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Tag: "labor"

The New Religious Exception: Unionization

[ 240 ] July 16, 2014 |

….Sorry for not including the link, I wrote this before a long and horrible day of travel and so just saw I forgot it now. Here is the original link, for what it’s worth 20 hours later.

Among the many potential impacts of the Hobby Lobby decision is for employers to claim unionization of their workforce violates their religious beliefs. This is already percolating through the court system, most famously at Duquense University, when that Catholic institution of higher education used this argument (because all know the Pope hates unions or something).

By declaring that “closely held” corporations may hold religious beliefs, the court may have provided businesses with a new tool for crushing workplace unionization drives. In addition to declaring themselves exempt from contraception mandates and non-discrimination laws, religious employers may soon be able to argue for an exemption from collective bargaining laws.

“All you need is one employer saying, ‘My religious beliefs tell me I shouldn’t collectively bargain,’” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. If an employer takes the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to court and uses that argument, it could set the table for a major court battle over the future of union rights in nominally religious workplaces.

Religious primary and secondary schools are already exempt from collective bargaining rules, thanks to the 1979 Supreme Court case NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over schools “operated by a church to teach both religious and secular subjects.” As a result, schools operated by the Catholic Bishop of Chicago were under no obligation to recognize employee unions, no matter the circumstances. Putting religious schools under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, the court reasoned, would present “a significant risk of infringement of Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.”

Other religious schools have seized on the decision over the years. Most recently, Perelman Jewish Day School in Philadelphia decided to stop recognizing its teachers’ union, citing NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago as legal justification. A March 28 article from the labor-friendly magazine In These Times suggested that the school’s actions may have earned it the title “the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting.” But the Perelman case may wind up being less important than another legal fight brewing elsewhere in Pennsylvania. In 2012, adjunct professors at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University requested the right to hold a union election, only to have the school claim a religious exemption. The crucial difference in this case is that Duquesne is a university, not a religious day school like Perelman or the Chicago Catholic schools.

The implication of Alito’s opinion in Hobby Lobby, if fully implemented, opens the door to employers using religious exemptions to avoid every law they don’t like, which I have no reason to believe reasonable moderate Sam Alito would oppose.

Business Owners Always Hate Worker Power

[ 184 ] July 14, 2014 |

Yes, I too am shocked to find out that my small-time capitalist who sells lefty books also hates unions like a member of the Walton family.

Seafood Labor Fighting Exploitation

[ 3 ] July 13, 2014 |

One of the world’s most exploitative industries is seafood, mostly for rich nation consumption. Two of the biggest areas of production are in southeast Asia and the Gulf Coast. In the southeast Asia fisheries, slave labor is far too common, with frequent killings of workers, usually immigrants from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, for actions such as asking to be paid. Things aren’t quite that bad on the Gulf Coast, but they are pretty terrible.

So it is positive that seafood workers in the Gulf are working with the National Guestworker Alliance to try and put pressure on the big retailers like WalMart and Whole Foods over working conditions
. Those companies don’t care if supply workers live or die, as we see from WalMart’s response to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. But putting pressure on them at least gets people’s attention and hopefully builds the movement necessary that humane working conditions can return to this country.

The Volkswagen-UAW Deal

[ 26 ] July 13, 2014 |

As most of you know by now, Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers came to an agreement to create a union local in the company’s Chattanooga plant to represent the workers who want to join. This agreement will not include any dues collection until after a collective bargaining agreement is reached. It comes in the face of the UAW’s devastating election loss earlier this year after unprecedented political interference.

My general reaction to this agreement: meh.

I suppose it’s not a bad thing. For those who want representation, they have it, sort of. It doesn’t exactly show the union in a good light to people around the country who are maybe on the fence about joining, since it does seem to ignore the vote, but who really cares. The bigger question is whether it is remotely replicable or whether we would even want it to be. I’m skeptical. I have a hard time seeing the UAW taking a hard line with Volkswagen on anything given that the company and union have already agreed for it to exist. Of course, the UAW isn’t talking tough to any of its employers at this point. This can only be replicated if other employers want the UAW in their factories enough to create such a system. That’s unlikely. The Volkswagen case is unique because of the pressure the company faces from its German unions, a level of power that American unions do not have.

More positively I think is promoting the idea of minority unionism, where a voluntary group of workers seeks to stand up for themselves in the face of hostility from employers and even other fellow workers. There’s no reason why this sort of unionism shouldn’t be promoted. No, it isn’t going to lead to big membership gains and dues infusions to the unions nor is it likely to lead to a collective bargaining agreement, but it still can provide workers a voice on the job and lead to concrete gains when workers are angry enough to act.

