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Tag: "labor"

SEIU-AFSCME Merger?

[ 10 ] May 8, 2016 |

AFSCME-SEIU

Now this is certainly interesting.

The leaders of two of the nation’s biggest, most powerful labor unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — are completing a plan that calls for unusually close cooperation in political campaigning, organizing and bargaining in states and cities across the United States.

The effort begins a process that could lead to a merger of the two organizations, an outcome that would create the nation’s largest labor union, with some 3.6 million members.

“While we recognize the differences in culture and structure between our respective organizations and the divisions that have hampered us in the past, the times demand that we build on our common purpose,” states a resolution the unions are expected to approve. It cites challenges like political attacks on organized labor, growing income inequality and deteriorating workplace conditions.

The document adds that the two unions will consider ways to step up the collaboration, including a formal merger.

The resolution — which was adopted by the Service Employees International Union board on Thursday and was expected to be considered by the American Federation board in June — also would need to be ratified at conventions the unions have scheduled for this year.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has 1.6 million members, most of whom are government workers. The Service Employees International Union has approximately two million members and is split nearly evenly between workers in the private and public sectors. About 80 percent of the unions’ membership is in roughly a dozen states, including New York, California and Illinois.

A merger would have some upsides and lead to a whole lot of questions. First, the two unions would stop arguing over who gets to organize who, since they both work in the public sector. This would be a positive. They would combine resources to be a huge power within the Democratic Party. It could come closer to uniting the House of Labor than anything in a long time. Of course, one supposes that would also include SEIU abandoning the now pointless Change to Win and rejoining the AFL-CIO. I think that would make a lot of sense. The Andy Stern era is long over and since Change to Win was his baby, it wouldn’t surprise me to see current SEIU leadership being willing to end it. So that’s one question. Another is how the two cultures would work together. Most union mergers consist of a big union taking over a declining union. When the union I wrote about in Empire of Timber, the International Woodworkers of America, was no longer viable in the face of widespread plant closings, it merged with the International Association of Machinists and became part of that union’s culture. But that’s not the case here. And since SEIU is a different kind of union than most, the merging of the union cultures would be a real challenge.

I don’t think this merger is that close to happening. This would be like a large corporate merger, except that the unions would have to care about what happened to the redundant workers. There’s a lot to work out. But if and when it does, it will make for one powerful organization with a whole lot of resources behind it. These developments are definitely worth watching.

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Child Labor in Tobacco

[ 16 ] May 7, 2016 |

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The tobacco companies persist in employing children to harvest tobacco. Not in Malawi and China. In Virginia and North Carolina.

Various North Carolina farmers partnered with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company illegally hired children under 13 years old to harvest their tobacco crops, a report released Wednesday stated.

The recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed underage workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 who were illegally performing hazardous work.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), says he’s not surprised by the audit results.

“We’ve been telling the company for eight years now that there are serious labor violations happening all over Southern tobacco fields, including on Reynolds farms. Imagine what the audits would have found if they were allowed to talk to more workers and ask more in depth questions about the workers’ experiences,” said Velasquez. “Rather than working with us to solve the issues, Reynolds has continuously denied that these conditions exist and has tried to sweep labor issues under the rug.”

The big tobacco companies promised in 2014 to stop hiring people under the age of 16, but since it’s not an actual priority, it’s not happening. This is in our own backyard and is completely unacceptable. A Human Rights Watch report brought attention to the problem in 2014, leading to the companies’ promises. But since then, it hasn’t received much publicity.

Book Review: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History

[ 22 ] May 4, 2016 |

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Scenes on a Cotton Plantation: Hoeing, engraving from Harper’s Weekly, February 2, 1867

Sven Beckert’s Bancroft Prize-winning book is a brilliant as advertised. He explores the history of cotton production to demonstrate how Europeans took control of a crop that grew widely around the world but not in Europe and used it to promote global expansion through state-sponsored violence and control over labor. In doing so, Beckert weaves together the experiences of peoples around the world and builds connections between the past and present.

For Beckert, the entire process of cotton expansion, industrialization, and the cotton fields and apparel industry to the present is backed with horrifying violence. Cotton grows in many forms around the world’s tropics. From Mexico to India, it has served as the basis of household economies for thousands of years, through weaving and spinning. But what he calls “war capitalism” changed this. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, European nations and the United States went to war to violently open lands for cotton production. Within the United States, this was the wars on Native Americans in the South that led to the Trail of Tears. The trans-Atlantic slave trade violently provided the labor for these cotton agriculture. Conquest in India and Egypt was influenced by the insatiable desire for cotton.

The growing power of the state allowed this expansion to happen. As we can see throughout the history of capitalism, talk of “free enterprise” covered up the central hand of the state in shaping markets, ensuring compliant labor, passing tariffs to protect domestic industry, and going to war to find new cotton lands or bring the world’s labor within a cotton regime. War capitalism became industrial capitalism after the conquest of land and people. The state grew to facilitate this industrial capitalism, with state power backing capitalist expansion throughout the globe.

