It’s no wonder workers feel they don’t have any power at the workplace in the 21st century. For a variety of reasons, the ability of them to use their collective power in its most power-challenging form has been taken away:
AFSCME wins April Fool’s Day with a fake advertisement for a suppository that destroys the middle class. Note: “the drug is not for everyone including pregnant women, people with families, if you have a pre-existing mortgage or if you suffer from student debt”
The AFL-CIO has produced a report on the impacts of NAFTA 20 years after passage. Although the impacts are probably familiar to you, it’s worth a read anyway. The summary:
It’s a flawed model that promotes the economic interests of a very few and at the expense of workers, consumers, farmers, communities, the environment and even democracy itself.
While the overall volume of trade within North America due to NAFTA has increased and corporate profits have skyrocketed, wages have remained stagnant in all three countries.
Productivity has increased, but workers’ share of these gains has decreased steadily, along with unionization rates.
NAFTA pushed small Mexican farmers off their lands, increasing the flow of desperate undocumented migrants.
It exacerbated inequality in all three countries.
And the NAFTA labor side agreement has failed to accomplish its most basic mandate: to ensure compliance with fundamental labor rights and enforcement of national labor laws.
The only answer is to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership so this can all just get worse.
The UAW is continuing to organize the South after its catastrophic defeat in Chattanooga. It is targeting a Mississippi Nissan plant. Unlike Volkswagen, Nissan is fighting the union. The difference between the two campaigns is that in Mississippi, ministers are on the side of the workers, potentially lending important community support to the campaign lacking in Tennessee. But when I read this article about it that stresses the civil rights angle of the struggle, the main difference I see, and of course I have no ability to know the demographics in the plant, is that the workers and presumably the ministers are black. That hardly surprises me. In the early 21st century, people of color are more likely to support unions than whites. Given the sharp racial divides that determine much of American politics at this time, probably the ability of the UAW to win has as much (or nearly as much) to do with the racial demographics of the Nissan plant as its own organizing strategy. I’m not prematurely letting the union off the hook for another loss, but it’s impossible to ignore the racial issue within southern unionism, an issue that has never been separable from southern organizing campaigns and something that employers have always exploited to divide workers.
In other words, labor rights are indeed civil rights, but if the a lot of the white workers in the plant oppose civil rights, it’s unlikely they will support labor rights.
The scourge of companies subcontracting labor in order to maximize profit continues. Tokyo Electric Power Company runs the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor. Rather than employ the cleanup workers itself, it is relying on subcontractors that, not surprisingly, cut corners on such things as keeping workers safe.
Most workers inside the plant are contract laborers hired by multiple layers of construction companies. A Reuters investigation last year found widespread labor abuses, where workers said their pay was skimmed and there was little scrutiny over working conditions inside the plant.
Tepco on Friday would not name the worker’s direct employer, but said he reported up to Toso Fudosan Kanri Company, a first-tier contractor under Tepco. The worker was in his 50s, the utility said.
The company confirmed it had hired the worker through another subcontractor.
Tepco has been widely criticized for its handling of the cleanup. The operator was plagued by a series of leaks of radioactive water from hastily built tanks at the site last year and it has repeatedly promised to improve working conditions.
Of course not using subcontractors would probably be the best idea for improving those working conditions.
I’ll also note that when I write these subcontracting posts, commenters inevitably start talking about the benefits of subcontracting since why should every company have its own IT staff. A couple points here to hopefully reduce this kind of thing. First, during the greatest time of economic growth in American history, subcontracting barely existed. It’s not as if you need subcontracting in order to have a successful business model. Second, there may well be times when you can subcontract and have it make sense, such as IT. However, is there any good reason why we should allow subcontracting where the workers labor for less pay, benefits, and safety precautions than directly employed workers? No. There is not. Third, those who defend subcontracting on principle are sort of missing what’s important here. Or at least, for me keeping workers safe and making living wages is more important than a streamlined business process that concentrates wealth at the top. Maybe that’s not everyone’s priority, I don’t know. Once we get to the point where there’s a bill before Congress to ban subcontracting, we can start worrying about the exceptions that make sense. For now, I’m not going to worry too much about the concerns of business.
