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Stolen Wages and Labor Enforcement

[ 28 ] February 22, 2015 |

Unfortunately, it’s not really news that a lot of employers steal the wages of their workers and that immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to this problem given how many lack documentation. But even if those workers do successfully sue for back wages, do the employers actually pay them? We are seeing a breakdown in the system at that point. Owners are taking advantage of legal loopholes, opening and closing businesses, in order to avoid paying these workers. New York labor activists are looking to close those loopholes:

Two years ago, legislation was introduced by State Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal and State Senator José R. Peralta that was intended to limit the gamesmanship, but it never left committees. A new version of the bill will be offered next week. It would make it possible for workers to file a wage lien, similar to a mechanics’ lien. The bill would change the civil court procedures to allow a judge to attach assets before a case has concluded if the workers can show they are likely to succeed. Its third important provision would make it easier to hold primary shareholders of corporations liable for unpaid wage judgments.

The changes are not intended to hold businesses hostage to frivolous claims, according to Hollis Pfitsch, a staff attorney at Legal Aid.

I think the need to hold individuals responsible is absolutely crucial here. If there’s not real personal punishment against wage thieving employers, there is no reason for employers to not continue doing this.

Breaking: Climate Change Denying Scientist Bought by Corporations

[ 51 ] February 22, 2015 |

I know I am shocked to discover that arguably the nation’s leading climate change denying scientist is bought and paid for by fossil fuel corporations, including the coal industry and Charles Koch’s foundation. Who could have predicted this outcome!

The Death of Abood?

[ 21 ] February 21, 2015 |

Not surprisingly, anti-union groups have responded to reasonable moderate Sam Alito’s call for a good case to overturn the 1977 Abood decision that allows public sector unions to charge fees in lieu of dues for non-union members that they represent and would otherwise be free riders on the contracts they negotiate. Whether the Court overturns Abood remains in question since that’s a more radical move than just chipping away at it, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

How We Talk About Strikes

[ 81 ] February 21, 2015 |

It looks as if the labor dispute between the longshoremen’s union (ILWU) and west coast ports is about over, as Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has been working hard to find a solution.

Like so many strikes, the concern trolls have come out in great numbers, complaining that the ILWU is selfish and won’t sacrifice for the rest of the American working class, such as this USA Today editorial. Of course, it’s not as if when these workers aren’t striking the media elites are trying to help the working class. But when workers do anything that might inconvenience anyone, no matter how justified the reason, the media blames them. Like Kristof claiming that he now supports union despite some stagehand making $400,000 a year, USA Today pulls out the age-old card of complaining that these blue collar workers make so much money that they are the problem, without stating what it thinks is an appropriate wage for workers.

And it isn’t just the media, this is common throughout society. Remember the BART strike in San Francisco, when supposedly liberal residents turned against the union because it took a labor action. Why is it that labor solidarity only goes one way–labor sacrificing for the general public and never the other–the general public understanding the necessity of the occasional labor struggle that will raise standards for the whole working and middle classes of an area. Instead, as a society we almost always only talk about strikes in terms of greedy workers causing problems for me, ignoring the benefits of good union contracts for all of us.

Mark Brenner counters:

Newfound concern for workers across the economy has everyone from the FedEx CEO to the Editorial Board of USA TODAY howling over port congestion. They blame unionized workers for everything from dwindling auto parts supplies in the Midwest to french fry shortages in Japan.

It’s a depressingly familiar bait and switch. Pay no attention to the billions in profits shippers are raking in, or the fact that it’s the port operators bottlenecking cargo by cutting shifts and closing ports for days on end. Instead, blame the workers laboring in this difficult and dangerous occupation because they still carry a union card and their wages don’t hover around the poverty line.

Longshore workers on the West Coast earn $26 to $41 an hour, and they have excellent health care and retirement benefits. In short, they have the kind of jobs we need more of — jobs that allow working-class men and women to buy homes and send their kids to college free from crushing debt.

These standards aren’t the result of enlightened corporate decision-making. They are the product of struggle. Longshore workers have fought for 80 years to get a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Today’s standoff is just the latest battle.

With the new labor agreement, I’m sure USA Today will now dedicate itself to improving the lives of the American working class to meet the good wages and benefits of the ILWU….

The Age of Acquiescence

[ 166 ] February 21, 2015 |

I haven’t read Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, but after reading this review, I sure plan to do so.

Fraser identifies a number of reasons why Americans acquiesce to the class warfare of the New Gilded Age:

Fraser explains the economics of decline effectively. The working class may have abandoned Marxian “class struggle,” but, he says, the capitalists haven’t; they have pretty much won the class conflict by destroying labor unions. But the problem for him goes beyond economics; the disappearance of the left-wing political imagination is his real concern. His analysis thus focuses mostly on the cultural and ideological.