As an Americanist, Beckert naturally enough sees the Civil War as a transitional point in the history of cotton, but in a very different way than a U.S.-centric book. With Europe largely reliant upon U.S. cotton by 1861, the Civil War placed those nations in a real crisis. The U.S. was producing so much cotton that there was a large surplus, delaying the crisis. But mills across France, Germany and especially Britain closed by 1863. By early 1862, cotton imports to Britain were down 50 percent in total, 96 percent from the United States. The state was there to help solve these problems. Britain especially sought to produce more cotton in India and Egypt. India had long produced much cotton, but largely persisted in its pre-colonial household production traditions, largely for domestic production, which consistently frustrated the British. Egypt began ramping up its cotton production, while nations such as Mexico added to the global cotton supply as well. American diplomats sought to promote cotton production around the globe as well, for they knew that if cotton supplies grew, the agitation in Britain to recognize the Confederacy would decline, as it did once the crisis passed.

Reconstruction forced American cotton farmers to figure out new ways of controlling labor to grow cotton, but this was not strictly an American process either. Rather, in his chapter titled “Global Reconstruction,” Beckert demonstrates how the process to rethink cotton labor was global and necessary for the Euro-American industrial societies reliant upon cotton production to feed their own working classes. Various forms of labor replaced chattel slavery. Sharecropping in the American South and Brazil became common. In Egypt, both sharecroppers and small owners provided family based labor. But the independence of these local economies was large gone. Instead, these farmers were now enmeshed in a system of global capitalism that often kept them in debt through sharecropping, crop liens, and merchants. This eventually led to a flood of cotton pouring into European nations. While Beckert doesn’t explicitly address this, it’s long been my contention that while the British were happy to continue using slave-made cotton from the South, it would have expanded production in the colonies even without the Civil War in order to lower the cost. Were that to have happened, the independent Confederacy may well have seen the price of its economic staple collapse and become unsustainable as an independent nation. Of course, this is conjecture and has little place in a history book, except to note that the British had long wanted to get more cotton out of India but found itself frustrated by local resistance.

By the late 19th century, the rise of imperialism became closely connected to cotton production, with European states binding the world together in an ever more intensive attempt to acquire cheap cotton. Perhaps most notorious was the Germans bringing experts from the Tuskegee Institute, some of whom were ex-slaves themselves, to its colony in Togo in order to find ways to force peoples there to grow for the German market, as Europeans states were doing throughout Africa and south Asia. The French forced peasants to grow cotton under state supervision in Côte d’Ivoire, as did the Belgians in the Congo.

Conditions in the apparel factories of Europe and the United States were hardly better than the fields of Togo or Alabama. Like today, cotton manufacturers loved to exploit young girls and the state went to great lengths to provide that labor. Beckert tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Mary Hootton, working in a Manchester factory, who we only know of because she was chosen to testify before a British investigative commission in 1833. Her life was brutal, with beatings at home and two years in the factories already, where she would be punished for being late to work by having a 20 pound weight put around her little neck and being forced to walk around the mill while the other children made fun of her. States created legal frameworks for wage labor that could include imprisonment for leaving work without permission in Prussia or for breaking a labor contract in England. Less directly, the increased inability to make a living through household manufacturing, often due to states forcing open markets for cotton exports, forced workers into the brutal factory world of Mary Hootton. Whether in Manchester, South Carolina, Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, or Bangladesh, household workers have found their ability to maintain household production overturned by global capitalism in the last 200 years and their states have ensured access to cheap and pliable labor, with force to back up industry if necessary.

In today’s globalized cotton capitalism, how much has changed? Although Beckert covers the recent past and present relatively briefly, the answer for him, as it is for myself, is not as much as you would think. Today, cotton production is still a system of rampant exploitation, where children are forced into the fields in Uzbekistan and where factories collapse and kill over 1100 workers in Bangladesh, with the American companies contracting production there and therefore playing a huge role in creating this system facing no accountability. Meanwhile, the cotton industrial towns of the global north are gone and largely replaced by nothing, as one can see in towns around southern New England like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Fall River. The state still shapes cotton today, whether through forced labor, union-busting, or cotton growing subsidies in the United States. The current system of globalized labor exploitation in the cotton and apparel industry is not some great opportunity for the Bangladeshi and Chinese poor but rather part of the same system of capitalist cotton that in its previous iterations committed genocide against Native Americans, vastly expanded chattel slavery, and oppressed factory workers in Europe and the U.S.

While the writing is more adequate than literary, Empire of Cotton is definitely accessible to the general reader. You all should read it if you want a truly global history that will change the way you look at both the past and the globalized economy of the present.

Quality Reviewing

[ 12 ] May 4, 2016 |

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The best book reviews are as much about the review author as the book being reviewed while at the same time being fair to the book. That’s what I strive for when I review, although probably with mixed success. Anyway, I thought of this when reading Rich Yeselson’s review of the new Tamara Draut book Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America.

