a Christian college or university and to keep them so far away from the hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities, who should all be taken out and shot.

Metaphor, obviously. Who would take such language seriously? It’s not like this person used an obscure medieval reference. That’s something you’d have to take seriously.

This Day in Labor History: March 14, 1954

[ 16 ] March 14, 2014 |

On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.

On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).

The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.

For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.

Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.

The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.

The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”

On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.

The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.

The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.

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For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.

This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

To the Shores of Iwo Jima

[ 64 ] March 13, 2014 |

The U.S. military’s use of film during World War II was remarkable. The bravery of the cameramen, risking and often losing their lives, in taking this footage is amazing. Of course, it took good direction to turn unbelievable footage into a good film. In The Battle of San Pietro, John Huston did that. To the Shores of Iwo Jima definitely fails in that task. Plus it’s racist and jingoistic when the former was smart and focused on the soldiers’ lives. But regardless of its shortcomings, the footage here is jaw-dropping.

The Bancroft Prize

[ 33 ] March 13, 2014 |

Columbia University named the 2014 winners for the Bancroft Prize today, which is the most prestigious prize in the field of U.S. history. This year’s winners are both close to LGM’s heart. One winner was Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, which Scott reviewed here. The other winner is Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre. We can all agree that Ari’s podcast he did with me for the book pushed him over the top.

I confess to not reading Fear Itself yet as I am insanely busy. But certainly Scott’s recommendation speaks highly of it. I have of course read A Misplaced Massacre and obviously you need to buy it if you have not.

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