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Tag: "labor"

Let Us Bow Before Our Corporate Masters

[ 57 ] June 14, 2013 |

Esther Cepeda defends Whole Foods disciplining two Spanish-speaking workers violating its English-only policy while on the job in a very special way.

But say they were. What’s the problem? Not too long ago people understood that when you enter into an employment agreement with a company, you’re generally expected to follow their policies.

Whole Foods’ rules state: “English-speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock. Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work. Additionally, this policy does not apply to conversations among Team Members and customers if all parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication.”

Hardly draconian. Either way, employees can choose to follow them and work there or find a different job.

No. Actually, not long ago, you had a union when you were on the job. If you worked at a grocery store, you would be a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers. And that union represented you as a worker. It negotiated ridiculous rules like this in order to protect workers from bosses’ tyranny. If the boss tried to discipline you or change the rules outside of the contract, the union would grieve the process and probably win.

I guess if by “not long ago” Cepeda actually means “before the National Labor Relations Act when bosses could fire workers for literally anything” then I guess she has a point. And that’s clearly what she wants anyway.

I’ve leave the rest of the editorial, which basically consists of “let’s all be good immigrants and assimilate into white America” to the rest of you to parse.

Separating Production from Consumption

[ 45 ] June 12, 2013 |

Arguably capitalism’s greatest feat in the last century is the almost complete separation of production from consumption. Modern Americans rarely see where anything is produced, whether food or consumer goods. This is an intentional move by corporations to shelter themselves from pressures to produce goods in anything other than brutal conditions that maximize profit.

I thought of this when reading this article about a person in a Chinese prison camp slipping pleas for help inside the goods the prison produced for export.
An Oregon woman found one of them in a package of Halloween decorations. We simply have no idea of knowing what goods are produced under any sort of labor conditions, but especially prison labor. What corporations are directly benefiting from prison labor? At what point do Americans enter into the process? What responsibility do we have to find out? But because of the extreme capital mobility lauded by the political and economic elite for the last fifty years, we simply have almost no way to find out the answers to the questions.

And that’s the way capital likes it.

This Day in Labor History: June 11, 1925

[ 16 ] June 11, 2013 |

This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is assistant professor and mentor at SUNY Empire State College, where he teaches public affairs and history. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.

Happy Davis Day

Today in 1925, soldiers in New Waterford, Nova Scotia, shot and killed William Davis, a striking coal miner. Members of District 26 of the United Mine Workers, representing miners in Nova Scotia, have never worked on June 11 since.

Davis was killed after a militant turn in a long and bitter strike in the coal fields of eastern Nova Scotia. The previous contract had expired in January, and relief committees in each of the towns had been operating since the winter. To pressure the workers, the employer, the British Empire Steel Company, or BESCO, cut off credit at the company stores at the most militant mine heads. The miners walked off the job in March, and BESCO retaliated by pulling out the ponies and maintenance equipment from three collieries and allowing them to flood. The the men who left work at those mines, they knew, would probably never return.

Even so, the UMW international insisted on a strategy of waiting. John L. Lewis, the UMW’s virulently anti-radical international president, had colluded with the company to break the last strike, watching as District President J.B. McLachlan had been carted off the jail on trumped-up sedition charges and replacing him with a docile and unelected executive. Now McLachlan was out of prison and running a radical newspaper, and by early June the miners were frustrated that no progress had been made.

So they stopped waiting and called for a total strike. Before, only actual miners had stopped work. Now, nobody would be allowed to work for the company. On June 4, the men who had been operating a company power plant in New Waterford walked off the job, cutting off the town’s water and electricity. On June 11, fifty managers and mounted company police overtook the few picketers guarding the plant. In response hundreds—estimates ranged from 700 to 3,000—of striking miners marched to the plant to enforce the strike.

They were met with gunfire. Many were beaten by police, several were injured by bullets, and one was killed. The death of William Davis sparked a riot in which company stores—which had remained tauntingly well stocked but closed to strikers—were looted and burned. Angry miners ran the police out of town and would perhaps have killed them had it not been for the intercession of Father J.H. Nicholson, Mt. Carmel Parish Priest in New Waterford, who calmed the men until the police had a chance to escape. William Davis, killed for striking, had not been given that chance.

