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Tag: "labor"


[ 22 ] September 17, 2015 |


The United States has not passed comprehensive labor law reform that was pro-worker since 1938. 77 years is a long time. Democrats are now proposing a law to change that.

The Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, which Democrats introduced Wednesday, adds hefty monetary penalties for violations of workers’ rights to collectively organize, whether to join a union or simply to improve conditions in the workplace. It also provides for injunctions to force employers to quickly re-hire workers if they were fired unjustly, undocumented or not. And it allows workers to sue in federal court for damages and attorneys fees, which they’re able to do under other labor and civil rights statutes, but not the NLRA.

That’s a departure from the labor movement’s most recent effort, back in 2009, when it narrowly failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act — or “card check,” which would have allowed workers to join when a majority sign cards in favor of doing so. The WAGE Act is a broader approach.

“There’s a sense that this is about workers, not about unions,” says Harvard Law professor Benjamin Sachs of the new proposal. “EFCA, that’s a union bill. If you think about the Fight for $15 [an hour], this would apply to those workers.” That’s important, he says, because it could draw a larger base of support.

“When unions succeed politically is when they push for things that are for all workers,” Sachs says, “and do poorly when they push for things that are just for unions.”

Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit have a more in-depth analysis of what this all means.

The WAGE Act would give workers the same remedies as employees whose civil rights are violated: the ability not just to get their jobs and back pay, which is the rule now, but to win punitive damages, to engage in legal discovery that gives lawyers access to an employer’s internal files, and win attorneys’ fees when workers prevail. Employees also can get a preliminary injunction to get their jobs back right away.

By giving workers a fresh way to think about becoming part of a union – as a civil right, rather than just joining a special interest – the idea has a chance to re-awaken a conversation that has languished in American politics. The decimation of the American labor movement has been catastrophic for the middle class, keeping wages down and weakening the voice of middle-class citizens in the political process.

Research has long shown that labor unions boost the wages of members; in a recent paper with our colleague Mark Zuckerman, we estimate that the average nonunion worker could expect to accumulate an additional $551,000 in wealth over her career if she were in a union. Moreover, new research from the Center for American Progress shows that the effect last more than a generation: unions also boost social mobility for the children of union members. Even centrist economist Lawrence Summers recently argued that strengthening unions “has to be an important component of any realistic American inclusive growth agenda.”

The idea of employees being able to sue—known technically as a “private right of action”—isn’t new; we wrote about it in a 2012 book, and the WAGE Act echoes legislation introduced last year by Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis. But now the idea has gone mainstream and is backed by the ranking members of the House and Senate labor and education committees – which suggests that the time may be right for it on the Presidential campaign trail

The lawsuit aspect of this is so important and it’s for the same that I propose international lawsuits against American corporations in Out of Sight. Corporations only respond to financial pressure or political pressure. Without the former, we are unlikely to get the latter. Voluntary standards, company unionism, greenwashing efforts, etc., never are going to create change that puts power in the hands of workers and citizens. Lawsuits can do that. Which is of course why Republicans hate trial lawyers so much.

Giving workers the right to sue employers for punitive damages if they are fired for organizing is an outstanding idea and I am very glad Democrats in Congress have introduced this bill. I hope Sanders and Clinton make public statements in favor of it very soon and that it becomes part of the conversation in the 2016 election. It’s not passing under a Republican Congress, but these are the ideas that can later be encoded into the law. Organizing around them now is a smart move.



[ 10 ] September 14, 2015 |


OSHA just faces a hard row to hoe in implementing silica standards or anything else. The reality is that OSHA has been battered between the political winds ever since its founding. Only during the Carter years was OSHA really empowered for making widespread change. The agency was created just before corporations began organizing themselves to more effectively fight the new regulatory regime Americans had demanded be place on them during the 1960s and 1970s. By the time it was up and running, business was already targeting it. Reagan slashed the budget and the agency has never recovered. Between the political problems and the difficulty of getting the science right in figuring out how to create new workplace safety standards, new programs to help workers stay alive move at a glacial pace if they move at all. We’ll see if Obama’s OSHA gets a silica standard through. It hasn’t even tried to recreate the ergonomics standard of the Clinton years that Bush dumped.

