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Tag: "labor"

Pennsylvania Professor Strike, Day 3: Where is Tom Wolf?

[ 9 ] October 21, 2016 |


APSCUF is still on strike against the PASSHE schools in Pennsylvania, protesting the lack of a fair contract offer.

“While the two sides made significant progress in the talks that began Oct. 14, including reaching tentative agreements on more than a dozen issues, including distance education, recruitment and retention of high-quality faculty, and professional responsibilities of faculty outside the classroom, they were not able to reach overall agreement. The union rejected the System’s offer to provide raises to all permanent and temporary faculty and the identical healthcare package that other System employees have.”

Of course, people driving past the strikers, people on comment boards, and other ignorant people are saying this is about wages and greedy professors. But it is not about wages. The offer on salaries is basically terrible. But there are 3 core issues. First is the huge increases in employee healthcare costs. Second is that the schools want to vastly increase the contingent faculty they can hire, of course at very low wages and no benefits. Third, the schools want to destroy shared governance by greatly reducing the power of the Faculty Senate. So far student support has been very strong and very few professors have scabbed, less than 10 at my wife’s school, mostly right-wing Latin Americans and Asians in the business programs, as well as the president’s wife.

My question is where is Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf? APSCUF got on board the Wolf Train early. He hasn’t exactly paid them back here. There are rumors that Wolf is furious with the PASSHE chancellor for creating this strike. I can’t verify those rumors but if true, a public statement that this needs to end and the state system needs to accept the union’s call for binding arbitration would help a lot. Of course, PASSHE doesn’t want to accept that because they know they will get killed in the arbitration because the contract offer is so unfair.


Pennsylvania Faculty on Strike

[ 70 ] October 19, 2016 |


Early this morning, 5500 faculty members on the 14 campuses of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, including my wife, went on strike because of PASSHE’s refusal to offer a fair contract. The university system has sought to effectively destroy these schools. They want to commit to even more adjunct teaching while also lowering adjunct pay up to 20 percent. The schools are offering pathetic pay rates and seeking major health care givebacks. 477 days after the last contract expired, the union (APSCUF) was willing to continue meeting, but as the hours wound down, PASSHE refused to come back to the table. APSCUF is trying to argue for binding arbitration. But the schools, with a weak hand because of the absurdity of the offer, refuses to agree to that. The strike will end if PASSHE agrees to that binding arbitration. Until then, the corporate war on higher education has forced 105,000 students to not get an education.

I know this isn’t Yale, Harvard, Columbia, or any of the New York schools that the lefties who went to those schools teach at since many couldn’t imagine lighting out for the territories. So this strike probably won’t get the kind of attention that we saw at Long Island University. But it’s equally important. More will be forthcoming.

…Since there seems to be some confusion, this has nothing to do with Penn State University. These are the affected schools.

A Wall of Taco Trucks

[ 33 ] October 18, 2016 |


You have love the Culinary Union.

A wall is going up outside the Trump International Las Vegas hotel Wednesday morning.

The Culinary Union, long a Donald Trump antagonist in Las Vegas, is going to “build” a wall of taco trucks outside Trump’s hotel, just a couple miles from UNLV, site of the final presidential debate.

The groups aim to have at least five taco trucks outside the hotel, in addition to a banner in the style of a wall that participants will be able to sign.

“We’re reminding Mr. Trump that immigrant workers here and across the country will be watching the debate and voting in November,” said Yvanna Cancela, the political director for the majority Latino and predominantly immigrant union.

The Culinary Union has held nearly 10 rallies outside Trump’s hotel since workers voted to unionize and won last December. They argue that Trump is illegally refusing to bargain with them.

A wall of taco trucks is going to be far more effective than a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. More realistic too.

This Day in Labor History: October 10, 1933

[ 7 ] October 10, 2016 |


On October 10, 1933, thirty ranchers surrounded a group of agricultural strikers in Pixley, California. They opened fire and killed two. The massacre at Pixley culminated the farm strike that had gone on through the harvesting season and demonstrated the level of violence ranchers would resort to in order to keep labor as exploitable as possible.