Even with this violence, it took until August for a newly elected Conservative premier, Edgar Rhodes, to negotiate a stop-gap contract while a Royal Commission investigated the coal industry. By this point, the union was fighting for its life, and any contract at was a victory. Other than the continued existence of the union, the one victory was that it kept the dues check-off for the length of the final contract. It was, otherwise, a lost strike.

To keep alive the memory of the Strike of 1925 and the murder of William Davis, the members of District 26 swore they would never work again on June 11. Davis Day became a holiday in the coal mining region of Cape Breton. But gradually, Davis Day has become a day associated less with remember the killing of a striker and more with remembering all the dead of Nova Scotia’s mines. There have been many, from the 75 men killed in the Springhill mine collapse of 1958, to the 26 non-union miners killed in the Westray explosion of 1992. In 2008, after the social democratic New Democratic Party was elected to the Nova Scotia government, the province finally recognized Miners’ Memorial Day. But Davis Day should be more than a commemoration of mining accidents, as terrible as those are. Davis did not die accidentally in a tragic, if avoidable, disaster. He was murdered by the military for striking.

Like Davis Day, Workers’ Memorial Day (April 25) began as a Canadian commemoration. Perhaps, like Workers’ Memorial Day, we can spread Davis Day south. One way to so so is to donate to the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Founded by Robert Meeropol in honor of his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Rosenberg Fund supports the children of those who are killed, jailed, or lose their jobs for their progressive political activities. Included in this group are parents whose bosses fire them for union activism. Americans have few better ways to commemorate Davis Day than with a donation to the Rosenberg Fund, perhaps to the Clinton Jencks fund, which is “designated to assist children of workers who have been penalized, injured, fired, jailed or have died for their organizing efforts to build unions, improve working conditions and elevate living standards for all in the work force.”

William Davis was neither the first murdered striker nor the last. The labor movement has too many martyrs. This Davis Day, let us remember them all.

company store

Further Reading:

David Frank, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1999).

John Mellor, The Company Store: James Bryson McLachlan and the Cape Breton Coal Miners (Toronto: Doubleday, 1983)

Paul MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1976).

Donald Macgillivray, “Military Aid to the Civil Power: The Cape Breton Experience in the 1920s,” in Cape Breton Historical Essays, ed. Don Macgillivray and Brian Tennyson (Sydney, N.S.: College of Cape Breton Press, 1980): 95-109.

David Frank, “The Cape Breton Coal Industry and the Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” Acadiensis VII no. 1 (autumn 1977): 3-34.

Jacob Remes, “In Search of ‘Saner Minds’: Bishop James Morrison and the Origins of the Antigonish Movement,” Acadiensis XXXIX no 1 (winter/spring 2010): 58-82.

This is the 64th post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.

Right to Work: “The Most Dishonest Words in American Politics”

[ 40 ] June 10, 2013 |

Although I like “the right to work a man to death” better because it was generated by workers themselves, calling right to work “the most dishonest words in American politics” is a pretty good way to describe the double speak behind robbing workers of their actual rights. Steven Wishnia provides a good history of the idea, including some new information to me.

I didn’t know the term “right to work” was coined in 1941 by an anti-union editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News. That it comes from Texas should surprise no one.

I did know that the right to work provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act was preserved by a 1965 Senate filibuster after the House voted to overturn them. Yet another piece of evidence that the filibuster is a uniquely pernicious piece of American political life that needs to be eliminated immediately.

Paterson Strike Addendum

[ 8 ] June 8, 2013 |

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post on the Paterson strike pageant, I was moderating a panel of really first-rate historians on the anniversary of the strike. I am going to write up the panel for another forum pretty soon and will link to it. But I wanted to mention one important point that came out of the discussion. Steve Golin, who wrote the definitive book on the Paterson strike, and Mary Anne Trasciatti, who is writing a biography of Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, both made the point that while workers lost the strike, the real defeat was for the IWW. The workers themselves did manage to stave off the four-loom system they dreaded for awhile after the strike and eventually did have successful labor actions down the road.

