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Tag: "labor"

Anti-Union Universities

[ 19 ] August 26, 2016 |

Graduate-Student-employees-protest-at-NYU

There’s a forum at N+1 about yesterday’s NLRB decision overturning the Brown decision and granting graduate students at private universities collective bargaining rights. Want to point you to the contribution by Gabriel Winant and Alyssa Battistoni. Universities use the same arguments against unions as any other employer, plus simply claiming that graduate students aren’t workers.

The crux of the 2004 Brown decision had been that the relationship of graduate students to the university was primarily educational, and as a result did not fall under the purview of legislation designed to govern economic relationships. What a line to draw—how could anyone who works at a university fail to cross it? In overturning Brown, the Columbia decision states plainly what we’ve argued all along: “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.” The decision similarly demolishes, with reference to empirical evidence, familiar arguments that a union of graduate employees would worsen the quality of education, suck up inordinate amounts of valuable time and resources, or pose a threat to the continued functioning of the university. In other words, Columbia rejects the idea that academia is a uniquely un-unionizable industry (an idea that many employers have of their own industries: Target, for example, warns workers that “ if the unions did try to organize our team members, chances are they would change our fast, fun, and friendly culture”).

Pretense prevails among those who run the institutions. Deans often feign surprise at graduate student complaints, and claim not to notice the thousands petitioning them every semester. With impressive sophistry, administrators manage to argue that unions would at once destroy academic life and fail to accomplish anything. Columbia’s administration, for example, both warns that the union could break the budget (“all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs”) and cause wages to fall (“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase”). The message they’re sending is that change is impossible—that there’s no way to make your voice heard.

To us, then, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the NLRB decision is its explicit recognition of our years of organizing outside the protection of the law, and its argument that this work in itself is admissible testimony for change. Unlike our deans, the federal government has heard our speeches and petitions, and listened to us as adult citizens capable of advocating for ourselves:

It is worth noting that student assistants, in the absence of access to the [National Labor Relations] Act’s representation procedures and in the face of rising financial pressures, have been said to be “fervently lobbying their respective schools for better benefits and increased representation.” The eagerness of at least some student assistants to engage in bargaining suggests that the traditional model of relations between university and student assistants is insufficiently responsive to student assistants’ needs.

When your employer insists that none of your actions matter, it is gratifying to learn that, through years of struggle—sometimes bitter, often seeming fruitless—you have moved the gears of the federal bureaucracy.

Really, this is a hugely important decision for academic labor.

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Local Food? What About Local Farm Working Conditions?

[ 36 ] August 25, 2016 |

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Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.

But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.

Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.

The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.

Manuel expounded on this point:

I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.

The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.

One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”

Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.

These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.

Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.

A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.

There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.

In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.

This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:

If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.

While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.

And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.

Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.

Indeed.

Teen Minimum Wage?

[ 111 ] August 24, 2016 |

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To say the least, the idea of a teen minimum wage of $4.25 is a horrendous idea with enormously awful policy implications. It also underplays the actual cost of being a teenager which is not going out with Biff and Cindy to the drive-in and maybe getting some malts afterwards and gee isn’t that soda jerk cute. Unfortunately, a 1996 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (thanks Bill!) allows employers to pay workers under the age of 20 $4.25 an hour for their first 90 days of employment. This needs to change. Not only has that number not increased with inflation, but it always was nothing more than a way for the government to allow exploitative employers to be even more exploitative. At its heart is the idea that teenagers aren’t real workers and shouldn’t be treated as such. This still animates conversations about certain sectors of work, as conservatives and even too many liberals dismiss thinking of fast food work as legitimate work worthy of being covered by labor law or being the target of organizing campaigns. That’s teen work, right? But no, it’s often not. Allowing employers to pay young workers less only undermines the wages for everyone. Meanwhile, many of these teen workers are working to pay for AP exams and to contribute to their family’s income. Repealing the teen minimum wage needs to be a top progressive priority.

This Day in Labor History: August 21, 1791

[ 35 ] August 21, 2016 |

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On August 21, 1791, the Haitian Revolution began. The largest and by far the most successful slave rebellion in world history, the Haitian Revolution transformed world history, foiling French imperial aims, leading to the expansion of the United States, placing fear into the hearts of slaveholders across the Western Hemisphere, and exposing the limits of the republican rhetoric of the Enlightenment. It’s also a story of the incredible bravery of the slaves themselves.

