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Tag: "labor"

Bernie and Labor

[ 119 ] June 20, 2016 |

Sanders picketline_1

One more postmortem of the 2016 primary. Joe Burns writes in Jacobin that what labor needs to learn from the Sanders campaign is to reintegrate radicalism into its thinking. A lot of it is just revisiting the anti-communist purges of the CIO and decrying the lack of radicalism in the labor movement, underpinned with anger that the unions backed Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders.

Reintroducing class struggle into trade unionism also necessitates having a serious discussion about the state of labor’s reform-minded wing. Supportive of diffuse activism, this broad coalition includes true reformers and those who, in the past, would have been considered collaborationist hacks.

Many in labor embrace what could be called “labor pragmatism” — initiatives that try to fight smart within the existing system, like the inside strategy, the corporate campaign, and the one-day strike.

All of these are sensible strategies for workers forced to struggle within an unjust framework of labor control. But because they do not challenge the underlying paradigm, they cannot revive the labor movement.

Many in labor’s progressive wing favor the phrase “social movement unionism” to describe a form of unionism that emphasizes community ties and rejects narrow unionism. This is particularly true in public-sector unions, which live or die based on public support.

Social movement unionism is a broad concept that can encompass a wide range of activities, from the class-struggle approach of the Chicago Teachers Union to staff-driven models more akin to business unionism.

It’s time to move beyond these concepts and toward a more Sanders-inspired vision of labor organizing, which puts our fight in the context of the struggle between the 1 percent and the rest of the population.

Class-struggle unionism incorporates the broad demands of social movement unionism into a workplace-centered struggle against management.

So what would a “Sanders-inspired vision of labor organizing” really look like?

Reestablishing effective trade unionism requires a number of concrete actions. We must develop forms of solidarity that move beyond just fighting a single employer and instead confront capital as a class. We must constrain capital’s mobility and cultivate solidarity across borders.

We must disregard the “property rights” of employers and be willing to flout labor law itself. We must resist the constant pressure to collaborate rather than fight. Fundamentally, we must put workers and struggle back at the center of trade unionism.

None of this is possible in a labor movement that spurns socialist ideas.

Here is the basic problem: over the last eighty years, an aggressive capitalist order has reshaped trade unionism. Collective bargaining is now confined to individual corporations, so the union is captive to each employer’s business decisions.

The profits extracted from workplaces flow largely to capitalists, and workers have no say over the distribution of the wealth they create.

While a web of rules created by the NLRB and the courts have granted this status quo legal legitimacy, today’s labor policies are merely capital’s worldview imposed on the labor movement.

Without a socialist analysis, economic shifts look like forces of nature rather than human creations. Issues like capital flight, subcontracting, or corporate globalization are taken as givens, impossible for any labor movement to resist.

A socialist trade unionism, on the other hand, would demand that capital be bent to labor’s needs.

Past moments in the labor movement — like the AFL’s closed-shop era, when unions controlled hiring decisions and worker education, or the CIO’s solidarity unionism, which brought hundreds of enterprises under the same master agreements and used industry-wide strikes to halt production — remind us that this is possible.

And so has Sanders’s run. In a refreshing challenge to the neoliberal views of Hillary Clinton (and much of the labor establishment that backs her), Sanders has promised to direct societal resources away from the banks to rebuild inner cities, create jobs, and provide free college education.

Applying his vision to trade unionism means rejecting the idea that capital has an inherent right to do what it wishes to our jobs and our communities.

OK, I guess. But this feels a lot more like sloganeering than really analyzing the critical issues with the labor movement. It also papers over a lot of history–the AFL unions that controlled hiring halls used them to exclude black workers, for instance. Flouting labor law is fine, but sometimes can lead to the president crushing your entire union and setting the entire labor movement back. I obviously agree that constraining capital mobility is absolutely central for the ability of the working class to survive. I wrote a book about that very topic. And a socialist analysis does provide some ways forward on these topics. On the other hand, so does our current legal system, which is very much not socialist and not used to socialist ends, but could be used to accomplish some of these policy goals. A labor movement committed to socialism might be useful, but then the labor movement is already committed to a lot of socialist policies if they could be enacted, although there’s no question that unions will often make short-term decisions that undermine the long-term interests of the working class, such as working for minimum wage carve-outs for its own members.

Moreover, I just don’t really see what Bernie Sanders had to do with an entirely new radical approach. Is he calling for the illegal occupation of corporate property? I just feel that there’s a whole lot of projection on the left to Sanders, who see in him what they want to see instead of what he actually is–a good left-liberal on most policy issues with a talent for a certain kind of rhetoric that appeals to 60s radicals and their descendants. And that’s fine I guess, but I’m still struggling to see how Bernie Sanders is that far to the left of Hillary Clinton on most policy issues. He’s a bit to the left on many and the proposal for free college tuition is a good goal, even if the details really need to be spelled out. But she’s not a monster and he’s not a savior.

Finally, I need to know how this actually works on the ground if unions start occupying buildings, ignoring labor law, defy the NLRB, etc. I also need to know how to explain the very real risks involved to rank and file workers.

I guess all this means is that I’m a bad leftist for wanting policy analysis and complexity in my social movements instead of sloganeering. If we just had more solidarity, everything would be better! But those Big Labor bureaucrats sold out the working class once again by supporting Hillary over a man who has similar beliefs on many issues, just a different way of talking about them. And that’s of course a lot of what this whole article is about–the endless battle within the labor movement between pragmatism and radicalism that radicals almost never win because they struggle to bring the rank and file of the unions around to these vague ideas of action and solidarity.