But it was the IWW that the Paterson loss and the pageant’s ineffectiveness destroyed. Again, the union was completely devastated in the east. Bill Haywood and others wanted to win in Paterson and then start organizing the looms in Pennsylvania. That never happened. Flynn and Haywood and others got into a huge internal battle over who was at fault. Most interesting, and I didn’t really know this, both Flynn and Haywood began calling for centralized control over strikes after the Paterson debacle, which was counter to the IWW’s rhetorical emphasis on placing power in the hands of workers. When workers didn’t respond the way Haywood and Flynn wanted, that became much less appealing in practice than theory.

This Day in Labor History: June 7, 1913

[ 27 ] June 7, 2013 |

On June 7, 1913, the supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World led textile worker strike in Paterson, New Jersey held the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The only such stage of production of strikers in American history, perhaps nothing demonstrates both the great skills and significant limitations of the IWW more than the strike pageant and its aftermath.

On February 1, 1913, the Paterson silk workers went on strike, demanding an 8-hour day and better working conditions. Paterson was an early site of the Industrial Revolution and one of the first cities in the United States to see significant labor strife. A century later, skilled weavers still dominated the labor culture, even as mechanization had deskilled and sped up labor and brought a great deal of European silk production to Paterson. Women and children had replaced men in the mills, but men still held a privileged position in the city’s labor movement. Silk workers toiled 10-hour days. Skilled workers averaged $11.69 a week, the less skilled between $6-7. $11.69 equals about $267 in 2012 dollars. So top notch workers were making the equivalent of $1000 a month today. Employers said they could not improve working conditions or they would become less competitive with other states. Workers didn’t accept this. A brief strike in 1912 led to short-lived improvements. The American Federation of Labor showed a bit of interest in organizing the most skilled workers, primarily those who spoke English, but never got very far. The majority of workers were ready to walk out in order to preempt the destruction of their livelihood by low wages and harder work.

In early 1913, the Paterson strikers invited IWW organizers to help them because of the Wobblies’ success the previous year at Lawrence, Massachusetts (although that success was already falling apart after the Wobblies stopped paying attention to the workers’ struggles after the strike was over). The Wobblies responded with vigor. They found the Paterson strike more to their revolutionary liking than Lawrence. It’s multiethnic (although it was significantly less diverse than Lawrence) and multigender nature, filled with songs and cultures in different languages appealed. Of course, the reality was more complicated, with the Jewish and Italian immigrant workers ready for militancy and the native-born Americans and English speakers reticent and conservative. Even more attractive for Wobbly intellectuals was the different nature of the Paterson strikers, who fought for a better life and culture, whereas Lawrence was a reaction to a wage cut. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn called Paterson “more significant” than Lawrence because these workers were more directly seeking a better future.

Wobbly leaders were at their best in bringing big names into a strike in order to mobilize the workers, keep them occupied, and lead large marches. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn played a huge role in Paterson, giving several important speeches and helping organize activities for the strikers. The Italian syndicalist Carlos Tresca came to organize workers. Big Bill Haywood arrived in March, when he was immediately placed under arrest. On April 19, a fight broke out between company thugs and strikers. Modestino Valentino, an innocent bystander, was shot and killed. No charges were filed. The Wobblies built on Valentino’s murder to show workers the corruptness of the system. Not that the system cared. On May 10, a jury convicted Alexander Scott, the editor of a local socialist newspaper, of sedition for the grand crime of criticizing the town’s police force in print.

The silk owners refused to even talk to anyone associated with the IWW, which they considered an un-American organization. Explained one factory owner, “The silk manufacturers of the country are watching our fight and praying for our success for they realize that if we are beaten it will be their turn next.” They had full support from the town’s political leaders, religious figures, and police force. The owners decided to invite the AFL in, figuring if they had to have a union, they might as well work with the one they could stomach. But the workers booed and hissed down the AFL speakers the city organized to speak, destroying this plan. Police repression continued unabated.



Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaking to Paterson strikers.

What the IWW probably did better than anything else was create culture. Even at the time, their cultural productions attracted attention from both workers and intellectuals. The proximity of Paterson to New York City and the IWW’s skilled propagandists allowed New York’s intellectuals to connect with the Paterson strikers. In the course of the strike, New York intellectual John Reed, future chronicler of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, met IWW head Big Bill Haywood. Haywood encouraged Reed to visit Paterson. Reed was arrested as well, helping to radicalize him. After his visit, he decided to mobilize the New York art community for the strikers. Reed secured funding from New York art patron (and founder of the New Mexico artist colony and romanticizer of Native Americans) Mabel Dodge and decided to put on a play at Madison Square Garden in New York to show the world the great evil of the Paterson employers and the nobility of the workers’ struggle.

Reed recruited a team of volunteer theater professionals to train the strikers in their performance. You can read the Paterson pageant program here. The workers acted out their work routines, sang famous songs, and reenacted the Valentino murder. Workers dressed as police acted the beatings they received daily. Wobbly leaders like Flynn and Tresca spoke. Everyone sang “The Internationale” and “La Marseillaise.” It was the first and last attempt to put on such a spectacle around a labor struggle.

Reviews were fairly positive. However, neither pageant nor strike were successful in the end. The pageant itself lost money. The strike collapsed almost immediately after the pageant. Reed had promised workers the pageant would pay to keep the strikers going, but it didn’t raise nearly enough money. Morale plummeted. As Flynn said, “Bread was the need of the hour and bread was not forthcoming even from the most beautiful and realistic example of art that has been put on the stage in the last half century.”

The strike preparations had distracted workers from actually striking, giving the owners the upper hand back in Paterson. Without the masses at the gates, strikebreakers began going to work. The pageant also split the workers. Because of space limitations, only 1000 out of the 25,000 strikers could go, leading to jealousy. The skilled English speakers started demanding a settlement. The Socialists and Wobblies began fighting amongst themselves. Food and money became ever more scarce. In early July, the skilled ribbon workers agreed to a shop by shop settlement, kicked the IWW organizers out of the decision-making process, and went back to work. The immigrant workers could not stay out without the English speakers. By July 28, the strike had collapsed in a total defeat for the workers and the IWW.

After 1913, the IWW by and large left eastern industrial organizing behind in order to focus on itinerant labor in the West. Never again would it organize a large walkout among the eastern immigrant working-class.

Much of the information for this piece comes from Melvyn Dubofsky’s still definitive 1969 history of the I.W.W., We Shall Be All. For what it’s worth, if you are in the New York area, I am chairing a panel this afternoon at 1:30 at the Labor and Working-Class History Association on the 100th anniversary of the Pageant, at the Graduate Center for Worker Education downtown. The panel includes Dubofsky and several other leading IWW scholars. Stop by if you are inclined.

This is the 63rd post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.

Enjoy Your Fish Caught with Slave Labor

[ 11 ] June 5, 2013 |

Always important to remember that food has a whole labor history before it gets to your plate. Unless you grow or shoot it yourself maybe. And even then it’s arguable.

Thanks for whichever commenter brought this story to my attention. Sorry I can’t remember who it was now.

Labor Should Demand Political Value for Money

[ 44 ] June 4, 2013 |

Two stories here that revolve around the theme of organized labor rarely getting value for the money it donates to Democratic politicians.

On the national level, Communication Workers of American president Larry Cohen held a conference call with reporters and bloggers yesterday to say that Senate Democrats who do not support institutional changes within the Senate that would allow presidential nominees to get an up or down vote will lose CWA support. Without a functioning National Labor Relations Board, Democratic judges on federal courts, and other key agencies not being staffed due to Republican obstructionism, this is a huge issue for CWA and other unions.

