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Tag: "labor"

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1933

[ 22 ] March 4, 2016 |

On March 4, 1933, the newly inaugurated president Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. This first female cabinet member in American history (the second wouldn’t come until the Carter Eisenhower administration), Perkins was a remarkable figure who dedicated her life to improving the lives of working Americans.

Born in 1880, Perkins attended college at Mount Holyoke and became a prototypical Progressive reformer, upper-middle class, well-educated, and seeking to do well in a world that often blocked educated women from both marriage and work. Building on the legacies of older pioneering Progressive women like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, Perkins worked in the settlement house movement after graduating from Mount Holyoke. While there, in 1902, she was involved in founding a chapter of the National Consumers League. They invited NCL founder Florence Kelley to speak and this experience changed Perkins’ life. She graduated from college in 1902 and moved to Chicago to teach at a girls’ school against her family’s wishes. There she volunteered at Hull House and Chicago Commons, gaining experience in fighting for the working class that would mark her life. In 1907, she took a job in Philadelphia with an organization dedicated to stopping newly arrived immigrants to the city from ending up in prostitution, while also studying as a graduate student in the Wharton School. She then moved to New York to complete a master’s degree at Columbia on childhood malnutrition. In 1910, she became the Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, where she lobbied for all sorts of reforms to American working class exploitation.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins happened to be in the vicinity of the Triangle Fire. She ran over to the site of the fire and watched 146 people die to make clothing she may have been wearing. Already committed to improving workers’ lives, she became a national leader in fighting to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again. She became Executive Secretary of the Citizens’ Committee on Safety. There she led an investigation into workplace and fire safety, connecting it to the larger exploitation of workers’ lives. She convinced Al Smith and other leading New York politicians to enter the workplaces themselves, leading to major changes as they were shocked with what they discovered. New York City cleaned up its fire building codes, prohibited smoking in factories, and required new fire suppression techniques and technologies. Al Smith and Robert Wagner took Perkins’ suggestion to create the Factory Investigative Commission that led to the passage of 15 new bills by 1915 to make workplaces safer. This made Perkins a national leader on labor reform. Perkins became a close ally of Al Smith and was his leading labor advisor while governor of New York. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became governor after Smith, he named Perkins state Industrial Commissioner that oversaw the state’s labor department and the two of them worked together to fight against the deepening Great Depression.


When Roosevelt named Perkins Secretary of Labor it was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that she was a woman, an unprecedented step (I don’t believe a woman had even been considered for a Cabinet position before this). She also wasn’t a union member. Most people who had held the job of Secretary of Labor had been unionists, and with the Democratic Party far closer to organized labor than Republicans, this was expected. She had a strong agenda for what she wanted to see the Democrats do while she was in the Cabinet–create a 40-hour workweek, federal unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, the abolition of child labor, federal employment of the unemployed, and national health insurance. She would be centrally involved in getting much of this passed. She brought a young Harry Hopkins from New York to help with the federal employment programs, particularly the Federal Employee Relief Administration, which he headed.

Perkins’ primary role as Secretary of Labor for FDR was helping to write much of his key legislation to benefit the millions of impoverished Americans in the Great Depression. This included the Social Security Act of 1935. She also chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security, which oversaw all the New Deal’s economic legislation goals. She refused to deport the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union head Harry Bridges in 1939, angering congressional conservatives, but she faced no real pressure to step down. She famously called General Motors head Alfred Sloan in the middle of the night once, yelling at him for not settling with the United Auto Workers. She said, “You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men. You’ll go to hell when you die.”

Perkins and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only cabinet members to serve all 12 years of Roosevelt’s administration, although Henry Wallace served the administration as Agriculture Secretary, Vice-President, and Commerce Secretary during the entirety of the administration as well. She stepped down in June 1945. She then wrote a biography of FDR that was published in 1946. Truman named her to the United States Civil Service Commission in 1946. She worked in that role until 1953, when she became a lecturer at the new Cornell School of Industrial Relations. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

This is the 172nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


Free Trade and Union Busting in Morocco

[ 3 ] February 24, 2016 |


I’ve still never seen a free trade agreement that didn’t crush unions on both sides of the agreement:

 About 500 fishing cannery workers are in crisis in the Moroccan city of Agadir, according to the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which is campaigning on the workers’ behalf. The workers, most of them women, have since last March been struggling to hold onto their jobs in the face of a vicious union busting scheme by a prominent food processing corporation, DOHA, which exports tinned fish and other delicacies to North America and Europe. The union reports that the management, “with the help of compliant legal and political authorities, has sought to dissolve the union, dismiss its members, criminalize and punish the strikers and confiscate the union leaders’ home.”

