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This Day in Labor History: September 27, 2002

[ 21 ] September 27, 2016 |

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On September 27, 2002, 29 ports on the West Coast closed when the Pacific Maritime Association, a industry group of shippers, decided to lock out their workers affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). The lockout, which halted the United States’ international trade continued for 11 days until President George W. Bush invokes the Taft-Hartley Act to end the lockout and call for a cooling down period. This struggle eventually led to a major victory for the ILWU.

The ILWU had been a thorn in the side of west coast shippers for decades. Once led by the radical Harry Bridges, the ILWU slowly lost its aggressive edge as Bridges aged, but it remained a strong and independent union. After a bitter strike in 1971, the ILWU and the shippers had fairly decent relations for three decades. But in 2002, employers decided to push the union hard to take back much of what they had given away. Employers wanted to introduce new technology that would track the goods as they moved. The union opposed this because it would automate out of work many of its members. The PMA wanted to severely cut back on medical benefits for employees. The ILWU rejected that entirely and wanted higher wages as well. As 2002 wound on, short contract extensions kept negotiations going but on September 27, the employers decided to shut down the ports, putting over 10,000 workers out of a job.

The PMA claimed that they had no choice because ILWU members had engaged in a work-to-rule slowdown that was costing employers profits. Work-to-rule is when employees follow rules to the precise letter of the law and nothing more. In this case, the PMA accused the union of not breaking dock speed limits and following the safety rules. The horror! The ILWU denied it and said the PMA wanted to divert attention away from its refusal to negotiate. While a couple of employers bucked the lockout and made agreements with the ILWU, the vast majority of west coast trade ended.

George W. Bush was no friend to organized labor, that is for sure. Neither were American corporations. But this was different. The lockout had the potential to shut down the rest of the economy in a way that perhaps no labor dispute had since at least the PATCO strike in 1981 and probably the 1959 steel strike. The shipping industry’s intransigence threatened the rest of American business and while they may have shared a mutual disdain for organized labor, it wasn’t enough to allow their own businesses to lose money. That businesses were preparing for the holiday season made this an even greater threat. Even with the short period of the lockout, the joint Toyota-GM NUMMI plant in Fremont, California closed, briefly laying off 5000 workers.

So the rest of American business urged Bush to use Taft-Hartley to bring the companies to heel, not the unions. No president had tried to use the Taft-Hartley Act to end the dispute and force an 80-day return to work since Jimmy Carter in 1978 and even then the courts refused the necessary injunction. The last time a president had successfully invoked it was the 1971 ILWU strike. But Bush fell in line with the rest of the business community. He issued the order and the courts granted the injunction. Said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, “Taft-Hartley is not the best option, but it appears to be the only option at this point.” In addition, it seems clear in hindsight that with the Bush administration preparing to invade Iraq, it viewed this labor dispute as a highly unfortunate distraction that undermined American preparedness. When Bush invoked Taft-Hartley, he called the operation of the ports “vital to our economy and the military” and he openly worried about how this would affect the movement of military supplies. Dianne Feinstein used similar language to encourage Bush to take this action. The lockout ended on October 8. Some economists projected that the 10-day lockout had already taken $10 billion out of the economy. It also took some weeks for ILWU members to unload the huge backlog of products waiting to move.

Unions were nervous about this. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka was strongly opposed, fearing the Bush administration was trying to bust the ILWU. He stated “If every employer thinks the federal government will step in, why should they negotiate and let the natural bargaining process play out?” Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell expressed similar misgivings: “The whole strategy of locking out the workers and urging the president to invoke Taft-Hartley was clearly an employer strategy to get around negotiating a contract with these workers. It’s a bad precedent. It gives management the upper hand.”

But with the shipping industry’s gambit undermined, they had to negotiate for real with the ILWU. Both sides agreed to mediation. Trumka became personally involved in settling the conflict while Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service chief Peter Hurtgen took the lead in the negotiations. Both sides won a bit in the final contract. The companies did get to implement their cargo tracking technology. They also got a 6-year contract, providing labor stability and some changes to the arbitration procedures. In return, the shippers agreed to pay workers a whole lot of money. Full-time wages would rise to $85,000 a year by the end of the contract, with the possibility of going into six figures with overtime. The shippers also agreed to increase their pension contributions by 58 percent. In addition, while union leaders expected that the automation would eliminate about 400 jobs from the ports, all current workers in those positions were allowed to keep their jobs until they wanted to retire. Finally, non-union jobs in the port became part of the ILWU bargaining unit, extending the union’s control over employment. The members agreed to the contract with around 90 percent voting to affirm.

Ultimately, this was one of the biggest victories of the early 21st century for a union. Odd that George W. Bush played an important role in it.

This is the 194th post in this series. Previous posts are archive here.

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Can Walmart and Nike Afford Apparel Workers Making $40 More a Month? (Spoiler: Yes)

[ 7 ] September 23, 2016 |

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While we are justifiably focused on the election, American corporations are still exploiting overseas workers and we aren’t paying any attention to that. Unlike those who claim that American apparel companies moving overseas are beneficient glorious job creators gifting work to the global poor, the workers themselves are real people with real demands. For example, Cambodian workers are demanding an increase in their nation’s minimum wage, from $140 a month to just under $180. That is not a lot of money. But the western apparel companies are making no statement affirming this demand except to say they like a transparent minimum wage. One can at least strongly suspect they actively are working behind the scenes to oppose it. Cole Stangler asks a bunch of experts on these issues, including myself, if these companies can afford the extra $40 a month. Um, yes.

Workers’ rights advocates believe that the U.S. and European brands should take a strong stance today.