Unfree Labor in American Seafood

[ 17 ] June 18, 2016 |


Usually when I talk about unfree labor, it’s overseas in supply chains producing products for western markets. But the U.S. has several of its own systemic versions of unfree labor–widespread use of prison labor, sweatshops in Los Angeles, etc. Another is in the seafood industry where suppliers use guestworkers to provide your frozen shrimp. But this is not free labor, not with the guestworkers having no recourse.

But labor abuse in the seafood sector isn’t a problem confined to Asia. A report published Wednesday by the labor group the National Guestworker Alliance suggests that some US seafood workers also experience abusive conditions. The report focuses on the experiences of undocumented and H2-B visa guestworkers shucking, peeling, and boiling shrimp and crawfish at seafood processing plants in New Bedford, Mass. and along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Around 69 percent of shrimp produced in the US comes from the Gulf Coast.

“Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

According to the NGA report, the US seafood industry has relied heavily on H2-B guestworkers and undocumented immigrants to drive down labor costs to stay price competitive with international producers. A 2009 survey in New Bedford found that nearly 75 percent of the workers in its seafood processing industry were undocumented immigrants. The US Department of Labor certified over 5,700 H2-B visas for seafood related positions in 2014, a marked 15 percent increase over 2013. Because employers grant H2-B visas, those on the receiving end are particularly vulnerable. Due to threats of retaliation by employers—including firing, which can result in deportation—guestworkers are often hesitant to report mistreatment. “Hours were long, wages were bad, housing was terrible—but we were all afraid that if we spoke up, we would lose our jobs, our housing, and our ability to ever come back to the US to work,” longtime H-2B guestworker Olivia Guzman Garfias told the NGA.

Here are some more striking details from the NGA’s report:

In housing provided by processing companies in both the Louisiana Gulf and New Bedford, Mass., workers reported living with up to 20 people per trailer, without access to proper sanitation and sometimes with strict curfews.

Of the 126 seafood workers surveyed in New Bedford, 25 percent reported having been injured on the job. The majority of workers reported having to purchase their own safety equipment.

44 percent reported not being paid for overtime work.

At times, piece rates for pounds of shrimp prorated to levels well below minimum wage, as low as $2 per hour, and employers sometimes failed to pay promised rates. According to NGA Organizing Director Jacob Horwitz: “Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

Female workers experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse in the workplace as well as in company-provided housing. Some women spoke of unwanted sexual advances by company brass, and of being fired for rebuffing such advances.

Once again, if you are eating frozen seafood, you are eating a product made by unfree labor. Unfortunately, while we can pressure Walmart and other stores from using these suppliers, they lack the legal obligation to take responsibility for their supply chains. Until we can go after the corporate buyers of this seafood, this sort of exploitation will continue. And this is yet more evidence that guestworker programs simply do not work, at least in low-wage jobs, and there should be no place for them in whatever immigration reform bill eventually passes Congress.

How Netflix Uses Independent Contractor Classifications to Avoid Paying Minimum Wage

[ 54 ] June 18, 2016 |


This should obviously be a violation of federal law. But of course the vile independent contractor employment status exists to shield employers from liability, responsibility, and of course, not having to give up their 5th ivory-covered backscratcher.

Getting paid to watch movies might seem like a pretty sweet gig, but two people who worked for Netflix are now suing the streaming-media giant, claiming that the company misclassified them as contractors rather than employees so it wouldn’t have to pay them time-and-a-half for the long workweeks they incurred.

The two workers, who are aiming for class-action status, were part of “Project Beetlejuice,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. These people (Netflix doesn’t say how many it works with) get paid $10 a pop to watch movies and pick out the best stills and video clips for Netflix to use.

The issue, of course, is that a movie can run two or three hours in length, which — if you do the math — means these film buffs aren’t making a lot per hour for their services. Netflix had classified them as independent contractors, but the litigation contends that they were treated more like employees, but without the benefits of regular employment. “They’re also asking for overtime, paid vacation, and holidays, health insurance, and a 401(k) plan,” Business Insider said.

$10 a pop if the the movie is 2 hours long is all of $5 an hour. Say what you will, but watching movies for a company is absolutely work and those workers need legal compensation, not to even mention fair compensation. Just another day in the New Gilded Age.

Model Employer

[ 11 ] June 16, 2016 |


I can see why some people are flouncing away from the Democratic Party again because both parties are the same amiright and so only real revolution will come from voting for Jill Stein, or even better, not voting at all so that your precious bodily fluids purity will be retained. After all, we all know the Democratic Party hates working people, right?

Rich Yeselson hopes the Democratic platform is going to approve of an executive order for a “model employer” clause.

The union-funded organization Good Jobs Nation developed the proposal, which has two key planks:

Preference in federal contracts and some subsidies to “model employers” who pay at least $15 per hour and meet a standard package of benefits, including health insurance and sick leave, and provide stable, full-time hours.

Contractors would have to affirm, rather than impede, the right of their employees to unionize in return for a no-strike or “labor peace” pledge by the employees.

The liberal think tank Demos calculated in 2013 that there are at least 2 million low-wage workers earning less than $12 an hour who work for companies that benefit from federal contracts.

These workers range from home health care aides whose jobs derive from Medicare and Medicaid to janitors in the federal buildings, such as the US Capitol. The hope is that the federal government would use its leverage to promote union organizing and construct a model of labor management relations for the rest of the private sector. The basic idea has gathered considerable steam at the municipal level, where 120 localities have already issued similar orders — but the federal government’s reach is clearly much further.

Yeselson goes on to accurately summarize the relationship between unions and politics in the United States, correctly stating that unions have always had to have political support in order to win anything substantial (the leftist argument that “unions should give up the political game and just organize”–which you will even hear labor historians make at scholarly labor conferences– drives me up the wall).

But while the economic legacy of wartime pro-union efforts persisted for decades, the politics that shaped those policies collapsed almost immediately due to the United States’ uniquely union-hostile business community. Unions themselves, fearful of government intrusion, have often preferred a voluntary relationship between labor and management. But in the United States labor must, to some extent, rely upon the state to ensure the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain.