Like other presidents in recent decades, regardless of political party, Obama has pushed for fast track authority to slam free trade bills through without taking into account the concerns of American workers or those concerned about environmental issues. Obama’s goal is to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade agreement covering nations from Chile to Brunei, would continue allowing American companies to operate without consequences. So far Congressional Democrats have rejected the TPP because it would ship even more American jobs overseas and increase the environmental impact of American manufacturing. Organized labor is pointing out the environmental impact of such a deal. Says the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, “Let’s not exacerbate the pollution problems of the world and perpetuate human exploitation by including nations like Malaysia and Vietnam in a free trade pact, as the TPP would do.”
Like other trade agreements such as NAFTA, the TPP would effectively encourage American corporations to move operations into countries with terrible human rights, labor rights, and environmental records, providing no legal framework to make companies responsible for what happens in outsourced factories. It allows companies to take advantage of Vietnam’s 28 cent an hour minimum wage and buildings that kill workers in fires. It continues the outsourcing of American jobs, the increase in income inequality, and the conditions of the New Gilded Age.
Of course, the TPP could mandate better conditions for labor. The House initially rejected NAFTA’s renewal in 1997, forcing Clinton to compromise and include a labor enforcement mechanism in a trade deal with Cambodia. Proposed by UNITE, a union decimated by the outsourcing of the clothing industry, the U.S. provided Cambodia incentives to allow workers to unionize in return for an increased export quota. They received $50 a month for a
48-hour week, received a dozen federal holidays, vacation days, sick leave, and maternity leave. The plan worked, at least initially. Overseen by the International Labour Organization, Cambodian clothing exports skyrocketed at the same time that union density grew and apparel makers signed contracts with workers. It was not a perfect system—factory owners tried to avoid the regulations and coached workers on what to say to ILO inspectors. But it still made enormous improvements and showed how government could still intervene in a global marketplace for good. But like most trade agreements, this one came to an end. With the decline of multi fibre quota system in 2004, the U.S.-Cambodian trade pact also ended and its replacement lost this mechanism. Within weeks of the quota ending in 2005, underground sweatshops appeared with terrible working conditions. Now even freer than ever before to concentrate in nations with the worst workplaces standards, Cambodian labor saw its union pacts quickly scuttled and its working conditions and wages plummet to some of the lowest in the industry. Wages fell by 17 percent for Cambodian garment workers between 2001 and 2011.
So the TPP could create safe and reasonably paying work when American companies move overseas but of course it won’t. It could mandate that American companies sign the Bangladesh Accord or a similar agreement, which European companies have signed to mandate improved conditions in outsourced Bangladeshi apparel factories. It provides money to upgrade the sweatshops and at least a minimal legal framework for enforcement. Of course the American manufacturers have refused to sign this, led by Wal-Mart and Gap. There’s no evidence the American government has any desire to pressure them to do so, but regardless, we know that terrible labor conditions have not blocked Obama’s desire for the TPP to pass. It’s a shame because the American government could do a lot to improve the lives of overseas workers producing goods for the American market and it chooses not to.
The obvious next step is to strip funding from universities who teach about slavery. They are inciting race hatred after all:
Michigan State University could risk losing $500,000 if it does not stop offering courses that allegedly promote unionization.
A state Senate panel approved a measure Thursday banning courses at public universities that promote or discourage organizing efforts. It’s a reaction to MSU’s recent decision to take over some programs from the National Labor College.
Republicans say those courses violate the proposed rule.
“I believe in academic freedom, and you’re going to have difficult subjects that you’re going to cover at any university,” said state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who chairs the panel that directs higher education funding in the House.
I believe in academic freedom unless I disagree with the subject matter. That is indeed the true meaning of academic freedom.
The Travelers Insurance agent who wrote “Glass Manufacturing Hazards” for this series agrees that emphysema is not a major problem for glassblowers, despite what one might expect. The men who work with the raw glass ingredients, and the “bottle-breakers” who smash undesirable glass so it can be re-melted, are more at risk for this — as they are for skin irritation, painful abrasions, burns from molten glass, and foot lacerations.
Glass-blowers do sometimes break their teeth when the iron blow-pipe strikes some hard object. They slip on the smooth, worn wooden foot-benches that are often without railings. They drink too much water, causing cramps. They get blisters, which should, but usually aren’t, dealt with by puncturing the blister with a needle threaded with white sewing silk, to provide drainage before the blister bursts. And they get infectious diseases from the shared water cup used to cool down between blows, and more importantly, from the shared mouthpiece on the blow-pipe. This has been the subject of several studies. Studies of syphilis.
