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Tag: "labor"

Next in the Attack on Public Sector Unionism

[ 7 ] August 22, 2014 |

Moshe Marvit with the next round of attacks on public sector unionism from the people who brought you Harris v. Quinn. Basically, they are going after the entire idea of exclusive representation in all states. Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that the principle will last, even though it is foundational to American labor law:

On the heels of its recent Supreme Court victory in Harris v. Quinn, the National Right to Work Committee and Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) has initiated a bold new attack on unions.

In a recent fundraising appeal sent on August 10, the president of both organizations wrote that Harris “was just the beginning,” and that fair share provisions (or, as he called them, “forced dues”) were only “part of the problem.” Now, having succeeded in imposing a right-to-work model for home healthcare workers across the country, NRTW is gunning after a much greater and unexpected target: exclusive representation.

One of the bedrock principles of American labor law is exclusive representation, whereby a union represents all the workers in a bargaining unit after it shows majority support by the workers. In a new case filed on behalf of a few Minnesota home care workers, Bierman v. Dayton, NRTW is now arguing that a union elected by the majority of workers should not be permitted to represent anyone that does not choose to join.

Last week, I wrote about a new positive experiment in members-only unionism at Volkswagen, which does not follow the exclusive representation model. If it is successful, Bierman v. Dayton would transform all public-sector unions into forced members-only unions, opening the door to a radical reconfiguration of public labor organizations.

In Minnesota, 26,000 home health care workers are currently voting by mail-in ballot whether to elect SEIU as their union. Those ballots are due by August 25. In its first maneuver of Bierman v. Dayton, NRTW filed for a preliminary injunction to invalidate the state law that authorized these workers to vote for a union—in other words, an exclusive representative—to bargain with the state. Expedited oral arguments were held on Tuesday, and on Wednesday afternoon the federal judge denied NRTW’s request for an injunction.

This early loss was to be expected, as NRTW is mounting a novel legal argument that runs counter to decades of labor and constitutional law. And NRTW’s litigation strategy generally includes repeated early losses as its representatives work their way through the judicial circuits to the Supreme Court.

The Seafarers

[ 7 ] August 19, 2014 |

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 film The Seafarers, a promotional film he did for the Seafarers International Union. I couldn’t find an easily accessible copy at the time but have since alleviated that problem. Here it is, although not entirely safe for work given that seamen love pictures of topless women and evidently so does Kubrick.

Now, this is not the greatest film ever, nor does it really showcase Kubrick’s future talents, although the long, languorous shot of the food in the cafeteria is pretty great. Really, it’s more interesting as a window inside the mid-20th century labor movement. If you are looking for your leftist ideal of a labor movement, replete with socialism, cross-movement solidarity, etc., you never were going to find it in the SIU. It was formed as an AFL counter to Harry Bridges’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). What this union is about, as it states repeatedly, is security for workers. For most workers, this is the most important thing a union can offer and it, not radical social change, was at the core of labor’s appeal. This film was intended for use in convincing new members to sign up and it’s pretty effective in that, focusing on the concrete benefits for workers and their families and the internal democracy of the union.

Narrated by Don Hollenbeck of CBS News (imagine the reaction if Brian Williams or Wolf Blitzer narrated a union promotional film today!), this is just a really useful document for understanding American unionism at the peak of its power.

The Deadly Workplaces of Texas

[ 31 ] August 16, 2014 |

Excellent Dallas Morning News expose on dangerous work in the Texas construction industry.

More workers die here than in any other state. On average, a Texas worker is 12 percent more likely to be killed on the job than someone doing the same job elsewhere, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of federal data.

That translates to about 580 excess workplace deaths over a decade.

Construction has contributed mightily to Texas’ booming economy. And the state’s construction sites are 22 percent deadlier than the national average.

Forty percent of Texas’ excess death toll was among roofers, electricians and others in specialty construction trades. Such workers are sometimes treated as independent contractors, leaving them responsible for their own safety equipment and training. Many are undocumented immigrants.