At best, this agreement between VW and UAW leads to real material gains for union members and it convinces others that joining up is in their best interests. Whether that happens or not in the face of the two-tiered contract the union agreed to with the Big Three that helped doom the Chattanooga vote, I don’t know. And I suppose it already has led to more jobs, with VW following up this announcement with one picking the factory for the construction of a new SUV. Hopefully workers see the connection between unions and more jobs and sign up.

Also, read Benjamin Sachs on the legal side of a members-only union creating a works council.

This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1934

[ 34 ] July 11, 2014 |

On July 11, 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union formed when eleven white farmers and seven black farmers met in Tyronza, Arkansas to form a union of sharecroppers to fight for poor farmers’ rights. Perhaps the last gasp of the Farmers Alliance potential to reach out across racial lines and transform rural life, the STFU sought to empower sharecroppers to fight for economic rights during the dark days of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was very hard on poor southern farmers. In fact, the Depression there had really started in the 1920s. Crop prices plummeted after the overproduction of World War I. By the time the official Great Depression began in 1929, the farm economy had been terrible for years, meaning the sharecroppers on southern land, a labor situation that had begun as something of a compromise between freed slaves and white landowners after the Civil War but had since spread to employ poor whites as well, were in entrenched, awful poverty.

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Arkansas sharecroppers, 1930s

Tyronza, Arkansas was a bit odd for the rural South as there were active socialists in the area. This was not totally unknown in the South, but rare enough by 1934. Floods and droughts had ravaged the region in recent years and the national attention these received interested socialists in the area. As those ideas began spreading into the area, some locals, even merchants, showed interest in an economic system that offered an alternative to a capitalism that had not worked out for their region. Living in Tyronza was Harry Mitchell, a socialist and sharecropper. He and a gas station owner named Clay East saw that the owners were not sharing their Agricultural Adjustment Act payments with the sharecroppers and they began organizing their neighbors into what became the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

The STFU’s main mission was fighting against the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The New Deal promoted agricultural centralization, which threw thousands of sharecroppers off their land. The Okies coming to California in the 1930s, were mostly fleeing the loss of their land rights from AAA-related centralization, not the Dust Bowl. It was the same in eastern Arkansas. AAA had two provisions that severely hurt sharecroppers. First, it had no provisions to ensure that the money landowners received to reduce farm production trickled down to sharecroppers. They were expected to share it but the owners were just keeping it all. Second, it encouraged the eviction of sharecroppers through its centralization policies, in effect if not in word. In 1934, these farmers had nowhere to go. A decade later, the jobs of World War II would give them opportunities. These did not exist in 1934. Eviction meant moving to a strange place with no likely hope of a job.

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Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting, Arkansas

The first strike began in the fall of 1935, when Mitchell led sharecroppers out for $1 per pound of cotton versus the 40 cents the owners were offering. When the owners compromised on 75 cents (and some went all the way to $1), the workers declared victory and returned to work. Of course, the response of landowners to this movement was violence, especially once the unionization campaign began. The STFU was a threatening organization to the white power structure. That it was integrated automatically made it dangerous. The first commission of STFU representatives to travel to Washington to appeal to the government included two African-Americans in its five members. At one meeting, four armed whites walked in and ordered all the blacks to leave if they did not want to be lynched. Many members were thrown off their land for membership in the organization. Beatings of organizers took place while police violence was common and threatened lynchings scared many members. STFU offices had to move from Tyronza to Memphis, where the urban environment provided more safety.

The STFU soon spread from Arkansas to Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee. It claimed 7500 members in Oklahoma, demanding land redistribution, with land owned by banks given to small farmers. In Arkansas, it forced politicians to create the Governor’s Commission on Farm Tenancy. Oklahoma passed the Landlord and Tenant Relationship Act in 1937 to encourage long-term residency on the land and promote the government as a mediator of the problems of the sharecropped farm, but conservative outrage led to its repeal in 1939.