“They should back labor unions’ proposed wages and they do have a responsibility,” said Irene Pietropaoli, a Myanmar-based consultant on business and human rights. “They are under no legal obligation to do so, but they clearly are key players in this debate and so have an ethical responsibility to show leadership, to influence the government when they can, to use their ‘leverage,’ to use the wording of the UN Guiding Principles (on Business and Human Rights).”

That landmark document, crafted and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, calls on companies to use their “leverage” to prevent “an adverse human rights impact” from taking place.

From labor’s perspective, that’s precisely what’s at stake. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade unions and labor rights advocates that focuses on the garment industry, has calculated Cambodia’s “living wage” to be $283 a month—far above what local unions are demanding.

However, economic interests get in the way of such a rate, explained Auret van Heerden, senior advisor with the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and former president of the Fair Labor Association.

Suppliers are reluctant to hike wages because, for one, there’s no guarantee their buyers will absorb the higher labor costs. What’s more: garment factories typically operate on short-term contracts, lasting just a few months. If a factory owner decided to unilaterally raise pay, he risks losing future business. A buyer might react by sourcing elsewhere in Cambodia—or by simply finding cheaper labor abroad, in say, Bangladesh or Myanmar.

“A lot of the suppliers, privately, are accusing buyers, brands, of being really part of the problem because they’re cutting their prices on the one hand and they’re expecting them to absorb more costs on the other hand,” said van Heerden.

Of course, the brands themselves could simply sign longer-term contracts guaranteeing higher wages—but they don’t. And, at the moment, van Heerden explained, they’re likely reluctant to get involved in the minimum wage debate for fear of upsetting their business and political partners in Cambodia.

“If the brands do weigh in, they’re going to certainly antagonize government and the industry association, and they’re going to antagonize their own suppliers, frankly,” van Heerden says. “So they’re going to step on three sets of toes and not going to get any credit from the unions unless they want to sort of put themselves in bed with the unions, which is not a position they want to be in either. I can understand why they’d want to stay out of it.”

It is a complicated situation for the companies as they aren’t the only ones who don’t want to pay good wages. But the companies also have the ultimate power–it’s their product. They have the ability to commit to keeping a factory open in a nation that raises its wages or the ability to simply say that they are going to raise prices by $1 for a pair of shoes and that money goes to the workers. We should make them act to improve the lives of the workers making our clothing.

This Day in Labor History: September 21, 1908

[ 9 ] September 21, 2016 |

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On September 21, 1908, the Industrial Workers of the World met for its 4th annual convention in Chicago. This convention would reshape the struggling nascent organization, moving it clearly from an intellectuals’ movement to a workers’ movement.

Founded in 1905, by 1908 the IWW hadn’t really done much of anything and its future was murky. This is not to blame the IWW. This is the fate of most new activist organizations. It’s fairly easy to start an organization. But giving it shape and guidance, dealing with difficult personalities, and deciding not only what course of action to take but what ideology will guide that action is always difficult. That’s especially true for the early twentieth century left, where a panopoly of intellectual currents and factions could all fight for control of a given movement. Given that the 1905 convention brought in everyone from the Western Federation of Miners to Eugene Debs to Lucy Parsons, it did not originate with any clear ideological formation.

This does not mean the IWW was completely moribund in 1908. It did have a few adherents and they were organizing workers. In 1907 for instance, the IWW arrived in Portland, Oregon and started an organizing campaign among the city’s timber workers, largely over issues of better pay. It was put down fairly quickly by a combination of employers and the American Federation of Labor, already identifying the IWW as a threat even as it had no real interest in organizing on an industrial basis. IWW miners had also organized the mines of Goldfield, Nevada until the mine owners conspired with Nevada politicians and Theodore Roosevelt to crush them.

But the leadership of the IWW was in flux. The controversial socialist Daniel DeLeon wanted to control the IWW. DeLeon wanted to be the American Lenin. In 1892, he became the editor of the Socialist Labor Party’s newspaper The People. This put him in a position to become the leader of the SLP. Once this happened, he hoped to springboard to be the head of a labor organization. He first tried to take over the dying Knights of Labor, then the American Federation of Labor. He had little support for either. DeLeon then decided to create a parallel labor organization called the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance in 1895. When the IWW formed in 1905, DeLeon saw an opportunity to control the labor movement. He wanted to turn it into an adjunct of the SLP. But he received resistance almost from the first from the rank and file, especially the western workers who made up the core of IWW support, concentrated in the Western Federation of Miners. Those workers believed the state was their enemy and that political action was worthless. DeLeon wanted to create a leftist alternative to the Socialist Party and focus on political action. He kept introducing political questions into the IWW’s annual conventions, greatly irritating other Wobblies. All of this led to a lot of dissension in the conventions and little being accomplished.

In late 1907, the feud erupted openly, as DeLeon attempted to sabotage a call from James Connolly, the future Irish martyr who was working as an IWW organizer in New York, to launch a large recruiting drive in New York City. DeLeon took over the meeting by shouting about how Connolly was a traitor to the SLP. So by the time of the 1908 convention, most Wobblies were ready to be rid of DeLeon.

Another group attended this convention for the first time. Out of Portland, a group of radicals decided to hop trains and head to Chicago. This became known as the Overalls Brigade. Led by an organizer named John Walsh, these 19 workers headed east, organizing along the way. They held 31 meetings, sold more than $175 worth of IWW literature and $200 in IWW song sheets. They had complete contempt for DeLeon and for his own elitism about revolutionary theory that was supposedly above the head of the average worker. These were men who believed in industrial organizing, direct action, and taking on capitalism in a total war. They brought that spirit of direction action to the convention floor, singing their songs, and providing a bulwark of rank and file opposition to DeLeon. The Overalls Brigade opened the convention by singing “The Marseillaise” and convention leaders openly asking them to lead the fight against DeLeon.

