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Tag: "labor"

Labor Reporting

[ 37 ] February 19, 2015 |

The New York Times is replacing the retiring Stephen Greenhouse on its labor beat with…..Noam Scheiber. Who is an OK reporter but when has he had anything interesting to say about unions? Does he even really care about unions per se? Has he walked a picket line? I don’t think he’s ever written about these issues too much. I’m sure Scheiber will be fine on the big economic questions that concern working class people but that’s not the same as covering labor, which requires talking to poor and working people on the ground. Maybe this works out, but I can’t say I’m super excited.

Of course, it’s good to remember Scheiber’s oh so insightful essay complaining that DeBlasio cares about black people getting killed by cops. That’s a reporter who can talk about labor solidarity!

Applying Labor Trafficking Laws to US Companies Operating Outside the U.S.

[ 17 ] February 19, 2015 |

In Out of Sight, I argue for the need of international enforceable labor standards that empower workers to seek redress for their exploitation through the courts of the company who either owns the workplace or who has signed contracts to produce its items there. If you are a Bangladeshi worker making apparel for WalMart and your factory collapses and kills you, your family should be able to sue Walmart in U.S. courts.

I realize that this is not happening overnight. But it’s not like there aren’t useful precedents we can build from. For instance, a U.S. ship repair company sought Indian labor after Hurricane Katrina. There was quite a bit of international labor recruited to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf. And a lot of it was exploited, including the workers of this ship repair company. But the workers fought back:

A New Orleans jury on Wednesday awarded $14 million to five Indian men who were lured to the United States and forced to work under inhumane conditions after Hurricane Katrina by a U.S. ship repair firm and its codefendants.

After a four-week trial, the U.S. District Court jury ruled that Alabama-based Signal International was guilty of labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination and ordered it to pay $12 million. Its co-defendants, a New Orleans lawyer and an India-based recruiter, were also found guilty and ordered to pay an additional $915,000 each.

The trial was the first in more than a dozen related lawsuits with over 200 plaintiffs that together comprise one of the largest labour trafficking cases in U.S. history.

Signal recruited about 500 Indian men as guest workers to repair oil rigs and facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to plaintiffs.

The workers paid $10,000 apiece to recruiters and were promised good jobs and permanent U.S. residency for their families, according to the suit. When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, they discovered that they would not receive promised residency documents.

Signal also charged the men $1,050 per month to live in guarded labour camps where up to 24 men lived in single 1,800-square-foot (167-square-metre) units, according to the suit.

An economist who reviewed Signal’s records for the plaintiffs estimated the company saved more than $8 million by hiring the Indian workers.

“The defendants exploited our clients, put their own profits over the lives of these honourable workers, and tried to deny them their day in court,” plaintiffs’ attorney and Southern Poverty Law Center board chairman Alan Howard said in a statement.

American labor law is violated and the company can be defeated. But the question we don’t ask often enough is why should American labor law be applied only to workers in the United States? Why shouldn’t at least parts of American labor law be applicable to anyone making products for American firms? What has really empowered the global race to the bottom is disconnecting corporations from national law, allowing them to move while law stays static or is even repealed in order to keep them from moving again. Anyone working in a guarded labor, overcrowded labor camp producing goods for American companies should have the right to fight back not only in their own country, where corporate money has even more power and buys even more politicians than in the U.S., but also in American courts. These are the goals for which we must fight if we want to improve global labor standards worldwide.


[ 26 ] February 19, 2015 |

As I have urged for some time, President Obama will be naming the Pullman site a national monument today. This is a great thing for those who are interested in remembering both American labor history and African-American history. There is such great potential for this site. It is home of the classic 1894 Pullman strike as well as the amazing union the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which, led by A. Philip Randolph, became one of the most important civil rights and labor rights organizations in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.

Obama will also be declaring a Japanese internment camp site in Hawaii and a beautiful canyon in Colorado national monuments as well. Very glad for both of these as well, although the Japanese-American experience is in fact more than just concentration camp sites, of which multiple already have federally protected status.

Prison Labor Clearing Boston Snow

[ 22 ] February 16, 2015 |

Even if you think that prisoners are better off doing work outside than being stuck in their cells, I hope we can all agree that prisoners being paid 20 cents an hour to shovel the mountains of snow that have walloped Boston is more than a little inappropriate.