Immediately upon arrival in Hispaniola in 1492, Christopher Columbus instituted a forced labor system. This is the model Europeans sought from the very beginning. That island quickly became a center of colonial slavery, with populations brought over from Africa after indigenous peoples who the Spanish preferred to enslave died from disease. Between 1492 and 1494, one-third of the indigenous population died. Slaves always fought back, an important point not made often enough. As early as 1519, a slave rebellion took place there with both African and indigenous people rising up in revolt. Thousands of slaves started maroon communities during the colonial period, hidden from Spanish or French forces by the isolation of their camps deep within forests, mountains, and swamps.

In 1697, the French won the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish. Soon it would become among the richest colonies in the world thanks to the sugar grown by slaves. It also became a huge coffee producer, producing 60% of the world’s coffee in 1789. But conditions for those slaves were utterly brutal. The enormous amounts of money in the sugar trade made it worse, because the labor costs to buy new slaves, while high for a Virginia tobacco farmer, was almost nothing for these sugar barons. They brought slaves from Africa and just worked them to death. These plantations were effectively death camps. Half of African slaves died within three years. Probably 1 million slaves died in Haiti during the period of French rule. If a slave ate some sugar cane, the slave would have to wear a tin muzzle while working.

There was a lot of discontent toward the French government in what was then known as Saint Dominigue by the 1780s. It was a tremendously wealthy colony. But the white population of about 40,000, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, were chafing at the centralization projects of Paris, including heavy import taxes. There were about 30,000 free blacks in Haiti, of which about one-half were mulattoes. Finally and most importantly, there were the 500,000 slaves whose labor created the wealth in the colony. In May 1791, the free blacks started a revolt when the island’s whites refused to acknowledge the French revolutionary decision to grant citizenship to free people of color, but it was the August slave revolt that targeted white slave owners that really brought Haiti to independence.

The slave revolt began with a signal from voudou priest Dutty Boukman on August 14, giving slaves a week to prepare. Within a few weeks 100,000 slaves had revolted. Quickly though, the revolution’s leader became Toussaint L’Overture, an ex-slave who was likely the son of a tribal king from modern Benin who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. L’Overture was freed in 1776 after his master allowed him to acquire an education. He became fairly wealthy himself. When the rebellion started in the north of the island, he was not involved, but he soon helped cement an alliance between the rebels and the Spanish in Santo Domingo. By 1792, L’Overture and his ex-slave troops controlled 1/3 of the nation. The French Revolution of course was happening at the same time. In 1794, the French abolished slavery throughout its colonies, but even earlier than this, L’Overture had invaded Santo Domingo in order to end slavery there. But by the time the rebellion ended, 100,000 of the island’s 500,000 slaves were dead, as well as 24,000 of the 40,000 whites. In 1801, he led troops to conquer Santo Domingo and ended slavery there when he succeeded.

The slave force had no hope to defeat the French in a decisive battle. But they did have a secret weapon: mosquitoes. When the French had first colonized the Caribbean, yellow fever did not exist there. But it soon migrated over from Africa. Europeans simply could not resist the diseases from these mosquitoes. In fact, effective European colonization of American tropics largely ended because of the migration of yellow fever. Malaria and especially yellow fever overwhelmed the French forces. The Haitians could just wait them out. Napoleon sent 43,000 troops to Haiti to retake the island and institute slavery. Those troops did capture L’Overture. He was sent back to France as a prisoner, where he died in 1803. But disease quickly ravaged those troops. Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as the leader of the rebellion and defeated remnant French forces at Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. This led Napoleon to come to terms and give up his dream of an American empire. He then sold his North American lands to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Dessalines declared the nation of Haiti on January 1, 1804. France was the first nation to recognize its independence, although France also ensured long-term Haitian poverty by demanding incredibly high reparations beginning in 1825, when French warships showed in Haiti and forced the government to agree, effectively dooming it to long-term poverty.