Government and industry here have invested relatively little in safety equipment, training and inspections, researchers say. And Texas is one of the toughest places to organize unions, which can promote safety.

“There’s a Wild West culture here,” said University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity, who has written several books about regulation. Texans often think, “We don’t want some nanny state telling workers how to work and, by implication, telling employers how to manage the workplace,” he said.

The Texas construction industry flourishes in the state’s business-friendly climate, Gov. Rick Perry has said.

“Let free enterprise reign, and be wary of overregulation,” he declared in a 2009 speech at the Central Texas Construction Expo. “All that regulation adds to your overhead, and you can’t operate at a profit.”

Which is more important than keeping workers alive.

What causes this higher danger?

A 2013 report by the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based advocacy group, estimated that 41 percent of construction workers in Texas are improperly treated as independent contractors.

A state law passed in the last legislative session allows a fine of $200 for each misclassified worker found at a publicly funded project. The Texas Workforce Commission says it has issued one fine under the new law.

In Illinois, a similar law also covers construction companies working on private projects. A roofing contractor there was fined $1.6 million for having 10 misclassified workers.

“Now that’s a deterrent,” said Mike Cunningham, executive director of a labor union association called Texas Building Trades.

What would fix the problem?

Texas is a right-to-work state. That means workers aren’t required to join a union if one exists for their shop. Texas has the sixth-lowest rate of union membership in the country.

The News’ analysis found that states with weaker labor unions tended to have a higher fatality rate. Long-term academic research that studied other factors has come to similar conclusions.

Of course.

In conclusion, Texans will continue to die while working construction. That many are undocumented immigrants is a feature of the system.

Who Are Minimum Wage Workers?

[ 5 ] August 14, 2014 |

Good run-down:

What’s the breakdown of those being paid the minimum wage by age? In particular, how many are teenagers or in their early 20s?

Of the 3.3 million minimum-wage workers in 2013, about one-quarter were between the ages of 16-19, another one-quarter were between the ages of 20-24, and half were over the age of 25.

What’s the breakdown of those being paid the minimum wage by full-time and part-time work status?

Of the 3.3 million minimum-wage workers in 2013, 1.2 million were full-time, and 2.1 million were part-time–that is, roughly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are part-time.

What’s the breakdown of those being paid the minimum wage across regions?

For the country as a whole, remember, 4.3% of those being paid hourly wages get the minimum wage or less. If the states are divided into nine regions the share of hourly-paid workers getting the minimum wage in each region varies like this: New England, 3.3%; Middle Atlantic, 4.8%; East North Central, 4.3%, West North Central, 4.6%; South Atlantic, 5.1%; East South Central, 6.3%; West South Central, 6.3%; Mountain, 3.9%; Pacific, 1.5%.

The BLS has state-by-state figures, too. There are two main reasons for the variation. Average wages can vary considerably across states, and in areas with lower wages, more workers end up with the minimum wage. In addition, 23 states have their own minimum wage that is set above the federal level. In those state, fewer workers (with exceptions often made in certain categories like food service workers who get tips) are paid below the federal minimum wage. It’s an interesting political dynamic that many of those who favor a higher federal minimum wage are living in states where the minimum wage is above the federal level; in effect, they are advocating that states who have not adopted the minimum wage policy preferred in their own state be required to do so.

The reality is that just as fast food workers are saying, their struggle is not just for a few more cents or dollars, but is in fact a civil rights struggle, as so many of these workers are people of color denied access to higher level jobs. As they begin to use the more in your face tactics of the civil rights movement like civil disobedience, which the more activist workers are pushing for, this will become an increasing part of the fast food workers movement, such a central group in the larger minimum wage struggle.

Drought and Farmworkers

[ 25 ] August 11, 2014 |

The California drought has not only devastated owners, but the workers who rely upon migrant farm work to survive:

On July 11, Camacho was working at a health resource fair in Mendota, a rural farming community west of Fresno. Of the 100 or so farmworkers who attended, Camacho says more than half were being affected by the drought. “What people are saying is that there’s just not the same amount of work that there was prior to the drought,” Camacho says. “People are out of work. People can’t pay their bills, their mortgage. They can’t support their families.”

