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Guestworker Programs Exploit Workers

[ 44 ] May 21, 2016 |

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Guestworker programs have no history of working well for the workers because they lack legal protections, the right to quit and stay in the country, and access to legal services. For whatever labor or immigration problems we have in this country, there is no room for guestworker programs as part of the solution.

H-2B workers are historically the least protected, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC. On paper, H-2A workers are entitled to a list of protective regulations that H-2B workers aren’t. These regulations included access to federally funded legal services for employment issues, Social Security tax exemption and free housing. The new 2015 regulations issued by DOL and DHS provide protections against employer retaliation, reimbursement for travel to the U.S. and a guarantee of three-fourths of the hours in the job contract. Congress decided against funding enforcement of the three-fourths rule.

These regulations specifically ban recruitment fees and employer retaliation to protect H-2B workers from labor trafficking scenarios such as debt bondage. In the past, H-2B workers were in danger before they even leave home, the SPLC says. Workers would be subjected to debt bondage after paying recruitment fees and transportation costs. But other structural faults still place H-2B workers at risk. Workers are unauthorized to seek employment other than what’s printed on their visa, regardless of abuse or working conditions. Additionally, employers double as immigration sponsors and may easily retaliate against workers if they protest wages or working conditions, according to the ACLU.

In the Philippines, governing agencies are supposed to protect guest workers from illegal practices by recruitment agencies. But overseas employment is a large industry. Hundreds of employment agencies exist to assist millions of Filipino workers. And Filipino Migrant Center’s Concepcion has seen enforcement fail against illegal practices such contract fraud that add to abuse and trafficking.

It’s possible for U.S. law enforcement to work against traffickers by coordinating with international attachés and host governments, but “it’s tough to hold people accountable. We are dealing with a different set of laws,” says Special Agent Erik Breitzke of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Trafficking in the Philippines is a result of much larger issues, such as poverty and the lack of opportunities, according to Alex Montances, a Community Organizer at the Filipino Migrant Center.

“Some of these human traffickers are also, because of the same root problems, turning to human trafficking,” he says, “so they can support themselves and support their families.”

Back in the U.S., effective governmental oversight of the H-2B program is extremely lacking, according to the ACLU. Once workers are on the job, the Department of Labor is responsible for checking up on workplace conditions, but it only has 1,000 inspectors responsible for all 135 million U.S. workers nationwide, the DOL noted in a statement to BuzzFeed News. H-2B visas alone are capped at 66,000 per year. Additionally, while the DOL identifies certain H-2B jobs as high risk, its workplace enforcement efforts are concentrated elsewhere, according the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO.

Over the past decade employers have systematically violated H-2B regulations because “it’s just too easy,” according to SPLC Staff Attorney Meredith Stewart. Employers often confiscate and withhold immigration documentation, the SPLC finds. Visa petitioners engage in pervasive visa fraud, as documented by the GAO. And Eighty-two percent of the DOL’s H-2B investigations uncovered violations in 2014. Employers owed $2.6 million in back wages to H-2B workers, the DOL reported to BuzzFeed News.

Enforcement is too low and the consequences are too weak to deter violations, Stewart says. Delinquent employers may be suspended from the H-2B program by the DOL for up to three years. Suspension is uncommon and doesn’t always result after abuses and law violations are documented, according to the SPLC. Twenty-five H-2B employers were suspended between 2009 and 2014. And In March 2015, the DOL had let the statue of limitations lapse on more that half its H-2A and H-2B investigations, according to the GAO.

There are lots of reasons for labor exploitation. Certainly in the Philippines or Mexico or Guatemala or wherever, there are lots and lots of reasons why deeply impoverished people are able to be brutally exploited. But the United States does not then have to lend a hand to the exploiters through its own labor and immigration systems. The lack of a robust regulatory capacity by the U.S. government means that the low chances of getting caught and then getting punished gives employers enormous incentive to abuse these workers. Guestworker programs are simply unacceptable. Give people long-term work visas with the chance to quit and move to new jobs is the first step to fixing the problem.