The United States found Haiti an anathema. It believed in republicanism–so long as it only applied to white people. A slave rebellion? Well, this became an object lesson for southern planters, for whom this was their worst nightmare. This was literally their greatest fear and they spent the next 74 years talking about how to prevent it. When the British helped slaves escape during the War of 1812, when Denmark Vesey got angry that his church was being repressed, when Nat Turner revolted, when slaves played drums in the forests at night, slavers dreamed of the slaves rising up to massacre them in their beds. Given southern domination of the American politics through most of its history but especially before the Civil War due to the 3/5 Compromise, they made sure Haiti remained a highly isolated and impoverished nation. The U.S. forced it into international isolation and refused to recognize Haiti until 1862.

Today, due to many factors, but largely to this international isolation and enforced extreme poverty in its early decades, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world today. The French at the very least owe Haiti reparations today.

This is the 188th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 16, 1819

[ 35 ] August 16, 2016 |

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On August 16, 1819, British cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 workers in a field in Manchester, England who had gathered to demand parliamentary representation and the repeal of laws making food more expensive. Approximately 15 people died and between 400 and 700 people were injured. This movement of working class radicalism was deeply intertwined with conditions of British workers during the Industrial Revolution and the early manifestations of political radicalism this created.

In the early 19th century, democratic participation was nearly non-existent in Britain. That nation had resisted the move toward democracy spawned out of the American Revolution and French Revolution, even as those nations were also dealing with the implications of it. Meanwhile, after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain fell into an economic depression. Unemployment rose and hordes of the new industrial workers lost their jobs and had nowhere to go. By 1819, industry was deeply affected at the same time that food prices had risen dramatically. The region’s textile mills, the core of the Industrial Revolution, had a brief boom after the war ended, but that quickly collapsed. Free-market industrialists said there was nothing they could do but lay people off and cut wages. At the same time, they publicly opposed any form of public relief for the urban poor. Moreover, the British government instituted the first Corn Law, which imposed tariffs on imported grain, creating food shortages and near-famine conditions for the poor, particularly in the aftermath of the legendary 1816 summer that never happened after Mount Tambora exploded.

Economic-based organizing began in 1817 with a movement called the Blanketeers. They started in Manchester that March, hoping to spawn a march of textile weavers to London to present petitions demanding that the government take steps to improve the cotton trade so they could go back to work. Magistrates responded by reading the marchers the Riot Act and arresting 27 of them. Organizing for both political and economic reforms continued. Henry Hunt became the leader of this new movement. Hunt became the most famous popular radical of his day, a sort of Eugene Debs for the early 19th century, promoting broad-based political and economic reforms. He argued for universal male suffrage and Parliament held every year, without the rotten boroughs that ensured government stayed in the hands of conservatives. He was a big believer in mass rallies, believing that if large enough crowds gathered, it would place pressure on government to transform without having to engage in bloody insurrection.

For the British elite, these combined political and economic protests meant Jacobinism had crossed the Channel. Hunt began leading mass rallies in Manchester. In January 1819, one rally attracted 10,000 people. Manchester’s leaders wrote to London, fearing a general insurrection and complaining of their lack of power to shut down the rallies or repress the press reporting on these conditions and encouraging action. When Hunt decided to lead a mass rally on August 9 in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester, the police attempted to intervene. Declaring it illegal preemptively, Hunt and the other leaders delayed it for a week, but were determined to hold the meeting. When that rally achieved an unprecedented crowd of 60,000, the police acted. As far as is known, the 60,000 protestors were completely unarmed, as Hunt and others hoped to preempt intervention by banning weapons. They also encouraged workers to wear their Sunday best clothing to present an atmosphere of respectability. Groups carried banners with slogans such as “No Corn Laws” and “Vote by Ballot.”

There was no violence from the marchers reported. The magistrates however ordered the speakers arrested. The yeomanry ordered to arrest the speakers were untrained and they panicked. Moreover, the head of the British army in the area figured that not much would happen at the rally and instead decided to go see his horses race nearby. But instead of arresting the speakers, they unsheathed their swords and charged into the crowd. The magistrates then ordered the 15th Hussars and Cheshire Volunteers to assist and a general bloodbath ensued. The Hussars especially were just seeking to kill as many people as they could. It’s surprising that only 15 or so people were killed, especially given the injury totals of probably over 500. Among the dead were Mary Heys, a pregnant mother of six run down by the charging horses, causing the baby to begin birthing. She died in childbirth. Sarah Jones, a mother of seven, was killed by being beaten in the head. John Ashton was one of the movement’s political leaders who carried a banner reading “Taxation without representation is unjust and tyrannical. NO CORN LAWS.” He was sabred and then trampled. Many of the wounded actually hid their injuries in order to escape arrest and prosecution. Riots then occurred in Manchester and nearby towns for the rest of the day, but all the violence ended a few days later, although one constable was killed by a mob on August 18.