The ironic truth is that when labor is strong, it doesn’t need the state to intervene so much on its behalf. That’s why labor leaders in the 1950s, like Steelworkers legal counsel and later Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg believed, naïvely if understandably, that labor did best when the courts and legislatures left it alone to resolve differences with management. But when labor is weak, as it is now, it lacks the political and economic juice required to win its own battles, much less to pass remedial legislation on its own behalf.

EFCA was worth a try, but there was never a chance that unions were going to persuade pro-business Democratic senators in low-union-density states like Louisiana, Virginia, Nebraska, let alone Arkansas, to vote against the pathological hatred of their business donors for unions, and support a law that would have made it easier to organize. A more promising avenue to assist passage of such a bill, when political conditions allow it, would be to continue to pressure Democrats to abolish the super-majority filibuster.

Throughout the book, Draut returns to what is her greatest fear—that despite the encouraging signs that this new working class is on the move, she is not certain “whether the racial, ethnic, and gender divides that have impeded solidarity can finally be dismantled.” She notes that polling shows that the less financially secure are the most worried about the economic impact of immigration. She accuses Republicans of having “deliberately used race to pursue their broader objectives of shrinking government and deregulating the economy.”

She is right to be worried. And she wrote this book before the rise of Donald Trump. We understand now, if we didn’t before, how significant it is that the social democracies of Western Europe were constructed when their populations were almost entirely homogeneous. Today, right-wing parties in several countries, with much stronger labor movements than that of the U.S., wish to maintain nativist social welfare states and reject a broader social solidarity. In the United States, we know from the rage so many white working-class people have toward Obamacare—even some who have benefited from it!—that the historical weight of racial and ethno-nationalism is a great burden. Donald Trump’s campaign for president is an effect, not a cause, of this widespread ethno-nationalism of white workers who, justifiably, think they’ve been screwed, but see people of color not as colleagues and collaborators but as the cause of their distress. Draut reminds us time and again that a solidarity is painstakingly being built, but from a movement of the new working class that is “primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants.” It has the support of what I have called the new “laborism” of mostly white, college-educated union staffers and other urban, professional leftists, but less so of the white working class itself.

One of the biggest problems in writing on the left is what we might call the “predictive hope fallacy,” where writers so want a future (or sometimes a past) to be better than the present that sometimes the rational analysis goes out the window to write some sort of inspiring conclusion that will supposedly show how everything is going to work out. I actively tried to avoid this in Out of Sight by grounding my ideas in the proven (if limited) effectiveness of regulatory and export law and creating citizen access to already existing institutions like the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts. One can question whether my ideas are also too optimistic, but that was the goal anyway. I’m certainly not saying that Draut does that, despite the grandiose title, because I haven’t read the book yet. But Yeselson definitely doesn’t go down that road, which is why some of the left dislike him. Both Draut and Yeselson are right to think about the real limitations to working-class solidarity, when the white working class has so supported the xenophobic fascism of Trump.

In any case, a lot of chew on in the review and likely the Draut book.

This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1965

[ 44 ] May 3, 2016 |

On May 3, 1965, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richart bought a 7-acre piece of land north of Trinidad, Colorado. This would become known as Drop City, among the first and most important of the countercultural communes that dotted the American landscape during the late 1960s and 1970s and continuing, in a much diminished form, to the present. While itself not a particularly important day in American labor history per se, we can use this date to serve as a window into how work was organized in the counterculture, which is a meaningful topic on the subject.

Both then and now, there is a stereotype that hippies avoided work. The reality was far more complicated. Sure, many in the counterculture relied heavily on the welfare state to supplement their income. But most, including many of those who qualified for state benefits, valued hard work very highly. What the counterculture by and large rejected was work within the system of corporate capitalism. They weren’t going to be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, for instance. They didn’t want to work for wages, be union members, go into middle management. But there are many forms of work. Many in the counterculture wanted to labor for themselves, often in the beautiful nature of the American West, either regenerate both the natural world and themselves through labor. One chapter in my book Empire of Timber, details the Hoedads, a group of countercultural reforestation workers in the 1970s. These people took up some of the hardest work imaginable–planting trees on the steep slopes of the Pacific Northwest. Both men and women engaged in this work that was often back-breaking. They felt they were contributing to a more just and sustainable natural world by planting trees while working for themselves outside of capitalism. This work did not make them very much money, usually less than minimum wage, and it was extremely strenuous. But it was work nonetheless.

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In the communes, the work was often quite different but was still work. People such as Stewart Brand promoted countercultural work norms through the Whole Earth Catalog, focusing on self-sustaining economic and environmental projects that promoted people working for themselves. In 1971, the Whole Earth Catalog sold over 1 million copies. Believing that rural spaces were unspoiled, unlike the polluted corporate cities, many young people sought to establish themselves in the country, working on the land. The problem with this is that this work was tremendously hard and most were not ready for it. Disasters struck frequently. Communes would save money and buy a piece of relatively expensive farm equipment and then ruin it because they didn’t know how to use it. They would build unstable structures that would collapse. That they eschewed many western farming methods and instead sought authentic Native American practices, often attempting to contact Native Americans to show them the way did not help their material conditions much. Poverty was often the result. But being in touch with the earth through planting seeds by hand, harvesting farm animals, weaving, or planting trees was work well worth the effort for thousands of people during the years, despite the economic hardships they often faced.