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Unaffordable Housing

[ 72 ] May 21, 2016 |

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Probably the single biggest challenge facing American cities today is the lack of affordable housing. We are just finding out the details of why this has become such a problem. A random guy decided to track San Francisco rent prices over the past sixty years through the methodology of a quality historical study: he went to microfilm and charted rental ads.

There are some ups and downs, but for the most part there is a very simple trend: 6.6 percent.

That’s the amount the rent has gone up every year, on average, since 1956. It was true before rent control; it was true after rent control. It wasn’t entirely true during the 2000 tech bubble, but it was still sort of true and it became true again afterward.

6.6 percent is 2.5 percentage points faster than inflation, which doesn’t seem like a lot but when you do it for 60 years in a row it means housing prices quadruple compared to everything else you have to buy.

The first thing that stands out is the important point that rent control has not negatively affected rental prices. May not have helped either but this is important evidence against those who demonize rent control. The second thing that stands out is that 6.6 percent over 60 years adds up to a lot of money and suggests that the roots of the housing problem in San Francisco run deeper than the tech boom. What would help solve these problems and make housing affordable?

It would take a 53% increase in the housing supply (200,000 new units), or a 44% drop in CPI-adjusted salaries, or a 51% drop in employment, to cut prices by two thirds.

OK, so this would mean the way to make San Francisco as affordable as (say) Portland would be to either cut everybody’s salary in half, or fire half of them, or rapidly increase the number of homes by 50 percent, which would let the population rapidly leap to about 1.2 million.

Oh. Well. That’s not good. Is there any way forward? Maybe.

1. Adding new units is mostly only going to keep shit from getting worse.

1a. That’s still a good thing.

2. Rent control does not seem to be a huge cause of the problem per se. Shit was bad before; shit was bad after; shit did not get notably better or worse for the median apartment seeker, at least if you start in 1956. (On the other hand, something odd is going on in Fischer’s early price data from the 40s. If you omit the 1950–1960 dip in rents, then everything before rent control in 1979 starts looking more like a plateau. Here’s his first chart again for good measure.)

2a. The way that rent control might matter indirectly is if it leads indirectly to fewer new units, for example because it gives people a reason to protest or sue to prevent developers from replacing little old rent-controlled buildings with big new market-rate ones. Which is pretty understandable on the part of the poor people but it’s still a shitty outcome, because (as Fischer’s formula suggests) every fancy new roof holds prices down a little bit because the rich people under it don’t push middle-class people out from under their middle-quality roofs, and so on down the line until someone ends up in a tent.

2b. Still, there’s no clear sign in this data that rent control has had this additional anti-new-housing effect on San Francisco. Again: shit was bad before. Shit was bad after.

3. Cutting infill development costs would help if there are ways to do that without screwing other things up too much.

4. If there is something stopping the housing market from building enough new homes for newcomers, then it’s probably got to be something that arrived around 1960 or earlier.

And the alternative, endless sprawl, is a completely unsustainable environmental disaster.

And as rental prices skyrocket around the nation (my own just went up $100 a month…) and with home ownership at a 48 year low, Rachel Cohen highlights a recent report demonstrating how new categories of subsidized rental housing actually encourage racial segregation by appealing to relatively affluent whites that force people of color into more segregated neighborhoods.

Amid this housing policy landscape comes a provocative new report from the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO), a research and advocacy organization associated with the University of Minnesota, which looks at what they call a new category of subsidized housing—one catering to whiter and comparatively more affluent people than the typical residents of affordable developments. IMO says that while many of these projects, which rely on federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), may advance public policy goals like historic preservation and economic development, they also worsen racial and economic segregation and likely violate fair housing laws. Coining these developments Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing, or “POSH,” IMO suggests that affordable housing development can create segregation not only within and between communities, but also within the subsidized housing system itself.