Others joined the anti-DeLeon fray. IWW intellectuals like Ben Williams wanted this dealt with now because they believed the future of the IWW depended upon deciding just what its ideological stances were, especially around the role of direct action, industrial organization, and politics. DeLeon was ousted in a procedural vote because he did not represent a local which he claimed to represent. The delegates then debated the role of politics in the IWW. This was more closely divided than the decision to oust the difficult DeLeon. Some wanted to keep the political clause in the IWW constitution to give it a patina of respectability that would discharge claims it was an organization of anarchist bombthrowers. But in a 35-32 vote, the delegates did eliminate the reference to political action. Although what the IWW believed in was not really articulated at this point (and in fact, the IWW would always be awfully cagey about their actual ideological details), the emphasis on direct action was in the ascendant. Like the AFL, their diehard enemy, the IWW would refuse to play in politics, believing the state to be a class war enemy of workers’ rights. This demonstrates the sheer hopelessness that workers had for state action during the Gilded Age. The only thing that both union federations could agree on was that the state was worthless for guaranteeing anything for workers. The IWW was still not a stable organization after the 1908 convention, but it had eliminated the internal divide that would prevent it from moving forward with organizing workers and fighting class warfare.

The Overalls Brigade would return to the Northwest and bring their radical direct action to the workers of the Northwest, first with the Spokane Free Speech Fight and then with a decade of worker empowerment, strikes, and challenging the timber industry, police, and political leadership of the Pacific Northwest until they were crushed in a maelstrom of violence during and after World War I.

DeLeon went on to bitterly attack the IWW, especially for the “slum proletariat” that had taken over the convention and removed him. He died in 1914, failing in his effort to become Lenin.

This post relied on Melvyn Dubofsky’s classic We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 193rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 16, 2004

[ 10 ] September 16, 2016 |

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On September 16, 2004, Mt. Olive Pickles finally came to an agreement with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, ending a lengthy boycott of the company. This groundbreaking farm workers union launched one of the most successful organizing campaigns of the last 25 years in the South and demonstrate the continued vitality of farmworker unions in the present.

When we think about farm labor organizing in the United States, our thoughts almost immediately go to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California. There is of course a good reason for that. But both before and after the UFW, there has been significant organizing of some of the nation’s most exploited labor forces. In the Midwest and South, one of the leading movements involved in this is the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC was founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez, the 20 year old son of Mexican migrant farmworkers in the Midwest. FLOC initially sought to organize farmworkers on individual farms, but soon realized the limitations of that strategy because the farmers themselves didn’t hold the ultimate power over wages. The farmers sold their crops to the big food conglomerates. That’s where the power lies in the agricultural world. FLOC soon turned its attention to leveraging what power it could against food corporations. That strategy became full-fledged in 1979, when after a failed strike, it called for a consumer boycott against Campbell Soup. The boycott was of course the preferred tactic of Cesar Chavez (he preferred it to actually organizing farmworkers) and because of the grape boycott’s fame, it made a lot of sense for other farmworker organizing movements to borrow this. In 1987, this boycott was successful. Campbell signed a contract with both the farmers and FLOC to double wages, improve migrant housing, and provide a grievance procedure, which doesn’t sound sexy but is tremendously important for any worker who is too scared to complain about their lives otherwise.

In organizing tomato workers, FLOC also became involved with pickle workers because the integration of the agricultural industry meant many of the companies it became involved with in fighting for tomato workers were also in cucumbers and pickles. Pickle growers relied heavily on sharecropping schemes in order to get around labor law, including child labor and the minimum wage. Given the harvest seasons, many FLOC workers were working tomatoes one week and pickles the next. The expansion made sense. Beginning in 1987, FLOC began engaging in pickle organizing and boycotts. A three-year campaign gave it a victory in the H.J. Heinz fields. In 1991, another campaign won the fields for Dean Foods. The large majority of Midwestern pickles were now picked by FLOC members.

FLOC called the boycott against Mt. Olive on March 17, 1999. The North Carolina pickle company had a different labor force than the farms in FLOC home base of Ohio and Michigan. Those farms tended to be picked by Mexican-American laborers who had been long residents of the U.S. and who lived in Texas and Florida when they weren’t picking. But Mt. Olive hired guestworkers who had very few rights and no permanent status in the U.S. This was part of a longer history of North Carolina farmers searching the world for the most exploitable labor. While some found the paperwork in the guestworker program unwieldy, with African-Americans and then Caribbean guestworkers leaving their fields for better work, Mexican guestworkers became the next exploitable labor force. About 10,000 H-2A guestworkers labored in the North Carolina fields. Mt. Olive of course attempted to avoid any responsibility for the workers, saying that they did not employ these farmworkers so they had no control over the conditions of labor, even though they set the price at which they would buy the pickles.

FLOC was successful with these workers because they became a way for workers to express their own power. For example, a man named Mamerto Chaj Garcia was working for a Mt. Olive contractor. He came down with appendicitis and his boss told him he was drunk. Finally, he took a cab to the hospital where it was removed. Then a few weeks later, Garcia and his eight trailermates were all kicked out of their housing without receiving their pay. They complained to FLOC organizers. 30 FLOC members marched up to the farm and confronted the farmer, who handed over the withheld pay. This was the sort of routine oppression farmworkers faced, and often still do face, and how farmworker unions can help alleviate the worst of their problems, even if they lack a contract.