As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes, “In every other capitalist nation, a strong bureaucratic state either preceded or simultaneously emerged with the multi-division firm, but this pattern was reversed in the United States.”

In other words, in America, big business — complete with a “desperate sense of individual autonomy” among owners and managers — precedes the existence of big government, leading those owners and managers to fiercely resist unionization during the New Deal era and afterward.

Moreover, the fragmentation of the business sector across a heterogeneous, continental-size nation favored decentralized economic development rather than the cooperative triad of business, labor, and government that emerged in much of Western Europe. The more disaggregated capitalist production was in the United States, the more essential it was for each firm to sustain flexible labor costs and to fight union efforts to standardize those costs across industries.

Consequently, there is absolutely no consensus in the United States in favor of the shared legitimacy of business and unions. One result is that federal labor policy oscillates wildly depending on which party controls appointments to the NLRB.

Given these structural and historical circumstances, only a national political party sympathetic to unions is able to give them a fighting chance. Given their tenuous, always contested position in the American political economy, absent the active support of the federal government for unions, they wither. And when unions wither, wage inequality rises, and civil society is impoverished as well.

And really, this goes back to the late 19th century, when American employers took a much harder line against unions than employers in Britain and France.

That’s why it makes sense for union-centered policies developed within Democratic Party politics to be a major source of the platform and further executive actions, even if legislation might not be possible. I know Hillary Clinton is history’s greatest monster and all and maybe isn’t AUTHENTIC in her beliefs about workers, but she has moved to the left significantly and likely will continue to do so as long as people are protesting in the streets for a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition, and the many other things this nation needs to fight inequality.

But hey, my feelings about authenticity and my anger toward Debbie Wasserman Schultz are more important than policies to help working Americans, so I’m voting Jill Stein and when Trump wins IT WILL TEACH THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY A LESSON THEY WON’T SOON FORGET JUST LIKE IN 2000!

Verizon Strike Postmortems

[ 8 ] June 13, 2016 |


A couple of good reads on the incredibly successful Verizon strike. Michael McCormick notes that one of the biggest victories here is the inclusion of the retail stores in the bargaining unit, pointing the way forward for further organizing.

Perhaps the biggest step forward brought about by the victory is the fact that it’s the first contract for Verizon retail workers in Everett, MA and Brooklyn, NY. These workers finally have a union and a contract in an occupation that is known for low pay and erratic scheduling. Verizon has also fiercely resisted the unionization of employees in their wireless retail locations. It is only after years of organizing that this location was able to join the CWA in 2014. As a wall between the land-line workforce and wireless workforce at Verizon erodes, workers in both divisions can build power.

The win in the working-class city of Everett was particularly sweet. Anyone driving by a Verizon store in Everett or in the greater Boston area (where this author has lived and worked) during the strike was sure to be greeted by the same sight: workers picketing enthusiastically, while the store’s parking lot remained empty of customers, who refused to cross the picket line. After decades of blue-collar work in Everett being increasingly replaced by lower-paying service sector jobs, seeing Verizon workers assert their rights to better pay and increased job security should serve as encouragement to other workers in the service sector. The shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S. economy reverberated through the residential city like most areas in the United States, and low-paying service jobs became the norm. So it was encouraging to see workers at the Verizon store there make national news for their involvement in the strike, asserting that workers in the service sector deserve the same dignity as any other occupation.

Mike Tisei, chief steward at the Everett Verizon store, said that the new contract “means a better quality of life and meaningful economic security for our families. Today [May 30th] is a great day for my family and working families along the East Coast, and it’s only possible because we stood together.” The strike clearly has concrete implications for people beyond wage increases and the minutiae of profit-sharing schemes; they feel empowered at their workplaces and are getting a fair shot at a middle class career.

And Mary Anne Trasciatti places the strike in some historical context, noting its reclaiming of the direct action of the now distant past.

The other avenue of attack was the mobile picket. First used in 1912 by Lawrence strikers, workers in those days would encircle a factory or some other place of business and try to convince strikebreakers, verbally and sometimes physically, not to go to work.

Today, a mobile picket might traverse several miles on a highway, but the goal is the same. Just with more baroque restrictions.

As Eramo explains: “When a van leaves a facility to do our work we are by law allowed to follow that vehicle, as long as we remain fifteen feet away, with no more than five guys picketing one person.”

Verizon strikers taunted, screamed, and generally attempted to make the situation as uncomfortable as possible for scabs. Eramo says the surveillance and heckling were very effective, “and kind of intimidating.”

When tempers flared, the picket turned into a contest between dueling cameras. Scabs tried to catch strikers making threats or engaging in other prohibited behaviors (which could cost them their jobs when the strike was over), and strikers recorded their own video for proof of innocence.

Wobblies knew that a strike was more likely to endure and succeed when strikers remained engaged. Picketers in Lawrence and Paterson sung their hearts out. They marched in strike parades and processed for May Day.

Led by Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, whose flair for the dramatic is hard to exaggerate, they held public funerals (both mock and genuine) for fallen comrades.

Such tactics effectively transformed the strike into a form of political theater. In the case of Paterson, strikers actually reenacted their struggle as a pageant in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

The CWA showed a similar penchant for performance. Pennsylvania strikers staged a funeral procession for the “corporate pig” (complete with a casket) in a Verizon retail parking lot that would have had Tresca cheering.

But the most raucous actions were reserved for hotels that put up strikebreakers — strikers harbored particular disdain for scabs who were willing to travel to take their jobs. Hundreds gathered at 5 AM to ring cowbells, blow whistles, bellow, and jeer until police arrived with special response teams.