He points to the distractions offered by consumer culture, “an emancipation of the imaginary and the libidinal whose thrills and dreaminess are prefabricated.” Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private, that take people away from the political and social and economic grievances they share with others.

He emphasizes the particular idea of “freedom” that provides the heart of Republican Party ideology: Freedom in America is the freedom to succeed through individual initiative (rather than cooperative effort). Our heroes are the entrepreneurs, the “job creators,” and the enemies of freedom are the government regulations and taxes that shackle their creativity and energy (and which otherwise might go to serve social needs and the public good).

The ’60s maxim “the personal is political” meant that issues that seemed private — above all, women’s oppression — were in fact widely shared and required collective action to bring change. Fraser argues that what began as a call for liberation has today become a justification for avoiding the political, for substituting personal solutions for political ones: eat organic food, drive a Prius, send your kids to charter schools.

It’s an interesting thesis. As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have. And I think that’s right. Not all of us necessarily, but the capitalists did an outstanding job after the fall of the Soviet Union is discrediting even the slightest possibility that any system other than unrestrained American-style capitalism could work. Socialists were pushed back on their heels while class consciousness collapsed in American society (although it was already in decline since the 1950s). Horatio Alger myths have existed in American society since before Alger wrote them, but never before have so many people believed in them so whole-heartedly. And I don’t think student debt loads, economic stagnation, recession, and growing income inequality has really changed it that much, at least if my students are any sign.

The arguments about consumer culture and individualism I think are particularly interesting. I don’t think consumerism and resistance are necessarily counter to one another, but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo that shows their own personally crafted politics for them. This highly individualized politics empowers people to resist on one level but also empowers them to drop out if the movement they’ve joined doesn’t take this or that position. Occupy did a lot but this atomized individualism is a big part of the reason why the same spirit and same problems didn’t allow it to continue and then didn’t reignite in some other way.

Anyway, I’ll try to review Fraser’s book for the blog and explore these issues in greater detail.

Government Food Guidelines

[ 60 ] February 21, 2015 |

Nina Teicholz challenges government food guidelines as unscientific and unhealthy:

It’s no surprise that longstanding nutritional guidelines are now being challenged.

In 2013, government advice to reduce salt intake (which remains in the current report) was contradicted by an authoritative Institute of Medicine study. And several recent meta-analyses have cast serious doubt on whether saturated fats are linked to heart disease, as the dietary guidelines continue to assert.

Uncertain science should no longer guide our nutrition policy. Indeed, cutting fat and cholesterol, as Americans have conscientiously done, may have even worsened our health. In clearing our plates of meat, eggs and cheese (fat and protein), we ate more grains, pasta and starchy vegetables (carbohydrates). Over the past 50 years, we cut fat intake by 25 percent and increased carbohydrates by more than 30 percent, according to a new analysis of government data. Yet recent science has increasingly shown that a high-carb diet rich in sugar and refined grains increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — much more so than a diet high in fat and cholesterol.

It seems to me there are a couple of issues at play here. First is the question of whether the government should be setting food guidelines. The answer is that of course it should–after all, public health is a massively important part of society. That said, government funding for this type of science is not nearly as high as it should be so it’s not surprising that the guidelines might not be based on the best science. Second, science does change. It is not static, nor will it ever be. So the idea that the government is going to create eating guidelines that will then exist for all time is a myth. Third, social and cultural factors affect science and affect society, which will continue to lead then to different standards of health and different ideologies around food production and consumption. Fourth, Teicholz calls for us to eat more meat, more eggs, and more full fat dairy products. But there is also a massive environmental cost to Americans committing to eat more meat, a cost which she evidently considers irrelevant. It is indeed relevant and must be part of the conversation about food consumption. That doesn’t mean I’m thrilled with the eating habits of modern Americans, but people aren’t downing bags of Cheetos for lunch because the government has discouraged the consumption of fats.

The Walmart Raises

[ 16 ] February 21, 2015 |

Walmart has announced a pay raise for its workers.

The company said it would pay even its lowest-level workers at least $9 an hour starting this spring, comfortably above the $7.25 federal minimum wage, and push that to $10 in 2016. The company also said it would strengthen a “department manager” role, giving it a minimum wage of $13 per hour this year and $15 next, thus offering low-wage hourly workers a clearer path to advancement. Including similar bumps at Walmart-owned Sam’s Clubs, the company expects 500,000 workers to receive a raise at a cost of $1 billion a year, executives said in a conference call with reporters.