Nationalizing Walker’s War on Unions

[ 107 ] September 14, 2015 |


Scott Walker is desperate. He seems to think that his path to the nomination is highlighting his war on unions since that’s what made him famous. So his proposals:

The Republican presidential candidate’s proposal, which he plans to announce at an afternoon speech in Las Vegas, would eliminate the National Labor Relations Board, prohibit federal employee unions, institute right-to-work laws nationwide and repeal the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which requires the payment of local prevailing wages to workers on federal construction projects, often boosting pay and project costs.

Here is the full proposal.
A couple of thoughts. First, I am really skeptical that Republican primary voters actually care about unions. Very few Trump voters are going to move back to Walker because he wants to repeal Davis-Bacon. And, as Republican candidates are finding out through Trump’s right-wing populism, the economics beliefs of the party’s elite are not actually shared with any conviction by huge swaths of the base. So I am really skeptical that this will help Walker at all.

But the second point is perhaps more important, which is that no Republican candidates are likely to speak out against this either, meaning that the elimination of public sector unions, closure of the NLRN, national right to work, and the repeal of Davis-Bacon are probably on the agenda if the Republican Party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. This is the position of a plutocrat class that doesn’t care what the public has to say anymore and while Walker might be their preferred choice, Rubio, Bush, and the rest outside maybe of Trump will follow along without too much fussing.

This Day in Labor History: September 11, 1851

[ 59 ] September 11, 2015 |


On September 11, 1851, African-Americans and abolitionist whites in Christiana, Pennsylvania engaged in violent resistance against a posse of slave catchers riding up from Maryland to retrieve fugitive slaves in the town. The so-called Christiana Riot demonstrated the growing division in the nation over the use of slave labor in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the increasing willingness in the North to actively resist incursions to recover slaves who had freed themselves from a life of bondage.

By 1850, slavery was beginning to dominate all facets of American politics. The Mexican War, where the United States engaged in an imperialist war to steal half of Mexico to expand slavery, outraged many northerners and hardened the partisan divides in the nation. Given that the South was largely thwarted in its slavery expansion when the California gold rush led to an influx of northerners who saw their new home as a white man’s state, when Utah was dominated by Mormons, and no one knew what to do with New Mexico, the South demanded more from the North in what became the Compromise of 1850. This was the Fugitive Slave Act. Ever since the nation was founded, slaves who could self-liberate did so by taking themselves and their labor into northern states in order to have freedom and earn money for themselves. Once across the Mason-Dixon Line, they were free, barring kidnapping which could happen but was relatively rare, although a 1793 fugitive slave law was on the books but almost totally unenforced. The Fugitive Slave Act ended this lax period and enabled southerners to reclaim their property no matter where in the North they lived.

For many northern whites, slavery seemed to threaten the future of white settlement of western land, widely considered to be the core of the American dream in the Jeffersonian agrarian perspective that was largely dominant at the time. The rise of free labor ideology that would strongly influence the early Republican Party combined with an increasingly awareness of the horrors of how slaves were treated to being move to move some, although not all that many even by 1860, northern whites into open alliance with African-Americans, helping their friends and neighbors maintain control over their own labor through their lives in the North.

This new situation frightened the many freed slaves throughout the North, especially given that most lived relatively near the Mason-Dixon line. Whether in Ohio or Maine, their freedom was now in serious danger. It was nearly impossible for slaves in most of the South to escape North because of the distance. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania bordered Maryland. And so a lot of Maryland slaves hopped the border to a now-endangered freedom.

Near the end of 1849, four slaves owned by Bernard Goruch escaped from the Maryland plantation where they lived to Lancaster County. In 1851, Goruch discovered they were in Christiana. He went to Philadelphia on September 8, 1851 to get a warrant for their return, which was required in the Fugitive Slave Act. He then organized a posse of his friends and neighbors to go to Christiana and get the slaves back. The slaves had different ideas. They were living on the farm of William Parker, a freed slave himself. Parker had formed an organization to protect African-Americans from a local white group called the Gap Gang that kidnapped runaway slaves and sent them back to Maryland for money. Parker’s work to help slaves on the Underground Railroad and resist slaveholders had brought him to the attention of the Maryland planters.