The question I have is what losing support means? Does it mean not getting union money? None of the union’s tremendous GOTV efforts? Funding primary challengers? None of this is at all clear. But it’s clear that CWA does not believe it is getting its money’s worth for supporting Democrats regardless of what they do or do not do for labor.

Let’s look at the recent South Carolina special election to replace Tim Scott. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch received $32,500 from organized labor, including $10,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Her payback?

Ashley Byrd, News Director for South Carolina Radio: We are going to stay on the topic of job creation. And, uh, let’s start with this: Boeing is bringing more than 8,000 jobs into South Carolina. So here is a two part question first to Ms. Colbert Busch: Did the NLRB overstep its bounds when it tried to block Boeing’s approach to expansion in South Carolina? Yes or No, and why?

Elizabeth Colbert Busch: Yes. This is a right-to-work state, and they had no business telling a company where they could locate.

If the first thought that ran through your mind was, “Sounds like a standard Republican answer to a question like that,” you would be right. But, of course, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. In response to the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), stating that Colbert Busch “wants to be the voice for labor unions in Washington, DC”, she said the following:

First of all, um, Mark, what you’re saying is just not true. Things can be taken out of context, and everybody knows that. I am proud to support and live in a right-to-work state, and I am proud of everyone who has supported me.

Now of course it is South Carolina so what do you expect, right? Well, maybe. But why should labor should provide its valuable resources to politicians who do not support its fundamental positions? For 80 years, organized labor has thrown its hat in with the Democratic Party through thick and thin. This was a pretty good strategy for awhile, but today, everyone is questioning it, including at the very top of the AFL-CIO. Today (and increasingly since the 1970s) the Democratic Party just assumes labor is writing the checks and that it’s just an interest group to assuage but not take seriously.

The South Lawn has more here:

Labor also gave $68,000 in 2009-2010 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Yes, that would be the same Blanche Lincoln that played a large role in blocking the Employee Free Choice Act and who now works for Wal-Mart as a “special policy advisor” (read: lobbyist). You know, the same Wal-Mart notorious for its anti-union policies. It is not altogether surprising, though, given that Wal-Mart gave her $83,650 in donations over the course of her last term in the U.S. Senate.

Something is not adding up here.

Labor gave $1.1 billion in donations to candidates in federal elections between 2005 and 2011, and what do we have to show for it? No Employee Free Choice Act. President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary heads a corporation that is being boycotted by labor for anti-union practices and horrible working conditions. The candidate who stated in 2008 that he would put on his walking shoes and join a picket line wherever collective bargaining rights were threatened seemed to forget where his local Foot Locker was when it came to worker oppression in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But then again, that should not be surprising, given that the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in a right-to-work state at non-union hotels.

I don’t necessarily agree with the article’s argument to use all those resources strictly in local politics. That needs to happen too, but ignoring the national scene would be counterproductive. Labor of course should and will stay involved in electoral politics. But the question is how it should operate. How can it receive value for its dollar? I think the answer is probably supporting individual candidates instead of the Democratic Party as a whole. It needs to act more like the Bloomberg anti-gun group, making politicians pay if they don’t support union issues. And while you are not going to hurt a South Carolina Democrat by running an ad saying they are anti-union, you are going to hurt them by not giving one red cent. For a Democratic Party strategist, this is not an idea you want to hear. But from the perspective of what is best for labor unions and pushing their causes in Washington, this is a sensible strategy.

Hey, it’s a Union!

[ 12 ] June 1, 2013 |

MLBPA stands up:

A fight over health care benefits between unionized workers and management at a factory in Pennsylvania has gotten the attention of Major League Baseball’s players, who are urging the workers to “stick together” against an effort to double health premiums without increasing benefits.

The dispute is centered at a VF Majestic factory in Pennsylvania, where all of Major League Baseball’s jerseys are manufactured, and it set to heat up when a three-year labor agreement expires Friday. The workers, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, haven’t authorized a strike and are hoping to avoid one as they push back against Majestic in upcoming negotiating sessions. Heading into those negotiations, the workers received advice and support from Michael Weiner, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association.