Camacho says the decrease in work may be depressing wages as well. “We hear about workers asking for wage increases and getting laid off because there’s someone else willing to work for $9 per hour,” he says, which is below the mean wage for farmworkers in Fresno County, according to the BLS. “People should be paid more but there are others willing to work for less.”

Camacho has also heard about farmworkers who are giving up on finding work for the season. Workers who came up to Fresno County from Coachella and El Centro have gone back home, he says, “because there’s no work.”

Cortes, of the UFW, says he is even seeing farm worker families leave the area. The UFW has contracts with many growers in the area, but Cortes says the farms have all reduced planting by 30 to 40 percent this year because of the drought. The season started about a month ago, he says, and it will be over in just three to four weeks because of the smaller crop size.

For some growers, reducing the size of this year’s crop has not been enough to stave off economic ruin. One UFW-contracted grower hired just 400 farmworkers instead of its usual 600 to harvest its tomato and melon crop this year. Despite these cuts, Cortes recently received a letter informing him that the grower is going out of business. Now those 400 farmworkers will have to find other jobs. (He did not reveal the name of the employer because negotiations for possible severance pay are confidential and ongoing.) According to Cortes, many of the workers are considering moving to Oregon or Washington, where they hope to find steadier employment.

As a former farm worker who has been on staff with the union for six years, Cortes describes a season of hopelessness for farmworkers around Madera, the county north of Fresno where he’s based. “Farmworkers are not getting any support from the growers,” he says. “The growers have support from the governor and the federal government, but the farmworkers get nothing.” According to Cortes, more than 90 percent of the farmworkers he organizes are undocumented immigrants, which limits their ability to receive government aid. According to the California Economic Development Department, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to seek unemployment insurance.

And of course the government does nothing for the workers because the unjust immigration system makes them “illegal.”

This Day in Labor History: August 11, 1911

[ 26 ] August 11, 2014 |

On August 11, 1911, workers at the Watertown Arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts walked off the job as the scientific management ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor began to be applied to their work. This resistance of corporate micromanagement of work was a last ditch attempt by American industrial workers to remain masters of their own labor, even within the factory system that had already degraded their skills and independence.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was an aristocratic Philadelphian who after a few years working as a manual laborer, chose to dedicate his life to making industrial labor more efficient and streamlined. He began managing some Maine paper mills before starting his own efficiency practice in Philadelphia in 1893. His first big job was with Bethlehem Steel between 1898 and 1901, when he was forced out for clashing with other managers, a frequent problem for the bullheaded Taylor.

Taylor believed that workers were nothing more than inefficient machines and like real machines could be time and trained to do more work at a greater speed for less money per unit, thus increasing both productivity and profit. Taylor himself publicized his work in his famous book, The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911. Interestingly. Taylor didn’t come up with the term “scientific management.” Rather, he borrowed it from Louis Brandeis, who coined it the year before in arguing a case about railroads before the Interstate Commerce Commission, borrowing from Taylor’s ideas to argue that railroads could raise wages without raising freight rates. Taylor fundamentally thought working people were stupid, a not uncommon belief for the Gilded Age. He said:

the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.

Taylor’s ideas, and those of other pioneers of scientific management, became popular among the nation’s industrialists by the 1900s. As increasingly huge corporations sought to maximize profit, controlling the lives of workers on the shop floor became more appealing. While the industrial system had long exploited workers, in many ways, workers still ran the shop floors with a significant degree of autonomy. The long cherished freedom of individual labor had long disappeared by the early 20th century, but the masculine idea of a man having some control over his labor remained strong.

In 1909, General William Crozier, head of the Army Ordinance Department, visited Taylor about his methods. This military facility was one of the nation’s largest arsenals, established in 1816 but turned into a site of gun carriage manufacturing only in 1892. Taylor and his acolytes, particularly Carl Barth, began implementing Taylorist ideas of reorganization. This immediately got the attention of workers, not only in Watertown but around the country. The International Association of Machinists urged members to complain to their congressmen. But when Taylor sent Dwight Merrick to Watertown in May 1911 with a stopwatch to time workers, the workers erupted in fury. Taylor warned the officers to not completely implement a time study plan without prior preparation of the workers, but seeking quick results they did anyway. The workers then walked off the job after one worker refused to allow Merrick to time him and was fired for subordination.