When Gorusch, the federal marshal, and the posse arrived at Parker’s house, he was ready to resist. He refused to let the posse take the slaves. A shot rang out, Parker’s wife rang a bell, and blacks in the neighborhood as well as two abolitionist whites came to help out. A battle ensued that killed Gorusch and wounded his son. The posse retreated and that evening Parker and the four runaways fled to Canada. They did successfully reach that nation and true freedom.

The South and the Democratic Party in the North was outraged at this lawlessness in the North and demanded retribution. But the local juries disagreed. They did charge two dozen people with treason, riot, and murder. They tried of the white abolitionists, but the jury found him not guilty and the state dropped charges against everyone else. It is believed the jurors themselves wanted to make it clear that the state of Pennsylvania would not assist southern planters in the recapture of freed blacks.

But this was hardly an isolated incident. Rather, blacks and abolitionist whites through much of the North began actively resisting enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, making it largely moot in parts of the nation. Conceptions over which form of labor would dominate the country would continue dominating the politics of the United States through the 1850s. Abraham Lincoln’s half-slave and half-free construction was not just about human rights. It was about a labor system. Increasingly, the South was forcing the North to choose which labor system would dominate the nation. And while many northerners had no sympathy for and openly hated African-Americans, the threat of the slave power to dominate white people too moved a lot of support for Lincoln and the Republican Party.

The South of course was all-in on their system of slave labor and would commit treason to defend it in 1860 and 1861.

Thomas Slaughter’s Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North is the most important book on this event.

This is the 157th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Origins of Right to Work

[ 24 ] September 10, 2015 |


At RI Future, I reviewed Cedric de Leon’s new book The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. An excerpt.

Scholars are beginning to rethink the Gilded Age through the framework of the New Gilded Age. Providence College sociologist Cedric de Leon is at the forefront of this movement in his new book The Origins of the Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. He examines the origins of the “right to work” idea in the mid-nineteenth century, attempting to provide a historical background to formerly union states like Michigan and Wisconsin embracing a war on unions and implementing right to work legislation that allows public sector workers to opt out of union dues while forcing unions to continue representing them. Using Chicago as a case study, he explores how workers conceived of the challenges of the new capitalist economy as avoiding dependence on employers. Self-reliance and the shunning of dependence were central to the growth of American political culture and mythology in the first century after the Revolutionary War and this shaped working-class politics of the antebellum period.

As the nation moved toward the Civil War, fears over the expansion of slavery creating wide-scale dependence of the white working class to the planter class allowed the nascent Republican Party to initially recruit workers into the fight against the South, even as the party’s economic ideology rapidly developed into the pro-corporate mentality that would feed the Gilded Age upon the war’s conclusion. As Chicago workers felt betrayed that the war had spawned increasingly large corporate powers, they began organizing for workers’ rights, including an 8-hour day movement in 1867 and the famous strikes of 1886 that led to the Haymarket Riot, where an anarchist responded to police violence by throwing a bomb into a crowd of police.

The political parties responded harshly to this worker challenge through both ideological constructions and state violence, such as the execution of anarchist leaders after Haymarket. Elites twisted the ideas of freedom to fit an ideology revolving around the freedom of contract. In other words, unions were unnecessary and dangerous because they interfered with a worker’s right to sign a contract for a given wage he negotiated with his employer. Of course this ideology ignored the power relations between workers and employers, as well as the actual struggles of workers in Chicago to make a living but exploiting the working class was the point.

Union Children Do Well

[ 14 ] September 9, 2015 |


Who else is not at all shocked that the children of union families have higher social mobility as adults? Why, it’s almost like growing up in an economically stable household allows children to worry about things like school instead of homelessness!

A new study suggests that unions may also help children move up the economic ladder.

Researchers at Harvard, Wellesley and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released a paper Wednesday showing that children born to low-income families typically ascend to higher incomes in metropolitan areas where union membership is higher.