The report focuses primarily on the Twin Cities—the most segregated predominately white metropolitan area in the United States—but the authors also explore how similar subsidized development projects have proliferated around the country. While many of these projects are marketed specifically to artists, using a special exemption that developers lobbied for from Congress during the recession, other similar projects target teachers and veterans. Such projects carry decided political appeal, as millions of middle-class families struggle with housing costs, too.

But these POSH units, which come with a host of fancy amenities, are extraordinarily expensive. In the Twin Cities, IMO finds the average per-unit total development cost of a POSH project to be $347,500, compared with $266,000 per unit for traditional subsidized housing. For POSH projects specifically designated as artist housing, per-unit costs can reach as high as $670,000. POSH projects are, they say, likely the most expensive subsidized housing developments in Minnesota’s history.

The residents in POSH housing also look quite different than those who live in traditional subsidized housing. While more than 70 percent of residents in Twin Cities Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects are nonwhite, more than 65 percent of Twin Cities POSH residents are white. In some buildings, the resident percentages top 80 percent and 90 percent white.

IMO suggests that these POSH projects may violate federal fair housing laws. Some artist housing, for example, imposes screening mechanisms, many of which could create discriminatory hurdles for low-income minority applicants. IMO quotes a legal aid attorney saying, “You have to try really, really hard to find 80 or 85 percent white people in the poor population of Minneapolis. You have to have a really good sorting system.”

There’s no question that the affordable housing issue needs to be a top priority for policymakers. There are no easy answers, but whatever solution that comes forward is going to have to combine a lot of dense building, public transportation systems without large parking requirements for individual vehicles, and probably mandated public housing with rent control and a funding mechanism to maintain said housing for the very poor.

The FARC, A Leftist Organization?

[ 91 ] May 21, 2016 |

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I have every reason to believe this Jacobin discussion of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries is true. But I really, really struggle with articles that claim the FARC as representing anything like a leftist opposition. While the FARC started out as a leftist organizations, it has had nothing to it with any resemblance to leftism in decades and I really don’t think it helps any discussion of Colombia–or the left generally–to claim any solidarity or even concern with the FARC at all. The FARC isn’t “militant.” It’s a criminal gang.

Different Nations Have Different Standards for Allowing Workers to Yawn–And That’s OK!

[ 79 ] May 19, 2016 |

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Above: More beneficiaries of free trade

As I posted about in January, Nike is no longer allowing the Workers Rights Consortium to monitor its Vietnam factory, ending its tradition of allowing for independent monitoring. The WRC has released a report evaluating the plant and it is not favorable to the company.

In the e-mail list sending out the report to supporters, this is the summary:

In spite of Nike’s refusal to assist the WRC, the organization has obtained initial findings through interviews with Hansae employees. These findings, described in further detail in the new report, are, frankly, quite damning. The labor rights violations—all violations of university codes of conduct—identified at the factory include:

Reckless management practices that endanger workers’ health, including extremely high production quotas, forced overtime, and insufficient rest breaks

Excessive heat on factory floors, which has led to many workers fainting from exhaustion at their work stations

Verbal harassment of workers, including yelling, swearing, and profane insults

Degrading restrictions on workers’ use of the factory’s toilets

Denial of legally-guaranteed sick leave

Firing of pregnant workers

Draconian and abusive restrictions such as forbidding workers from yawning

These findings are a stark contrast to Nike’s claim that the October strike was over a “miscommunication.” The gap between the reassuring portrait Nike has painted of this factory and the harsh reality revealed through worker interviews underscores the importance of independent monitors such as the WRC. Nike must be pressed to allow the WRC to conduct an onsite inspection of the factory so that its investigation can be complete and that our universities can obtain full knowledge of the working conditions at this collegiate supplier.

Forbidding workers from yawning. Let that sink in for a moment.

Clearly, we should defend globalization as a fundamentally just system making workers’ lives better! Why bother doing anything about the actual oppression of workers, like firing pregnant workers, banning workers from yawning, or having their factories collapse upon them? Different nations have different standards for yawning, and of course for factory safety, and that’s OK!