The British government responded by cracking down on the political reform. It expressed its support for the massacre. Conservatives feared uprisings around the country. It passed the Six Acts that clamped down on public meetings, newspaper opposition, and gun ownership. Hunt was not hurt in the protest although his hat was stabbed through. In 1820, Hunt was convicted on a charge of sedition for his radical views and spent two years in prison. While there, he wrote a book exposing the horrible conditions of the prison. Eventually, Hunt’s movement and the sacrifice of the dead at Peterloo led to the parliamentary reforms of 1832. It would take much more than that to fix the poverty of the British working class. The Corn Laws were not eliminated until 1846, when the Irish famine managed to convince enough lawmakers that they should do something to alleviate it that they once again allowed for cheap imported grain. Conservatives were, of course, outraged.

This is the 187th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Union Weed

[ 24 ] August 14, 2016 |

union pot

If you are in Washington and you want to buy marijuana with the union label, you can thanks to UFCW Local 367, who represents workers at a processing plant. Union Yes!

This Day in Labor History: August 13, 1887

[ 8 ] August 13, 2016 |

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On August 13, 1887, leathermakers in Newark, New Jersey, locked out their employees as a strategy to crush the Knights of Labor. This lockout would demonstrate the lengths to which American employers would go in order to ensure their shops remained union-free, a significant departure from the accommodations made by European employers, a difference that still resonates in the American labor movement today.

Newark has become a major industrial center by the 1880s and unlike many cities, hosted a wide number of industries. One of the largest was the leather industry. This was exceedingly odious labor. As a noxious industry, leather production was banished to the outskirts of cities going back to colonial New England. Two centuries of technological advancement had not significantly decreased the odiousness of this work. By the late nineteenth century, as was happening with laborers around the country, skilled workers were increasingly replaced by unskilled, often immigrant labor, laboring in mass-scale industrial operations. Newark was also a strong union town and a Knights of Labor local began there in 1879, as the Panic of 1873 subsided. The leather workers do not seem to have been involved in its early days. The first specifically leather-based Knights hall opened in 1883. After 1884, the Knights grew rapidly in Newark, as they did throughout the country. Strikes abounded. More than twice as many strikes took place in Newark in 1886 than did between 1881 and 1885. Half of the strikes were over employers backsliding from agreements they had made to stop earlier strikes. Leather worker struck over other issues, including an end to piecework and for higher wages.

As 1886 turned into 1887, the leatherworkers, skilled and unskilled and often in different Knights’ lodges, began to coordinate their strikes more effectively. Solidarity and a more concrete sense of class identity was building. This was important. It took time for the ideology of free labor republicanism to wear off in the face of endless drudgery and exploitation. Workers didn’t see themselves as that different from employers in the first twenty years after the Civil War. Slowly that began to change. The growth of the Knights was far from what Terence Powderly had envisioned and the growing direct action tactics of many lodges demonstrated that this ideological commitment to free labor had started to fade by the mid-1880s. This hardly meant that these Knights were radicals. It took time to give up old conceits. Despite the famous connections between Knights’ actions and the Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Knights had very little tolerance for radicals, and not only at the top. Newark Knights repeatedly stated the conservative nature of their actions. They largely believed in the American Dream and respected the small employers who had risen out of the working class. They saw a big difference between that person and John D. Rockefeller or Jay Gould.

By 1887, the Knights had begun to decline. In part this was about the backlash to Haymarket and in part it was due to divisions both within the Knights and between the Knights and other labor unions. The Knights really weren’t constructed to be a mass movement. But masses of workers around the nation still held to their Knights membership. Sensing weakness, the leather manufacturers banded together and struck back. The initial issue was that in June, they had agreed that workers could only tan a limit of forty hides in a day. They resented giving up any control over the shopfloor, which the agreement had also allowed. The manufacturers began to coordinate with each other. They selected one to violate the agreement, knowing workers would strike. When this happened, the employer imported strikebreakers while the other employers took over his orders and worked them in employer solidarity. The Knights lost.