Technically a form of third-party picketing, the tactic is illegal. It was also very popular. And it proved successful. At least one Manhattan hotel kicked out strikebreakers that were staying there.

It’s hard for me to overstate how important I think this strike was. It’s rare that private sector unionism wins anything in 2016, but for direct action tactics to lead to enormous victories is a really important precedent if the labor movement will be rebuilt. Of course, the Department of Labor’s role here is also important, which is also why one hopes that the Clinton administration will build upon Obama’s labor record in the DOL.

Legal Responsibility, Not Voluntary Codes of Conduct, Is Necessary to Ensure Ethical Trade

[ 17 ] June 10, 2016 |


Last month, I spoke about Out of Sight to a class at Brown. These were, naturally enough, pretty wealthy kids. They liked the book, which was assigned to them in a class, but found one thing uncomfortable. That was the open contempt I have toward corporate behavior, seeing them as enemies of both labor standards and environmental sustainability. In their questions to me, they kept coming back to this, asking about “good corporations” or voluntary codes of conduct. I of course rejected all of this, stating that even if you have a “good” CEO, if that person leaves, the corporate culture can very easily change and that the ultimate point of corporations is to profit, not be responsible citizens. This story about the berry company Driscoll’s, which claims to have a fair trade standards and advertises that they do, is why I feel this way.

Farm workers, mostly undocumented and Indigenous, doubled their movement for a union contract this year, inspired by the winning Fight for 15 campaign but demanding more.

“It’s almost the same fight,” Ramon Torres, berry picker and director of Families United for Justice, told teleSUR. The differences, though, are important.

Since most migrant farm workers do not have U.S. citizenship, they are not protected under labor law, nor by their employees, no matter how progressive their labor policy. They also see much more cases of child labor and of wage theft.

The fruit producer is heavily backed by supermarket chains like Costco and Whole Foods, who insist that its practices comply with fair trade standards.

After the Sakuma workers brought attention to their dismal conditions — poor housing, up to 15 hours of work a day without no breaks, racial harassment — Driscoll’s responded that, “Sakuma is in compliance with our standards and is making continuous improvements in providing a forum for open dialogue and empowerment for their farmworkers.”

Because Families United for Justice is not able to register as a union under state law, Driscoll’s said there is nothing else they can do.

Still, Torres said that it proudly distributes a sticker that guarantees fair trade practices, essentially a lie that covers up continuing mistreatment of its employers.

Simply put, voluntary fair trade standards without legal requirements are utterly meaningless. That doesn’t mean they are terrible in themselves or anything. If a company wants to engage in fair trade standards and then actually does so, then good. But if nothing is forcing them to and there’s no monitoring of it by outside organizations, the chances is that it’s just the labor version of greenwashing.

This Day in Labor History: June 8, 1917

[ 7 ] June 8, 2016 |


On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine in Granite Mountain, near Butte, Montana, caught on fire. 168 miners died in the largest death toll in American history for a hard-rock mining disaster. This horrible event spurred a strike and union campaign in Butte that owners responded to through anti-union hysteria and organized violence, showing the sharp limits of organizing, especially in the American West, during World War I.

In the late 19th century, Butte became one of the most important mining districts in the United States, thanks to its rich copper deposits. In 1883, there were 2000 miners in Butte. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners. The mines lacked basic safety standards, as was common throughout the nation. Without mine safety laws, there was no reason for companies to ensure there workers didn’t die or to teach mine safety for them. On June 8, 1917, a crew strung an electrical cable to the rock 2400 feet below the surface. But part of it fell down. A crew descended to fix it. But as it fell, the protective sheathing around it frayed. An assistant foreman reached down to pick it up. When he did, he brushed his carbine lamp against the cable. It caught fire and exploded. It quickly spread through the mine, killing 168 workers. As sad as this was, it was also somewhat ironic, as it spread so quickly because the mine was well ventilated and because the affected cable was part of a fire suppression system the mine was implementing.

There were 410 miners working in Granite Mountain that night. 168 died. One went in to save 25 lives before he finally succumbed to the fire and poisonous gas. Montana law stated that all the cement bulkheads in the mine must have an iron door that could be opened in case of emergency for miners to escape. But Butte mine owners routinely ignored the laws, a major problem with workplace safety legislation in these years. Some miners were found with their fingers ground down to the bone as they desperately tried to claw through the cement.

Butte had a long union history by 1917. During the late nineteenth century, Butte was known as “The Gibraltar of Unionism” as the largely Irish miners organized and won stable contracts during a deeply anti-union period. But in 1903, the Anaconda Mining Company gained control of the Butte mines and began undermining union power. This could not happen overnight because the unions were fairly powerful, but by 1912, the Butte Miners Union was significantly weakened after Anaconda successfully introduced the rustling card, which gave employers power over who worked in their mines that they used to get rid of union activists. 500 union members were fired. Moreover, miners were being paid at 1878 rates even though the price of copper was over twice as high by 1914. In that year, the Industrial Workers of the World arrived in Butte and also sought to undermine the BMU. The union fell into civil war, leading to the dynamiting of the BMU mining hall. This led Anaconda to withdraw all recognition from the union. After nearly 30 years of recognition from mine owners, the Butte Miners Union was destroyed. In this case, IWW participation was utterly disastrous. Some accused the Wobblies of collaborating with the mine owners. While this is certainly not true, there’s no question that the owners took advantage of the dissension the Wobblies caused.