With the Great Depression, the decline in commodity prices and the growth of a desperate labor force led California cotton growers to drastically reduce their wages, from $1.50 per 100 pounds of cotton picked in 1928 to 40 cents in 1932. Workers were increasingly angry and desperate. They were also increasingly white, as they began to replace the largely Mexican workforce the farmers usually relied upon. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, founded in 1930, stepped in to organize these workers. This was a communist-led organization seeking to organize the most desperate of workforces in the fields. It was in many ways a successor of Industrial Workers of the World attempts to do the same in the 1910s that had led to the killings at Wheatland, near Pixley, in 1913. The CAWIU engaged in a number of small strikes through 1931 and 1932. Like in Wheatland, the farmers routinely turned to violence to crush these strikes.

By 1933 though, the CAWIU had a strong cadre of experienced organizers who knew the fields and how to organize them. They developed sophisticated financial plans to help them plan for the upcoming strikes in 1933, gaining information about wage rates, crop prices, and when different crops would be ready to pick, all of which helped them coordinate these actions. The demands for these strikes were fairly straightforward–union recognition, higher wages, a shorter workday, no hiring discrimination based on union membership or ethnicity. In other words, these farmworkers were seeking dignity. They also avoided talking about their revolutionary aims, figuring it was easier to organize the workers if they didn’t scare them with rhetoric about communism.

The 1933 strikes began on April 14, when 2000 Mexican, Filipino, and white workers walked off the pea farms. It was once again violently suppressed. Then Mexican fruit workers sought to reject the communist leadership of the CAWIU, working with the Mexican consul to cultivate non-communist leadership. So things started very poorly for the union that year.

But they did win in the cherry orchards, as the pickers managed to withstand violent assaults and force an agreement so the farmers could get their fruit picked before it rotted on the tree. This emboldened the CAWIU, which then held a convention to coordinate the critical late season harvests. They attempted to expand the strategy to include embedding organizers within established unions to build alliances and to make connections with unemployed workers to provide a larger challenge to the farmers and hopefully to undermine scab labor. Even before this strategy was really put into motion though, the CAWIU started winning a bunch of strikes. In the beets and tomatoes, in the peaches and pears, hundreds and then thousands of workers walked off the job and won wage gains. Between the beginning and end of August, the standard wage in California fields rose from 16 cents to 25 cents an hour.

The CAWIU then went to organize the grape farms. This would prove incredibly difficult, as it would for the United Farm Workers three decades later. Growers and police used every force at their disposal, including the American Legion, which effectively operated as a neo-fascist organization committing anti-labor violence from its founding, to brutally beat back the organizers. The grapes would not be organized in 1933.

So they moved onto cotton. This was a largely Mexican labor force, with some African-Americans and whites. As mentioned above, wages had plummeted in recent years. Between 1932 and 1933, the price of cotton had rebounded from its early Depression woes, up 150 percent. The cotton growers did not pass a penny of that onto the workers. The CAWIU realized this was the most crucial crop and its success would be decided here. The union used roving pickets, only when they found workers in the field, which made it very hard for the anti-labor forces, as organized as they were in the grapes, to find the strikers and crush them. A violent attack on strikers in the town of Watsonville only led to greater worker solidarity and determination. Growers attempted to boycott stores that did business with strikers, especially those that gave them credit. This strategy was widely denounced and led to calls for mediation. The union immediately agreed to that. The growers did not.

By October 10, 12,000 cotton workers were on strike. But in Pixley, armed growers opened fire on an unarmed group of strikers. State policemen watched it all happen and did nothing. Two workers died. Eight more were wounded. Another shooting followed shortly thereafter, killing another striker. Local authorities then arrested strikers, accusing them of murdering one of their own. All of this led to widespread negative press for the farmers. Tulare County police were pressured into arresting eight farmers for their role in the Pixley murders, but then also arrested strike leader Pat Chambers as well. Both sides do it.