The Verizon Strike Continues

[ 23 ] May 19, 2016 |

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The Verizon strike continues without an end in sight.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is baffled. Recently, he walked up to a picket line and told striking workers, “This makes no sense to anybody. To be honest, I’m not sure why you’re out here.”

Well, it makes sense to me. Let me explain why I’ve joined nearly 40,000 workers on strike from Massachusetts to Virginia.

For the past 16.5 years, I’ve worked as a Customer Service Representative at Verizon’s Customer Sales and Service office in Bloomsburg, PA. I take calls from customers and handle everything from setting up payment to transferring telephone service. I love my job. My mom is a Verizon retiree, and our family is proud to be part of the team that has made this company so successful.

Yet Verizon is treating us like nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet. The company is planning to close our office and relocate us to Scranton without any consideration of the working families who have put down roots in Bloomsburg. That’s about 65 miles away, or a three to four hour commute every day.

That’s not only a lot of time in the car, but a lot of time away from my family. I have two stepsons, ages 11 and 15. I help them with homework every night, and you can find me cheering at every one of their swim meets and after-school events. Commuting to Scranton means I would be gone before the kids got up and maybe home for an hour before they go to bed — if I’m lucky. I already work a lot of overtime, as much as seven hours each week, because we’re so understaffed. Sometimes, Verizon asks us to work weekends.

I can’t simply pack up my entire life and move to Scranton. My husband and I have joint custody of our boys, which means we can’t just move them out of their school district. Given the choice between giving up custody and commuting, I’ll always choose commuting. We’re looking after my husband’s mother, who recently had open-heart surgery and can’t drive. My mother, who lives just a few miles from me, also needs our help getting to doctor appointments and the grocery store. This is what family does. We’re each other’s strength. We lean on and support one another.

Obviously none of those things matter to Verizon executives. Part of the issue is also outsourcing American jobs overseas, which Verizon is doing as fast as it can.

The two unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, say they cannot accept Verizon proposals that would allow additional outsourcing of call center workers to the Philippines and Mexico, greater use of nonunion contractors, and the assignment of employees to other cities for up to two months at a time.

When one of the strike leaders went to the Philippines to visit one of the call centers, he found out real fast how intimidation and violence are used with overseas workers, a story the above link starts with. Of course, Verizon won’t take responsibility because they naturally enough use contractors instead of directly employ the Filipino workers. The strike is having some economic impact and Verizon stock prices are falling because of declining orders for its Fios product, directly related to the strike. This is a good thing. The Obama administration is now getting involved. Normally, federal interference worries me and it still does here, but I certainly have more faith in Tom Perez than any Secretary of Labor in my lifetime.

In any case, give the strikers a Solidarity Honk as you drive by, if nothing else.

As a Democrat, I Cannot Contain My Fear at This News

[ 107 ] May 19, 2016 |

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All Democrats are now quaking in their boots.

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist David Koch has pledged “tens of millions of dollars” to help bankroll the campaign of Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, according to a source within Johnson’s campaign.

Koch’s money will be made available should Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, secure his second consecutive Libertarian Party presidential nomination, the source said.

The Libertarians will select their presidential ticket during the party’s national convention later this month in Orlando.

When asked about Koch’s eight-figure pledge to support Johnson, a source close to David Koch did not deny that such an agreement is in place.

It would be very, very, very sad if this was true. As a Democrat, I truly fear 5-10% of Trump’s vote being siphoned off in critical states.

Pat McCrory Seems Nice

[ 119 ] May 19, 2016 |

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North Carolina governor Pat McCrory’s embarrassing signature of the state’s transgender bathroom law is fitting for a man who has hated gay people his whole public life.

McCrory has rejected LGBT anti-discrimination measures every chance he’s had in his 25 years in public office. He voted down a Charlotte ordinance in 1991 as a city council member, opposed another one in 2004 as the city’s mayor, and now, as governor, he just made it illegal for localities to pass these kinds of protections.

“We have laws in our Constitution which forbid discrimination based on race, gender and religion,” McCrory said after opposing the 1991 measure. “Beyond that, no other group should be given special status, and this community is often wanting special status.”