But for all the potentially world-changing implications of countercultural work norms, one thing that is striking is how gender traditional it all was. The counterculture broadly speaking, and certainly many if not most of the communes, internalized traditional gendered work norms. In the communes, men did most of the outdoor labor of constructing buildings, killing hogs, or plowing fields, while women both planted seeds in those fields and worked inside the buildings, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children. Women who tried to lay bricks with men reported being ignored and facing huge social pressure to return to the house. Over time, this did begin to fade in some communes, with men being forced to take on some childcare and women doing more physical farmworking tasks.

But this depended on the commune. On The Farm, in Tennessee, founder Stephen Gaskin, considered a guru by many of his followers, set up a traditional gendered world. Because Gaskin believed in the sacred power of women’s reproductive yin and men’s creative yang, Gaskin created a sexual division of labor that largely replicated an idealized past of what was considered 19th century rural gender roles. Quickly realizing that they were in over their heads in terms of the physical creation of community and self-sustainability, 12-14 hour work days with highly specialized roles became common. When they couldn’t make enough money, men hired themselves to local farmers for cash. Women on the other hand created collectivized childcare and worked in cottage industries, financing the enterprises, cooking, farming, taught in the commune’s schools, and other tasks deemed feminine because they were seen as reproductive. In particular, the commune valued midwives as the highest form of female labor and they often played important social and political roles in these groups. Gaskin’s teachings reinforced these ideas, calling men “knights” that needed to protect and provide for women. There was an attempt to reject an unproductive animalistic masculinity in exchange for what be called the creation of the New Age sensitive man, but the gendered norms remained powerful and deeply connected to labor.

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By the late 1970s, the commune movement was fading fast for a variety of reasons. Hippies were becoming old people and out of touch with the youth, or at least that’s how both the hippies themselves and young people saw it. Continued hardship and poverty was not appealing to a lot of men and women who were highly educated and even if they had taken a decade off from the rat race, still had Vassar or Columbia degrees and a lot of racial and cultural capital they could turn into future careers as lawyers or other professions. The revolutionary work ideas of the commune movement would largely go untapped, but their influence can be seen today in the organic farming and DIY work movements, both of which remain vital.

I borrowed from Tim Hodgdon, Manhood in the Age of Aquarius: Masculinity in Two Countercultural Communities, 1965-1983 and Ryan Edgington, “‘Be Receptive to the Good Earth: Health, Nature, and Labor in Countercultural Back-to-the-Land Settlements,” published in Agricultural History in the Summer 2008 edition, to write this post.

This is the 177th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Verizon Strike

[ 28 ] May 2, 2016 |

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As many of you know, Verizon’s line workers are on strike. Basically, Verizon is looking to bust its remaining unions. It has invested heavily in wireless, but still has the remains of land-line workers. Those workers have good union contracts, unlike its vast workforce of nonunionized and thus poorly paid wireless employees. Verizon wants to crush those unions. This is a good overview of the problems, from the perspective of a striker. They range from Verizon not willing to accept what concessions CWA and IBEW have already offered because the company wants more to real and important issues around work/life balance and Verizon demanding that crews be away from their families for long periods of time.

This strike has received almost no media coverage. But there is this odd New Yorker piece by Mark Gimein that seems to fall into the frequent pundit trap of “I’m uncomfortable actually seeing strikes so they don’t work and instead unions are dead and workers should just vote if they want to see change.” After a strange beginning where he compares Democratic politicians love of a picket line to evangelicals love of a revival meeting, because of course Democrats have totally been all over picket lines in the last 30 years or something, he goes on to talk about Verizon’s business model and say that the unionized workers are probably doomed. Well, maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But it’s the conclusion that is jaw-dropping.

If, nationally, this is the endgame for unions, a lot still hinges on how that endgame will be played. It’s useful to think in the brutally reductive terms of Wall Street. The gains to be made from the legacy business of picket lines are limited, but there is still plenty of capital built up for unions to spend in the legislative arena. That effort has already started. Not long ago, policy-makers talked about raising the minimum wage by a dollar or two an hour. Now New York and California have approved a fifteen-dollar hourly minimum wage, and Fight For $15 has gone national.

That’s a bigger success for the labor movement than anybody would have anticipated five years ago. The way forward now is less in getting people to join unions and more in taking seriously the question that Sanders raised: what can be done for the millions of workers who don’t have a union and never will?

Oh yeah because the recent minimum wage struggle is the first time unions have played the legislative game???? The major leftist critique of organized labor since World War II is that unions have been too comfortable in the legislature and have rejected direct action tactics that put power in the hands of workers. We certainly know the limits of unions focusing on legislatures, including, among many other things, the Employee Free Choice Act dying almost as soon as Obama took the presidency. I don’t blame unions for playing the legislative game and I largely reject those who just say “forget politics and organize!” It doesn’t make sense.