The Roosevelt administration had hoped to avoid this kind of labor violence. In the fall of 1933, it was just waking up to the extent it would have to do for workers if it wanted labor peace. In this case, it responded by offering relief to the strikers, the first time this had happened in U.S. history. George Creel, most famous for heading the United States Committee on Public Information in World War I, was working for Roosevelt at this time and attempted to intervene, noting that even if agricultural workers were excluded from the National Industrial Recovery Act, they fell under the jurisdiction of his own agency, the National Labor Board. Creel held hearings, hoping to bring the workers off the picket lines, undermine the communists, and create labor peace. He got the growers to go along by agreeing to a wage increase in exchange for cutting off the relief effort. But the CAWIU rejected the agreement. Yet it had few options. On October 27, it finally agreed to call off the strike, even though union recognition had not been achieved.

Around 47,500 people participated in at least one of these strikes in 1933. If anyting, it was a victory for the federal government. The CAWIU would not remain a major player in agricultural organizing but the farmers had been forced to give in as well. This was all predicated on federal intervention in labor struggles, so to be a hallmark of the New Deal.

This is the 195th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

In Conclusion, Both Parties Are the Same

[ 94 ] October 6, 2016 |


As the world’s smartest and most politically brilliant person, Dr. Jill Stein, M.D., repeatedly shows, both parties are the same. Especially on labor law.

The Obama administration, in its latest effort to update workplace policies it says have lagged far behind the realities of Americans’ lives, will require federal government contractors to provide paid sick leave to their workers.

The rule, which was issued on Thursday and which the Labor Department estimates will directly affect more than 1.1 million people once fully in effect, enables workers to accrue up to seven days of paid sick leave a year.

“This is really part of a broader conversation across America about what a 21st-century social compact should look like,” Thomas E. Perez, the labor secretary, said in an interview. “Back in the day, when Beaver Cleaver got sick and June Cleaver was home, who takes off to stay with the Beav was a nonissue. In today’s world of dual-career couples in the work force, our public policy has not caught up.”

The move serves as a coda to the administration’s ongoing efforts to enhance rights and protections for workers, including making millions more eligible for overtime pay and expanding workers’ rights to sue over pay discrimination.

In recent years, more than 20 cities and states around the country have passed laws mandating paid sick leave, which voters generally support, polls show. New York City passed its own such law in 2013 and expanded it the next year. Republican-leaning Arizona appears on the verge of enacting such a measure by a ballot initiative this fall.

But legislation that would mandate paid sick leave nationwide, notably the so-called Healthy Families Act, has stalled in Congress for years, prompting the administration to seek alternative ways of achieving the policy’s goals.

The rule, which does not need additional approval, requires that workers in assignments related to many federal contracts receive one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work, for up to 56 hours of leave a year. Workers will be able to use the days to receive medical attention, care for a relative or deal with complications arising from domestic violence or sexual assault. The rule affects only contracts solicited by the government beginning on Jan. 1, 2017.

Recent data suggest that more than 35 percent of private-sector workers do not have access to paid sick leave.

Jill Stein is the only progressive hope against this bipartisan war on American workers!

How Supply Chains Shelter Corporations from Responsibility

[ 16 ] October 5, 2016 |


This story on cobalt miners for your phones is deeply disturbing.

The Post traced this cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products. It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers. They, in turn, have produced the batteries found inside products such as Apple’s iPhones — a finding that calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labor.

Apple, in response to questions from The Post, acknowledged that this cobalt has made its way into its batteries. The Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant said that an estimated 20 percent of the cobalt it uses comes from Huayou Cobalt. Paula Pyers, a senior director at Apple in charge of supply-chain social responsibility, said the company plans to increase scrutiny of how all its cobalt is obtained. Pyers also said Apple is committed to working with Huayou Cobalt to clean up the supply chain and to addressing the underlying issues, such as extreme poverty, that result in harsh work conditions and child labor.