The management, according to labor activists, targeted the union representing the cannery workers, the left-leaning Confédération Démocratique du Travail, early last March, dismissing 51 employees, 45 of them women, about half of them union members. The action prompted about 500 workers to go on strike. Nearly a year later, the workers are still waging a legal battle to challenge the mass firings. The company, meanwhile (which has not yet responded to inquiries), has put the union on the defensive by suing for €280,000 in “punitive damages.” Since the union leader, Rahmoun Abdellah, could not afford the penalty, “the court ordered ‘precautionary confiscation’ of his apartment,” reports the IUF. The union confirmed by e-mail on Sunday that the the management has used “strikebreakers” to replace the regular workers, though the litigation is still pending. (Moroccan law allows employers to seek a court injunction against strikers found to be unduly interfering with business, but the union argues DOHA acted illegally.)

The conflict appears to fit a pattern of labor conflict both within Morocco and across the global seafood industry. The IUF’s fishing industry campaigns have faced massive challenges in protecting workers at large multinational processors like Philips and Philippines seafood exporter Citra Mina, which have been accused of abetting or committing abuses across the supply chain, including suppressing organizing efforts, safety violations, precarious employment, mass firings, and “slave like” conditions on fishing boats.

What’s at the core of these problems:

 The apparently weak labor protections suggest the limitations of the civil society movements that blossomed in the Arab Spring, as well as the failed promises of trade liberalization as a modernizing force in North Africa. The Morocco-US free trade deal, enacted in 2006, aimed to usher in bilateral trade and “development,” but persistent reports of labor conflicts and union suppression suggest that as long as economic exploitation remains endemic to the neoliberal economic structure, transnational commerce likely won’t encourage meaningful social reform but, rather, reinforce existing hierarchies.

Though Morocco is considered a relatively stable country within the region, the labor movement, similar to Tunisia and Egypt’s unions, has had an uneasy relationship with the state since the season of protests, sit-ins, and strikes in 2011. Buketov notes that the DOHA union is one of several new labor organizations that “were inspired and formed during the Arab Spring.” Shortly after protests erupted, Morocco’s soft-authoritarian government looked to tamp down the unrest by inaugurating “social dialogue” with civil society, opening a path to significant, if modest, reforms in the government sector and soon, the recognition of new independent unions.

But five years after the initial burst of activism, Buketov adds, “the situation is changing, the authorities decided unions have too much power and are moving on union rights.” It’s an unfortunate political reversal. According to University of Tennessee professor Matt Buehler, “Even though Morocco’s monarchy retained firm control of the country throughout 2011, Moroccan trade unionists used instability from the uprisings to drive change in domestic politics.” As the historical opposition force, the labor movement mobilized to push through important longstanding labor demands for members. When the government feared mass upheaval, talks with militant public sector unions resulted in significant wage hikes, promotions and pension increases. For Moroccan civil society as a whole, Buehler argues, “union mobilization provided an opportunity for two traditionally antagonistic opposition groups—Islamists and leftists—to ally to pursue similar goals and reward their predominantly middle class supporters.” (He underscores that in contrast with the mediagenic images of “Twitter revolution” led by youngsters seeking bourgeois social liberties, the political momentum was more organic, rooted in working-class “economic discontent and inequality.”)

Obviously the free trade agreement is far from the only issue here, but it clearly contributes to the lack of power the Moroccan labor movement has in that nation. If anyone has any evidence of a free trade agreement actually helping unions anywhere, I’d love to know it.

For something a bit more uplifting:

Wage Theft at the Super Bowl

[ 22 ] February 24, 2016 |

The plaintiff in a case against Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara charging widespread wage theft and other labor law violations writes about it:

I worked for Centerplate at Levi’s Stadium during four games, including the Super Bowl. My post was inside the Yahoo Fantasy Football Lounge, one of the stadium’s ten “premium club areas.” As I wrote in Slate — in a story reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund — I was often not given rest breaks, even during shifts that exceeded twelve hours. And on the day of the Super Bowl, Centerplate failed to pay employees for the time they spent waiting in line for — and traveling on — employee shuttles to and from the stadium. Those hours added up: of my seventeen-hour shift, five of them were spent waiting or in transit. According to California law, these hours should have been on the clock.