This set the stage for the August lockout, where the leather owners sought to eliminate the Knights entirely. Given the cutthroat nature of American business competition (a scenario that would continue until the New Deal) it was almost as hard to get employers to cooperate as it was for workers to try and unionize. But the success in freeing one factory from the union convinced many skeptical owners to join the employers association. The bosses announced the lockout for August 1, but waited until August 13 as rhetoric rose between the two sides and the Knights debated on whether they should strike first. But the workers simply didn’t have the resources of the bosses, even pooled together as a union. Knights’ dues were very low and though the union said it could stay out for 3 months, it ran out of money almost immediately. The Knights tried to appeal to the small manufacturers in terms of the working-class and small employer solidarity at the heart of free labor ideology, but not a single one failed to honor the lockout. By the third week, the situation grew desperate. Internal tensions between the more radical German members and more conservative English and Irish members and rapidly dwindling funds destroyed the Knights. A few went back to their old jobs but most were not rehired. Shop stewards were blacklisted and many had to move from Newark to find work. The Knights were dead in the leather industry. Unions in Newark were pushed back significantly. At the start of 1887, there were 48 workers associations in the city. By the end of 1888, there were 12.

Ultimately, the Knights failed in Newark because employers would do anything to crush them. And this has been the primary problem of American unionism. It took remarkable government action during an unprecedented economic crisis to change this scenario in the New Deal and employers have resented it ever since. That is the fundamental problem organized labor has today. It’s not bad union leadership, a lack of union democracy, not enough organizing, or the other reasons union supporters and those who critique unions from the left usually provide. These are small factors, but the fundamental issue is that American employers will stop at nothing to eradicate unions. And that’s a very different circumstance that either Britain and France during the 1880s or, say, Germany today, where employers and unions routinely work together on management decisions, up to the point of encouraging unionization of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

This post is based on Kim Voss, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. This is critical reading because it provides the direct comparison to employers in England and France that I didn’t have time to explore in this post.

This is the 186th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 28, 1932

[ 59 ] July 28, 2016 |

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On July 28, 1932, the U.S. Army 12th Infantry regiment commanded by Douglas MacArthur and the 3rd Calvary Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Major George Patton violently evicted the Bonus Army from their Washington, D.C. encampment. This violent action and horrible treatment of impoverished veterans shocked the American public and demonstrated the utter indifference of Herbert Hoover to the desperate poverty the nation faced, helping to seal his overwhelming defeat that fall that ushered in the widespread change of the New Deal that would follow.

The Great Depression absolutely decimated the American working class. Unemployment shot up to 25 percent by the winter of 1933, while underemployment affected perhaps an additional 25 percent of workers. Herbert Hoover was simply unable to deal with these problems. Hoover was a man with a long humanitarian record, but he was very much a Progressive in a period where the voluntarist response to social problems that movement valued no longer worked. Charges that the Hoover didn’t care about the poor are overstated. But he simply could not accept any large-scale state involvement in solving the problem. By the summer of 1932 he had slightly moved off his position, but widescale social programs were anathema. Even more horrifying to him was worker activism.

In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act that granted World War I veterans a one-time pension check in 1945. Calvin Coolidge vetoed this bill because of course Coolidge would veto a bill that gave anyone a dime, but Congress overrode the veto. But by 1932, these soldiers needed that money now. They faced unthinkable poverty. They could not feed their families. What difference did it make if it was 1932 or 1945, veterans thought. So they began to demand the immediate payment of their bonus. The bonus was not a huge amount of money. It paid veterans $1 a day for service while in the U.S. and $1.25 in Europe, up to a maximum of $500 in the U.S. and $625 in Europe. That $625 is about $8000 today. This was not going to make people rich. But it was something at time when something is exactly what was needed.