Another Huayou customer, LG Chem, one of the world’s leading battery makers, told The Post it stopped buying Congo-sourced minerals late last year. Samsung SDI, another large battery maker, said that it is conducting an internal investigation but that “to the best of our knowledge,” while the company does use cobalt mined in Congo, it does not come from Huayou.

Few companies regularly track where their cobalt comes from. Following the path from mine to finished product is difficult but possible, The Post discovered. Armed guards block access to many of Congo’s mines. The cobalt then passes through several companies and travels thousands of miles.

Yet 60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo — a chaotic country rife with corruption and a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources. A century ago, companies plundered Congo’s rubber sap and elephant tusks while the country was a Belgian colony. Today, more than five decades after Congo gained its independence, it is minerals that attract foreign companies.

This is just what is basically the abstract of a long report. The whole thing goes deep into the massive exploitation in the rare earth industry. Just a bit from the details:

The diggers are desperate, said Papy Nsenga, a digger and president of a fledgling diggers union.

Pay is based on what they find. No minerals, no money. And the money is meager — the equivalent of $2 to $3 on a good day, Nsenga said.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” he said.

And when accidents occur, diggers are on their own.

Last year, after one digger’s leg was crushed and another suffered a head wound in a mine collapse, Nsenga was left to raise the hundreds of dollars for treatment from other diggers. The companies that buy the minerals rarely help, Nsenga and other diggers said.

Deaths happen with regularity, too, diggers said. But only mass casualties seem to filter out to the scant local media, such as the U.N.-funded Radio Okapi. Thirteen cobalt miners were killed in September 2015 when a dirt tunnel collapsed in Mabaya, near the Zambia border. Two years ago, 16 diggers were killed by landslides in Kawama, followed months later by the deaths of 15 diggers in an underground fire in Kolwezi.

In Kolwezi, a provincial mine inspector frustrated by a recent run of accidents agreed to talk to The Post on the condition that he not be identified, because he was not permitted to talk to the media.

He met the journalists in a minibus — jumping in, closing the door and taking a seat in the middle, far from the tinted windows so no one on the street could see him.

That morning, he said, he had helped rescue four artisanal miners nearly overcome by fumes from an underground fire in Kolwezi. The day before, two men had died in a mining tunnel collapse, he said.

He said he had personally pulled 36 bodies from local artisanal mines in the past several years. The Post was not able to independently verify his claims, but they echoed stories from diggers about the frequency of mining accidents.

The inspector blamed companies such as Congo DongFang that buy the artisanal cobalt and ship it overseas.

“They don’t care,” he said. “To them, if you bring them minerals and you’re sick or hurt, they don’t care.”

I’m going to repeat what I’ve said many times: If you want to end these horrors, you hold the companies at the top of the supply chain legally responsible for those supply chains. Let’s say we did that? Would those companies abandon the Congo because of this? No, because they can’t. Two things would happen. One, they would make it in the interests of the Chinese company managing this to make sure basic human dignity is upheld in the mines. Or two, the companies themselves could pool together and start their own investment in the mines to ensure they complied with the law. In this case, there wouldn’t be anything particularly competitive about the issue as they all need the same minerals.

The Post report is correct: There is no reason to think that Apple and the other tech companies will monitor their own supply chains. Whenever corporations can avoid any costs, they will do so. Monitoring these mines to make sure Congolese miners don’t die is an avoidable cost. They will never do it effectively unless we as consumers make them do it. As I call for in Out of Sight, we must fight for what I name a Corporate Accountability Act that ensures essential human rights for workers no matter where they labor if they are working for an American company or in a supply chain for an American economy. This is the ONLY WAY we stop this. In this case, there is only one answer. It’s legal responsibility. If we don’t believe in this, then we also hold personal responsibility for dead Congolese miners.

This Day in Labor History: September 27, 2002

[ 21 ] September 27, 2016 |


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.

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

[ 7 ] September 23, 2016 |


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 |


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 |


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 |


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 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 |


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.

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