Unlike previous farmer movements like the Populists, STFU leaders actively thought of themselves as in the same boat as industrial labor and thus sought to become a union like in eastern factories. The STFU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ agricultural union, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) in 1937 but withdrew a year later, worried that UCAPAWA’s communist leadership was looking to take over the STFU. UCAPAWA president Donald Henderson saw the STFU as a utopian vanguard of rural revolution rather than a real union and attempted to overwhelm its leadership with paperwork so he could take it over. When the STFU leadership withdrew, it led to UCAPAWA ending its attempts to organize in the fields, focusing on the canneries, where the CIO (and the CP) was always more comfortable. The break with UCAPAWA severely hurt the STFU’s ability to function, especially as several of its leading organizers were CP and stayed with the union. Two-thirds of its locals collapsed.

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Southern Tenant Farmers Union logo

As the STFU and landowners battled each other with increasing intensity, the situation finally received some attention from the government. This led to the Resettlement Administration (RA), intended to help sharecroppers find better lives. But the funding for the RA always remained small and the solutions it developed long-term rather than immediate. The government also created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), to provide low-cost loans to poor farmers who wanted to buy their own land but this was not a realistic option for the vast majority of STFU members. The 11,000 farmers around the nation it helped in 1939 was a nice start, but far too small to deal with the scale of the problem. Ultimately, the government did little to alleviate the problems AAA had spawned for sharecroppers.

The STFU declined by the early 1940s. Mitchell continued leading it, called the National Farm Labor Union after 1945, for the rest of his life, but it was only a shadow organization except for some success organizing the California cotton fields in the 40s. Because of the mechanization and industrialization of farming, most of the cotton labor force disappeared from the fields not long after World War II. The same happened for many other crops. The exception to this history of agricultural labor is Latino farmworkers, laboring in exploitative conditions not dissimilar to that of the early 20th century American South. On these farms, usually in more difficult to mechanize fruits and vegetables, the fight continues.

This is the 114th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Coca-Cola Anti-Union Meeting

[ 117 ] July 10, 2014 |

Yesterday, Coca-Cola held a mandatory anti-union meeting in an Atlanta warehouse. The workers were not happy. You can listen to the entire thing here.

Energy Industry Workplace Deaths

[ 12 ] July 7, 2014 |

Worker deaths in the energy industry have risen dramatically over the past five years because of the oil and fracking booms. That’s not necessary though. Better worker training would cut down on a lot of these accidents, but the companies, not facing harsh penalties from the federal government, put inexperienced workers in dangerous situations. Raising all OSHA fines tenfold would save a lot of workers’ lives.

What Anti-Sweatshop Pressure Can Do

[ 26 ] July 5, 2014 |

As we talked about here earlier, the idea that the kids just aren’t doing their activism right because I’m too lazy to find out what the kids are doing today is a stupid critique of modern activism, in part because students are doing awesome things. Pressure from students at Rutgers led that university to cut off contracts from two apparel companies who refused to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Now Outdoor Cap, which made their hats, is crying about it.

This Day in Labor History: July 5, 1935

[ 17 ] July 5, 2014 |

On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation revolutionized the relationship between the federal government and organized labor and gave workers a fair shake from the government for the first time in American history.

When Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1933, the economy was in the worst state in American history. But Roosevelt wanted to help business, not hurt it. His first New Deal labor legislation was really more a pro-business measure. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) intended to bring business on the board with a reform program, and in fact parts of the act were welcomed by corporations, especially as it promoted bigness to undermine harmful competition. Somewhat unintentionally, the NIRA’s provision protecting collective bargaining for workers was interpreted by American workers as giving them approval to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor movement helped cleave corporate support from the New Deal.

In 1935, when the right-wing Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt moved for greater empowerment of workers. In fact, it was only when the NIRA was shut down that FDR moved toward this greater empowerment of workers. He was originally skeptical of the act because it did so much for workers and seemed anti-business. But the election of 1934 created an overwhelmingly liberal Congress that the political space existed for Roosevelt to take such a significant step. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) shepherded the bill through Congress (and giving it its popular name of the Wagner Act). Wagner had long been a champion of labor. He had served as chairman of the New York State Factory Inspection Commission in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire and built upon that to become a Democratic senator from the state in 1927. Wagner was the Senate’s leading liberal during the New Deal, shepherding a variety of legislation through the body, particularly around labor issues.

The NLRA guaranteed “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The law applied to all workers involved in interstate commerce except those working for government, railroads, airlines, and agriculture. The agriculture exception, as in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, continues to lead to the exploitation of agricultural workers today and is one of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Deal, although arguably including agricultural workers might have dampened support for these laws enough that they wouldn’t have passed.