He had a chance in 2014 to offer protections to LGBT government workers, when he signed an executive order barring discrimination against state employees. But he specifically left them out, keeping the order limited to discrimination based on “race, religion, color, national origin, sex, age disability and genetic information.”

He hasn’t just opposed anti-discrimination measures. As the mayor of Charlotte, a post he held from 1995 to 2009, McCrory defended a local YMCA for rejecting a gay man’s application for membership. The club turned away local resident Tom Landry in 2006 when he tried to join with his partner and son. Landry wrote to McCrory about it, and he wrote back, “Thank for letting me know about your situation in trying to secure a membership at the YMCA. The YMCA has every right to set their membership criteria, but as you found, Charlotte has many options for health club memberships, including the Jewish Community Center.”

McCrory was also no fan of the Charlotte Gay Pride Festival. As the city’s mayor in 2005, he said it wasn’t appropriate to have the parade in a public place. He suggested the LGBT celebration “belongs in a hotel.” That same year, he refused to write a welcome letter to leaders of the Human Rights Campaign when they hosted a large dinner in Charlotte. He said later that he had the right “not to show any visible support” for the LGBT rights group.

The governor has even gone after local theater productions. In 1996, as mayor, he pressured the Charlotte Repertory Theatre to tone down the nudity and gay themes in its production of “Angels in America,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the AIDS crisis. “The Pulitzer Prize does not give you license to break the law,” McCrory said at the time. The theater had to obtain a court injunction to continue with its show.

Wendy’s Boycott

[ 130 ] May 18, 2016 |

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On the issue of consumer boycotts, the general rule should be that if affected workers are calling for it, then it’s something we should support (the UFW grape boycott) and if it’s consumers calling for it without consulting the workers, we should probably find out what the workers think about it first (people saying we shouldn’t buy clothes from Bangladesh when the workers there say that doesn’t help them). So therefore I endorse the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ call for a boycott against Wendy’s, the only one of the 5 largest fast food chains not to sign on to the CIW’s Fair Food Program and a chain that has switched to incredibly exploitative tomato suppliers in Mexico after that program was implemented throughout Florida. The CIW has done this once before, a successful boycott that forced Taco Bell to join the program and set off the rush of all the other big fast food companies except Wendy’s also agreeing.

The CIW recently picked up a major endorsement of its Wendy’s boycott from the Presbyterian Church, which was also a critical supporter in the Taco Bell fight.

But the church’s support for the Fair Food movement extends well beyond the Wendy’s campaign. Indeed, the PC(USA) was among the first to endorse the Taco Bell boycott back in 2002, far before the Coalition had won agreements with now 14 corporations and before those agreements had made possible the implementation of the Fair Food Program. The church’s unwavering support was catalytic, generating endorsements from many other religious denominations for the boycott over the years and dramatically expanding the base of committed consumers. With its Louisville headquarters just across town from those of Taco Bell parent company Yum! Brands, the PC(USA) engaged executives, hosted massive rallies, animated and mobilized thousands of its members, and its representatives served as a guarantor of the CIW talks of that led to the first-ever Fair Food agreement in 2005.

By answering farmworkers’ invitation to work in partnership, the PC(USA) played a crucial role in the realization of the simple — but then seemingly improbable — vision cast by farmworkers: an agricultural industry free from abuse and exploitation. Fourteen years and fourteen agreements with corporations later, the farmworker-designed Fair Food Program is transforming the day-to-day working conditions of tens of thousands of farmworkers — not only here in Florida tomato fields, where the Program began, but now also in Florida strawberries and in six northern states.

“For so many years the PC(USA) has acted with fortitude and love in the Campaign– standing with us through thick and thin, speaking out consistently and courageously, and matching their words with deeds,” said CIW’s Gerardo Reyes Chavez. “Together, we know that it is not a matter of if Wendy’s will join the Fair Food Program, it is only a matter of when. And with the church’s support, we hasten the inevitability of that day.”