FLOC used the guestworkers’ status though to their advantage. As those workers moved from farm to farm, they spread the FLOC message. FLOC appealed to guestworkers because it sought to organize around their specific issues. FLOC wanted to set up a grievance procedure for the guestworkers. It wanted to create seniority lists so that workers could be sure they would return when they returned to Mexico. It won these concessions on September 16, 2004, when FLOC, Mount Olive, and the North Carolina Growers’ Association whose members owned the pickle farms. The agreement also covered all farms under the Growers Association, even if they did not grow pickles. This thus covered many tobacco workers as well.

To win this campaign, FLOC built upon the UFW boycotts of the past and made connections with unions, churches, and community groups around the country. It distributed “Pickle Picket Packets” to these groups, helping for instance concerned citizens mobilize their churches to promote the boycott. They especially worked on the Methodist Church because Mt. Olive CEO Bill Bryan was an active Methodist. When the United Methodist Church not only held its worldwide convention in the U.S. but also endorsed the boycott, it was a major moment for this community organizing strategy. The campaigns against the stores that sold Mt. Olive products was somewhat successful as well. Walmart of course didn’t care, but Kroger pulled the products from at least 130 stores in the South.

The contract also created a code of conduct for Mt. Olive contractors, with mandated inspections. Of course, worker abuses are still common on these farms. Grassroots farmworker unions have almost no money or staff, even though FLOC is affiliate with the AFL-CIO. But they chronicle workplace abuses, win stolen wages, and provide a voice for the guestworkers.

Much of this post is borrowed from Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C.S. Swords, Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA and David Dalton, Building National Campaigns: Activists, Alliances, and How Change Happens.

This is the 192nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Behind the Scenes at LIU

[ 46 ] September 15, 2016 |

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Read this interview with Long Island University librarian Emily Drabinski for some behind the scenes insight on the horrible attempt by the administration to lockout the faculty and crush the union.

It’s really important to note that the administration locked out the faculty at Long Island University Brooklyn before the faculty had a chance to review and vote on the contract as proposed by the administration.

When we met on Tuesday, September 6 — which seems like a year ago now — we had already lost our health insurance, we had already lost our wages, we had already been locked out of our communication systems at LIU Brooklyn. Longstanding tradition at LIU has been for negotiations to continue up until the final day of the contract, August 31, and then for the faculty to meet and ratify or not ratify the contract on the first day after Labor Day.

They knew that was the plan. I’m the secretary [of the union], I know that I had emailed and we had reserved a room [for continued negotiations]. They knew that was coming and they locked us out before that could happen.
Why do you think they took such measures?

Labor and employer relations at LIU Brooklyn have always been contentious — that is the task of a unionized workforce. We knew that things were going to be difficult.

When I arrived at LIU Brooklyn, there we six unions on campus; right now there are four. This is the president who has been hired to bust the unions, and she’s been successful so far. We knew she would be coming for us next.

But I don’t think any of us anticipated a lockout. It’s unprecedented because the lockout was so disruptive and so harmful to the reputation of the university as well as to the workers who were locked out. I was talking to my partner and asked, “What’s going to happen?” As we got down to the end — and we’ve been bargaining since April — the administration had not been moving, almost at all.

They’ve been meeting with us, they had been sticking within the letter of the law. They clearly know how to go right up to the line of bargaining in good faith, and they just stuck there.

They began advertising for replacement workers in July on Monster.com. Monster.com is I guess where you get your best higher education faculty to replace us. We assumed that was in the event of a strike, which of course we hadn’t and haven’t called.

My guess would be that they have been preparing for the lockout probably since the president arrived.

They told the press that the reason that they locked us out was to prevent a strike. We are a fairly militant union. We go on strike for working conditions, we go on strike for wages. That might have happened in this event — I don’t know, it’s hard to know now what would have happened had they not locked us out.

What they don’t say is that the other option was to negotiate in good faith and bargain a fair contract for the faculty workforce.

Just really amazing and brazen effort by the university president and no doubt the Board of Trustees. This story remains extremely important as if they succeed in busting the faculty union in the future, it sets a horrifying precedent for other schools to follow.

Forgotten 9/11 Food Workers

[ 11 ] September 12, 2016 |

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Interesting piece about the 9/11 Memorial and it’s laudable attempt to provide a face with every name of the dead. But for the food service workers it’s hard and for some of them, it’s been impossible to find a photo. These people were sometimes immigrants, often poor, and there may just not be any pictures. It’s really a reminder of just how forgotten food service workers are throughout our entire economy, the millions of unseen, low-wage workers providing critical services to us.

1 Way to Help Your Employees Who Are Struggling with Food Insecurity and Hunger

[ 89 ] September 12, 2016 |

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The site Everyday Feminism published the most ridiculous article ever last week. Titled “20 Ways to Help Your Employees Who Are Struggling with Food Insecurity and Hunger,” it does everything but challenge employer power. It has such useful tips as think about whether the employee can afford the expensive meal at the restaurant to don’t judge them by their clothes. It however does not mention the one thing that will actually ensure your employees don’t struggle with food insecurity and hunger. I’m about to go all caps now just so that it’s clear.

PAY THEM MORE MONEY

But no, can’t mention that. Challenging employer power evidently has nothing to do with everyday feminism.

LIU Lockout

[ 92 ] September 7, 2016 |

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This is deeply disturbing.

Locking out a university’s faculty right before the start of classes seems like a drastic step, but that is just what Long Island University (LIU) did this weekend, when it barred all 400 members of its faculty union from its Brooklyn campus, cut off their email accounts and health insurance, and told them they would be replaced. The move came three days after the union’s contract expired. Now, the faculty is furious, and planning rallies and pickets with support from the American Federation of Teachers. On Tuesday, faculty voted 226 to 10 to reject a proposed contract from LIU, and the faculty senate voiced their support for a vote of no-confidence in the university’s president Kimberly Cline, 135 to 10. Faculty rallied outside the university’s Brooklyn campus Wednesday with a giant inflatable rat as classes began, taught by non-union members.