The most important part of the NLRA was the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, creating a government agency with real authority to oversee the nation’s labor relations. The government had now officially declared its neutrality in labor relations, seeing its role as mediating them rather than openly siding with employers to crush unions. This was a remarkable turnaround in a nation where unionbusting was a good political move for the ambitious pol. After all, Calvin Coolidge, out of office only 4 years before Roosevelt took over, made his name by busting the 1919 Boston police strike.

Business went ballistic after the NLRA passed. Business Week ran an editorial titled “NO OBEDIENCE!” It read: “Although the Wagner Labor Relations Act has been passed by Congress and signed by the President, it is not yet law. For nothing is law that is not constitutional.”

Conservatives immediately challenged the constitutionality of the NLRA. But Roosevelt’s war on the Supreme Court, while damaging his prestige and ability to get new legislation passed, did have an effect. The pressure of a changing nation by the time the case came to them had an effect. In the 1937 decision in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the government and the act’s future was ensured. Within a year of the decision, three justices retired and Roosevelt ensured the future of his programs.

It’s also important to remember what life for workers was life before the National Labor Relations Act. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t form strong unions and thus were poor, although that was a piece of it. It’s that companies could do basically anything they wanted to in order to stop or bust a union. They could hire spies. They could hire a police force. They could kill union organizers. They could fire you for joining a union. Corporations had all the power and workers had none because in the end, the government was willing to back up the companies through legislation or even through military intervention to bust unions. The NLRA ended that, perhaps not entirely, but largely. Leveling the playing field meant workers now had the right to a decent life, a right they were happy to grasp and fight for. And fight for they did, as union membership skyrocketed after the NLRA was upheld by the Court.

In other words, social movements require accessing the levers of power, even if that means compromising on key principles, in order to codify change.

As is the case with most legislation, it proved susceptible to conservative regulatory capture and today the NLRB is a shell of its former robust self thanks to Republican attacks on it as one of the few agencies dedicated to giving workers a fair voice on the job, a principle to which the Republican Party opposed in 1935 and opposes in 2014.

This is the 113th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Harris Aftermath

[ 19 ] July 4, 2014 |

Mostly, this is a good rundown of reactions to the Harris decision. In particular the piece by Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein and the Joshua Freeman essay get at one key issue–that the work of women and especially poor women is consistently undervalued in our society.

From Boris and Klein:

So why do the Court’s conservatives advance an argument that is out of step with historical, economic and social reality? Part of the reason certainly lies with the nature of the work: domestic tasks done by women in the location of the home, unrecognized as a place of waged labor. Additionally, the labor has been devalued and dismissed because of the stigmatization attached to the work of poor women of color, the legacy of slavery and discrimination. In this context, Harris v. Quinn becomes a direct assault on the livelihood of some of the nation’s lowest paid workers. It is part of the right’s war on women, its demonization of public employees and battle against the union idea.

And from Freeman:

Instead, Harris is an extension of a different tradition in American labor law, the denial of rights to workers in industries dominated by female and non-white workers. Far from universal, the major New Deal labor laws—the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act—explicitly excluded particular occupations, including farm work and domestic labor, which had large numbers of female, African-American and Mexican-American workers. While some racially and sexually biased exclusions were later eliminated, Harris effectively extends this history of discrimination.

I do have to take exception to Jane McAlevey’s article because unlike the historians quoted above, it pushes ideology over analysis as to the real problem at hand in the decision. For McAlevey the problem is not enough internal democracy in modern unions. While I don’t dispute this is a weakness of the American labor movement (although aren’t European unions even more bureaucratic and top-down than American unions? European unions are certainly far larger and more integrated into corporate decision-making than in the US), I fail to see what it has to do with the Harris decision or how pushing more internal democracy unions will to do to influence the Supreme Court. Unfortunately this sort of ideologically charged critique is far more common in left-labor circles than it should be, not because those making it are wrong exactly but because it gets in the way of understanding the real reasons labor is in trouble that are far more persuasive than blaming it on Big Labor. But it’s at lot easier to whip your enemies in the labor movement than deal with the major structural problems causing labor’s decline like capital mobility, the organized conservative movement, and the growth of the business lobby after the Powell Memo.

Organizing Reality TV Writers

[ 46 ] July 2, 2014 |

Life for a reality TV writer is pretty tough since they have been classified as independent contractors or overtime-exempt and thus can be exploited heavily. The Writers’ Guild is trying to step into the void and organize them.

Tricky bosses, faked timecards, excruciating hours, dangerous scrapes… It sounds like fodder for a reality TV show, perhaps “America’s Next Worst Job.”