The mine fire also reignited the unionist sentiment in Butte. Union newspapers started publishing again and calls for higher wages and safer working conditions rallied workers. On June 11, miners at the Elm Orlu mine, owned by the notoriously corrupt William Clark, went on strike. Although many wanted to blame the strike on the IWW or German secret agents, the Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry publicly stated the cause was the fire at the Speculator. On June 13, the miners formed the Metal Mine Workers Union to try and once again organize Butte. It wanted recognition as the workers’ bargaining agent, abolition of the rustling card, the mine owners to actually observe the state mining laws, the firing of the state mining inspector, a wage increase, and the right to free speech and assembly, which was being denied in Butte and many other western towns during World War I. Accusing the workers of being a bunch of Wobblies and determined to keep the open shop, the mine owners refused to speak to the unionists. A few days later, the city’s electricians went on strike to demand recognition of the miners and the others followed. Butte seemed to be on the verge of again becoming a union town.

Because it was World War I, the post-Speculator fire strike received national attention. The Wilson administration sent an arbitrator while American Federation of Labor representatives arrived to work toward a settlement so that the miners would get back to work to support the war effort. Unfortunately, the AFL prioritized this over the workers’ demands and wanted the workers to go back on the job before receiving recognition, which they refused to do. Meanwhile, the miner owners and their newspapers were calling for open violence against the strikes, laying the groundwork for the brutal crushing of organized labor many employers hoped they could achieve thanks to the war.

Unfortunately for the miners, labor solidarity was not strong in Butte. The other unions quickly accepted everything they asked from their own employers except recognition of the miners’ union. The miners were isolated. The owners offered the workers, but not the union, a small wage gain, weekly pay, and a slight change to the rustling system. Some miners took this deal by the end of July but most stayed out of work.

Coming to the mine soon after the disaster was the IWW organizer Frank Little. Arriving on July 18, Little wanted to turn Butte into a Wobbly stronghold. He gave public speeches in Butte telling the miners to resist the draft and that workers of the world should not kill each other for the benefit of capitalists. On August 1, a mob probably consisting of members of the Butte business elite rounded Little up and lynched him. Interestingly, Little had plenty of warning to leave town and his fellow unionists were urging him to do so, but he refused. Given that Little was already physically broken by this time and also was a true radical, even compared to other Wobblies, it’s entirely plausible that becoming a martyr was something he was prepared to accept.

On August 10, federal troops were sent to Butte to patrol the streets from Wobblies and other agitators. Montana then had a special legislative session where it basically ended free speech in the state. The mine workers finally called off the strike in December, after 90 percent of the miners had already returned to work. The strike caused by the Speculator fire would achieve nothing.

The extreme behavior of employers in Butte during World War I was part of the larger national reaction against unions during this period that this series has examined in Everett, Centralia, Blair Mountain, the arrest of Eugene Debs for violating the Espionage Act, the crushing of the Boston police strike, and no doubt additional events in the future.

Many of the details of the union organizing campaign in Butte come from Arnon Gutfeld’s 1969 article in Arizona and the West, “The Speculator Disaster in 1917: Labor Resurgence in Butte, Montana.”

This is the 180th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Can We Control Imports Based Upon Labor Standards in Production? Yes.

[ 8 ] June 6, 2016 |


There’s no good argument to be made that the United States can’t get a handle on the global exploitation of labor by placing bans on products made under certain conditions or from nations and companies that don’t open their factories to international inspectors. You can argument whether we should or the details about how such a program would work, but there’s no real argument that we can’t do it. That’s because we already do it.

Imports of the sugar substitute stevia, both extracts and derivatives, produced by PureCircle Ltd. in China will be detained at all U.S. ports of entry, after Customs and Border Protection announced June 1 that those products are made with the use of convict labor.

Customs Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said companies must examine their supply chains “to understand product sourcing and the labor used to generate their products.” He said the agency “is committed to ensuring U.S. values outweigh economic expediency and as part of its trade enforcement responsibilities, will work to ensure products made with forced labor do not cross our borders.”

Producers use the leaves of the stevia plant to produce a sugar substitute.

U.S. law requires Customs to block imports that are made in whole or part by forced labor, including convict labor, indentured labor and forced child labor.

This is a result of the recent bill closing the loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act that allowed prison labor to make products if the products could not be acquired in any other way. China and American companies had blown that loophole wide open and now it is closed. If we care about labor standards overseas, if we don’t want 1100 workers to die when their factory collapses upon them, if we don’t want children to be exposed to massive pollution at school from clothing produced for the American market, etc., we can make the choice to stop it. We simply don’t make that choice. We don’t even have a national conversation around it. Closing the prison labor loophole and banning products made by convicts is not the end of creating international labor standards that provide workers dignity. It’s just the very beginning.

Today in Evil

[ 211 ] June 2, 2016 |


Fortune magazine has an advice column. It’s very special.

Frank has been with us for more than 20 years. He works in the warehouse and has done a good job for us. I like him. But, to be honest, for the work he performs I could easily replace him someone younger and… cheaper. Would it be wrong to let him go?

Um, yes?

No, of course not. Go for it!

And the costs are rising, right? You’re increasing Frank’s salary every year, at least by the cost of living. And that’s not all. You’re contributing to his healthcare and his 401(K). He’s earning more and more vacation each day that he’s working for you. And as he gets older, you’re increasing the risk that he will cost your company more – maybe he gets injured or needs financial assistance because he’s not putting enough away for his retirement. Sure, he’s got experience. He’s proven. He’s a known card. But he’s costing you. And you know you can get the same job done by someone else for less money. I see this with many of my clients, and it’s a complicated issue. Are you a heartless cad if you let this guy go? Doesn’t loyalty count for anything? The guy’s given you 20 years of his life, and you’re just going to cut him loose? You must be some kind of awful person.

Actually, no you’re not an awful person. I am not encouraging that you should discriminate based on your employee’s age. Age discrimination is against the law. However, your job is to make the decisions. The hard decisions that are necessary to grow your business and ensure it as a going concern for years to come. Why? Because you have employees, customers, partners, suppliers and everyone’s family members (including yours) that rely on you and your company for their livelihoods. And their interests should rise above the interest of any one specific person. OK, maybe you don’t have to be so harsh. Maybe you can ease him out over the next two years. Or find another role for him where he could actually be more productive for you (Driving a forklift? Maintenance? Customer service?) as he gets older. But if you’re letting your overhead get too high and your profitability becomes negatively-impacted because you’re unable to make those hard choices, then you’re hurting everyone who depends on you.