But now journalists are coming along and saying that if only unions stopped with their silly strikes and instead just lobbied in legislatures, they could win real gains! Yeah, I don’t think organized labor needs to be told by journalists how to use legislatures to their advantage. Gimein also just assumes that unions are completely dead and always will be. That leads him to two conclusions. One, evidently, is that unions should use that supposedly endless capital for gains for all workers through legislative action. Again, they already are, but also, if the unions are busted, then they don’t exist and there is no voice for any workers in American politics as all of that capital disappears. Second, since these workers will never have a union, why try to organize them? That’s not only a defeatist attitude for organized labor, it would mean that his supposed desire to see real gains for workers would never come to fruition and we would see an endless supply of exploitable labor in the United States. Maybe that’s what will happen, but it’s hardly something we should just assume and therefore stop trying to organize.

In conclusion, publications need to have people write labor articles for them who actually know something about organized labor.

Reality for Garment Workers

[ 25 ] April 27, 2016 |

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In all the debates about the global supply chain, perhaps the very laziest and self-serving arguments proponents of free trade make is that the workers overseas need to lobby their own nations for changes if they want their lives to get better. This is a grotesque argument for a number of reasons, including that it allows consumers and, more importantly, active supporters of global labor exploitation, to feel real good about themselves while they benefit from the suffering of others. But it’s also absurd on the face of it because these workers face tremendous daily exploitation that the people who make these arguments have never experienced and cannot comprehend. And despite this, they do stand up and make demands whenever they can! But the reality for these workers is a hard, brutal life. Ila Ananya on garment workers in Bangalore.

“People were angry and they were scared,” Yashodha says. “Very often, any small issue can mean that a worker loses their job. Those who are in charge don’t even have to say that they are terminating our job, all they say is, “naale inda kelsakke barbeda”, “don’t come to work from tomorrow”, and we can’t go to work anymore.” Yashodha laughs in the same way that she does when she talks about doing “OC kelsa”, or free extra work, because they are told that they haven’t met their already high production targets. The targets depend on the piece they are working on – it’s lower for trousers, and also depend on the brand making the clothes (some are for large international brands like Banana Republic and H&M), or the kind of stitches involved. Shanthi, a garment factory worker, says that the production targets have been increased at her workplace, “They used to be about 50 [items] in an hour, which we could do. But now they want 80-90 per hour.”

Yashodha is quick to point out that on paper, workers are supposed to get a lot of things. “According to the law we can have 14 days of leave, but we never get any leave even for emergencies. Someone has died in our family in the village, and we aren’t allowed to go. If we go for a day or two without leave, we are asked to quit work,” she says.

Workers also face restrictions on unionising. Anyone who does unionise or mobilise support for an issue is immediately asked to leave – Rukmini, currently the President of GLU, wasn’t allowed to continue her work when she joined the union. Instead, Yashodha says that they are sometimes given money, and are removed from work – “they have all these tricks,” she says.

Workplace harassment is common, the women say. In February 2007, Ammu, a migrant garment factory worker committed suicide in Bangalore after being harassed by her male supervisors, and in October 2007, Renuka, also a garment factory worker, committed suicide after harassment. “They’re always yelling at us,” Savitri says. Shanti says that when they try to tell their superiors about their problems, nobody listens, “All they say is that it’s in the rules.”

This is why we as Americans have to make decisions on the labor conditions and environmental standards we will accept for products sold in this nation, especially products sold by American corporations. There is no good reason for these conditions to exist. You can still have relatively inexpensive clothes and treat women workers with dignity. Telling them to lobby for change in India and Bangladesh while we do nothing is an absurd argument that is not only offensive, but neocolonialist. We have to expand the American regulatory system to cover imports. We already do–elephant tusks, slave labor, etc. We can expand this tremendously. If we care.

This Day In Labor History: April 27, 1944

[ 30 ] April 27, 2016 |

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On April 27, 1944, Attorney General Francis Biddle arrived in Chicago to order Montgomery Ward head Sewell Avery to either extend his workers’ contract so they would not strike during the war or have his company seized and run by the American government. When Avery refused, Biddle had the military physically remove Avery from Montgomery Ward offices and the process began that led to the government seizing the workplace. This remarkable incident shines a light on a number of major issues concerning organized labor, corporations, and government during World War II.

Many corporate heads originally embraced the New Deal, in particular the National Recovery Administration, because it offered a government-led solution to the problem of overcompetition without really forcing them to give up most control over their daily decisions. So the Blue Eagle, at least under the pro-corporate NRA chief General Hugh Johnson, was amenable to many corporations. But not all. The corporate fundamentalist ideology was that any government interference was a massive violation of liberty. A minority of corporate leaders held to this position no matter how fall the economy had fallen. Even more outrageous to these people was the idea that organized labor had a role to play in the economy. For men like Henry Ford or Montgomery Ward leader Sewell Avery, unions were organizations that sought to crush human liberty.