* * *
The first link between glass-blowers’ pipes and syphilis I can find is from 1862, when the British Medical Journal relayed a report from France. Apparently in “Giers and Vernasion” (which probably means Rive-de-Gier and Vernaison), transmitting diseases is virtually inevitable because the normal procedure is for three men to collaborate (taking turns in quick succession) on blowing a single piece of glass. Is this the normal method? Anyway, this leads to the men giving each other “the three syphilitic disease of the mouth”.
There’s a lot of gold here.
The director of the National Labor Relations Board’s Chicago district ruled today that Northwestern football players do qualify as employees, and as such are entitled to form a union. This is as big as it sounds, but there is a ways to go before amateurism as we know it is ended.
Led by QB Kain Colter, the College Athletes Players Association won a surprisingly quick decision from the NLRB regional office—they filed less than two months ago, and were vociferously opposed by Northwestern and the NCAA. The group seeks fully guaranteed scholarships, better medical protections for injured players, and a fund that will allow athletes to continue their educations after they stop playing.
In the money quote from the decision, the regional director wrote, “I find that players receiving scholarships from the Employer are ‘employees.’”
You can read the opinion here (PDF). Now, this is far from the end of the road. Northwestern is going to appeal and the NCAA is going to back them up all the way. After all, the free labor they take from athletes is at stake. So who knows what is going to happen. But a couple of quick key takeaways. First is the speed of the decision. Usually, these cases are a long, drawn-out process (often a problem of the NLRB, making it an increasingly ineffective agency for workers operating in real time with house payments and such). This case began only 2 months ago. This means that for the regional director, it was an obvious and easy decision. He declared these athletes workers because they received compensation, even if did not receive a paycheck Second, this continues to chip away at the NCAA. Every time players sue or argue for rights, the NCAA cartel weakens. Every time they win or even gain a partial victory, NCAA power declines even more.
And while I absolutely do not believe this is going to happen, were such a decision lead to the decline of college athletics and the replacement of it in major sports with actual minor league football and basketball, well, good! And I say this as a fan. There’s almost no good argument to be for the current scenario unless you are a booster and donor who doesn’t actually want to give money to the university.
Of course, support for paying the largely non-white college athletic workforce falls largely along race lines, with white people loving to watch unpaid (although compensated) black labor and black people being significantly less comfortable with that. I’m sure there’s no history behind this or anything.
Dave Jamieson with more.
….This is an excellent Q&A at ESPN that answers many questions about the impact of this case. Looks good for the players.
How do you talk about the poor? Are they you or are they someone else, someone who we need to enact some policy
upon? Are they your brothers and sisters or are they objects of sympathy? My former co-blogger Sarah Jaffe has an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post about how journalists and activists talk about the poor:
It’s a particular kind of emotional labor that we ask of these workers. In addition to the strength and courage to tell the boss, to his face, that you’re walking out because you’re sick of how you’re being treated, we demand that you perform the role of the poor person for us, and we squabble over the right things to do for you. Our discourse on poverty is fed by stories of misery; it gorges itself on tales of cracked ceilings and no heat and feeding the family on a few dollars a week. But this is just another way that the poor must prove themselves “deserving” and for the better-off to feel righteous for helping them.
The right claims that raising the minimum wage will make these jobs disappear altogether and that if they don’t like jobs they’re in, they can get another one. (Perhaps they will like being a home health care or personal care aide, since according to Department of Labor statistics those are the fastest-growing career paths for most Americans, and they pay a whopping $20,000 a year.)
The left wants to raise the minimum wage, which is a good start, and perhaps even endorses fast-food workers’ demand for a union. But too often we — and I do mean to include myself here — erase the agency of the workers, debate whether they’re really demanding these things of their own volition , talk about them as though they are easily manipulated children rather than adults making a decision. We, too, talk about them as though they are not us.