Labor historians say they can’t recall an example of a university using a lockout against faculty members. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell professor of labor relations, says they’re particularly unwise in the service sector, or any sector where a company has clients such as students and donors to placate. More typically, she says, lockouts are used in the industrial sector, where customers are removed from labor practices.

Why did the faculty reject the contract? Because it was pure union-busting all the way:

Arthur Kimmel has been an adjunct at LIU’s Brooklyn campus for more than 20 years. Under the terms of the proposed contract, he would have his income cut by 30 to 35 percent, he said. That’s because, in addition to the $1,800 or so per course he teaches, he has received pay for having office hours and money from an adjunct- benefits trust fund to help defray the cost of health insurance. Kimmel says the university’s proposal would eliminate the adjunct- benefits trust fund and payments for office hours, among other cuts. The new proposal would also decrease the number of credit hours he could teach, and establishes a two-tier system for adjuncts so that new employees would receive less than Kimmel does.

“I think that what the administration is doing, and has done from first day of the current president’s administration, is gutting the university and creating the archetype of the corporatization of the university, where the interest is not in education, but is purely financial,” he told me.

First, I really struggle to see how this turns out well for LIU. How do you replace an entire faculty? I know there is a massive oversupply of teachers out there since the same union-busting administrators now prefer to build themselves nice offices and give themselves 5-figure pay raises rather than hire faculty. But there are also lots of potential faculty who aren’t going to be scabs. This is awful for the students as well.

Worst-case scenario, for the university, would be that the National Labor Relations Board could decide that the university has committed the lockout in an environment of unfair labor practices, at which point LIU would have to pay back wages. But even the best case scenario probably isn’t great: Even if the school reaches an agreement with the union and the 400 faculty are given their jobs back, LIU will still be facing budget problems, which may be exacerbated by students staying away. And worse, it will be remembered as the place of higher education that was the first to lock out its faculty. Those wounds could last a long time.

But if it was to succeed, this is extremely frightening. This is a Gilded Age union-busting tactic used against a vulnerable sector in the New Gilded Age. Moreover, it is my sector. The precedent this would set would be titanic. It’s hard to see it happening at a place like my institution, which is very large and without a pool of eligible replacement faculty, but at smaller schools especially, I could see entire faculty unions being wiped out, pay lowered, and conditions worsened significantly.

You can donate to the LIU Lockout Solidarity Fund here.

Labor Union Myths

[ 30 ] September 6, 2016 |

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Moshe Marvit has an op-ed in the Washington Post debunking five myths about labor unions. A couple are particularly notable.

Myth No. 3
Right-to-work laws would bankrupt unions.

For the past year, unions across the country have been terrified by a single word: Friedrichs, referring to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case that was all but certain to place public-sector employees in a “right to work” status. That would have meant workers who benefitted from union contracts would not have to pay any union dues. In briefings before the court and in public articles, labor advocates cast the issue in the language of economics, as one of free-ridership: At the Century Foundation, education policy analyst Richard Kahlenberg summarized Friedrichs as a referendum on whether there is a “constitutional right to free ride on public sector unions.”

But right-to-work does not necessarily translate into high levels of covered, “free-riding” workers who don’t pay. For instance, all federal employees, including postal workers, are under right-to-work. In the federal workforce (excluding postal employees), 79 percent of the workers who are covered under a union contract have chosen to join; among postal employees, more than 92 percent covered under a contract have chosen to join. In a brief submitted in the Friedrichs case, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy pointed out that union membership among union-represented workers has remained around 80 percent despite right-to-work policies passed in recent years.

Yet right-to-work laws threaten to expose real weaknesses inside unions: a lack of solidarity and participation among members. Twenty-five years ago, in their study on union membership attitudes and participation, Daniel Gallagher and George Strauss wrote that “compared with European unionists, those in North America look upon unionism more as an insurance policy than an instrument in the class struggle or even as a social movement.” Labor’s approach to its membership has changed little during the intervening years, with unions still presenting themselves as a service to their members. Though it is difficult to gauge levels of solidarity, one way of measuring it is through the use of strikes. Strikes are among labor’s strongest weapons, but they require a great deal of solidarity to ensure that workers don’t cross the picket line or that the union does not face a decertification vote following the strike. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of strikes declined by more than 90 percent, from 801 in 1990 to 72 last year.

A good point. It’s not like Friedrichs meant that public sector unions would have to be decimated. Of course they would in reality because the American labor movement is largely simply not set up to have that level of internal organizing. It takes a lot of work and a lot of committed members. And a lot of workers just don’t care about their union enough to have that level of commitment. Maybe that’s the union’s fault. But Marvit is right: there are examples that could give us hope.

Myth No. 5
Unions are a bulwark against globalization.

From NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, labor unions have positioned themselves as the primary critics of, and protectors of workers against, globalization and free trade. The AFL-CIO, for instance, states that the TPP “appears modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a free trade agreement that boosts global corporate profits while leaving working families behind.” Likewise, the SEIU calls the TPP “NAFTA on steroids” and “a secret trade agreement that must be stopped.”

The reason for their opposition is clear: Increased globalization often leads to more competition with countries where workers are paid far less, exploiting those workers while making it difficult to keep American wages high.

But despite the best efforts of labor, including large protests in the 1990s, globalization has largely continued apace, and U.S. workers have paid the price. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while NAFTA promised to create 200,000 new jobs for American workers, since its 1994 inception 682,900 jobs have been lost. Another EPI report found that international trade depressed wages for non-college-educated workers by 5.5 percent, meaning an annual loss of $1,800 for the average worker. Meanwhile, workers overseas often face even worse labor conditions, with fewer protections and lower wages.