As the Depression deepened, Congress did allow veterans to borrow against the value of the certificates. Originally they could borrow up to 22 percent of the total, but in 1931 Congress expanded this to 31 percent. Congressional support for paying the entire bonus grew. In January 1930, 170,000 desperate veterans applied for the loans–in 9 days. Veterans struggled with what must have been PTSD, as Veterans Administration studies in 1930 and 1931 showed that veterans had unemployment nearly 50 percent higher than non-veterans of the same age. Beginning in 1930, Congress began exploring new bills to help veterans, but none became law. On June 15, 1932, the House passed the Bonus Bill that would grant the bonuses immediately.

At the same time, veterans began descending on Washington, DC demanding the immediate payment of the bonus. Organizing this protest was an organization you might not expect today–the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW was really struggling in the early 1920s. But after 1929, its membership exploded because it supported the immediate payment of the bonus, while the American Legion, a proto-fascist anti-worker organization, opposed it. They created a Hooverville in Anacostia, in what is today Anacostia Park. The veterans created a sanitary camp, despite being in Washington during the summer. The camp did not welcome non-veterans or other radicals who might want to turn the event to their purposes. To stay in the camp, people had to prove their veteran status and eligibility. They could however bring their families. Approximately 20,000 veterans traveled to Washington during the summer of 1932.

Beginning in March, the VFW aggressively lobbied for the bonus. VFW leaders presented Congress with a petition from 281,000 veterans demanding their money. Veterans camping was an annual event for the VFW. So the act of setting up in one place was not radical, nor unusual, although the official 1932 encampment was in Sacramento. But in 1932, encamping in DC had a specifically politically agenda. The movement for a specific Bonus Army came out of Oregon, where veterans began organizing for an encampment in Washington, DC. They hopped trains and headed east. Thousands joined them. The VFW did not precisely endorse the Bonus Army and it wasn’t quite affiliated with it, but there was a lot of support for it and many VFW locals sent supplies and provided other forms of support. Hoover refused to even meet with the veterans, although he spoke at American Legion conventions on at least two occasions. And while the House passed the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it, 82-18.

For the most part, the Bonus marchers accepted their defeat. Congress even passed a bill to pay for their transportation to go home. Most left, but not all. Herbert Hoover was very nervous about the remaining bonus marchers. The Washington police force had no patience for the Bonus marchers and neither did the military. The remaining marchers began squatting in government buildings. Hoover ordered them cleared. The police were happy to do so. This led to skirmishes. That led Hoover to order MacArthur to clear out the camp. But Hoover was pretty clear–this was not to be violent. MacArthur disobeyed his orders and burned the whole camp. After he demolished the camp, he told the press that the Bonus Army was full of communists. That Douglas MacArthur, what an American hero. MacArthur’s actions absolutely devastated Hoover’s re-election chances, if he still had them in July 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would obliterate Hoover in November, creating a rare complete realignment of American politics. The VFW strongly supported Roosevelt, wanting revenge on Hoover for what happened to the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army was not a movement with a radical or unionist agenda. But it was a clear expression of activism that was transforming the working classes by the early 1930s and would lead to the greater explosions of worker activism in the next few years that would force the government to pass laws like the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act. Interestingly, Roosevelt was not a big supporter of paying the bonus either. There was another march in 1933. FDR provided them a camp site in Virginia and 3 meals a day but did not publicly support their goals. Finally, in 1936, Congress passed a bonus bill. FDR vetoed it. But Congress overrode it and much of the bonus was paid early.

I borrowed from Steven Ortiz, “Rethinking the Bonus March: Federal Bonus Policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Origins of a Protest Movement,” in the July 2006 issue of Journal of Policy History, in the writing of this post.

This is the 185th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Why the Police Need Unions

[ 196 ] July 20, 2016 |

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You can disagree with the police unions’ political positions. You don’t have to support their ideas or their positions. You don’t have to respect the police. But I refuse to accept arguments from the left that the police should not have unions. Jeff Spross has more on why the police need unions.

Cops are workers, too. They are workers put in an almost impossible position. And they need a union to stand up for them.

Go down the standard list of proposed police reforms — more accountability for bad cops, body cameras, demilitarization, more federal monitoring, civilian oversight, transparency, and so on. They’re all worthy, but what they all have in common is getting police to behave better within the role of “police” as we already conceive of it; namely, as the state’s enforcers of law and order, whose primary tools are the threat of violence and the ability to throw people into cages.