Of course they are most of you (certainly me anyway) with a missed paycheck. The punditocracy, which I suppose I am part of too, values analysis over solidarity, serious sensible thinking about immediate political ends over long-term movement building, criticism over support. I guess it’s a bit easier for me to see through this because I grew up in the working class, but that hardly makes me immune from these problems or this language either. This is one reason why Sarah’s piece is so important–it’s the all-too rare calling out of how journalists actually operate. Another reason is to remind us all of the importance of seeing ourselves as workers in the same (or similar) boats as fast food or home care workers. Not only does the instability of the modern economy mean that such is quite likely our future (mine too, I have no confidence that I be able to retire as an academic and not because I think I will be denied tenure), but we need to craft meaningful alliances that prioritize solidarity with workers so that together we can build a movement to take back this nation and world from the plutocrats. Without that, you and I fall together.
I have a long-running hate of the Times Room for Debate feature. Giving a bunch of people 100 words to make a case just feeds both sides do it syndrome. That’s especially true since the feature consistently combines scholars and experts with crazy people. Take last week’s subject of the 40 hour week. Plenty of good people but they had to have a conservative. And what a doozy. Amity Shales ladies and gents:
People decide to work more (or less) than 40 hours a week because of a variety of factors including family life, education, hobbies and leisure time in general. But the biggest reason may be as simple as one word: taxes.
Americans would willingly work longer hours, earn more and be more productive if their marginal tax rates were lowered.
Across nations and decades, the Nobel-winning economist Edward Prescott found, tax rates largely determined the hours that workers put in. Heavily taxed workers in Europe put in fewer hours than more lightly taxed workers in the United States, he determined.
More precisely, taxes limited the hours that Europeans work on the books. In countries like Germany, he wrote, people work just as much as Americans; they merely record less of that work for the government by working in the black or gray markets, where their earnings are untaxed or less taxed.
What does that mean for the workweek in the United States? A progressive rate structure like ours starts out alluringly low, then raises rates as you earn more, taxing the last dollar earned more heavily than the first. The more progressive a rate structure, the less attractive working that extra hour, or getting that promotion, becomes.
Though most workers aren’t taxed at the top and heaviest rates, they can still feel the load of some rate increases. And most people are aware in a general sense that harder work has limits to its rewards because of the effect of progressivity.
If we flattened the code, so that the last dollar is taxed at the same rate as the first one, people would want to work more.
The hours we work should be a matter of genuine, individual choice, not determined by government policy.
Whatever planet Shales lives on doesn’t have actual workers. Choice? Who chooses to work certain hours? Yglesias used this formulation in his classic “it’s ok for Bangladeshi workers to die on the job because their country is modernizing” response to me after the Rana Plaza collapse. It makes no sense because it is totally disconnected from how people actually act. When the choice is “work or starve” that’s not a choice. People work because they are told they are working this long, whether it is a 20 hour week or a 50 hour week. The only things that have ever gotten in the way of this are unions and governments. Today, the former doesn’t have the power and the latter increasingly lacks the inclination.
The rest of it is just bog standard flat tax idiocy, hiding corporate greed in a rhetoric of worker freedom. But people who say workers “choose” these things are showing me they have no idea what actual working class life is like.
On March 20, 1854, the Republican Party was founded at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin. Ideas of labor, both free and slave, were central to Republican Party ideology and would have massive implications for decades, not only with the end of slavery during the Civil War, but for white labor through the Gilded Age.
When Republicans organized in the wake of the Whig Party’s collapse (This was not a third party. It was filling a vacuum created by the decline of the period’s second party), it was building off of common ideas about labor in the antebellum period. Labor was seen broadly as the work done by anyone outside of the financial sector or lawyers, making most people “workers” whether they employed people or were employed. The industrial system was supposed to work for all these people, allowing them to rise and fall according to their merits, but ultimately helping most people advance. This would lead to a broadly middle-class life of individual farmers, small employers, and entrepreneurs without great wealth. All labor was noble in this ideology. What made Republicans different than Democrats was the desire to use the power of the state to create policies that would advance this goal, such as high tariffs, government support of transportation networks, etc.