The Watertown molders wrote to Lieutenant Colonel C.B. Wheeler, commanding officer of the arsenal:

Dear Sir: The very unsatisfactory conditions which have prevailed in the foundry among the molders for the past week or more reached an acute stage this afternoon when a man was seen to use as top watch on one of the molders. This we believe to be the limit of our endurance. It is humiliating to us, who have always tried to give to the Government the best that was in us. This method is un-American in principle, and we most respectfully request that you have it discontinued at once.

We feel justified in making this request, on the ground that some two years ago you told a committee of the molders that you were well satisfied with the output of that department; also Gen. Crozier gave his word to a committee that waited upon him in Washington that he would not install any part o the Taylor system that might be objectionable to the men; and we assure that this part of the system will not be tolerated by the molders.

I love this letter because you can really feel the outrage. These men are insulted. They have pride in their work and they work hard. And then some college boy with a stopwatch comes around and tells them they aren’t working hard enough! That new technology must be used to speed up their work! No way! Moreover, they show how often early Taylorism to be a total failure because rather than increase efficiency, they caused strikes. Taylor’s hard-headed ways of running these experiments routinely led to these problems and thus most of his personal work was a failure.

The strike itself was short, lasting only until August 18 when the fired worker was reinstated and the Ordinance Department promised an investigation of the new management techniques. Taylor was furious that the officers had not followed his plans to the tee and thus precipitated the strike and the bad publicity that went along with it. The strike led to hearings in the House Labor Committee over Taylorism. They were testy, in no small part because Taylor was not good at hiding his contempt for workers and their dignity. When asked by Rep. William Wilson, a former official of the United Mine Workers and future Secretary of Labor under Woodrow Wilson, about his method, Taylor said “the ordinary pig-iron man is not suited for shoveling coal because he is too stupid. But a first-class man who could lift a shovel weighing twenty one and a half pounds cold move a pile of coal lickety-split.” Wilson responded, “but what about the effects on a man who wasn’t first-class? Taylor dismissed the concern: “Scientific management has no place for a bird that can sing and won’t sing.” Wilson was furious: “We are not dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are part of society and for whose benefit society is organized”

Oh how antiquated, thinking workers were humans. Congress did act on the workers’ anger, first taking apart Taylor’s system at Watertown and later banning the use of stopwatches to time workers in factories. Taylor personally suffered a major setback here, but his ideas of scientific management and efficiency based upon making workers’ lives worse continued to advance. No one did more on this front than Henry Ford, whose vaunted $5 a day wage has given him an unjustified reputation as a humane boss. But the reality was that Ford extracted his pound of flesh for that $5, working laborers so hard and with such speed and efficiency that many simply could not hack the work there and had to quit. Treating workers like machines became central to American labor management practices, with the eventual hope to just replacing them with machines, a project that would prove quite successful beginning in the second half of the twentieth century and contributing significantly to the decline of working-class power and economic stability by the latter part of the century.

For further reading on these issues, see Sanford Jacoby, Employing Bureaucracy. I also borrowed some details from Hindy Lauer Schachter, Frederick Taylor and the Public Administration Community.

This is the 115th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Labor Building the Abu Dhabi Artistic Institutions

[ 16 ] August 10, 2014 |

As Molly Crabapple reports, the Abu Dhabi elites have decided to purchase western culture and bring it to their city are doing so on the backs of horribly exploited immigrant laborers who lack rights. This is the same labor who dies building NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, soccer stadiums in Qatar, and now outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim. The workers fight back and fight back hard but between lacking legal status, the indifference of the involved western institutions, and violence, the odds they face are huge. And how do you stop it? To do so, you have to force legal regimes onto mobile capitalism, as some in the Abu Dhabi workers’ struggles understand:

Defenders of Western institutions in Abu Dhabi are right about one thing. They are not unique. The labor abuses at the Louvre or NYU are the same labor abuses that are happening throughout the UAE. The UAE is not the worst country for workers in the Gulf, and the Gulf is not the worst region for workers in the world. Most countries sustain themselves on the labor of transient, disposable people. This may be unofficial, as in the United States (our agricultural industry would collapse overnight without undocumented migrants), or it may be institutionalized, as in the UAE.