For many workers, wage theft is routine. In 2009, a study by three organizations — the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the National Employment Law Project, and the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development — found that low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lost more than $56 million per week due to various forms of wage theft and other forms of labor violations. Last October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that makes it easier for workers to recover back wages, including a provision that holds individual executives, and not just the corporate body, accountable for unpaid wages. Along with Centerplate, the lawsuit names Chris Verros, the company’s President and CEO, along with several other executives.

For now, I am the named plaintiff in the lawsuit. (I kept good records.) When I received my paycheck for the Super Bowl, I found that the company paid me at the overtime rate — time and a half — for all hours that I was on the clock. That was a pleasant surprise. But I, and likely many other workers, was still significantly shortchanged. Had I been paid at my regular rate of $12.25 an hour for all the hours that I worked, including overtime and double-overtime for work after twelve hours, my paycheck would have been 70 dollars greater. (In my original investigation for Slate, when calculating wages owed, I had forgotten to factor in these higher rates.)

Looking back at the Super Bowl, what strikes me is the extraordinary amount of attention that was given to topics like the quality of the turf at Levi’s Stadium, and how little consideration was given to the thousands of workers who made the event possible and who, at the very least, should get what they’re owed.

This is of course because nobody cares about people who serve them beers and soda unless they mistakenly given them Diet Coke instead of regular Coke. Those are expendable people in a society that marginalizes workers. Moreover, this is just part and parcel of the NFL’s treatment of workers that ranges from unpaid cheerleaders to downplaying head injuries among players to forcing players to spend their own money to register for tryouts.

Here’s the original article referenced in the quote, also well worth reading for more detail about what was going on behind the scenes at the Super Bowl.

Is the Wildcat Strike Back?

[ 5 ] February 19, 2016 |


Probably not in any meaningful way, but it’s interesting to see groups of workers taking these actions:

Longshoreman at the New York and New Jersey ports launched a classic wildcat strike on Friday, January 29, catching the Port Authority, the Shipping Association and their own International Longshoremen Association totally unaware. The strike, which cost businesses that rely on the ports to ship goods in and out of the country hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few short hours, was apparently in protest of a government agency, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, imposing new job requirements on top of and outside the bounds of the longshoremen’s collective bargaining agreement.

The walkout seems to have been a genuinely spontaneous action, sparked and spread within a few short minutes and over by nightfall. Industry observers are still scratching their heads at what it all meant, and whether it will happen again.

The following Monday, NYC-based drivers for the controversial “rideshare” app, Uber, began a 24-hour work stoppage and staged a rally outside of the company’s local headquarters. The tech firm is notorious for its questionable legal practices of treating its employees as “independent contractors” and often operating outside of taxi and limousine regulations in order to undercut traditional yellow cabs and car services. Drivers struck in protest of a 15% reduction in Uber’s fares, a cost that they alone must absorb.

While planned at least a day or two in advance, this wildcat strike was organized by an informal network calling themselves “Uber Drivers United,” according to the homemade fliers they handed out (although some coordination with the Taxi Workers Alliance has been noted). Uber was designed by its Silicon Valley founders to “disrupt” traditional work rules and regulation and to definitely be union free. The strikers are not demanding union recognition in the modern sense, but simply demanding a rollback of the wage cut.

While the smug business press scoffs (Fast Company said of the strike, “The irony, of course, is that by taking a slew of drivers off the road, the strike actually serves as a good opportunity for other drivers to profit from surge pricing, the fare increase that Uber imposes when demand is high”), the protests could spread to other cities.

Earlier in January, a faction of Detroit schoolteachers led by former Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) president Steve Conn staged a wildcat sickout over the abhorrent physical conditions of the school buildings that forced 64 out of 97 schools to close. Conn’s group is exactly the sort of alternative competitive union that I have predicted will become the norm if unions embrace non-exclusive members-only organizing.

Like most everything with isolated worker actions, we need to be very careful with reading anything into them. A few dozen more wildcat strikes and maybe there is something interesting going on here. But some workers will always find ways to fight for better lives and if short walkouts work, then that’s great. Definitely something to keep an eye on at least. Ultimately, we simply can’t know what will spark a new wave of workplace activism. Could be this strike or another or something a few years from now.

Photos from the Flint Sit-Down Strike

[ 3 ] February 19, 2016 |


Here’s a great collection of photos from the Flint Sit-Down Strike, an event that makes the mass poisoning of the Flint water by the state’s governor still only the second most significant thing in the city’s history.