This idea of intertwined personal and national advancement was at the heart of the Republican critique of the South. Most Republicans certainly did not think of black people as equals. But they did see slavery undermining American progress. They saw a North of manufacturing, of railroads, of canals and they saw a rapidly growing nation of progress. They saw a Southern elite of landed wealth who did no work for themselves, who had militaristic values and a violent culture. They saw undemocratic politics with entrenched poverty of the region’s poor whites and they indicted the entire system as a anchor upon the advancement of the union as demonstrated by northern capital investment and industrialization. The threat of slavery was its expansion because the institution only grew more powerful through the 1840s and 1850s. From not being a major part of the American political landscape, the nation had fought a war to allow its expansion by stealing half of Mexico. This threat had to be dealt with for the future of white landholders and entrepreneurs because slavery threatened the white republic. Blacks themselves were more the objects of concern than the subjects. It’s not that black labor didn’t matter. But most Republicans assumed the proper role for black labor was toiling on plantations for white overseers, as in fact we would see at the end of the Civil War when northerners would reorganize the plantation system despite ex-slaves wanting to end it entirely.
Free labor ideology was a very individualistic system and free labor ideology was from the outset strongly anti-union. Even though Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens argued that it was bad to blame the poor for their own poverty, the idea that labor would combine against capital was anathema to Republicans. Horace Greeley referred to strikes as “industrial war” as early as 1853. Instead, Republicans believed the poor should simply move west to the safety valve of the frontier. Free labor ideology struggled to adapt to the reality of wage labor after the Civil War. The ideology assumed the natural harmony between labor and capital and when capital exploitation of labor during the early years of the Gilded Age, particularly in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, Republican leaders assumed the problem was workers breaking this natural state. Thus when George Pullman created his company town outside of Chicago, he used free labor language to justify his paternalism and control over workers.
Although among regular people, the early Republican distrust of corporations did not go away, for those who had access to the money and power within this new system, it definitely did as the great potential for wealth under Republican rule during the Civil War became ever more apparent. The individualistic side of free labor ideology could lead to great greed, especially when combined whit the self-justification of the pseudo social Darwinism of its early days. It was no great turn for the same people we laud for their role in ending slavery to attack the white working class with a vengeance, both as businessmen and as politicians. If Jay Gould became incredibly wealthy off of cheating people, he could justify it through the language at the core of the ideology.
Leading Republicans began to fear by the 1870s that both southern blacks and northern whites were agents of disorder that threatened the smooth relations between labor and capital. They saw blacks demanding labor rights and believed they were a class that threatened the social fabric of the republic. Demands for federal assistance were just as threatening as northern white labor’s demand for the right to strike. Both white and black labor made leading Republicans fear the Paris Commune coming to the U.S., a theme Horace Greeley and others wrote about as they talked of anarchy reaching American shores every time American black or white labor complained about anything after 1871. This helps explain how Republicans were willing to end Reconstruction and condemn black labor to exploitation. In the end, for most Republicans anti-slavery politics was not about anti-racism, it was about ending a particularly institution they saw holding back the nation. Wage exploitation, that was fine. Ideal even.
The consummation of Republican free labor ideology toward unions became apparent in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when newly elected Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes used U.S. troops to crush the strikers. It wasn’t just Hayes–most leading Republicans wanted them crushed. The shock to the populace would lead to a number of social and labor movements intended to get things right again. The Populists, Single Taxers, Bellamyites, Chinese Exclusionists, 8 hour day organizers, unemployment marchers, Knights of Labor–all of these movements would be heavily influenced by the idea of making capitalism doing what everyone thought it was supposed to do–support the free, hardworking white male citizen who wanted to support himself. It would not be until the influx of new immigrants after 1880 that had no connection to free labor ideology that the American working class would move more realistic cures for what ailed it.
The question everyone wants to know is whether Lincoln would have been as anti-white organized labor as other Republicans. This is of course a counterfactual–who knows! And counterfactuals’ primary value come during drunken conversations. People like to cite a couple of Lincoln quotes about the primacy of labor to capital. But this ignores the context–Republicans said things like this all the time and then a few years later were calling for military intervention to crush strikes. The quote lacks the context of what Republicans meant by labor and capital. Lincoln was the consummate moderate Republican on pretty much every policy issue, including slavery. I think, like other Republicans, Lincoln could have easily reconciled his earlier statements with a later support of monopoly capitalism and fears of the dangers of unions. Sure, I’d like to think otherwise, but a few quotes from the early 1860s isn’t a lot of evidence when placed in context of Lincoln’s relationship with the ideology of his party and how that party changed over time.
The key book on Republican free labor ideology is Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. You should all read it. On the changing views of Republicans toward black labor after emancipation, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901.
This is the 100th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.