Restaurant Labor App

[ 9 ] February 16, 2015 |

Are you interested in eating at restaurants that treat workers well? ROC-United, the restaurant workers’ labor organization with chapters in several cities, has created an app that not only includes the information they have about individual restaurants but also allows crowdsourced information. It’s a work in progress but this could a really useful tool in publicizing restaurants that treat workers either poorly or well and allow consumers to give their business to ethical businesses.

Here is the link to the app.

The Paternalist Alphabet

[ 19 ] February 15, 2015 |

In the 1910s, as workers around the nation were organizing and striking with greater militancy, employers and the government finally began to pay attention to their plight. That certainly didn’t mean that employers would accept unions. But it did mean that employers began seeking ways to siphon off discontent before it led to worker activism. One of the biggest issues in many industries was health and safety. Working conditions were terrible throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1911, states began passing workers’ compensation laws that forced employers into a limited liability for the workers who were injured or killed on the job (health issues were still uncovered). Many employers supported these laws, not because they cared about workers dying on the job, but because after 1900 workers’ lawsuits against companies were increasingly successful and costly.

So many employers, especially in dangerous industries like mining and logging, began implementing company safety programs. These were usually limited, sought to blame workers for their own accidents, and kept control over their implementation firmly in the hands of corporate managers. But they were still better than what existed before. These programs were part of the broader phenomenon of company unions and corporate paternalism that arose in the wake of Ludlow, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. took unprecedented public criticism for the way his company had treated workers. These programs often had a cultural side to them. And thus I present you an alphabet of safety prepared for workers by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) in 1915. I am taking this from Alan Derickson, Workers’ Health Workers’ Democracy: The Western Miners’ Struggle, 1891-1925

A is for accident which we try to avoid
B is for bandage which should be employed
C is for care and carelessness too
D is for damage which from the latter ensue
E is for eyes which goggles protect
F is for feet you must not neglect
G is for ginmill which we do abhor
H is for habit throw it out the door
I is for insurance which you do collect
J is for Jay who insurance does neglect
K is for kindness which cannot be bought
L is for laborer which ‘sistance is sought
M is for manager whose friendship you make
N is for noodle which you must not break
O is for optimist be glad your alive
P is for pension for which all do strive
Q is for quarrels which we do not like
R is for ringleader a good man to spike
S is for superintendent not a bad guy
T is for town to keep it spotless we try
U is for united which we all strive to be
V is for villain who will not agree
W is for willing this our men we do find
X is for xylophone played by some at night time
Y is for yap who always is late
Z is for zealous for this you get great

Subtle, I know. Between pushing blame for accidents on workers in (c), attacking alcohol in (g) and (h) and reminding workers and probably themselves that they were great guys in (m) and (s), this is quite the blunt instrument. Also, the writers of this couldn’t quite figure (x) out to where it could be even remotely relevant.

Heritage Not Hate, Brazilian Style

[ 10 ] February 14, 2015 |


As many of you know, the response of some Confederate planters to the defeat of their treasonous actions was to decamp with their slaves to Brazil and start over. Today, there are neo-Confederate celebrations in the Brazilian towns they started. When you combine Confederate nostalgia with Brazil’s myth of racial democracy and that nation’s continued problems with forced labor, things get weird.

The Right to Work March Continues

[ 44 ] February 13, 2015 |

Illinois governor Bruce Rauner decided that since there was no way he could get a bill through a Democratic legislature that would effectively make Illinois public sector work right to work, he issued an executive order that forbids public sector unions from collecting fees to replace dues from workers who are not union members. Note that those unions are legally required to defend these workers who would otherwise be free riders and that the contracts they negotiate cover said moochers. Rauner’s action is almost certainly illegal, but it’s unlikely he cares because he probably hopes the Supreme Court will take up the case and rule those fees unconstitutional. Even if this doesn’t happen, the larger goals of taking money away from working people and undermining the Democratic Party by crippling the unions that are so important to its fundraising and GOTV operations move forward which each worker not paying union dues.

Workplace Safety

[ 23 ] February 9, 2015 |

One of things that drives me really crazy is when people talk about unions only in terms of financial gain. While workers (or anyone) will never turn down more money, unions are not primarily about money. They are about dignity on the job and worker power to have a say in their work life. To achieve that dignity and that voice, workers may very well want higher wages. But they may also want shorter hours, better equipment, a break for lunch, not to have to provide their own clothing or safety equipment, and an end to arbitrary firings, just to name a few of the issues workers have fought for in the past and/or fight for in the present.