I’m not telling you to discriminate against older workers. That would be illegal. I’m just telling you to discriminate against older workers.

Fortune had to walk this back:

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on May 31 at 5:45 p.m. ET to make clear that age discrimination is illegal. We regret that this piece was published without closer scrutiny.


Verizon: Why You Are a Fool if You Don’t Want to Join a Union

[ 32 ] June 2, 2016 |


The Verizon strike is over and it is a landslide victory for the workers and their unions, the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The four-year contracts would give workers a nearly 11 percent increase in pay over all, up from the 6.5 percent increase that Verizon had proposed before the strike, as well as modest ratification bonuses and profit-sharing.

Verizon had long argued that it needed to cut costs and increase its flexibility to manage its work force and preserve the competitiveness of its wireline business, which includes landlines, video and Internet service that run through wires.

Perhaps the most consequential issue at stake in the standoff was Verizon’s ability to outsource work. The previous contracts included a provision requiring that a certain percentage of customer calls originating in a state be answered by workers in that state — ranging from just over 50 percent for some types of calls in some states to more than 80 percent in others. Verizon sought to significantly lower those numbers.

Under the tentative new contracts, a similar percentage of calls must be answered by a unionized worker somewhere in Verizon’s wireline footprint, which runs from Virginia to Massachusetts, rather than the particular state from which the call originates.

Both sides claimed victory in the change.

“We only care that our members somewhere in the footprint are doing the work,” said Robert Master, assistant to the District 1 vice president of the Communications Workers of America. “The push to outsource call center work was rebuffed.”

Lending partial vindication to this claim was a commitment by the company to create over 1,000 unionized call center jobs over the next four years to accommodate new demand from customers. The company also agreed to reduce the number of call center closings.

The company also won the right to offer buyout incentives to employees once a year without first getting the union’s blessing, making it easier to eliminate jobs that the new rule could eventually render obsolete.

Elsewhere, the outcome appeared more one-sided. The unions managed to beat back proposed pension cuts, including a cap on the accrual of pension benefits after 30 years of service.

The company also agreed to withdraw a proposal that would have allowed it to relocate workers for up to two months anywhere in its geographic coverage area, although it had already expressed an openness to withdrawing the proposal before the strike.

Proposals to change seniority rules and to make the company’s sickness and disability policy more strict were also withdrawn, and the company agreed to change a performance review program in New York City that many workers considered abusive.

Significantly, the new contracts also cover some 65 unionized workers at Verizon Wireless stores, signaling the first time that retail wireless workers at the company have been included in a union contract, a potentially important precedent.

This is an incredible contract. The workers win nearly twice as much money as they originally asked for. They force Verizon to cave on all the benefits and the relocation drive that infuriated workers. They make Verizon back down on outsourcing jobs overseas. They force the company to create 1000 new union jobs and allow Verizon stores to become part of the bargaining unit. In return, the workers give up basically nothing. They allow individual workers to take a buy out if they want it. OK. And they open up slightly on who precisely takes a given call, but maintaining that the worker taking it is a union worker. Who cares. They also had to do some givebacks on health care, but these are the compromises that must be made sometimes. Overall, this is an outstanding contract and a gigantic win for workers.

Importantly, the settlement was mediated by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who, once again, has been absolutely fantastic and is my top choice to be Clinton’s Vice-President, far more than Elizabeth Warren, who is perfectly effective in her current job. It’s also important to step back here and remember what would have happened if Verizon workers hadn’t won unions in the past. If that doesn’t happen, their healthcare is far worse, most of those jobs Verizon wants to outsource are already overseas, workers are sure not getting 11 percent raises, the pension is already gone, workers are being forced to relocate if they want a job, etc. This all happened because workers joined a union and went on strike to demand dignity on the job. Clearly, the next step for CWA and IBEW is to start organizing the Verizon stores. Allowing those workers into the bargaining unit is an enormous concession by Verizon. Moreover, employees in the service industry are almost totally unrepresented by unions and breaking into that sector could have transformational effects. Organize!

Speaking of Perez’s DOL, soon to be announced National Labor Relations Board rules declaring graduate student workers is already having an effect.

Graduate student unions on a number of private campuses have for years sought recognition from their universities and federal officials, to little avail. But organizing efforts at Cornell University are moving forward, in the form of an agreement on how to proceed until and if a legal barrier to collective bargaining is reversed.

The development sets Cornell apart from most other elite privates institutions, which have maintained that teaching and research assistants are students — not employees entitled to collective bargaining rights — ahead of a major decision on the issue from the National Labor Relations Board.

“Should current federal labor law change to deem graduate students at private universities employees, we believe the terms of this agreement will assist our graduate assistants as they make their own decisions about whether or not to join the union,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell, said in a statement Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide them with an open environment to make that decision that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

Cornell’s new agreement with its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated graduate student union does not signal voluntary union recognition. So it’s not the kind of decisive agreement that New York University reached with its United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate student union outside of NLRB channels in 2013. Nor does Cornell express neutrality about the campaign, despite union requests that such language be included.

But the new agreement does outline a possible path to Cornell having one of the few graduate student unions among private institutions, and establishes formal communication and election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines, and a dispute resolution mechanism. It offer protections for those involved in union organizing and says that a fair and expeditious election will be held outside of NLRB channels should the board decide that graduate students at private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining — a decision that other institutions have indicated they would fight in court. Cornell would grant “immediate” recognition in the event of a majority vote.