And unlike many other boycotts, Wendy’s actually is the only fast food chain I ever eat at, when I am on the road and need a fast meal. So this one actually is going to force me to find other options. Not McDonald’s though. Because really, who likes a burger that tastes like nothing?

Trump’s True Base

[ 136 ] May 18, 2016 |

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Interesting Jacobin essay on Trump’s real base of support:

What does it mean that Trump has done well among middle-income and higher-income voters but not the most-educated? This suggests that his real base of support is small-business owners, supervisory and middle-management employees, franchisees, landlords, real estate agents, propertied farmers, and so on: those who are not at the executive pinnacle of corporate America (who largely have MBAs and other similar degrees) and those who are not credentialed professionals (doctors, lawyers, and the like), but the much wider swath of those people whose livelihood is derived from independent business activity or middle-band positions in the corporate hierarchy.

This corresponds, of course, to the classic scenario in which the petty bourgeois — the middle class whose ownership of small parcels of property does not protect them from vulnerability in the business cycle and the need to exact self-exploitation — experience worry and insecurity following a financial crisis and economic slump, making them receptive to right-wing authoritarian solutions and scapegoating of ethnic-racial minorities.

The presumptive Republican nominee is running into flak from his party’s own leadership, particularly the powerful Chamber of Commerce faction represented by Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan which seeks to bring him to heel on trade and immigration. These tensions are likely to be papered over, perhaps by backroom assurances by Trump that it’s all for show, but they are reminiscent of the classic tensions between big and petty bourgeois — or, in American terminology, big and small business — in central European politics during the worldwide slump of the 1930s.

Although he resists releasing his tax returns, most likely because they might show his wealth to be less than claimed, Trump offers “art of the deal” business savvy as his answer to capitalism’s problems.

A malfunctioning bourgeois politics can be solved, this projects, by a billionaire megalomaniac who will suspend his class’s self-interest because he cannot be bought, a scenario particularly attractive to a small-business mentality that resents taxes, minimum wages, and “red tape” and seeks someone who knows “the real world.” Those who have run their own little domains are prone to seek answers in a strong leader.

The great shock of 2008 left a punctuation mark in popular psychology. A less-than-persuasive economic recovery and lower rates of unemployment have not altered a situation in which most of the population feels itself to be scraping by, still fears business failure or the scythe of unemployment, is uncertain about retirement, groans under student and consumer debt, and waxes pessimistic about their children’s prospects. The entire population apart from the super-rich top one percent has suffered flat or declining incomes across four decades.

Such conditions breed not only anxiety but resentment, explaining the appeal of Trump’s bellowing about Mexicans and Muslims. The significance of this development is not to be minimized. Not since the campaigns more than four decades ago of George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist, has such naked bigotry attracted such mass support in American presidential politics. Then it was a desperate, declining revanchism. Now its popularity is fresh and gaining.

Labor-Environmentalist Rift in the Democratic Party? Not Really.

[ 27 ] May 18, 2016 |

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The New York Times had a piece on the supposed rift in Democratic Party get out the vote efforts over the party embracing the fight against climate change. I need to excerpt this in some length for you:

Two of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, labor and environmentalists, are clashing over an effort to raise tens of millions of dollars for an ambitious voter turnout operation aimed at defeating Donald J. Trump in the November election.

The rift developed after some in the labor movement, whose cash flow has dwindled and whose political clout has been increasingly imperiled, announced a partnership last week with a wealthy environmentalist, Tom Steyer, to help bankroll a new fund dedicated to electing Democrats.

That joint initiative enraged members of the nation’s biggest construction unions, already on edge about the rising influence of climate-change activists. The building-trades unions view Mr. Steyer’s environmental agenda as a threat to the jobs that can be created through infrastructure projects like new gas pipelines.

The dispute, laid bare in a pair of blistering letters sent on Monday to Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., underscored the tensions between the two pillars of the Democratic coalition.