Cracking Down on Slavery in the Global Supply Chain

[ 12 ] February 18, 2016 |


Good for President Obama (and even congressional Republicans!) for passing and singing a bill that closes the 1930 Tariff Act loophole that allowed for slave-produced goods to enter the United States if it was determined that Americans could not acquire those goods in other ways. This was a massive opportunity for companies to use slave labor in their supply chains, one that has been used frequently. That’s especially true in the seafood industry, a topic I have spent a lot of time highlighting here.

President Obama will sign legislation this week that effectively bans American imports of fish caught by forced labor in Southeast Asia, part of a flurry of recent actions by the White House, federal agencies, international trade unions and foreign governments to address lawlessness at sea and to better protect offshore workers and the marine environment.

Last week, the president signed the Port State Measures Agreement, which empowers officials to prohibit foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing from receiving port services and access. The United States became the 20th country to ratify the pact.

In another step, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a plan this month to improve how seafood is tracked from catch to market, imposing new reporting requirements on American importers. Two of the world’s largest trade unions filed a complaint last week with the United Nations’ labor agency about seafood from Thailand produced by so-called sea slaves, and the Thai government said it was installing satellite tracking devices on more fishing ships and requiring more reporting as workers get on or off the vessels.

“Step by step, I do really think we’re making progress, and there is a growing awareness of how much we need to get more control over the world’s oceans and the range of crime that happens out there,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview on Monday. He added that he hoped to build on the momentum in the fall during a global meeting, called Our Oceans, that he will host in Washington.

The amendment that the president has said he will sign this week would close a loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930, which bars products made by convict, forced or indentured labor. For 85 years, the law has exempted goods derived from slavery if American domestic production could not meet demand.

Moreover, American unions are showing the sort of necessary international labor solidarity to improve worldwide labor conditions that I frequently call for:

On Friday, two of the largest labor unions, the International Transport Workers’ Federation and International Trade Union Confederation, filed a complaint at the International Labor Organization, which is part of the United Nations, about the use of forced labor to produce Thai seafood.

“The Thai government has shown a willingness to react, but there are still big gaps in their laws, and even more so in how they enforce them,” said Steve Cotton, the general secretary of the transport union, which represents 4.7 million rail, trucking and maritime workers worldwide.

Mr. Cotton said the next step would be for the United Nations labor organization to send a team to investigate the allegations. The complaint carries more weight because it was sponsored by the trade union confederation, which includes the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and is the world’s largest union, representing 176 million workers.

Pisan Manawapat, the Thai ambassador to the United States, said his government was working hard to address the problems highlighted by The Times, other news organizations and human rights groups. He said his country had made dozens of arrests of trafficking suspects and had installed satellite tracking devices in the last two months on more than 5,300 fishing ships for better monitoring of fish and workers.

This is all very important and incredibly important if we want to see labor conditions improve worldwide. It also demonstrates that in fact the United States has a lot of power to choose the conditions by which it will allow production for imported products. We could expand on this significantly by banning other exploitative conditions of labor, creating a global race to the top if companies want to access the lucrative American market. We have a ton of power here. We just have to use it. That’s of course the problem.

And let’s not underestimate the centrality of slavery in the global economy. See, for example, Brazil:

Brazil’s ministry of labor has fined 340 Brazilian companies for using slave labor, including forced labor and people working in degrading conditions for little or no pay in rural and urban areas, a leading anti-slavery group has said.

A “dirty list” published by the rights group Reporter Brazil this month revealed that 340 Brazilian companies from May 2013 to May 2015 employed people working in slave-like conditions, including in sweatshops producing clothes, in farms, cattle ranches, timber companies, construction and charcoal production.

Leonardo Sakamoto, head of Sao Paulo-based Reporter Brazil, said his organization, which works to expose slave labor, used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the names of companies and individuals that were found to have slave labor by federal labor inspectors in Brazil.

“The companies were fined by the labor ministry and those enslaved were released,” he said.

And while it’s unclear from the story to what extent these goods were being traded internationally or exported to the United States or other wealthy world nations, the point is that they certainly could be unless Brazil chooses to actually enforce its laws on slavery. It did in this case and that’s good. But without legal and financial consequences for companies using slave labor in their supply chains–or looking the other way by not asking questions–there’s not much incentive to not use slaves. The closure of the 1930 loophole makes that a little harder.