I would say that calling them an ineffective bulwark against globalization is more precise because to a greater or lesser extent depending on the union, they have tried to serve that function. But there’s no question that they have been ineffective. They simply don’t have enough power for that. They never have.

This Day in Labor History: September 6, 1869

[ 8 ] September 6, 2016 |

Avondale_mine_disaster_dead

On September 6, 1869, the Avondale Colliery mine near Plymouth, Pennsylvania caught on fire, killing 110 workers. This disaster, one of the first major coal disasters in the United States, led to some of the nation’s first workplace safety laws, but ultimately, many thousands more workers would have to die before the nation took workplace safety seriously.

By the end of the Civil War, the nation began to rely on coal as its most important fuel. During the mid-19th century, eastern cities and factories started to turn from wood to coal for fuel as transportation networks to get it from the often relatively remote coal fields to urban centers developed enough to make coal mining a profitable endeavor.

The Avondale Colliery opened in 1867 to dig anthracite, employing primarily Welsh miners. As was usually the case with hard labor during these years, employers were completely indifferent to workplace safety. Large numbers of deaths were the norm, with employers emboldened by the legal doctrine of workplace risk that had given them a free hand on these issues. There was only one exit to the mine, the shaft. This was standard for the era.

The hard work and dangerous conditions led to the Welsh miners forming a union. The Workers Benevolent Association formed in 1868. They immediately pushed to regulate the Pennsylvania mines by the same standards that existed in Britain. That included multiple mine entrances and ventilation requirements. Pennsylvania had actually enacted a weak version of this as a law, but had written in an exception for Luzerne County at the request of a local politician. So at Avondale, the mine was as dangerous as ever.

The morning of September 6, the mine caught fire with about 200 men inside. The mine’s furnace caught fire. It was about 100 feet from the entrance, but it was connected by a flue, which quickly spread it. All of this was made of wood, which of course meant an almost instant conflagration, as was also common in cities throughout the U.S. at this time. The mine was quickly engulfed, with over half the workers dying. Volunteers rushed to the mine and the fire was put out through buckets of water. Volunteers then went inside to find any survivors. Two of them died from the fumes. Of the 110 dead miners, 72 were married. They left behind 158 children.

A few days later, a coroner’s inquest launched an investigation of the fire. The mine’s managers hinted that the WBA had committed arson, as the workers had recently returned from a brief strike. WBA representative Henry Evans had a very different response, damning a system of incredible danger. In response to someone telling him he was condemning the system, he replied, “That is exactly the intention. We miners intend to prove here who is responsible for that system. We intend to prove that it is wrong – WRONG – to send men to work in such mines, and that we have known it for long years; but we must work or starve; that is where the miners stand on this question, and we mean to use this occasion to prove it.” The WBA had held meetings around the state after the fire to demand change. WBA president John Siney told workers:

Men, if you must die with your boots on, die for your families, your homes, your country, but do not consent to die like rats in a trap for those who take no more interest in you than in the pick you dig with. Let me ask if the men who own this mine would as unhesitatingly go down in it to win bread as the poor fellows who lives were snuffed beneath where you stand and who shall henceforth live with us only as a memory. If they did, would they not provide more than one avenue of escape? Aye, men, they surely would and what they would do for themselves they must be compelled by law to do for their workmen.

The inquest went on to find that the fire and the gases caused by it killed the miners and suggested more ventilation systems in the mines to prevent future disasters, but the mine owners were not charged with any crimes.

A few workers here or there would not create any sort of legal challenge to the unregulated mining system. But 110 dead workers would. With outrage pouring in from around the state and the nation, politicians were moved to act. The state of Pennsylvania responded with the passage of first comprehensive mine safety legislation in American history. First, later in 1869, it passed a law specific to Schuykill County and the next year for the whole state. It mandated at least two mine exits and better ventilation systems. It banned boys under the age of 12 from working in the mines and created a system of inspections for the state’s mines. It also criminalized actions that workers took in the mines that might make them more unsafe, which might include riding on loaded coal cars or carrying lit matches into areas with gas lamps. This fundamentally blamed accidents on workers, which has been at the base of most workplace safety law and attitudes through American history, at least up to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. That took attention and responsibility away from employers and from work processes that were inherently unsafe in an age where profit was deified. Given that workers were often paid by the ton and that they were not paid for any safety work that they were nonetheless required to perform, it’s hardly surprising that many of them would seek to cut corners on safety when they were trying to feed their families.

Even these minimal laws were largely unenforced. Pennsylvania and the coal industry at large would suffer disaster after disaster and even continues to do so today. Some of this is the nature of mining underground, but this is almost always exacerbated by corporate indifference to workers’ lives, most notoriously in recent years by Don Blankenship, whose personal intervention in avoiding safety regulations killed 29 of his workers. Still, Pennsylvania did periodically attempt to expand upon the post-Avondale laws, including creating a state hospital for those injured in the coal mines in 1879 and an 1881 law requiring any mine with more than 20 employees to have a way to take injured miners to their homes or a hospital when they got hurt. But these laws were barely window dressing and workers continued to die. It does seem that there was a brief decrease in the death rates in the mines up until about 1875 but it stagnated for decades after that.

I borrowed from Perry Blatz, Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875-1925 and David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Dying for Work: Workers Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America in the writing of this post.