But workers say these are the conditions in reality TV itself, known more formally as the nonfiction television industry.

“We are told to be loyal, that this is normal,” said Lauren Veloski of the long unpaid hours she worked for several production companies. “You should anticipate that your workday will be 12 hours long,” one employer informed her.

Veloski said she and her co-workers were required to fake timecards saying they worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In fact, she said, she often worked past midnight, even until dawn.

The companies didn’t pay a penny of overtime. Indeed, the extra work was entirely unpaid in most cases.

Employees also said the companies, in turn, have no loyalty to their workers, sometimes putting them in dangerous situations.

“They don’t care about safety at all. People climb mountains, do things that are unsafe. If they get hurt they [the employers] don’t answer their phone calls or hire them again,” said 30-year industry veteran Helen Smith, who asked me not to use her real name for fear of retaliation.

Court Commentary Roundup

[ 23 ] July 1, 2014 |

Few pieces that you should be reading about yesterday’s terrible Supreme Court decisions.

First, Sarah Jaffe on how the two cases are interlocking:

We’ve long known that low-wage workers have very few rights on the job, that their bosses are able to interfere in all sorts of personal decisions. In this case, it’s the particular nature of the benefit denied that is worth exploring for a moment. Eileen Boris, author with Jennifer Klein of Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, has noted that particular ideas of “intimacy and dirt” influence how we think about home healthcare workers and the work they do, which often involves exposure to bodily processes that are extraordinarily intimate. In the case of contraception, too, we see ideas of intimacy and dirt coming into play—sexuality is dirty, and intimate decisions can in part be influenced by one’s boss. By ruling, in theory, that the state cannot make an employer provide health insurance that covers birth control, or require that homecare workers pay the costs of their representation to the union, the court is in fact weighing in on the intimate relationships of thousands of workers.

Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent to Harris, pointed out that the care provided by homecare workers is better when the workers are valued and paid better—things that have happened since they have had the right to union representation. In this way, she argues, the interests of the workers and the care recipients are not in opposition, as Alito’s opinion implies—they are actually aligned. The statement of Hobby Lobby’s CEO on raising wages indicates that Hobby Lobby, too, understands that workers do a better job when they are properly cared for. That includes, or should include, the right to make their own healthcare decisions, when it comes to contraception or anything else.

The conservatives pushing both of these cases would have you believe that these are cases about freedom—the freedom to avoid a union, the freedom to practice religion. And yet what they wind up being about is reducing power on the job for thousands of mostly women, mostly low-paid workers across the country.

Attacks on all workers’ rights often come first through attacks on those deemed less important workers. When we decide that birth control isn’t a pivotal issue because it only affects some workers, or that homecare workers’ loss is not a loss for us all, we leave the door open for the next attack.

And so, in a country where these feminized personal service jobs are increasingly the only jobs available, the court continues to rule that workers’ rights are less important than the bosses’, that protections on the job are a luxury working-class women can’t afford.

Second, Moshe Marvit on the implications of Harris.

In Harris, the majority implied that it was not the objecting employees that were the true free-riders, but rather the union. The decision focused on the fact that hourly rates were set by Illinois law and there were significant statutory restrictions over what the union could bargain over. It highlighted the fact that the union received dues for its representation, but questioned what negotiations or grievance representation the union could deliver to employees.

In effect, this analysis places unions in a bind: any reasonable observer would conclude that the union negotiated with the state to set the terms of compensation, benefits, and other terms of employment, which are then codified into law. However, because the Supreme Court has demarcated this activity to the realm of lobbying, which is beyond the strict scope of representation, it concluded that the union is in effect collecting dues for doing little. The majority has drawn an untenable distinction and then complains that the distinction is not tenable.

Toward the end of its peculiar analysis, the majority articulates a new and dangerous standard or test, which surely will open the doors to future problems. “The agency-fee [or fair share] provision cannot be sustained unless the cited benefits for personal assistants could not have been achieved if the union had been required to depend for funding on the dues paid by those personal assistants who chose to join.” In effect, the Court is requiring unions to prove a counterfactual, that the workers could not have achieved the same benefits it received from the union through any other means. The Court concludes that “no such showing has been made.” However, it is not clear how anyone could make such a showing. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for herself and three other dissenting justices, proclaimed that the good news with this case is that the majority did not overturn Abood. However, if the majority’s new test is a prerequisite for fair-share agreements, it may have done irreparable damage to the balance created by Abood.

Finally, I have a little piece at LaborOnline that summarizes the points I made here yesterday.

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