This is why organizing efforts like the United Food and Commercial Workers’ campaign with the Walmart workers is so important. UFCW is rightfullly taking a good deal of credit for this. The bad publicity the company has received for its poverty wages, for holding food donation drives for its own workers, for making pregnant employees work with dangerous chemicals, and so many other awful corporate behaviors has made a difference. While the Times article linked above suggests this is Walmart responding to a tightening labor market, I am highly dubious that this is the only major reason for these raises. After all, it’s not like the early 2000s when fast food chains were offering signing bonuses for new workers. The labor market is still pretty bad for a lot of workers. Rather, it’s more likely that the fear of losing those workers to slightly better paying jobs combined with the need for Walmart to get some good publicity.

And as Mariya Strauss discusses
, this is very much a publicity move, part of a larger pattern of the company to make cosmetic changes in its business practices whenever the criticism of its practices generate particularly poor publicity. After all, it’s not like $10 an hour is some great shakes. In many states and municipalities, minimum wage law is moving to and above $10.

How Safe Do Oil Trains Make You Feel?

[ 41 ] February 20, 2015 |

You like oil trains running through your community? You feel safe that they won’t explode? Or leak? Or derail? Probably not.

So it’s just great that the rail companies are seeking to reduce crew size on trains from 2 to 1, relying on GPS for braking systems. Basically every stakeholder other than the rail companies opposes this–labor, environmental groups, safety advocates, community organizations. But the rail companies don’t care. But they can’t enact this unilaterally. Rather, the Obama administration has to approve. One hopes it denies the rail industry this ridiculous request. Imagine this scenario, not with oil but with chemicals:

“Imagine a railcar full of chlorine bursting on the CSX tracks less than mile away from a big public event on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. — an inauguration, say, or a concert,” he wrote. “The resulting cloud could kill 100,000 people. Al Qaeda might do it, but it’s more likely that a $55,000-a-year engineer, in the tenth hour of his shift, would simply nod off at the controls.”

Yeah, not good. A second person working on the train can make a huge difference in keeping the other awake.

Lynching Mexicans

[ 20 ] February 20, 2015 |

When that great study detailing the numbers of African-Americans lynched in the South came out last week, I noted that its weaknesses included that lynching was not confined to the South and that lots of non-blacks were lynched. Those stories are often forgotten about, as is so much about American racial history that is not black-white. I was not the only person to notice this of course and historians William Carrigan and Clive Webb have a New York Times op-ed on the matter:

From 1848 to 1928, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans, though surviving records allowed us to clearly document only about 547 cases. These lynchings occurred not only in the southwestern states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but also in states far from the border, like Nebraska and Wyoming.

Some of these cases did appear in press accounts, when reporters depicted them as violent public spectacles, as they did with many lynchings of African-Americans in the South. For example, on July 5, 1851, a mob of 2,000 in Downieville, Calif., watched the extralegal hanging of a Mexican woman named Juana Loaiza, who had been accused of having murdered a white man named Frank Cannon.

Such episodes were not isolated to the turbulent gold rush period. More than a half-century later, on Nov. 3, 1910, a mob snatched a 20-year-old Mexican laborer, Antonio Rodríguez, from a jail in Rock Springs, Tex. The authorities had arrested him on charges that he had killed a rancher’s wife. Mob leaders bound him to a mesquite tree, doused him with kerosene and burned him alive. The El Paso Herald reported that thousands turned out to witness the event; we found no evidence that anyone was ever arrested.

While there were similarities between the lynchings of blacks and Mexicans, there were also clear differences. One was that local authorities and deputized citizens played particularly conspicuous roles in mob violence against Mexicans.

On Jan. 28, 1918, a band of Texas Rangers and ranchers arrived in the village of Porvenir in Presidio County, Tex. Mexican outlaws had recently attacked a nearby ranch, and the posse presumed that the locals were acting as spies and informants for Mexican raiders on the other side of the border. The group rounded up nearly two dozen men, searched their houses, and marched 15 of them to a rock bluff near the village and executed them. The Porvenir massacre, as it has become known, was the climactic event in what Mexican-Americans remember as the Hora de Sangre (Hour of Blood). It led, the following year, to an investigation by the Texas Legislature and reform of the Rangers.

Especially on the left, it’s really important to reiterate these points. There are good reasons why black-white relations still dominate our conversations about race as the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner remind us. But these same racist murders happen to Latinos as well. And while not in the big eastern cities that dominate the media cycle, Mexicans have been in this nation as long as African-Americans and have been subject to routine and systemic discrimination ever since the U.S. stole the northern half of Mexico to expand slaver in 1848. These stories have to be central to our racial history in order to fight for the rights of Latinos in the U.S. today.