Friedrichs and Scalia

[ 12 ] February 17, 2016 |


With Scalia dead, what does this mean for public sector unionism? A couple of takes from people smarter than I. First, Charlotte Garden:

If Abood stands—either because of a 4-4 decision or because a new Justice provides the fifth vote to affirm it—it will not spell the end of challenges to public-sector unions. Cases with the potential to chip away at organized labor will continue to reach the courts in significant numbers no matter what, and they will proliferate if the next justice is a Republican appointee. More important, states may still adopt “right-to-work” laws banning mandatory union fees, as the West Virginia legislature voted to do last week, or to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees altogether. Thus, a favorable decision in Friedrichs will not eliminate contentious fights over union rights—it will just move them to state governments, which increasingly lean Republican.

At the same time, unions may be left in a stronger position for having been through the Friedrichs crucible, assuming they emerge victorious. First, public unions responded to Friedrichs by redoubling their efforts to connect with represented workers, successfully convincing tens of thousands of them to become members. Those gains, and the infrastructure that facilitated them, will presumably remain in place. Second, blue-state lawmakers had already begun rethinking union rights in a post-Friedrichs world. For example, a Hawaii bill would partially fund collective bargaining through the state, while also allowing unions to experiment with charging non-members à la carte for their services. And, California responded to a 2014 Supreme Court decision eliminating fair-share fees for home health-care workers by giving unions the right to make a presentation at new employees’ mandatory orientation. Similar proposals may yet take hold, even if the Friedrichs threat is eliminated. Especially given that robust union representation is associated with higher pay for public employees, then, one indirect consequence of Friedrichs may turn out to be greater disparities in public-sector wages and working conditions among the states.

Second, Moshe Marvit:

Accordingly, labor was scrambling to figure out how best to run a union in a post-Friedrichs world. Meanwhile, conservatives already had a plan in the works to expand what they saw as a certain win.

Last week, in a little-noticed case called D’Agostino v. Baker, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation lost at the First Circuit in their attempt to argue that the First Amendment does not allow exclusive representation of home healthcare workers. This case sought to expand the Harris holding by arguing that the First Amendment prohibits home healthcare unions not only from collecting fees from workers who don’t want to pay, but also from bargaining on behalf of any worker who doesn’t opt to be a member.

Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote the decision for the First Circuit in D’Agnostino, relying heavily on Abood and its progeny. If history is any indication, National Right to Work was planning on appealing this case to the Supreme Court. The case provided a glimpse of what the likely post-Friedrichs plan of attack would have been: After you win on the dues front, go after membership.

In addition, other cases, such as Bain v. CTA, that attacked the membership rights of unions but had been thrown out by lower courts, were likely to reappear.

In short, everything depends on what happens with this vacancy. I suppose it has to be filled someday, but then who knows. In the short term, this is an event that saves public sector unionism for at least a year and possibly for decades. It certainly puts the organized conservative legal attack on unionism generally back a few years. Both sides know what the long-term implications are for this seat, whether for unions, immigrants, abortion, the environment, etc.

This Day in Labor History: February 17, 1992

[ 77 ] February 17, 2016 |

On February 17, 1992, graduate students at Yale University went on strike. This strike, one of the most prominent in the history of organizing graduate students, is a useful window into one of the most important sectors of labor organizing over the last three decades and indicative of the tremendous difficulty in organizing private workplaces in any sector in those same three decades.

Graduate student unionization has long been controversial on college campuses. Are graduate students primarily students or apprentices? The answer should be obvious that all graduate students getting paid for work are workers, but you would be surprised how many liberal faculty members simply cannot accept this idea. Graduate students are not only workers, but particularly vulnerable workers, in spite of their high levels of education. Especially in the sciences, where a lot of funding depends on the relationship with a single professor, students are quite vulnerable. That is especially true of women and the sexual harassment of female students has long influenced support for unionization among graduate student in the sciences.

The first move toward graduate student unionization took place in tumult of the 1960s, as a lot of politically active undergraduates went on to graduate school. Rutgers and CUNY were the first graduate school units to be covered by a collective bargaining contract, as they were covered by faculty contracts. The University of Wisconsin was the first graduate student union to negotiate their own independent contract in 1970. The University of Michigan and University of Oregon soon followed.

At Yale, the struggle would be and still is a much longer struggle. T.A. Solidarity was the original organizing group, founded in 1987. That turned into the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) in 1990. Students began organizing to demand union recognition. Yale administrators rejected this from the beginning, refusing to recognize the union as a bargaining unit for the graduate students. Among the union leaders was Gordon Lafer, today one of the nation’s most respected labor economists and activists.