“Capital is global and derives its velocity from replicating the same model everywhere. Gulf Labor is arguing for a global, humane, and fair standard of labor and migration regulations to accompany, and slow down, global capital,” said Naeem Mohaiemen, a New York–based Bangladeshi artist who is a member of Gulf Labor. “The implications can be staggering. If Saadiyat implemented world-standard labor and migration rights, that could become a precedent for implementing the same standards in the entire region. Then people would ask, what about migrant labor in Malaysia? In Texas? And so on…”

These are indeed the questions we should be asking, arguing for a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom in workplace standards.

Thorne Auchter

[ 15 ] August 7, 2014 |

When we think back to the Reagan Administration, there are so many loathsome characters. Oliver North. John Poindexter. James Watt. Jeane Kirkpatrick. Ed Meese. We could go on and on. But as happens in any modern Republican administration, there are all sorts of really powerful appointees who go totally under the radar. Because of my logging book, I became acquainted with one Thorne Auchter, a Florida construction contractor who Reagan named as head of OSHA. Auchter completely turned OSHA away from the semi-crusading agency it was during the Carter years under the leadership of Eula Bingham and moved it toward an employer services agency that it so often remains today. Part of the process was Auchter killing a bunch of OSHA videos the agency made to help workers fight for safety and health on the job. But you can see them here and they are pretty great.

Imagine, a government that sought to help workers rather than plutocrats. I know it must be dream.

Which Side Am I On? When it Comes to American Labor Unions, the Side of American Workers

[ 55 ] August 6, 2014 |

Andrew Ross’ position in this debate at Truthout over Israel and Palestine bothered me because he calls for the American labor movement to support the BDS movement. Although I personally support BDS, I don’t see why American labor would do that. How would this benefit American workers? What possible upside is there here? Who would make such a decision? Would it be democratic or would it be a top-down decision made by the big union bureaucrats the left loves to hate? Because when it comes to foreign policy and organized labor, the left does seem to be interested in a top down approach to these problems. Well, either that or this debate is existing in a fairyland that believes American workers would care enough about the issue and then vote or otherwise democratically decide to take a position on a foreign policy question that does not concern their lives specifically–and that those workers would take the left-wing position on that foreign policy question.

In other words, this is the kind of the debate that a place like Truthout loves (and that’s fine) but which doesn’t have any real resonance for American workers as they exist in the real world.

There is a weird relationship between the left and organized labor on foreign policy. We all know how horrible the AFL-CIO was in the Cold War, supporting right-wing coups, serving as willing dupes of the CIA, etc. It’s an awful and inexcusable history. I think there is also absolutely no question that to extent that American rank and file workers had opinions on these issues, the overwhelming majority were anti-communist and would have fully supported its leaders in fighting communism. But left more unquestioned is why American labor should have a foreign policy on issues outside of those affecting workers overseas. When, broadly conceived, there are lots of workers in both Israel and Palestine, it’s unclear what the point of getting involved would be. Justice, you say. But is worldwide justice on all issues in fact the point of the labor movement?

In the end, the left wants organized labor to be the IWW. But while the Wobblies were very good at international solidarity, they not only had very little ability to mobilize American workers on these questions, but these positions were largely held by even a small number of Wobblies–its small leadership class, some of its east coast unions, and the hard-core syndicalists. Even for the IWW, the majority of its rank and file members ranged from not caring to being quite pro-patriotism on foreign policy issues, at least in my reading of the union’s history and exploring the relationship between committed Wobblies who wrote in Industrial Worker and people who joined up because it gave them some hope to improve their lives.