For decades, organized labor was among the most powerful forces on the left, financing Democratic candidates and reliably delivering working-class votes, and political foot soldiers, for the party in crucial states and districts.

But with blue-collar white voters shifting to the Republican Party and Democrats growing more reliant on higher-income voters and liberal donors like Mr. Steyer, environmental activists are increasingly muscling out unions.

The friction is not just confined to the Democratic Party: The labor movement itself is changing. As manufacturing has declined, power has flowed away from the unions representing factory and construction workers and toward public- and service-sector workers. The unions that formed the alliance with Mr. Steyer included the two largest teachers’ unions and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The goal of the new voter turnout “super PAC,” announced last week with an initial goal of raising $50 million, was to ensure that liberal groups did not duplicate their efforts, as had happened in some elections. Some unions were asked to give as much as $1 million. Mr. Steyer, founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate, announced that he would give $5 million and said it was “highly likely” other unions would participate.

But Mr. Steyer has opposed oil and gas projects like the Keystone pipeline, and the construction unions assailed the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s willingness to make common cause with him as an abandonment of their members and the federation’s principles.

In one of the two letters sent on Monday, presidents of seven of the nation’s biggest construction unions threatened to boycott the new get-out-the-vote effort, called For Our Future PAC.

“It saddens us that the very labor movement we have fought for and supported for over a century seems to have lost sight of its core mission and has moved away from us and our membership in the interest of headline-grabbing political expediency,” wrote the leaders of the operating engineers, plumbers, elevator constructors, roofers, laborers, plasterers, and heat and frost insulators.

In a separate and even more harshly worded letter to Mr. Trumka, the president of the 500,000-member laborers union, Terry O’Sullivan, called the partnership a “politically bankrupt betrayal” of union members. “We object to the political agenda of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. being sold to a job-killing hedge fund manager with a bag of cash,” he wrote.

There’s a few things going on here.

First, note that this is really a division within the labor movement, not between labor and environmentalists. What will the labor movement look like in 5 years, 10 years, 25 years? Will it be a few holdouts in the skilled trades or will it organize a mass of workers? Will it be part of a broad-based progressive coalition or will it focus just on the economic well-being of a few members? These are the questions that are at the center of the divide you read about here. On one hand you have LIUNA. On the other, you have AFSCME, NEA, and AFT (I really wish SEIU was on board here).

This is related to changes in the labor movement over the past four decades. What the CIO did was undermine the building trades’ domination over the labor movement. But even though the rise of public sector unionism has to some extent replaced it, the loss of the giant and generally progressive industrial unions like the UAW (now only the 11th largest union in the country) and USWA has left a vacuum that the building trades were more than happy to fill. So what you have in the labor movement, other than remnant industrial unions, are the often very politically conservative (although not universally so) building trades that have been conservative for a century or more and the public sector unions that really operate with very different classes (and races) of workers and that sometimes really have very little in common with a union like the Laborers. You have really working class people on one hand and you have teachers and govenrment employees on the other. That doesn’t mean that public sector unionism is a middle-class movement, but it is a different sort of worker, by and large, than who the Laborers represent. That’s the real story here, not some theoretical divide in Democratic GOTV efforts, which, let’s face it, the building trades aren’t that great on anyway. If some of these unions actually endorsed Trump because Hillary Clinton wants to fight climate change, well many of their members were probably were going to vote Trump anyway.

Second, LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan is a bully. O’Sullivan has been absolutely abysmal on these issues for years. He has bullied other unions who have stood up to say we need to fight climate change. He has bullied unions who have been neutral or even suggested that maybe this should be an issue to consider. He is bullying unions with this letter. He is a dead-ender on environmental issues. Sadly, O’Sullivan genuinely believes that environmentalism costs unions jobs. While I wouldn’t quite call O’Sullivan a bad actor here, he legitimately does not seem to think that allying with other progressive organizations matters. Now, I understand that his membership needs work, but he has turned sharply to the right on this issue. The other unions involved in this are basically irrelevant, having very small memberships. I’ve never even heard of the International Union of Elevator Constructors. Also, to his credit, Richard Trumka has been very smart on dealing with this issue, largely by letting O’Sullivan yell and scream and then doing nothing of note to back him up.