By the time it went on strike in February 1992, the GESO represented 1300 of Yale’s 2200 graduate students. Its demands were union recognition, a pay raise, a grievance procedure, and the expansion of time granted to complete the Ph.D. The strike was announced for three days . It received significant support from other unions, frustrating Yale administrators who hoped to isolate the strikers. 49 percent of union members at Yale refused to work in solidarity with the striking graduate employees, with much greater support among the maintenance and cafeteria workers (75 percent did not show up for work) than the technical and clerical workers (about 30 percent did not show up). Many faculty were of course opposed.

“They really are among the blessed of the earth,” Prof. Peter Brooks, chairman of the department of comparative literature, said. “So I sometimes feel annoyed at them seeing themselves as exploited.”

Never has an employer seen their workers as exploited and thus worthy of being granted power.


Despite these labor actions, Yale still refused to negotiate with the students. The 1992 strike ended without recognition although the administration did raise the pay of the TAs and provide teacher training, showing how strikes can create real victories for workers even when the union remain unrecognized as a bargaining unit. Strikes continued from time to time, including a 1996 strike that only ended when the administration threatened to fire all the strikers because they did not submit student grades as a bargaining tool, despite an overwhelming vote in favor of unionization among the students. In 2003, another strike took place but in that year, the GESO suffered a big setback as student/workers voted against unionization by a narrow margin, giving the administration much more ammunition in its continued determination to never recognize a graduate student union. But a 2005 strike again resulted in the administration providing a lot what the students wanted, including a pay raise for graduate student teachers and new initiatives on faculty diversity and child care.

Over the years, graduate student unionization has increased significantly at public universities in non-right-to-leech states, including at the University of Rhode Island. But graduate student unionization campaigns at private universities remains almost impossible to win. The only private school with a graduate school union recognized and with a contract is at NYU. 1951 and 1972 court cases ended with National Labor Relations Board rulings prohibiting the National Labor Relations Act from covering private school graduate students because they are primarily students and although that has been loosened with the 2000 NLRB case granting NYU graduate students the ability to organize, difficult barriers remain. In fact, NYU graduate students have struggled mightily with both their administration and the Bush-era NLRB to maintain recognition. In the end, university administrations are some of the best union-busters in the nation. Given the number of self-identified liberals with backgrounds in fields where they study race, class, and gender who are in administrations, it’s sickening to see them turn on treating graduate workers with respect and use the tools of oppression they decry in their own scholarship against exploitable workers, but they do it all the time.

At present, the Yale graduate students are continuing the fight to organize. Now affiliated with UNITE-HERE, major issues include mental health care, fairness in funding, and greater diversity at Yale.

When we think about the labor movement over the last few decades, we often tend to forget about the importance of the academy. Graduate students and, to a lesser extent, faculty, have proven some of the bright spots in American labor and with the collapse of the industrial unions due to capital mobility and the decline of the building trades, public sector workers of all types have risen in importance in the world of organized labor. In the case of schools like Yale, that are not public, major barriers remain to unionization but these campaigns have also developed many important labor scholars and activists, providing key intellectual support for organized labor at large. That in itself is a tremendous benefit of this organizing, even if Yale graduate students remain without recognition today.

This is the 171st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

How Capital Mobility Destroys Lives

[ 109 ] February 15, 2016 |

Now you can watch for yourself, as the furnace manufacturer Carrier announces to its workers that it is going to move 1300 union jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

I challenge every defender of the current system of global trade to speak to these workers directly and tell them why their jobs should go abroad. Supporters of unrestricted globalization are dooming these workers to poverty, to higher alcohol and drug use rates, to higher rates of domestic violence, and to all the social and economic instability that has hollowed out the American working class over the past 40 years. It’s hardly a wonder that white working-class voters are streaming toward Trump. They support his policy positions that they should continue to have jobs. None of the other Republicans support that. By not understanding this at the core of Trump voters, along of course with the racial resentment that is related to it, we can continue scratching our heads at why right and left populism are rising in this country. You can make a case that moving millions of jobs abroad is morally correct because it gives jobs to Mexicans and Bangladeshis. But the problem with that case is that it has massive domestic implications in the nation where you live. We are seeing those implications come to the fore in 2016.