What these reforms don’t deal with is the possibility that our society has rendered this role an impossible one to pull off in any sort of successful, functional, or healthy manner.

Cops must deal with everything from gang violence to drug addiction to mental illness to domestic abuse to helping single parents to broken taillights and speeding cars. They respond so often with violence and incarceration because those are the tools we train them to use. They are no more immune to racism than any other human institution in American society. And of course the well-being of cops themselves often resembles what you’d find in veterans from a war zone.

Meanwhile, America’s long history of racism has left many black American communities deeply damaged. And poverty and crime go hand in hand. So when cops are shoved into the role of what is often privileged white society’s sole institutional interaction with black Americans’ world, and left with nothing but violence and incarceration as their tools, of course racism still permeates the way they operate.

Our society has pulled out of supplying the resources, the institutions, and the personnel that could support cops in handling this societal breakdown. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” said an exhausted David Brown, Dallas’ police chief, in the aftermath of the killing of five cops at a protest march. “Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems.”

Can anyone be surprised when police unions bristle and revolt at reforms aimed at drawing even greater virtue out of cops in the course of performing very difficult tasks? Cops wield an immense amount of power in our society. But that abstract privilege does not change the lived experience of being a cop, which is what the police and the unions that represent them draw upon when deciding how to defend themselves. We can’t just keep trying to make the police better-armed saints in the very places where the injustices of U.S. society collide the hardest. Nor can we assume that combating racism is merely a matter of enlightening individual cops or their departmental culture.

Getting rid of police unions will do precisely nothing to solve any problem with the police the left has. All it will do is make the lives of the police worse and make these problems harder to solve. If you believe that unionbusting is the answer, you need to examine where you are coming from on this. And you need to answer the question of how this will solve the problems of police brutality and racist violence.

Palm Oil Horrors

[ 2 ] July 20, 2016 |

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Because I would do literally anything other than watch 1 second of the Republican National Convention, I’m going to assume that at least some of you hold the same policy. So if you want to learn more about the terrible things going on in the world and why we need to fight it, here’s a new animation on the abuses in the palm oil industry, which is in many of the food products you buy everyday.

Blue-Green Alliances

[ 11 ] July 18, 2016 |

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There’s a lot of tension between parts of the labor movement and the environmental movement right now. This can often be painted too broadly. Basically, the building trades hate environmentalists for not supporting building every dirty power project and the UMWA hates environmentalists for supporting restrictions on coal. But there are lots of unions with perfectly fine relationships with environmentalists, even if the big public sector unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and AFT could do much, much more to represent the interests of their members in supporting a clean, sustainable environment with plenty of recreational opportunities. But even within those hostile unions, it’s not as if there isn’t room to work with environmentalists on issues where their interests coincide. And this is one of the lessons of so-called blue-green alliances. It’s not as if unions and environmentalists have to agree on everything. They may never be a force marching together for combined ecological and economic justice. Rather, this sort of alliance-building is going to be dependent on the given issue. And that’s OK so long as there is enough dialogue to allow that alliance to happen when it can. That’s what groups like the BlueGreen Alliance try to do. And we are seeing it pay off with both labor and greens outraged over Flint, which has shamefully fallen out of the headlines in the last 2 months.

When you think of an environmental hero, a plumber might not be the first person who comes to mind. But the BlueGreen Alliance gave its “champion” award this year to the union representing plumbers and pipe fitters. The big reason: people like Harold Harrington, of the United Association local 370 in Flint, Michigan. He says during the lead in water crisis there, his members volunteered to go door to door and replace faucets and water filters in people’s homes. “We replaced 650 faucets, just because the filters wouldn’t fit the old faucets. And they’re carbon filters, so they do remove lead,” he says.

Leaders in both the environmental and labor movements say the country could prevent more public health disasters like Flint, if old infrastructure is fixed or replaced — like leaky drinking water pipes, and natural gas pipelines. And at the same time, the repairs would create jobs. Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. He gives the example of new regulations in California to fix old gas pipelines. They were passed in response to a four-month leak of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – in Aliso Canyon, in southern California. “And there will be lots of jobs and there will be a cut in the pollution from these pipelines,” says Brune.