Third, and I don’t want to overstate this issue, but O’Sullivan does have a point about the billionaire control of the party’s direction. Here he is channeling the same kind of discomfort that has led to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. In a post-Citizens United world, someone like Tom Steyer automatically gets a bigger say in party policymaking. On the other hand, climate change is very much a working-class issue. It might not be an issue for LIUNA, but it is a huge issue for the poor around the nation and the world. That alone should be more than enough to support the agenda, not only of Steyer, but of AFSCME and AFT.

In the end, I don’t think anyone should make too much of this. The labor movement has basically always been divided on various policy issues. Sometimes, unions have left the AFL entirely, whether to organize industrially or because the federation was too conservative or because of whatever reason Andy Stern created Change to Win. Occasionally, some of the most conservative unions have endorsed Nixon or Reagan. Among them was PATCO in 1980. That worked out well. If LIUNA isn’t going to join the Democratic GOTV effort, well, I’d rather take AFSCME’s effort on that any day.

Guy Clark, RIP

[ 30 ] May 17, 2016 |

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The great Guy Clark has died. One of the finest country-folk singers ever and a foundational figure in the alt-country genre, Clark had been sick for some time. He was not only good friends with Townes Van Zandt, but his partner in crazy living, as you can read about in this great late-life profile. Clark was a lot more emotionally stable than Van Zandt so he lived a lot longer, but he did not live a life that was going to reach 90 (although Ramblin’ Jack Elliott still lives so sometimes you can do that). Clark had the songwriting skills to become wealthy if he played the Nashville game. On the other hand, he was pure Texas. He split the difference, moving to Nashville in the early 70s (sort of the opposite of Willie Nelson here) to keep a hand in the business but remained fiercely independent his entire career. This plus his generous nature made him a mentor to a whole generation of young Texas musicians such as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.

Guy Clark’s albums themselves are something of a mixed bag. His first album, Old No. 1, contains a number of classics that were often covered by others. This includes the wonderful “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Texas, 1947.”

A lot of people love his second album, Texas Cookin’. I’m a bit more mixed on it, although it does have “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.”

The South Coast of Texas is one of the most underrated albums in all of music. This is basically a perfect country album, with each song revolving around some Texas story, from the Kentuckians getting ready to move to Texas in the 19th century in “New Cut Road” to the shrimpers and their ladies in “The South Coast of Texas” to the young man falling in love with an older waitress in the great closing track “Lone Star Motel.” I love this album tremendously.

He had a series of decent albums in the 80s and 90s, culminating in the pretty excellent 1999 album Cold Dog Soup. But probably the place I would start is with his live greatest hits plus some new ones album Keepers, from 1997. Good band, fun performances.

In the end, anyone who can write a song like “The Randall Knife” is worth remembering.

I only saw Guy Clark play once. It was in Santa Fe, maybe around 2004, a show with just him and his long-time guitarist Verlon Thompson. It showed the delicate nature of live performing. Mostly, it was great. But some drunk guy started shouting during the set and Clark walked off until someone kicked him out. Then, right in the middle of the powerful song “Let Him Roll” about a bum who dies still loving the prostitute he knew decades ago, someone’s damn cell phone rang. Totally ruined the moment. Such things happen in a live setting. In recent years, by most accounts, his shows had taken a turn for the worse with his physical health.

Guy Clark will be badly missed. He maybe wasn’t quite the level of titanic talent as people like Merle Haggard, David Bowie, and Prince, but in a regular year, the loss of Guy Clark would just about be the worst musical loss we could imagine.

Amazon and Unions

[ 12 ] May 17, 2016 |

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If Uber is proving fertile ground for labor organizing, for Amazon, it’s been a lot harder, thanks in no small part to an already revved-up anti-union campaign that includes managers openly lying to workers and intimidating them in one-on-one meetings.

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