So Avery was at the forefront of anti-New Dealers from the moment FDR took the presidency in 1933. He was a major financier of the anti-Roosevelt forces, attempting to steer the nation back to Hooverism. This of course failed miserably in the 1936 elections, but that didn’t soften Avery’s opposition.

In 1942, Roosevelt created the National War Labor Board. The NWLB sought to build on government economic planning during World War I to, among other things, create smooth labor relations for the war’s duration so that workers could get out the materiel needed to fight the war. This was a tough challenge for the NWLB. Much of the problem came from workers who had steady, good-paying work for the first time in more than a decade. The NWLB had to keep wages and prices fairly stable but prices did rise faster than wages. Workers wanted a bigger piece of the pie. The NWLB had 12 members–four representatives of business, four of organized labor, and four named by the federal government. This theoretically even playing field brought unions into central economic planning. It also gave them incentive to keep their workers from striking. The agreement that labor and corporations had to come to was that for the duration of the war, unions would not strike if corporations would agree to mandatory NWLB arbitration of all labor disputes and abide by those decisions. Wildcat strikes however remained a consistent problem through the war, as workers desperately wanted to make good money, be consumers, and win the war at the same time.

But while most corporations went along with the NWLB, some resisted. Of course Sewell Avery led this opposition. He maintained a company union as long as possible, but those were ruled unconstitutional in 1937 when the Supreme Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act. The United Mail Order, Warehouse, and Retail Employees Union won an election to unionize Montgomery Ward under NWLB supervision in 1942. Avery refused to negotiate with the union. He hated all unions, but the Mail Order union was affiliated with CIO, which Avery thought was a communist organization seeking to undermine America. This election, which the union supporters won by a 3-1 margin, brought Montgomery Ward’s 7000 Chicago employees into the house of labor. He was most furious that labor won a maintenance of membership clause, which meant that union members couldn’t withdraw from the union for the duration of the contract, i.e., the closed shop. Avery refused to sign the contract, but gave in reluctantly when Roosevelt personally intervened to order him to do so.

In 1944, the contract expired. Avery wanted the union out. He argued that the union did not represent the majority of the employees and that the NWLB had no authority over non-defense plants. This argument made little sense. First, Montgomery Ward was a huge supplier to farmers, who absolutely were critical for American war efforts. Second, the company also supplied the federal government with a lot of goods. The NWLB asked the NLRB to hold another election but also ordered Avery to sign the contract extension in the meantime, which continued the maintenance of membership clause. He said he wouldn’t sign it, “come Hell or high water.” So the workers went on strike on April 12. During the war, this was a big no-no, but not in this case. The Teamsters started a secondary strike, refusing to make deliveries or pick-ups to Montgomery Ward stores around the nation. Even the U.S. Postal Service pulled out their 30 employees dealing with the mass of mail to the company because they had no work to do.

Given Avery’s intransigence, Roosevelt intervened directly. He had Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones plan to seize the company. He dispatched a federal marshal and several government officials to ask Avery to leave his desk. He basically laughed at them. So Roosevelt ordered Attorney General Francis Biddle to personally fly to Chicago to handle it. When Avery showed up to work on the morning of April 27, 1944, he found Biddle there with a group of soldiers. Biddle tried to reason with him and told him he was hurting the war effort. Avery responded by saying “To hell with the government.” So Biddle ordered the soldiers to pick Avery up and carry him out of the building. Avery hurled the worst insult he could think of at Biddle, yelling, “You, you New Dealer!”

The legal case against the company quickly went into the courts, but the workers also immediately stopped the strike and voted in the new contract. So on May 9, Jones returned Montgomery Ward to private management. But Avery then rejected the contract and refused to go along with its provisions. Workers went on strike in the late fall. On December 27, Roosevelt once again ordered the government to take over Montgomery Ward, both its Chicago office and its major regional centers. Avery was allowed to stay in his office this time but was banned from any running of the company’s affairs, while the military set up in an office nearby. The govenrment continued running the company until October 18, 1945. With the war over, they gave it back to Avery, who then purged any managers who had worked with the government. His hatred of labor, which continued unabated, including refusing to offer a pension, combined with Avery’s poor business decisions to start the once dominant company on its long decline.

This is the 176th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

SEIU and Airbnb

[ 100 ] April 19, 2016 |

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There is no more difficult labor union to read and write about than SEIU. This is for two reasons. First, it operates somewhat differently than other labor unions, including having a very top-down approach to a lot of things that are not traditional ways labor unions operate. That would be simple enough if those actions didn’t engender rabid hatred of SEIU in a big part of the labor reporting world.

SEIU and Airbnb are seeking an agreement that would lead to the company endorsing the $15 minimum wage (which SEIU has done more than any other organization to make a major issue in American politics in 2016) and would steer union-approved housecleaners to the properties listed with that company. Said cleaners would make at least $15 an hour. Interesting. There are some questions here. Should SEIU be working with a company undermining housing for working-class people? Or SEIU should do what is necessary to ensure as many workers are laboring for a $15 minimum wage as possible? Should SEIU be seeking to cut deals with companies? Or should SEIU see companies as enemies and workers should be organized in a broad-based social movement against them? There are some complexities here, I guess. However, on the face of it, I have to say that I am mostly supportive of accepting the economy as it is and working toward ensuring good wages. But I can see room for argument on some of these points.