This is the 191st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 5, 1934

[ 9 ] September 5, 2016 |

1934 textile general strike

On September 5, 1934, the governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid mill owners in the textile strike overtaking their state and the east coast. This strike, not only mobilizing the remnant apparel workers of the northeast, but the traditionally anti-union workers of the South, was a shock to the system of the New Deal state, helping it realize the level of worker dissatisfaction and the need for meaningful union legislation.

When the New Deal began, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA was intended to eliminate the cutthroat competition that destroyed profits in many industries of this time, including textiles. Many large manufacturers supported it, hoping it would drive out low-end competition and consolidate industries. But the NIRA also included a half-thought out provision called Section 7(a) that granted workers the right to form a union free from employer interference. Although Roosevelt and his advisors didn’t really see this as an invitation for workers to organize, workers themselves saw it that way. And in 1934, they acted on it. The textile strike was the 4th major worker rebellion of this arguably most radical year of American labor history, along with the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the Auto-Lite workers in Toledo, and the longshoremen in San Francisco. The NIRA helped spawn this by establishing minimum wages, including in textiles, but not really giving workers any way to enforce this or any of their rights. The textile industry accepted the minimum wages, but sped up work to make up for their lost profits, angering workers.

The textile strike was organized by the United Textile Workers in a rapidly changing world for the apparel industry. The socialism of the Jewish apparel workers in New York and the willingness of other immigrant workers to join radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in places like Lawrence and Paterson convinced textile factory operators to start moving production to the South. They chose that area because white workers there already operated in a paternalistic relationship with local elites, because there was no tradition of socialism and a strong suspicion of outsiders, and because evangelical religion would reinforce pro-employer messages. As early as 1894, New England textile companies were convincing southern states like Alabama to repeal their child labor laws with promises they would move their operations south. By the early 1930s, 70 percent of American apparel production was located in southern factories.

By the late 1920s, as the nation’s economy contracted, the textile companies decided to make up for lost profits by stretching workers’ ability to the breaking point. They sped up production on the lines. The “stretch-out,” as it was called,” infuriated workers. Strikes, albeit mostly unorganized, sparked across the South. Larger strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929 were repressed by the police. The factory owners, the police, and politicians were determined to keep their towns union-free. As still happens today in southern organizing campaigns, unions are demonized as something northern and something foreign.

So the UTW, which had organized some plants in the northern states, was desperate for victories in the South. Like the CIO a dozen years later, it knew it could not survive or thrive if it did not organize the South because capital mobility would destroy the union. The impetus for the strike was not only years of the stretch-out but also the NRA deciding to grant southern textile owners wishes to increase worker hours without increasing wages earlier that year. So it sought to make a big statement in the southern factories that would determine the fate of the strike. At first, the UTW was hesitant to go ahead with the strike as the NRA responded to the outrage by agreeing to give it a voice. But continued anger in the Southern mills forced the leadership to reevaluate their decision. The UTW developed a list of demands that included the raising of the minimum wage from $13 to $30 a week, the end of the stretch-out, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired unionists.

The workers in North Carolina were the most important because of the size of the workforce there. The strike exploded there on Labor Day, September 3, when 65,000 workers walked off the job. The UTW was well aware how hard it would be to organize these southern factories and so they employed innovative tactics to convince the workers to come out, using their smaller numbers of committed activists to create flying squadrons that went factory to factory convincing workers to walk off the job.

The strike spread quickly. 200,000 workers from Rhode Island to Georgia were on strike by September 4. 325,000 were out by September 5. Politicians and factory owners soon cracked down. On September 5, North Carolina governor John Ehringhaus called out the National Guard. That started the crackdown. Rhode Island governor T.F. Green did the same. By September 9, South Carolina had instituted a partial state of martial law. Georgia did the same under the leadership of the reprehensible governor Eugene Talmadge. Workers were ready to fight back. They armed themselves and continued striking. But the UTW had its work cut out for it in the South. The overwhelming pressure against the union began to undermine its support in the South, which simply lacked any sympathetic institutions that would bolster tired and hungry strikers. The UTW had promised to feed strikers, but did not have the resources to follow through. At its peak, about 1/2 of workers in North Carolina and South Carolina and 3/4 in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were on strike. But they began drifting back.

The Roosevelt administration responded quickly to the strike, held a quick investigation and issued a report. It had very moderate recommendations, such as more studies on the stretch-out and urging employers not to discriminate against strikers on the job. When the report was issued, Roosevelt urged the strikers to return to work. The UTW, seeing the strike begin to collapse, declared victory and ended it. But the UTW was finished. The southern plants would go decades before serious unionization campaigns reappeared. The employers completely ignored the report and refused to hire thousands of strikers. The UTW simply did not have the resources to build on the strike, or in any case, they did not really try. They did not see this as the beginning of a longer-term organizing campaign and seek to send more organizers to the South. The ability of the textile companies to successfully blacklist thousands of workers without union challenge was the best argument they had against future unions. It worked for a very long time.

If the textile strike did little for the involved workers, it did very much add to the pressure the federal government felt to build on Section 7(a) and pass real pro-union legislation. When the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, the Roosevelt administration responded with the National Labor Relations Act, which went very far to provide what many American workers demanded.

To this day, South Carolina and North Carolina are the two least unionized states in the United States.

This is the 190th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Also, Happy Labor Day!

This Day in Labor History: September 3, 1991

[ 38 ] September 3, 2016 |

On September 3, 1991, a chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught of fire thanks to nonexistent safety procedures, killing 25 workers and injuring another 55. This was the largest workplace disaster in North Carolina history. This entirely avoidable accident was reminiscent of workplace disasters of the past, with open employer contempt for safety regulations and the lives of their workers.