But remember, Justin Verlander is objectively anti-worker for some reason.

[Erik]: Allow me to also mention the one-day strike of the concession workers at AT&T Park last week.

Coal Companies Eliminate Pensions

[ 68 ] May 31, 2013 |

A couple of months ago, I noted how coal giant Peabody Coal had created a spinoff corporation called Patriot Coal with the explicit mission of sending it toward bankruptcy in order to eliminate 20,000 pensions.

A Missouri bankruptcy judge has ruled in favor of Patriot here. Mike Elk with more:

Unless the parties come to another agreement, the ruling means that Patriot Coal’s healthcare obligations will be turned over to the Voluntary Employees Benefits Association (VEBA), a fund that would be administered by the union. According to the UMWA, Patriot will only guarantee to pay in a total of $15 million, plus $0.20 per ton of coal mined, which the UMWA calculates will cover only $5 million a year in retiree benefits. Retiree healthcare for Patriot Coal’s 20,000 beneficiaries currently costs $7 million a month, the union says.

According to the UMWA, Patriot Coal has offered the union a 35 percent stake in the company that the union can choose to sell in order to better fund the VEBA. The union, however, says that “since the current and future value of the company is unknown, there is no way of knowing how much money this could provide for healthcare benefits or when such funding would be available.” The company has also proposed a profit-sharing mechanism to help fund VEBA, the UMWA says, but it estimates the plan would provide only an additional $2 million a year.

Basically, another judge has conspired with corporate America to send thousands of old people into poverty.

Union Contracts and Romanticizing the IWW

[ 219 ] May 29, 2013 |

Daniel Gross’ discussion of IWW Local 8, the iteration of the Wobblies on the Philadelphia docks during the 1910s is interesting, but it’s a lot more problematic as a lesson that “could transform the labor movement,” as the article’s title states.

Local 8 wasn’t just created by a direct action—and that’s what is so remarkable and instructive about its example. Each and every gain on the job and in the industry—from big-picture issues like wages and hours, to fighting back against everyday management abuse—was won by direct organizing, rather than representation by union officials.

Startling and even unfathomable to many unionists today, Local 8 did not sign contracts with employers and was adamantly against doing so. Fletcher himself vehemently condemned unionists who would enter into contracts with employers.

The exclusive collective bargaining agreement between company and union as well as the employer collected-dues that come with it are sacred cows in the contemporary labor movement. How did Local 8 maintain a union industry with a union standard without signing contracts?

Dues-paying members of Local 8 wore pins that indicated that they were in good standing for a given month. If a worker showed up to unload a ship without the pin for the month, he’d be approached by his union co-workers. The worker would be informed or reminded that this was a union job, with the higher standard of living and dignity that came with organized work. At that point, ideally, the worker would get his dues paid to one of his co-workers serving as an elected delegate of Local 8.

If the worker couldn’t be persuaded to join or get paid up and the boss allowed him to undermine the standard by working non-union, workers would strike on the spot. In the highly time-sensitive business of unloading a ship, it wouldn’t be long until the fellow worker would pay up, move on or get laid off until getting into good standing. A union job secured not by operation of a contract but by the initiative and power of worker self-activity is the hallmark of solidarity unionism and the Local 8 model.

I’m fairly uncomfortable with the emphasis a lot of labor activists today place upon individual empowerment and vague ideas of solidarity as a way forward. It’s quite fitting in a post-Occupy period–Occupy members often have very strong and positive ideas about the IWW. Given the number of labor activists, including insiders within the AFL-CIO who openly talk of moving to a post-labor law period, all options are on the table for the future. But while this kind of ultra-democratic unionism enforced by group solidarity sounds great, there’s one big problem. The IWW never accomplished anything long-lasting, precisely because its avoidance of union contracts meant that companies had the long-term advantage. Note the next part of Gross’ piece:

Local 8 never received the support it would have needed to endure against the multitude of forces arrayed against it. Battered by the unjust imprisonment of its leaders, relentless employer attacks, aggressive pressure from a government favored union, and its own internal strains, Local 8 of the IWW was defeated in the years after World War I. The federal National Labor Relations Act followed in 1935 and the consolidation of the traditional union model, now unraveling, was largely complete.