Kristof on Unions

[ 94 ] February 20, 2015 |

I guess I am supposed to care that Nicholas Kristof now supports unions. Or so he says. Kristof usually only supports a cause if he can personally parachute in to save the victims–he loves to rescue Cambodian prostitutes (even if he is being scammed)–but when people take agency to improve their own lives–support Cambodian garment workers? No way–his interest declines significantly. Kristof writes that he now understands that unions actually do good in society, help create the middle class, reduce income inequality, and the like. Who knew! But he can’t resist framing this new position with anti-union stereotype after anti-union stereotype. The $400,000 stagehands! Teachers who can’t be punished! Corruption! Other myths and half-truths!

I’ll believe in Kristof’s conversion to unionism when he actually uses his column to support a specific action of workers–hey Nic, there’s an oil refinery strike going on right now!–or gives support to unions in his own field. Until then, this is just anti-union stereotypes used to cover up his half-apology for a long history of anti-unionism.

Of course one can also ask how a leading columnist at the nation’s paper of record can miss all the obvious evidence that unions are good for an economy–and miss that evidence for years and years. But then Kristof should have been fired over the Somaly Mam incident and it’s hardly news that Times columnists have lifetime sinecures no matter what idiotic columns they write.

See also Isquith.

The Oil Refinery Strike and Green Alliances

[ 11 ] February 20, 2015 |

Trish Kahle has an interesting piece at Jacobin on the potential for alliance between striking United Steelworkers’ refinery workers and environmentalists over safety conditions at the plants. Certainly environmentalists like Bill McKibben are saying all the right things here–greens have indeed learned lessons from the spotted owl debacle of the 1980s and 1990s. What does such alliances lead to? I don’t know. Kahle points out the history of these short-term alliances in the past, using the commonly cited example of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) under the leadership of Tony Mazzocchi in the 1970s as well as the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the same era, fighting against their own union leadership and the companies for a healthier and more ecologically just workplace. My own book Empire of Timber details how these alliances played out in the timber industry.

Unfortunately, these alliances are very hard to sustain. First, they are almost always top-down, leadership-driven actions. That can work, but the rank and file of *both* movements have to get involved and there’s often been resistance there, often for cultural reasons. I think this is somewhat less of a problem with greens these days because in my experience, young people are often significantly more interested in green issues with an environmental justice angle than pure wilderness and wildlife issues of the past. But as the signs festooning West Virginia and western Pennsylvania lambasting Obama’s “War on Coal” suggest, there can often still be severe cultural suspicion from workers toward environmentalists.

As Kahle points out, the shift in the UMWA away from an ecological agenda had much to do with industry slashing jobs, which is another huge reason for the difficulty of making these alliances last. The corporate-state assault on unions, especially in the private sector, means that workers are extremely nervous about supporting anything that might endanger their jobs and in that fear are easily manipulated by the lies of their employers about environmental protection or even workplace safety. It is when workers have some sort of employment and economic stability that they have been most open to green programs. And that’s very hard in the 21st century American economy with the global race to the bottom and aggressive anti-union tactics undermining good jobs.

As for an ecosocialist agenda, well, I obviously support that, even if it remains fairly undefined. But given that Kahle is writing about refinery workers who labor in an industry contributing to climate change, I guess I need more detail on what role refinery workers can play if the goal is to switch to a green economy without fossil fuels. Obviously supporting solar and wind energy jobs as union jobs can be a piece of that but if the ideal is closing the refineries, I’m not sure that’s going to be a great way to keep an alliance with refinery workers going.

Still, you have to try. What else is there? Any alliance between labor and greens over workplace safety is really positive and I hope this leads to more conversations and more common ground between the two movements. If there’s a picket line around you, go to it. If there’s a speaker around these issues, go hear the person.

Labor Reporting

[ 37 ] February 19, 2015 |

The New York Times is replacing the retiring Stephen Greenhouse on its labor beat with…..Noam Scheiber. Who is an OK reporter but when has he had anything interesting to say about unions? Does he even really care about unions per se? Has he walked a picket line? I don’t think he’s ever written about these issues too much. I’m sure Scheiber will be fine on the big economic questions that concern working class people but that’s not the same as covering labor, which requires talking to poor and working people on the ground. Maybe this works out, but I can’t say I’m super excited.

Of course, it’s good to remember Scheiber’s oh so insightful essay complaining that DeBlasio cares about black people getting killed by cops. That’s a reporter who can talk about labor solidarity!

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