Central to these demands is workplace safety. The United Steelworkers went on strike last week against the oil industry, in large part over workplace safety issues. Steelworkers president Leo Gerard:

In Anacortes, Wash., last week, approximately 200 Tesoro workers began picketing the oil refinery where an explosion incinerated seven of their co-workers five years earlier.

Butch Cleve walks that picket line, serving now as strike captain for the USW local union at Tesoro. On the day of the catastrophe in 2010, Cleve walked the coroner to the shrouded bodies of three of his friends.

Steve Garey, who helped make the decision to strike as a member of the USW’s oil bargaining policy committee, wept repeatedly that April day five years ago as he told the relatives of his dead friends that their loved ones would never come home.

Kim Nibarger, a USW health and safety specialist, suffered flashbacks of an earlier blast as he investigated the one at Tesoro. He was an operator in 1998 at the refinery adjacent to Tesoro in Anacortes when a massive detonation instantly cremated six of his co-workers.

The Tesoro strikers are among more than 5,000 USW members nationwide on unfair labor practice strikes demanding corporations respect their bargaining rights and the rights of workers and communities to safety.

Over the past two negotiation cycles, the USW’s 30,000 refinery and chemical workers struggled to persuade their highly profitable employers to include strong safety language in the collective bargaining agreements. The deaths at Tesoro, as well as fatalities, injuries, explosions, fires and toxic releases at other plants nationwide since then, demonstrate that the measures didn’t go far enough. Now refinery and chemical workers are trying to increase the odds that they aren’t killed at work and that their communities aren’t engulfed in flames or fumes.

No one cares more about workplace safety than unions. Sometimes, unions care more about workplace safety than the workers themselves, as at times work cultures develop that connect masculinity, tradition, and workplace danger in what can be a toxic combination that creates tensions between union safety officers and the rank and file. When unions and workers are on the same page though, it can create a powerful motivation for workplace action, including strikes. With the oil industry so dangerous, the need for action is very real. Hopefully, this strike and the bad publicity the oil industry so wants to avoid will force the companies to make concessions that make work safe.

Can Anyone Save the Labor Movement?

[ 35 ] February 7, 2015 |

Amy Dean’s profile of AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka is excellent and well worth your time.

I am skeptical of the framing of this issue as “Can Richard Trumka Save the Labor Movement?” (and to be fair, the framing is in the title, which Dean almost certainly didn’t write) because, as is so common when talking about organized labor, unions themselves get the blame for their own decline. Even if we grant that unions made a lot of mistakes in the second half of the twentieth century and are large, cumbersome, hide-bound organizations that struggle to adjust to new conditions, the problem organized labor faces is structural. At best, unions’ own mistakes are the 4th or 5th largest reason for their decline. These mistakes are less significant than what has really eliminated union jobs–capital mobility, the organized corporate movement after the Powell Memo, mechanization, outsourcing, free trade agreements. Yet even within the labor movement (especially those who want to see labor reformed from inside) usually these conversations come down to what the labor movement did wrong instead of the structural problems making it nearly impossible to organize successfully.

Overall, Trumka is probably the most progressive AFL or AFL-CIO leader in history. If you consider the competition–Sam Gompers, William Green, George Meany, Lane Kirkland–Trumka clears a not very high bar. If you include the CIO leaders in this list, that adds John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, and Walter Reuther. Given how Lewis turned on the whole New Deal and mostly supported Republicans his whole life, it’s hard to call him to the left of Trumka. One can certainly make the argument for Murray and Reuther, but they operated in such different times with such different union membership, that the comparisons begin to lose meaning. Trumka’s predecessor John Sweeney was a key transitional figure from the bad old AFL-CIO to an organization that was going to try and push the agenda, but Trumka is probably more successful. And one has to consider as well that Trumka is the head of a federation whose most left-leaning unions have been decimated by job losses, leaving mostly the old craft unions and public sector unions as the core of the organization. But with SEIU leaving the AFL-CIO, that only leaves AFSCME as a major force to counter the politically conservative and organizing and alliance-building adverse craft unions. What’s left of the UAW and United Steelworkers may help, as well as UFCW and some smaller unions, but Trumka is pulling the AFL-CIO to the left in an atmosphere where the overall political center of American union leaders is not moving to the left.