This is huge news as well. Universities are some of the worst anti-union institutions in the country. While many public university faculty and staff have organized in states that aren’t right to leech, private universities have simply refused to even consider it. Breaking down that wall, especially for some of the most exploited people on campus–graduate students–is a major victory for justice. This only happens because of a Democratic administration committed to advancing worker rights, as the Obama administration has largely supported, especially in the second term under the Perez regime at DOL.

For Hamilton Nolan, the lesson is that strikes work and that we should all go on strike when we feel the need to do so.

Strikes work. Strikes have always worked. Strikes still work. Pro-business forces like to deride unions as socialist parasites, but strikes are, in a sense, one of the purest free market actions that workers can take: the refusal to sell labor at a price that is deemed too low. This has the effect of raising the price of labor. Though “Economics 101″ idiots like to pretend that the free market will always magically produce the perfect wage for every job, the reality is that working people—people with less money—are always at a disadvantage when it comes to asserting the leverage necessary to raise their own wages, because they can’t afford to stop working and lose a paycheck. This is the biggest hurdle that strikes have to clear. It’s hard for working people to leave work, demanding better wages and working conditions. It’s a gamble. But it tends to pay off.

As much as workers need wages, businesses need labor even more. The free market has not raised your wages in decades. The government has not raised your wages in decades. You need to raise your own wages. Organize. Then strike. It’s always good to be reminded that it works.

I’m a bit less sanguine about this. After all, there certainly have been disastrous strikes. But he’s mostly right. If workers stand up and act upon their demands, their chances of living a dignified life are much higher.

For me, the real lesson is that if you don’t support joining a union, you are a fool because you are only hurting yourself. Almost all of us should have unions. Even if you are a faculty member or public employee in the South and live in a right-to-work state, you should still have a union because it will serve as an organized voice and point of power, even if you can’t win a contract. I know, because I helped one get off the ground. Entry-level lawyers at big law firms should have unions. Workers at every private factory or establishment should have unions. Starbucks and McDonald’s workers should have unions. We should all have unions. Organizing like the Verizon workers is not a throwback to the past. It should be an entryway into the future.

This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1924

[ 46 ] June 2, 2016 |


On June 2, 1924, a constitutional amendment to ban child labor passed the Senate and was sent out to the states for ratification. Unfortunately, the states never ratified it, although they still could today.

The fight against child labor had been a major part of both the struggle of organized labor and of middle-class reformers for decades. For unionists, they not only saw child labor as degrading to children, but also as undermining the wages of working class. Get rid of the children, they argued, and you eliminate a major source of competition driving wages down. The wages would rise and children could go to school instead of working. For Progressives like Florence Kelley and Lewis Hine, child labor was a horror of American society, contributing to long-term poverty and social unrest that hurt the entire nation. Kelley’s Consumers’ League, as well as the National Child Labor Committee, lobbied Americans, especially middle-class women, to fight against the scourge of child labor through the early twentieth century, first focusing on the state level and then moving into the realm of national politics.

On the other hand, many working families, especially in the South, relied on child labor. But they had little political power. The real opposition came from corporations, especially the textile industry, which relied heavily on children in their mills and which had moved from the northeast to the South during these years in order to take advantage of states that had not passed child labor laws. It was in southern mills where Hine took many of his most powerful images of child labor. The need for a constitutional amendment became apparent when the conservative Supreme Court overturned federal legislation regulating child labor in 1918 and again in 1922. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act, which the National Child Labor Committee had lobbied for, overwhelmingly passed Congress and was signed by President Wilson. In 1918, the 1918 Supreme Court overturned it in Hammer v. Dagenhart, deciding that Congress had no authority to regulate products made by children. For anti-child labor activists, the only remaining strategy was a constitutional amendment.

On April 26, 1924, the child labor amendment passed the House of Representatives and on June 2, the Senate. The text was simple:

Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress

Given the relatively easy passage of the amendment through Congress, the failure of it to gain traction at the state level was striking. Between 1924 and 1932, a resounding 6 states ratified it and 32 state legislatures had voted it down. It was seen as a dead letter. Employers rallied to oppose it. Comparing child laborers to Civil War soldiers, Manufactures Record noted that 850,000 soldiers under the age of 18 had fought in the war and opined, “If they were old enough to fight for their country, they ought to be old enough to regulate the matter of their own employment.” The same editorial added a new twist to this old freedom of contract canard: redbaiting. Passing the amendment,

would mean the destruction of manhood and womanhood through the destruction of boys and girls in this country. The proposed amendment is fathered by Socialists, Communists and Bolshevists…aimed to nationalize the children of the land and bring about in this country the exact conditions that prevail in Russia. If adopted, the amendment would be the greatest thing ever done in America in behalf of the activities of hell. It will make millions of young people under eighteen years of age idlers in brain and body, and thus make them the devil’s best workshop.

I wonder if the person who wrote this had to smoke a cigarette and then shower after that rant.

This sort of pressure, coordinated by the National Association of Manufacturers, is why so few states jumped on board the amendment. But in 1933, it received a jolt of life, thanks to the Great Depression and the overwhelming victories of the Roosevelt administration and reformers at the state level in 1932. Child labor was still a major problem in many states in 1933. In 1933, 12 more states passed it, 10 of which had previously rejected it. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration decided to get behind it directly as a way to build on the National Recovery Administration’s goals to reduce competition and stabilize the economy. The NRA had prohibited labor for anyone under the age of 16, at a time when only 4 states had a similar law on the books. FDR stated in a letter to the Massachusetts League of Women Voters:

Of course, I am in favor of the child labor amendment. A step in the right direction was achieved by demonstrating the simplicity of its application to industry under the N. R. A. Those connected with industries which had, been the worst violators were the first to see the wisdom of the step. It is my opinion that the matter hardly requires further academic discussion. The right path has been definitely shown.