And while you might also say that we should provide these workers with a slightly expanded EITC or better unemployment packages or retraining or a basic minimum income or whatever, the reality is twofold. First, all the jobs disappearing and none of these things are happening. Maybe we should stop moving jobs overseas until we have a real plan for these workers other than bootstrapism. Second, given that so many of these jobs are union jobs, each time a factory closes, unions lose more power which means that workers have less of a voice in politics and thus less ability to fight for some sort of fairer system when the jobs disappear. Instead, corporations fill the power vacuum and buy the political system. We have seen this develop over the last decades and to no small extent, both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns are responses to this. It has caused tremendous domestic instability that elites of both parties don’t want to talk about and neither do apostles of global capitalism on the internet.

Now, I understand that global trade has its benefits, etc. And as I wrote in Out of Sight, what we need is to build toward international labor solidarity by pushing to limit the incentive for capital mobility by establishing laws and standards American companies have to follow no matter where they move so that no matter where factories locate production, the workers there have the right to create a dignified life instead of see their lives ripped out from them when they start moving toward having a middle class. One of the reasons for Carrier to move those jobs to Mexico is that the nation doesn’t have real unions. We know that when Mexican workers fight for independent unions, American employers throw them on the street. Were Mexican workers to unionize, Carrier would probably start looking to move somewhere else again. Is this the world we want for the world’s workers? No, not if you actually care about those workers.

Maquiladora Workers Fight for Justice

[ 22 ] February 12, 2016 |


America’s move to ship production overseas exists to maximize corporate profits by exploiting cheap labor. When that labor stands up to their exploitation, they are simply eliminated, either through violence or through firing. In Juarez, an independent union movement is trying to organize the maquiladoras. The American companies they work for are throwing them on the streets.

Women and men, more than 70 of them, were fired on December 9th from the factory on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Texas border where they made printers for the American company Lexmark. They say they were terminated because they were trying to form an independent union. The company says they were fired because they caused a “workplace disruption.”

Now, the workers protest by occupying a makeshift shack outside the factory, still advocating for a raise and for a union, even though they no longer have jobs. Outside, a spray-painted banner reads “Justicia A La Clase Obrera” meaning “Justice for the Working Class.” Inside, a wood stove burns as they make coffee and cook tortillas and wait for someone to hear what they have to say.

“We are hungry. Our children are hungry,” Blanca Estella Moya, one of the fired workers, tells me. “You cannot live on these wages in Juarez.”

In the Lexmark maquiladora, or factory, Moya made 112 pesos, or roughly six U.S. dollars, a day. Her shifts were nine-and-a-half hours long, her lawyer, Susana Prieto Terrazas, says. That’s about 39 cents an hour. That wage is a legal one in Mexico, but Terrazas argues it shouldn’t be.

“It’s not possible to live on these wages. It’s not human,” said Terrazas, who has dark, curly, dyed-red hair, and was wearing a plaid checkered blouse and jeans. “They are creating generations of slaves.”

It’s not just Lexmark: Workers at Mexican subsidiaries of FoxConn, Eaton, and CommScope in Juarez have all protested working conditions and compensation in recent months. Women tell of sexual harassment at the factories and of working multiple shifts to make ends meet. The devaluation of the peso has meant their money buys less than it once did. The protests come at an inopportune moment for Mexico. Many companies, especially automakers, are moving production to Mexico after deciding that the costs and logistical headaches of manufacturing in Asia are too great to bear. Mexico is trying to welcome them with open arms.

But workers, especially those on the border, aren’t making that easy.

“This is a historic thing that’s happening here. In 50 years, there hasn’t been this level of labor discontent,” says Oscar Martinez, a professor at the University of Arizona who spends time in Juarez and has written numerous books on the border, including Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. “We could be seeing the beginning of a larger movement that spreads to other parts of Mexico and challenges the whole system that has been created for these multinationals.”

I want to give due credit to Lexmark’s American employees as well for showing international solidarity:

Still Terrazas and other advocates say there are a few things that are different this time. Some 700 workers in Juarez joined a “slowdown” at the factory, which Terrazas said prompted the firings and signaled widespread sympathy for the protesters. Workers in El Paso and Lexington, Kentucky, the home of Lexmark, have been staging rallies in solidarity with the Mexican maquiladora workers. The group has received donations and help from as far away as Geneva, and dozens of people across the border in El Paso have been listening and donating, she told me. The donations from abroad have made it possible for the workers to continue to stay outside the factory, despite the freezing temperatures and freezing rain. And other factories in Juarez have given workers small raises in the time the Lexmark workers have been protesting, she says. Even a supervisor who harassed workers has been fired since the workers started protesting, Terrazas said.