The building where the chicken factory was located was built in the early twentieth century and had been used in various food processing operations in the past, including as an ice cream factory. In 1980, it was purchased by Imperial Foods. This was a company was a terrible safety reputation in its other plants. Its plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania was cited for managers locking exit doors. Its Cumming, Georgia plant had a fire in 1989 that caused over $1 million in damage, although no fatalities. The corporate hostility to basic safety procedures would be repeated in Hamlet. The factory had no fire alarm system. The factory was used to process chicken for fast food restaurants and pre-frozen products for grocery stores. That meant cutting, bagging, weighing, and, most importantly for this story, frying it. About three-quarters of the workers were African-Americans. Hamlet is a small town close to the South Carolina border and the worker histories reflected that. Many of these workers had grown up doing farm work in the area and for some, this was their first factory job.

Imperial’s CEO Emmett Roe had moved from Pennsylvania to the South in order to bust the unions in his plants there and move to a state with a “more favorable regulatory climate,” i.e., the kind of state that won’t inspect your factories or enforce safety violations. Among other states, he chose North Carolina. A state in bed with the agricultural industry if there ever was one, North Carolina regulators never inspected the factory because the budget for inspections was minuscule. In 11 years of operation, it received no fire inspections. The factory did undergo repeated inspections from the company’s poultry inspector. Workers complained about the terrible smell and quality of meat, with at least one telling an inspector that the meat processed into chicken nuggets was particularly awful. According to one survivor of the fire, the plant managers locked the door to stop workers from stealing chicken. This was the same excuse sweatshop managers gave to locking the doors at Triangle when that disaster killed 146 workers in 1911.

The fire began when the deep fryer caught fire after a hydraulic line to a cooking vat failed, with obvious problems with it not found because of the company’s indifferent safety culture. It spread very quickly thanks to a combination of burning cooking oil, insulation, and exploding gas lines hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t help that all of the phones inside the building were nonfunctional. The workers at the front of the plant all managed to get out. But at the back of the plant the company did not place any fire alarms. Moreover, Imperial managers not only locked all the exits but sealed the windows as well. Those workers had nowhere to go. As an old plant, it was a maze of paths inside. The smoke meant they couldn’t find their way to the front. They were doomed. Like at Triangle, which this fire reminded many of, a few workers did get out the back by breaking open a locked loading bay, but most died. On one door, near charred bodies, blackened footprints could still be seen, signs of the desperate attempt to escape. Eighteen of the dead were women. Most of the dead were African-American.

Much later, survivor Lily Davis remembered the day of the fire:

“When I woke up that morning on the day of the fire, I had said to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m going to work today,” she said. “But I knew there was a holiday coming up and if I didn’t go to work that morning I wouldn’t get paid for the holiday. I was at the plant and had changed into my white coat. Everybody was saying they didn’t want to come to work either. They wanted a longer time off, but if we hadn’t gone in, we wouldn’t have gotten paid for the holiday.”

“I went down to the line where the fire happened before it happened,” Davis said. “That was where you weigh the chicken. And my boss man came up and said, ‘I want you to lay out tenders today.’ I told him I didn’t want to go, and he walked off. But then he came back and saw I was still there, put his hands on his hips and gave me this look, so I went.”

“It was always cold in there and those tenders come right out of the refrigerator,” she said. “After a while, your legs feel like they’re not even there. Then all of a sudden the lights went out and we heard somebody yelling, ‘Y’all need to get out of here! This place is on fire!”

Davis said the next thing she knew, the lady who managed the tenders line had gotten everyone to hold hands and told them they would all go out together.

“We were down near the floor and nobody could see,” Davis said. “But we finally got there when somebody yelled, ‘The door is locked! We can’t get out!”

Davis said that’s when the hand-holding stopped. People began to panic, running into other parts of the plant in search of a way out. But it was dark, she said.

“I said, ‘Lord, what am I going to do? How can I get out of here?” Davis said. “And I heard a voice to my right that said, ‘Just sit down right here where you are.’ So I said, ‘What in the world can I do from right here? I can’t see. If only I had some light I could get out.’ And that voice said, ‘You can pray.’”

Davis said she sat down on the floor and began to pray. She doesn’t remember how long she prayed or what she was praying.

“Then a hole opened up in the ceiling,” she said. “I remember feeling so peaceful and good, and then I just fell asleep.”

Davis does not remember anything specific to the plant after that moment.

There was both a state and a federal investigation of the fire. The state passed the buck. The state labor commissioner said that his department did not have enough money (true, thanks to the notoriously anti-labor North Carolina legislature. Even today, NC has the lowest union density rate in the nation). He also blamed the federal government for not enforcing safety standards (OK, but that is indeed passing the buck).

Three men faced charges for the fire. Imperial Foods owner Emmett Roe, his son, and the plant manager. They all took plea bargains. Since Roe had personally directed the locking of the doors, he received a prison sentence of nearly 20 years, less than a year for each of the murders he committed. He served four years in prison. Imperial Foods also received an $800,000 fine. The factory was never reopened. 215 people lost their jobs. The federal government ordered North Carolina to improve its worker safety legislation or the government would do it for them. This did lead to the passage of 14 new laws, including a whistleblower law, as well as a near doubling of state workplace safety inspectors.

Memorializing the deaths also faulted along state lines. For the survivors, this was not only a labor rights issue, but a civil rights issue. They invited Jesse Jackson to the town to speak at the memorial. For Hamlet’s conservative white elite, Jackson was anathema. So there were two memorial services with two monuments next to each other.

The factory remains were bulldozed in 2001 because of the psychological damage it caused the survivors and the firefighters who saw it. Eight survivors lived within viewing distance of it.

Here is a 22 minute film from 1994 on the fire and its survivors.

The Hamlet fire also spawned this Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra song.

This is the 189th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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