The size of the effect is small, but there aren’t many other factors that are as strongly correlated with mobility. Raj Chetty of Stanford and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard, who pioneered this method of examining economic mobility, established five factors that are strongly correlated with a low-income child’s likelihood of making it into the middle class: the rate of single motherhood in an area, the degree of inequality, the high school dropout rate, the degree of residential segregation, and the amount of social capital, as measured by indicators like voter turnout and participation in community organizations.

Single motherhood is the most strongly correlated factor with mobility. The latest study, which relied on the Chetty/Hendren data, says union membership is roughly as strongly correlated with mobility as the other four factors.

The researchers looked at the expected income of people ages 29 to 32 whose parents were at the 25th percentile of income nationally when they were teenagers. They found that a 10-percentage-point increase in the rate of unionization in an area coincided with a rise of an additional 1.3 points on the income distribution as the average child becomes an adult.

Let’s take the example of the average metro area where about 16 percent of workers were unionized, and children whose parents were in the 25th percentile of income earners nationally ended up at the 40.7 percentile on average as adults. A simple application of the author’s finding implies that, in a metro area where 26 percent of workers were unionized, the average child from the same place in the income ladder would end up in the 42nd percentile.

The correlation remains statistically significant even when the researchers controlled for a variety of other social and economic variables, like the child poverty rate and median house value.

“I would have thought we could have found things that might have killed off the effects,” said Richard B. Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard who was one of the study’s authors. “And we basically didn’t.”

Obviously we need more studies along these lines, but it’s quite clear that union children do better as adults than non-union children.

Labor Day Rundown

[ 26 ] September 7, 2015 |


Rather than blog a bunch about Labor Day I took to Twitter, where I wrote a Twitter essay and a bunch of follow up stuff about my views on the history of American workers. The core tweets were storified and you might be interested in them.

Some other things of note today on labor.

Will Missouri go right to work? No one is sure.

Good for Obama ordering paid sick leave for federal contractors. Another point in his late-term actions for workers, other than that Trans-Pacific Partnership thing, which pretty much counters all of it.

Welfare no longer serves the poorest Americans.

Slate pulled a pretty good Labor Day #slatepitch by suggesting that anti-union Yuengling is a great beer to drink on this holiday.

There’s a lot of organizing happening in the Silicon Valley. Can’t happen fast enough.

Texas governor Greg Abbott is a terrible human.

Of course, this comes the same day yet another Texas worker died in a refinery. He was expressing his true freedom through death.

Here’s a 1981 ad from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union about buying union label clothing. Union clothing made in the U.S. definitely is part of history, sadly.

GE’s Taft-Hartley Comic, 1947

[ 36 ] September 3, 2015 |

Thanks to Bruce Vail for sending me this hilarious propaganda comic General Electric put out in 1947 during the debate over the Taft-Hartley Act. He asked me to credit the Maryland labor activist Bill Barry in hunting this up and putting it into a PDF file. Enjoy!

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_1

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_2

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_3

Ann Gets the Answers(1)_Page_4

ATI Lockout

[ 3 ] September 2, 2015 |

Last week, I wrote about the ATI lockout of their union mills. Wanted to highlight this issue once again. The United Steelworkers held a big rally in Pittsburgh yesterday to pressure the company to end the lockout and negotiate a fair contract with the union. The lockout and union-busting could devastate the steel towns that rely on the wages of union members for businesses to survive. That’s the theme of this USW-produced video, focusing on a pizza shop owner standing with the USW because it’s in his own financial interest to do so (also because he knows it’s the right thing to do). Check it out.