If the left critiques organized labor as having a bad foreign policy, in the past if not in the present, the other major critique is that unions are undemocratic and that this lack of democracy is a major reason for the decline of the labor movement. While I agree that there isn’t a lot of democratic decision making in many unions, I rather strongly disagree that it is why labor is struggling today (the structural changes of automation, globalization, capital mobility, and the organized business lobby are far more important). I think a real problem a lot of leftists have in conceptualizing labor is that they assume democracy=the position in which they believe. But of course, democratic decision making in labor unions in the last 50 years would have meant (and often did mean) racial segregation. It meant gender discrimination. It meant hating environmentalists who were not at fault for workers’ lost jobs. It also meant a Cold War foreign policy. And today, it would probably mean supporting Israel, not Palestine. And if Ross and others want the AFL-CIO leadership to make bold pronouncements on these issues, I do think they have to reconcile it with whether such a decision would represent the rank and file in any meaningful way.

Personally, I don’t think American labor has too much business getting involved in these questions, especially given the dire situation it finds itself in. Yes, taking more positions on international issues that aren’t directly related to its own interests but that are just might endear it to the left, but that’s a very small number of people and it always was. When the communists ran the International Woodworkers of America in the late 1930s, the newspaper ran tons of stories on the Spanish Civil War and other anti-fascist stories. The newspaper focusing on this stuff instead of the actual organizing of Northwestern loggers was a powerful tool in the hands of the anti-communists, who eventually won control of the union with the assistance of John L. Lewis and his lieutenant Adolph Gerner. But that battle wasn’t just top down. It was basically the entire rank and file in Oregon revolting against the communists near the Canadian border. It does not help us understand the labor movement to assume the rank and file always wanted to move to the left and the big bad leadership wanted to move to the right. Often, it was the opposite of that. I’m not confident the situation would be any more favorable to the left with the American rank and file today.

This is probably too long of a post for a relatively minor article, but I think the point is important. Promoting American labor taking controversial foreign policy stances is probably pretty undemocratic and doesn’t help American unions organize workers or represent the ones they have under contract. If American unions do want to take this issue on, then they should go for it, but I don’t see much evidence that it would be on the side of Palestine and if it wasn’t, it’s far too easy to just dismiss this as another example of the legacy of the Cold War. Because again, I’m not seeing a rank and file clamor for American labor to expend political capital support Palestine.

Unpaid Internships

[ 25 ] August 5, 2014 |

The more unpaid interns who sue profitable companies taking advantage of the system to exploit labor without paying them, the sooner this system of exploitation will end.

The Impact of the NLRB McDonald’s Franchise Decision

[ 23 ] July 31, 2014 |

Yesterday’s decision by National Labor Relations Board general counsel Richard Griffin declaring corporations joint employers of the workers in their franchises is a big, big deal. Couple of key rundowns from Steven Greenhouse, Alec MacGillis, and Seth Michaels.

Effectively, Obama’s NLRB has moved the needle significantly toward some of the nation’s poorest and most exploited workers. It gives workers a significant legal tool in their fight for a $15 hourly wage in fast food and is likely to have a domino effect across the subcontracted, temporary, outsourced, and franchised economy. Corporations have spend decades coming up with shady labor practices in order to avoid responsibility for workers, leading to rampant exploitation of workers with no hope of rising toward a middle class. This ruling may well begin the process of changing that by taking away the incentives for corporations to not directly hire their workers. Of course, an appeal is coming and so there is a long ways to go and many fights still to come.

In other words, both parties are the same and Rand Paul is the only progressive alternative in 2016.

Labor and Climate Change

[ 1 ] July 29, 2014 |

The stereotype is that unions oppose any action to fight climate change. Certainly that’s true for some unions, especially the Laborers and United Mine Workers. But it is not true for all unions. In fact, like most issues, organized labor is divided over climate change. That however means there are unions that see the absolute necessity for alliances with environmental organizations and to participate on the side of environmentalism. After all, climate change is very much a working class issue as the effects will be felt disproportionately by the poor.

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