I largely consider what Trumka is doing to be good. His attempts to connect labor to more progressive movements is a key step in building cross-movement solidarity that all movements need in this age where corporate capital controls American politics to an extent we haven’t seen in an century. His work has helped put organized labor at the forefront of a pro-immigrant agenda, a remarkable step for a movement traditionally hostile to immigrants. But it’s really hard to build effective coalitions when your movement is really a coalition of its own, as we’ve seen over Keystone where you have the Laborers’ union openly hostile to any work with environmentalists, including openly attacking unions that are building those bridges. Remember, Trumka is the head of a diverse federation. He’s no dictator. So he has to drag a lot of unions along kicking and screaming (or others that are weighed down by inertia and indifference) to most of these advances.

I don’t know what will save the labor movement. I don’t think Trumka could do too much more than he is already doing. But there is no one thing or one person that will save it. It’s going to take a reshaping of the structures of work and trade agreements and legal regimes and regulatory frameworks and, yes, unions themselves in order to make that happen.

Yglesias, Data, and Unions

[ 35 ] February 4, 2015 |

Matt Yglesias wrote a piece that interpreted research by economist Brigham Fransden that suggested that unionizing private sector workplaces is not good in the end for those workers because newly unionized workplaces close down more often and see older and higher paid workers move on to be replaced by lower-paid, less experienced workers.

Limiting the pay of the highest-earning members of a particular company in the context of a marketplace where most companies aren’t unionized naturally has the effect of inspiring many of those higher-earning workers to seek new jobs elsewhere. This plausibly also explains the finding that recently unionized companies are more likely to go out of business. If you lose your star performers to the competition, you put your business at risk.

I’m not really convinced of this, but the question is worthy of further research. The presentation of Fransden’s paper says much about the problem with Vox-style (also, 538-style) reporting in that it takes a single article and presents it as the God honest True Data that gives us the one single take we all need to know. Is there something to Frandsen’s conclusions? It is possible. I do not know. Is a single study enough that Yglesias should be presenting it as the truth on private sector unions? No, absolutely not. Is the question worth more studying, perhaps by someone actually exploring real workers in a field outside of economics, as well as by more economists? Yes, absolutely. Then maybe we can come to some conclusions on the matter.

It’s also worth noting that Fransden’s paper is self-published. It’s not listed under his publications on his department website and there’s no evidence from the linked PDF of publication. So in other words, the conclusions that led Yglesias to write a well-read piece and present it as truth have not gone through the peer review process. This doesn’t per se mean the research is not valid of course. I don’t really know about economics, but a self-published piece in history, even something as sophisticated as a statistical-heavy working paper, would have about as much relevance as a blog post.

Yglesias and his cohort treat data as something sanctified. But what about human bias? What’s are Fransden’s politics? How are they affecting his data? It’s a question we have to ask. And then of course, there’s Yglesias’ own political leanings on labor, which have been on display for years. While broadly sympathetic for reducing income inequality and the like, as far as I’ve ever seen, Yglesias has never publicly supported a labor struggle. Meanwhile, he has dismissed the deaths of 1100 Bangladeshi workers as a reasonable price to pay for the nation’s economic development, he slammed the Chicago Teachers Union struggle (see Farley’s dissection of this here) and teachers unions over and over, supporting the worst kind of Rheeist interpretations of issues in public schools. It also goes without saying that he opposed the Huffington Post boycott. He also decided the best response to the firing of high ranking tech executive and misogynist Pax Dickinson was to troll the labor internet. Naturally then, his response to the BART workers strike was to say that paying public transportation workers more was a bad idea.

So given this long-established history of talking about unions and strikes in a negative way, we also have to ask ourselves if the Yglesias writing on this topic tells us more about his own predilections than the relative success of the recently unionized workplace. Like how my writings about labor should be considered within the context of my support for organized labor, Yglesias’ writing on labor need to be considered within the context of his history of not supporting union efforts. Instead, it’s published as politically neutral. Just the facts, Ma’am.


[ 62 ] February 3, 2015 |

For what seems like half of my life and the entire time I have written at this site, I have been talking about my logging book. Well, as of today, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests is under contract with Cambridge University Press. No official publication date yet, but it should be sometime next year and I will keep readers posted.

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