The Enemy Within

[ 11 ] September 2, 2015 |


I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of The Enemy Within (in Britain it is going by Still the Enemy Within). This is a powerful documentary on how Margaret Thatcher busted the coal miners’ unions in the 1980s. If this is of interest to you, I highly recommend hunting down a copy, perhaps through getting your library to purchase one if possible. Told strictly through the eyes of the miners and their wives, along with video clips of Thatcher and other conservatives, the film is a very useful document for understanding the decline of the postwar labor movement, which was far more than just an American phenomenon. I am far from a scholar of Europe so I can’t speak with any real authority about the claims the workers make, but they certainly believe they were really very close to winning what turned out to be a catastrophic loss to a government seeking to destroy their union, which was the backbone of the British left. But the workers claim that had the other unions shown solidarity and walked off the job in support, as opposed to empty words and some money or if all the British mines had joined the strike (Thatcher intended to split the miners by giving a few choice mines some extra money while seeking to bust the other unions) that they could have defeated the government and perhaps the worst parts of Thatcherism broadly. Even though this is a depressing story, the film also shows how solidarity between groups with little in common with miners (elite students, gay and lesbian activists) was created, how women stepped out of traditional gender roles during the strike, and how personally empowering the strike was for at least some workers. I suppose, as a non-Europeanist, I would have liked a bit more context about Thatcherism and about what happened to the interviewed workers after the end of the strike, but those are pretty minor complaints. I’d check the film out if I were you.

Drones as Workplace Monitors

[ 100 ] September 1, 2015 |


Who else is excited to have your workplace performance monitored by drones? I know I am shocked to see technological advancement embraced by employers to control workers!

McDonald’s and Franchising

[ 100 ] August 31, 2015 |


You may have some questions about just how McDonald’s runs its franchising operations and why the company is the focus of so much attention with the NLRB’s Browning decision from last week. Of course, franchising can mean a lot of different things with a number of varying arrangements. In the case of McDonald’s, the company seeks detailed control over the franchisee in ways that other fast food companies do not, arrangements that suggest an almost Don Blankenship-level of control over work that makes an argument it is not a joint employer highly dubious. Jeff Spross has more on this.

The funny wrinkle in McDonald’s case is that a lot of the company’s franchisees really don’t like the model. They have to pay the corporate mothership 4 to 5 percent of their revenue for a franchise fee, and then another 4 to 5 percent to go into an advertising fund. The franchises then have to pay another 12 percent to McDonald’s for rent. Meanwhile, the central company gives franchisees a slew of requirements in terms of remodeling, computer systems, and other expenses they must incur to stay in the franchise agreement.

By all accounts, McDonald’s has cracked down on its franchisees in recent years. It controls most of the prices on the menu, and between that and its hefty operating demands, it’s squeezing franchisees so that the way to make the business model successful is to pay the workers less. Dissatisfaction amongst McDonald’s franchise owners is reportedly at an all-time high, so they clearly feel they’re under fire.

But then you have to ask: Under fire compared to whom? The average American worker, or other small business owners pulling down $100,000-plus a year?

Another wrinkle, according to Kalnins, is that McDonald’s is genuinely an outlier in the aggressiveness with which it deals with its franchises. In other chains, franchisees can own hundreds of stores, and sometimes be public corporations unto themselves. But “McDonald’s really wants small owners,” Kalnins explained — somebody overseeing three, four, or five units. “Somebody who’s checking out what’s going on in those units every day.”

The upside for McDonald’s is franchisees who are “much more loyal and will do what you want them to, because of their smaller size.” The downside is a far more aggressive interference on the part of McDonald’s in terms of the running of the stores and its relationships with workers.

Another thing that makes McDonald’s an outlier is it’s one of the few chains that owns the property for every last one of its stores, and thus charges its franchisees the rent. Kalnins said he’s spoken with franchise consultants who figured that while the 12 percent of revenue that McDonald’s charges for rent is high compared to the standard 10 percent small businesses usually face from real estate owners, it’s not extraordinary. But “if you add the rent to it then certainly they’re paying more than for other chains. And that’s relatively unusual.”

Given all of this, how is McDonald’s not the direct employer of the workers? They are of course, even if they’ve offloaded the onerous parts of hiring onto the franchisee. And became McDonald’s corporate so controls all the details of work, this operates in some of the same ways that the apparel industry’s exploitative subcontracting system does–by making sure that the only way the franchisee is going to make any money is to squeeze workers as hard as possible, with a bottom baseline only a federal or state labor law that may or may not be stringently enforced on the ground. This is another reason why we need to push back against these sorts of labor arrangements through holding corporations legally accountable for the workers making their products regardless of whether they are directly employed, subcontracted, franchisees, temp workers, etc. These latter systems exist precisely for the kind of advantages McDonald’s has created here. Hopefully the NLRB will continue bringing this system back under control.

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