That solidarity is helping. And the workers’ actions are making small but real difference, albeit at real personal sacrifice.

But I ask once again why the United States should allow its employers to treat workers this way, no matter where they locate production. Allowing them to fire workers for organizing, pay them extremely low wages, countenance sexual harassment and assault of women on the job, etc, just makes U.S. workplaces move toward the same levels of exploitation, as has slowly been happening since the 1970s. These Mexican workers need basic human rights on the job–the right to not be sexually harassed, the right to a living wage, the right to organize. Labor rights are human rights. But American companies have no interest in either. The question is whether we the public does. Why aren’t we are asking our politicians what they will do to crack down on the exploitation of workers around the world. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership coming up for a vote and with Bernie Sanders in the race, this is a prime time to do this. Yet it is not part of our political conversation at all.

And I once again ask those who defend the shipping of jobs to the lowest wage workers around the world what they would say to these Mexican workers if they were standing in front of them? What is your obligation to support these workers in their fight for justice and living wages? Because you have one.

By Our Hands

[ 1 ] February 11, 2016 |


The AFL-CIO has started its own online magazine based at Medium. Titled In Our Hands, it hopes to feature a few stories of working Americans at a good-looking website. Is it the be all and end of all union educational efforts? No. But it is the type of the thing the federation should be doing. Hopefully it picks up some traction.

Guestworker Exploitation

[ 12 ] February 10, 2016 |


When people talk about the undocumented immigration “problem” outside of Republican debates calling for giant fences to keep out brown people, politicians and pundits often speak of a guestworker program as a way to provide the cheap labor American businesses want without forcing people to cross without papers. There can be a sympathetic piece to this argument because thanks to the militarization of the border, those people are forced into very dangerous situations, including crossing way out in the desert when they can and do die of heat exhaustion and thirst. But the history of these programs is one of rank exploitation, with workers having few rights. That was certainly true in the Bracero Program. And it remains so today, as Michelle Chen explores:

 According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the guestworker labor force provides US employers jobs on the cheap, offering less in wages and virtually nothing in terms of labor rights or benefits.

EPI’s analysis of a decade of data on guestworkers under the H-2B visa program, which pipes immigrants into temporary low-wage service-industry jobs, shows that the visa allows bosses to employ guestworkers at “hourly wage rates that are far lower than state and national averages in the overwhelming majority of cases.” For example, in the most popular H-2B industry, landscaping and groundskeeping, “employers saved on average between $2.59 and $3.37 per hour by hiring an H-2B worker instead of a worker earning the national average wage.”

 This is not the standard protectionist argument about immigrants’ “taking jobs,” it’s about inequality being baked into a contract system that grants legal status in exchange for rights. In a sense, contracted guestworkers are less free than undocumented workers who can at least try to switch employers. As a recent NPR story on agricultural guestworkers points out, despite the dangers of living in the country without papers, undocumented workers at least have relative autonomy (albeit without any legal protections) to try to escape an abusive boss and reenter the underground labor market.

 A civil suit recently brought by a group of Jamaican H-2B guestworkers charges the Kiawah Golf Resorts in South Carolina with systematic wage theft, alleging that the resort violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and never paid the mandated wage set under the program’s guidelines, … in part to various travel costs and fees imposed on the workers as a condition of their employment. Some workers had allegedly been underpaid by as much as $2.20 per hour. They were working as housekeepers, servers, and bell persons for patrons who paid up to $1,000 per night for their lavish service.

Complaining about the system can cost a worker a livelihood and legal status. Shellion Parris, a former H-2B worker from Jamaica, helped launch a federal crackdown when she and coworkers organized an uprising against a Florida staffing agency, charging them with fraud and exploitation after they were denied the hotel housekeeping jobs they were promised and held in squalid conditions. Her hopes of vindication were upturned, however, when her petition for immigration relief foundered, leaving her destitute and stranded abroad after paying thousands. “We were all in debt when we came here,” Parris told The Nation last October. “We’re still in debt.”

These guestworker programs are just too problematic and open for labor exploitation to be part of the solution to immigration and labor problems. Republicans in Congress have of course just expanded the program and lowering the very limited labor protections in the program. Republicans read these stories and think, “yeah, we need a lot more of this, except maybe stopping the workers from filing civil suits. Tort reform!”

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