A lot going on in that paragraph. Local 8 never received the support it needed in part because it didn’t have the structure to demand long-term changes. One reason for that was because it eschewed union contracts. It’s rather easy to say that this democratic utopia had all these enemies and that’s why it failed. While that’s not untrue, there were also problems inherent to the IWW organizing model that helped doom it and every other Wobbly union. We also need to know more about the internal strains Gross discusses.

I know the American Federation of Labor circa 1915 is not a model anyone, including myself, wants to emulate today. But unlike the IWW, it actually could win real gains for the workers it chose to represent. What is great about the early CIO is how it combined the mass movement politics of the IWW with the realistic understanding of how American corporations and politics operated it borrowed from the AFL. The CIO was top-down as all heck (the steelworkers didn’t even have the right to vote on their own contracts), but it also could win, one big reason why millions of workers flocked to it who never became Wobblies.

In short, I’m not sure there is any organizing model from American labor history that provides a sure-fire way forward. But the IWW most certainly does not. In fact, I’d argue the IWW has some real pitfalls that I see a lot of well-meaning people fall into.

Lessons of the New Gun Politics

[ 45 ] May 28, 2013 |

I found Alec MacGillis’ discussion of the new gun politics quite interesting. I’m not sure that we are seeing the death of the NRA here, but there’s no question that continued support of background checks at gun shows is positive. From a political perspective, what’s interesting is the tack that Bloomberg’s gun-control group is taking. They simply don’t care which party you are if you don’t support background checks. There’s been some talk of the wisdom of attacking Mark Pryor in an election year, since an Arkansas Republican won’t be better on gun control and will be worse on a lot of other issues. But it might be that not caring about the short-term is the best way to play the long game.

This is already causing anxiety among Democrats: Reid’s office has pleaded with Bloomberg to lay off Pryor and Begich. (“What does Bloomberg care?” says the Senate staffer.) Some Democrats are also worried about harsh ads that Bloomberg and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, have been running against Ayotte and Flake.12 “I certainly worry about boxing senators into a corner in the short run,” Murphy, the Connecticut senator, told me. “I’m not sure the smart thing is to run [the ads] right now.”

It’s true the strategy has a potential cost: A Democrat like Pryor might be easier to persuade down the line. But the groups believe that in order to get self-interested politicians thinking differently, first they have to get them scared. “For too long we’ve been playing Mister Nice Guy,” Gross says. Wolfson adds: “Bottom line, this is not a movement that has spent too much time running ads the last few decades. We’ve seen what the results are.”

One complication is that no vulnerable Republicans who opposed the legislation are up for reelection in 2014, leaving Bloomberg with fewer short-term targets.13 This is partly why the gun-control movement wants the background-check bill to pass the Senate—to press John Boehner to bring it up for a House vote. Even if it failed, members would have to take a stance, opening up dozens more races for Bloomberg to invest in. The group has also not ruled out spending on state-level candidates.

I think about this in terms of the labor and environmental movements. Like gun control before Newtown, no politician fears either of these movements. The correct assumption is that both will not only support Democrats, no matter how bad they are, but they will also provide money and GOTV operations needed for candidates to win. They can be ignored. Labor has struggled with this issue since the Carter years. For environmentalists, it’s a issue that goes back a decade or so. Neither movement’s leaders knows what to do about it.

It’s kind of standard practice at this blog to say that “heightening the contradictions” is a terrible idea. I agree with that. But it’s also hard to get around the point that the only thing politicians care about is reelection and the only way labor or environmentalists are going to get anyone to listen to them is to stick a shiv in the Democrats who don’t support them. They might not be able to rally the bipartisan troops and emotional volume like gun control, but enviros have huge money and labor has the GOTV operation. If the gun control movement succeeds in turning politicians to the left on guns, the wisdom of actively undermining the people who won’t pay you back gets harder to deny.

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