But momentum was fleeting. 4 more states ratified in 1935 and another 4 in 1937. Kansas was the 28th and last on February 25, 1937. Overcoming intransigent or indifferent state legislatures was just too much, as it often is with constitutional amendments.

The child labor amendment would fail, but eliminating child labor was still a leading goal of the Roosevelt administration. It was incorporated into the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which covered most industries, but not agriculture, where child labor remains an issue until the present. Interestingly, Congress did not set a time frame on the amendment. Thus, it theoretically still could be ratified today. Ten more states would need to ratify it. Perhaps even more interestingly, this issue led to its own Supreme Court decision, with the Court ruling in Coleman v. Miller in 1939 that if Congress doesn’t set an end date for an amendment sent to the states, there is no end date. This actually led to the ratification of the 27th Amendment, which 7 states ratified between 1789 and 1792, Ohio ratified in 1873, and no other states ratified until 1978.

The good quotes in this post are borrowed by Chaim Rosenberg, Child Labor in America: A History.

This is the 179th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889

[ 18 ] May 31, 2016 |


On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam, on the land of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed during a heavy rainstorm. Over 2200 people died in the one of the worst disaster in American history. The Johnstown Flood is not only a horrible disaster but deeply reflective of class divisions during the Gilded Age and the complete lack of legal or moral responsibility the wealthy had toward the working class.

In 1840, the South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town of Johnstown, in order to stop the floods that frequently hit the mountainous area. Over time, the canal system that had spurred the original construction fell into disuse. The land where the dam was located was purchased by the steel capitalist Henry Clay Frick and a group of speculators, many of whom were connected to Carnegie Steel, for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. For convenience sake, Frick had the dam lowered in order to build a road across it and built a screen that built up debris behind it. The club opened in 1881. The dam frequently sprung leaks and was only patched with mud. People in Johnstown were concerned about the long-term stability of the dam but Frick and his friends did nothing. By 1889, the club had 61 members. They included Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon. This was the peak of the Gilded Age elite. Mellon of course would have a very long career, serving as the staunchly conservative Secretary of the Treasury under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. His policies contributed significantly to the development of the Great Depression.

By 1889, Johnstown was a big steel town of about 30,000 people. Like many Pennsylvania cities, it’s existence was largely based around the industry. The Cambria Iron Company began in Johnstown in 1852. The company was one of the nation’s most important early blast furnace steel works. By 1858, the company was the nation’s largest producer of rails for railroads and Johnstown grew rapidly. Like the rest of the region’s steel mill towns, after 1880, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured into Johnstown to take these incredibly difficult, hot, and deadly jobs in an industry with terrible working conditions. By 1889, the national importance of Johnstown was diminishing, as bigger cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland established much larger steel works and had access to significantly larger labor forces, but Cambria Iron Works was still a major industry player. The company controlled nearly everything in the town, from churches to libraries. It also did not allow for labor unions. Like other steel towns, the labor force frequently organized over these terrible conditions. After the Panic of 1873 began, the company began laying off workers, lowering wages, and paying workers in company store credit rather than cash. Workers responded by organizing a union called the Miners National Association. 400 workers joined. The company refused to recognize it. The company then simply shut down operations rather than deal with organized workers. The union quickly collapsed and the company hired everyone back on the condition that they sign a contract pledging never to join a union. The company received glorious praise from The New York Times, among other national publications, for taking such a strong stance against unions. By 1889, the Cambria Iron Works remained union free.

In late May 1889, a powerful storm began to develop over Nebraska and Kansas. It moved east and dumped rain on the mountains of Pennsylvania on the evening of May 30. The next morning, the lake behind the dam had risen precipitously. Johnstown began to flood. In some parts of town, the water rose to as high as 10 feet, trapping some people in their houses. But things got tremendously worse in the fourteen miles the water rushed downstream. Towns on the way were blown away, with 314 dead in the iron town of Woodvale.

When the dam collapsed, there was no way to let the people of Johnstown know in time to escape. The water behind the dam rushed forward at 40 miles an hour, wiping away everything in its path. It just completely wiped out the city. A total of 2209 died, one of the two largest single losses of life in American disasters to that date. 99 entire families were wiped out. The event received immediate national media coverage and relief poured into the city, starting with Clara Barton and quickly becoming a national effort. The Cambria Iron Works was relatively untouched by the flood and its steel production continued almost unabated.

Newspapers attacked Frick and the club members after the flood. The Chicago Herald ran an editorial titled, “Manslaughter or Murder.” It soon became obvious that the dam collapse was the direct responsibility of the club members, both for not maintaining it and for modifying it for their own pleasure, indifferent to the thousands of people below the dam. The club members offered a bit of relief to put themselves in a positive light. Andrew Carnegie donated $10,000. Henry Clay Frick had the club give some blankets.

After the flood, the survivors wanted compensation. But the laws of the Gilded Age allowed the rich to essentially do whatever they want. They could kill their own workers through terrible workplace safety conditions and the courts would find in favor of the companies. They could destroy farmland through the erosion or flooding they caused and the farmers would lose their suits in the name of progress. Given that Frick and the club leaders had adjusted the dam for their own convenience and didn’t maintain the dam effectively. The hunting club hired the preeminent law firm of Knox and Reed to defend them. Both men were club members and Pennsylvania elites; Philander Knox would go on to be Secretary of State in the administration of William Howard Taft. The lawsuits from the survivors were easily fended off by Knox and Reed. The survivors received nothing; Frick and his friends continued as if nothing happened. For them, nothing really had happened. The people of Johnstown didn’t matter.

Henry Clay Frick went on a few years later to manage the busting of the union at Homestead in 1892, becoming the most hated man in America.

This is the 178th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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