But then we have this Guardian piece that seethes anger at Big Purple.

Yet sources say that negotiations have been delayed by internal union dissent over the ethics of the home-sharing startup with some labor activists, including some SEIU members, concerned that Airbnb has exacerbated housing crises in cities across the US, including in San Francisco, where Airbnb is headquartered.

“We are appalled by reports that SEIU is partnering with Airbnb, a company that has destroyed communities by driving up housing costs and killing good hotel jobs in urban markets across North America,” said Annemarie Strassel, a spokeswoman for a rival union, Unite Here.

“Airbnb has shown a blatant disregard for city and state laws, has refused to cooperate with government agencies, and turns a blind eye to the fact that its business model exacerbates the affordable housing crisis.” She added: “A partnership with SEIU does little more than give political cover to Airbnb.”

OK, but there’s a whole story here that’s not told. SEIU and UNITE-HERE hate each other. I’m not going to get into the details here except that it came out of an attempt by SEIU to take over UNITE-HERE. In any case, it’s not like Strassel is some sort of neutral observer here. The biggest reason UNITE-HERE opposes this is that Airbnb has the potential to undermine union hotels. That makes sense for the union to oppose the company. And as for SEIU making this sort of deal, I mean, again, what should a union do? That’s the core question. Is the role of a labor union to act on behalf of the entire working class, as particular activists define it? Or should a labor union act on behalf of its own membership? Not saying there are easy answers here.

But let’s get to the real issue labor writers have with SEIU–that it doesn’t act as they think a labor union should act.

Unionizing Airbnb cleaners could legitimize the startup while providing minimal benefits to a small group of workers, Ward said. If SEIU signs a contract with Airbnb, “They are essentially selling cheap cover to an American corporation for union dues from a few members,” he said. “It goes against all the principles of the labor movement.”

Unions have played a big role protesting against Airbnb and pushing for stricter regulations in cities across the country.

Opponents also argue that users of Airbnb, which is worth an estimated $25.5bn, don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Community and labor groups in San Francisco pushed unsuccessfully for a 2015 ballot measure that would have dramatically increased restrictions on Airbnb users in the company’s home city.

One union that backed the anti-Airbnb measure was SEIU Local 1021 in northern California, another subsidiary of the international organization which spent more than $78,000 to support the campaign and has repeatedly criticized the company for its role in the housing crisis.

In another twist, SEIU International’s former president Andy Stern, now a consultant and Henry’s predecessor, is representing Airbnb in the negotiations with his former employer.

These are some real issues, but it still remains unclear to me that SEIU is doing some awful thing. As for Stern, he’s not my favorite ex-union leader by any means, but I don’t really see a big problem here. If this was a 1950s-era Teamsters sweetheart deal that undermined the actual workers, I would see the point, but here, I don’t really get the outrage, unless you believe that the role of labor movements is as an organization working primarily for the entire working class. Of course SEIU does do that, as stated above, in its $15 campaigns and support for the fast food workers working toward that. But it also sees an opportunity to recognize the economy for what it is and act upon it.

In other words, it feels to me that SEIU is adapting and surviving as a labor organization where a lot of other unions are not. And the compromises that entails makes many labor reporters unhappy. I mean, if Uber wants to make a deal with the Teamsters that unionizes their drivers, I would probably support that too.

On-Call Shifts

[ 49 ] April 17, 2016 |

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New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman looks to be leading a charge against retailers using on-call shifts to control their workers, a completely unacceptable practice that significantly reduces the quality of life for workers who can’t make plans because they don’t know if they will have to work.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, along with officials from attorneys general offices from seven other states and the District of Columbia, recently sent letters to a number of large retail companies regarding their use of “on-call” shifts.

Schneiderman said employees assigned to such shifts must call their employer — typically an hour or two before a scheduled shift — to find out if they will be assigned to work that day. The letter seeks information and documents related to the companies’ use of on-call shifts, Schneiderman said on April 13.

Schneiderman said on-call shifts are unfair to workers who must keep the day free, arrange for child care, and give up the chance to get another job or attend a class — often all for nothing.

“On-call shifts are not a business necessity, as we see from the many retailers that no longer use this unjust method of scheduling work hours,” he said.

Schneiderman’s office sent letters to American Eagle, Aeropostale, Payless, Disney, Coach, PacSun, Forever 21, Vans, Justice Just for Girls, BCBG Maxazria, Tilly’s, Inc., David’s Tea, Zumiez, Uniqlo, and Carter’s.

The letter states, “Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on employees. Without the security of a definite work schedule, workers who must be ‘on call’ have difficulty making reliable childcare and elder-care arrangements, encounter obstacles in pursuing an education, and in general experience higher incidences of adverse health effects, overall stress, and strain on family life than workers who enjoy the stability of knowing their schedules reasonably in advance.”