We need a lot more of this. New infrastructure building is the kind of agenda that should create broad agreement on the left. First, this nation really, really needs it. Second, it would be a huge spur to the economy. Third, that new infrastructure could create a far-more sustainable network of power and transportation than we currently have. But even when that’s not available, working together over issues of the relationship between the environment and everyday people is the kind of thing that can bring unions and greens together.

I have long stated that environmentalism ultimately hurt itself by focusing more on wilderness and wildlife preservation over the broad-based anti-pollution measures that made it politically popular in the 1960s and 1970s. There were lots of good reasons for that–the fact that the Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts were so successful that the obvious need for stronger laws diminished, the growth of conservatism making it necessary to defend laws in the courts instead of push for new laws, and the wealthy people funding environmentalism who wanted campaigns around wilderness, rain forest protection, and wildlife protection. Add to this the deindustrialization, outsourcing, and automation transforming the American economy and making working people scared of supporting environmentalism because their employers were threatening to move their jobs overseas (which they were often planning on doing anyway) and the political calculus for environmentalism changed rapidly. Yet this is unfortunate and needs to change. Building alliances around environmental injustice and infrastructure is at least a starting point.

Organizing Seattle Uber Drivers

[ 41 ] July 18, 2016 |

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David Bensman has a really great piece on how the Teamsters are taking the lead on organizing Uber drivers in Seattle and how doing so has relied on the kind of community effort necessary for organizing in the modern day. It’s taken building not only union power but connections within immigrant communities, working with politicians, and building alliances with environmentalists and community activists. This is the sort of campaign that can make a long-term difference and as Uber has begun facing political pushback for its exploitative model, is highly necessary. And how bad are things for drivers now that Uber has flooded the market?

Since Uber and Lyft came to town and recruited ten times the number of drivers that had been issued licenses under the city’s regulatory taxicab regime, earnings of all drivers have tumbled. While Uber started out allowing drivers to keep almost the same amount per mile driven as the regulated taxi drivers were getting, it has since cut that rate from $2.35 to $1.35 per mile. Now Uber drivers charge lower fares, and they get the lion’s share of the business. But with their low mileage rate, they have to work seven 12-hour days each week to make enough to live in the expensive metropolitan region. Mohammed, a somali driver I met near the Al Aqbar mosque that was the first to allow drivers to hold organizing meetings, told me that he knew driving such long hours was dangerous. “But what choice do I have?” he asked. “I have to pay for my car, my apartment, to put food on the table.”

Mohammed told me he pays $600 per week for the car Uber pressured him to lease from Toyota. He also pays the company $1.40 per passenger as a “safe rider fee,” though he can’t figure out what he or his passengers are getting for the money, since background checks are minimal and fingerprinting is unknown. On the day I visited the airport parking lot, Uber drivers waited 40 minutes, on average, before they got a call to pick up a passenger. Some days are better, Mohammed informed me; by now the drivers know when the planes are landing, and they try to time their arrival at the airport to minimize their wait. But even when they time it right, their earnings are limited; a ride from the airport to town only nets them $16, and there’s no tipping. Worse, a recent company-imposed pooling policy requires drivers to pick up multiple passengers at different places to take them to common destinations at severely reduced fares. This “innovation,” communicated to drivers through Uber’s app, really has the drivers grumbling.

Licensed-cab taxi drivers probably have it worse. At nights and on weekends, millennial customers use their Uber app. As a consequence, most licensed drivers work an early shift, from 4:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, seven days a week. Driving cab number 718, a Somali driver who was afraid to give me his name told me that before Uber arrived, he used to be able to make a decent living driving eight hour days. Now he has a choice; he can drive seven 12-hour days or he can reduce his lifestyle. He’s moved to a cheaper apartment and settled for straitened circumstances. He’s philosophical about his change of life, but he doesn’t think it’s right. “I don’t mind competition,” he told me. “Competition makes everyone play their best game. If you are skilled and have a good strategy, you can win. But this competition is unfair. Uber doesn’t pay the standard mileage rate, its insurance is no good, and it makes its drivers work unsafe hours. This competition you can’t win.” Another driver, an Ethiopian, made the other choice, working seven 12-hour days. “My kids think I’m an ATM machine,” he told me. “I never see them.”

This is total exploitation. There’s nothing wrong per se with having more cabs on the road. There is something very wrong in driving workers into poverty and pooling profits at the top.

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