You can read the whole letter here. Let’s hope this is the start of the government seeking to make these practices illegal.

“Austerity and sustainability are antithetical concepts”

[ 12 ] April 16, 2016 |

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Trish Kahle has a really great essay in Dissent on how the roots of our unwillingness to do anything meaningful to fight climate change are also the roots of our current income inequality–corporate dominance over both the environment and workers. Moreover, the austerity program undermines workers’ economic stability at the same time that we need to fight against climate change, convincing unions to support anti-environmental positions, even though it will do nothing for them in the end as mining and auto companies will cut their jobs anyway. That said, there is still hope that labor and environmentalists will work together to create a path forward for ecologically responsible jobs that don’t poison people and actually put people to work to allow them a middle-class life.

Clinging to the fossil fuel industry can only lead to a dead end for workers. It is time for a different approach. Already in recent years, several unions have hinted at such a method, echoing the all too short-lived efforts of Miners for Democracy. In February 2015 more than 6,500 oil workers joined in a strike at fourteen refineries and a chemical plant spanning from Ohio to California. The strike, led by the United Steelworkers, was primarily a conflict over workplace safety: USW Vice President Gary Beevers pointed out that workers were being put at risk by “onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrence of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions.” But it went far beyond that, with the workers positioning themselves as the first line of defense against spills and pollution in surrounding communities. Steve Garey, president of a USW local in Washington, explained that by outsourcing maintenance work to less experienced, non-union contractors who lacked the training and work protections provided by the USW, the industry was also putting communities and the environment at risk.

The workers who took part in the strike would know. Some of them had witnessed a 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed fifteen workers and injured 180 others after management bypassed safety procedures during hasty repairs. Others had witnessed the 2014 oil spill at BP’s Whiting refinery, which dumped as much as 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan, Chicago residents’ source of drinking water.

In a critical step forward for U.S. environmentalism, several key green groups expressed support for the strike, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Oil Change International, as well as smaller grassroots organizations like Rising Tide. In Martinez, California, members of Communities for a Better Environment as well as of the local nurses’ union joined refinery workers on the picket line. At the end of the six-week strike, the USW claimed victory, citing “vast improvements in safety and staffing.” There were signs that the strike could also lead to a more enduring militancy within the union. The USW’s threat of a nationwide strike, if unrealized, was itself notable at a time when this tactic has all but disappeared from unions’ arsenal. During the strike, Beevers said, “Our members are speaking loud and clear . . . If it takes a global fight to win safe workplaces, so be it.”

In the wake of the strike’s success, an article posted on the USW website called for unions to help steer the economy away from profits and toward a system “based not on selfishness, greed, and contempt, but on ethics, on giving people the justice they deserve.” This, at its core, is what a just transition is all about: reframing the economy entirely, placing workers at the center instead of profits. “The successful strike by the oil refinery workers,” the article continued, “is on behalf of that justice and shows that unions still have power.”

Indeed, behind workers’ apparent vulnerability lurks enormous potential. As they extract fossil fuels, load them onto railway cars and into tankers, transport them thousands of miles, refine and process them, package and sell them, workers have a unique ability to bring the industry to a halt. And, thanks to the deep integration of fossil fuel products into the modern economy, if the fossil fuels stop moving, so does the rest of the world.

From teachers to nurses to rig operators, the array of workers confronting the nexus of social and ecological destruction is rapidly growing. But much remains to be done. Environmental politics must become generalized in the labor movement, and vice versa. The language of climate justice has already begun to infuse a sense of class politics into environmentalism, and green groups’ support for recent labor struggles is a promising step forward. Initiatives like the Labor Network for Sustainability, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and the BlueGreen Alliance are helping to connect the dots. But environmentalists must go further, acknowledging that there can be no real solution to the energy crisis without the input and leadership of the people who already do the work. Understanding the climate crisis as part of neoliberalism’s larger attack on public welfare and democracy (with the impacts, like all social failings in the United States, experienced more acutely by people of color and particularly by African Americans) can help expand the terrain on which both unions and climate activists struggle.

No one is ever going to claim that meaningful alliances between organized labor and greens are going to be easy. But they share a common enemy: predatory capitalism. Recognizing that is an enemy, which both sides often struggle with, is the first step to coming together for a sustainable and dignified future.

Pressure the Big Companies on Conditions in Their Supply Chains

[ 5 ] April 16, 2016 |

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I like this strategy from the Teamsters, handing out flyers outside of Chipotle because one of their big tomato contractors refuses to recognize IBT organization of their processing plant. Particularly when dealing with the out of the way parts of the supply chain where there’s no good public way to raise awareness, such as get journalists to pay attention and write a story like this, targeting the big buyers makes a ton of sense. Moreover, if Chipotle claims to be socially responsible, prove it. So often in the corporate world “social responsibility” means “making consumers feel good about their issue of the day,” thus GMO based activism. But actual social responsibility means treating workers with dignity throughout the supply chain. Chipotle needs to step to the plate here and pressure the contractor to recognize the Teamsters.

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