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Tag: "labor"

Quality Reviewing

[ 12 ] May 4, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1965

[ 45 ] May 3, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verizon Strike

[ 28 ] May 2, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality for Garment Workers

[ 25 ] April 27, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day In Labor History: April 27, 1944

[ 30 ] April 27, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEIU and Airbnb

[ 100 ] April 19, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On-Call Shifts

[ 49 ] April 17, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Austerity and sustainability are antithetical concepts”

[ 12 ] April 16, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure the Big Companies on Conditions in Their Supply Chains

[ 5 ] April 16, 2016 |

energetic-tf-temp-wkr_0

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

Oppose Union Exemptions to the $15 Minimum Wage

[ 13 ] April 14, 2016 |

Head in Hands

I discussed this request of unions for minimum wage exemptions some last spring, but the issue hasn’t gone away:

Los Angeles city council will hear a proposal on Tuesday to exempt union members from a $15 an hour minimum wage that the unions themselves have spent years fighting for.

The proposal for the exemption was first introduced last year, after the Los Angeles city council passed a bill that would see the city’s minimum wage increase to $15 by 2020. After drawing criticism last year, the proposed amendment was put on hold but is now up for consideration once again.

Union leaders argue the amendment would give businesses and unions the freedom to negotiate better agreements, which might include lower wages but could make up the difference in other benefits such as healthcare. They argue that such exemptions might make businesses more open to unionization.

Because the California governor, Jerry Brown, signed a law raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, workers who are part of the union would see their wages increase eventually – potentially two years later than those who are not part of union.

I recently laid out a sort of moral compass for people on the left supporting union positions. Fundamentally, the question is whether organized labor supports a position that leads to greater human justice. Usually, it does. Sometimes, it does not. This is an example of the latter. Yes, the $15 minimum wage does create some inconveniences for some low-wage worker unions like UFCW and UNITE-HERE because they have negotiated agreements with sub-$15 wages but with other benefits. Raising everyone to $15 means a shrinkage or elimination of promotional differentials, for instance.

But organized labor simply cannot support a position that undermines its own membership. The argument that businesses might be more favorable to unionization if they can pay union workers lower pages is, to say the least, is wrongheaded. First, no they won’t, because unions are about power on the job as much as about money for members. Second, why would people join unions if they are going to make less money? Sure, you could explain the benefits, voice on the job, etc., but no one will join a union if they will make less money than non-union workers. It’s insane to think otherwise.

There is no good reason for organized labor to support exemptions to the $15 minimum wage. It makes them look incompetent and foolish.

This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1865

[ 58 ] April 14, 2016 |

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This post should have gone up on April 9, but sometimes, a professor can become so convinced of a piece of trivia like a date that said professor doesn’t actually look it up and then finds out it is wrong. Speaking of a friend of course.

On April 9, 1865, the traitor Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to U.S. general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. But while this might have ended the war, the slave labor system the Confederates committed treason to defend was already crumbling. That’s because the slaves, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward A History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, had already committed a general strike by walking away from the plantations. That general strike is the subject of this post.

Slaves wanted freedom from the moment they were enslaved. Whether committing suicide on the slave ships by jumping into the ocean, engaging in open rebellions like Nat Turner or the Stono Rebellion, running away, or just dreaming of a free life, slaves always wanted freedom from the hell of their lives. They took any change to get it. During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, thousands of slaves fled to British lines because of the promise of freedom. Many thousands more would have fled if they could have reached the British.

The Civil War provided another opportunity for that long-cherished freedom. As soon as U.S. troops marched south, slaves began fleeing to their lines. This most famously became an issue for the American armies to deal with when three slaves reached Fort Monroe, Virginia, which was controlled by the U.S. and where General Benjamin Butler was in charge. When the owner came back and demanded the slaves back (by the way, the sheer temerity of Confederates to complain that the U.S. was violating the Fugitive Slave Act, as they did throughout the war, is amazing), Butler refused, classifying the slaves as contraband, although he never used the word. This received the approval of Republicans in Washington, who soon passed the Confiscation Act, which stated that if the Confederacy recognized slaves as property, that the United States had the right to confiscate that property in order to win the war.

But really, even without the Confiscation Act, slaves were going to take matters into their own hands anyway. Slaves like Robert Smalls would take enormous risks for freedom, in his case stealing a boat in the Charleston harbor while dressed as a Confederate ship captain, then picking up the families of the men with him who were at a waiting point, then fleeing north until they ran into an American ship. Smalls became famous for his bravery. Many fled to McClellan’s armies in the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. Planters quickly realized the danger and attempted to move slaves into the Confederate interior, especially western states like Texas and Arkansas. Perhaps most importantly, the slaves forced American officials and the Lincoln government to take the question of slavery seriously. Much to abolitionists’ frustration, Lincoln did not use the outbreak of war to end slavery. Union was his more important issue. But the slaves self-emancipating changed that. Faced with a fait accompli that slaves were going to flee on their own, Lincoln moved toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. I do think that Lincoln would have eventually done such a thing anyway, but certainly not in the fall of 1862. Slaves’ desire to flee slavery and then fight for the United States was an overwhelming argument for Lincoln and it shows how slave agency is absolutely central to our understanding of the decline of slave labor as an American institution.

Often, they completely overwhelmed northern armies that were marching in the South. That was especially true of that of William Tecumseh Sherman marching through Georgia and South Carolina. These slaves were often very poor and in terrible health. With the Confederacy going hungry by 1864 generally, slaves were getting less food than ever. But their sheer determination to win their freedom moved Sherman, who was no racial radical. These people were truly starving. Later they remembered scouring the ground to find nuts, roots, or wild greens to get something in their stomachs. Sherman marching through Georgia actually made slaves more hungry, but it also gave them the opportunity to win their freedom. Thousands of refugees were following Sherman’s armies by the time he got to Savannah in December 1864. That doesn’t mean that the officers wanted them. Some embraced the self-freed slaves, others wanted rid of them by any means necessary, but the now freed people were going to do whatever it took for obtain and keep that freedom.

Many of these slaves wanted to join the American military and seek to then fight for their own freedom and that of their loved ones. For example, John Boston fled from the plantation where he was a slavery in Maryland in 1862. He joined the military and later he was able to write to his wife, still stuck in slavery. He wrote, “My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take to let you know Whare I am i am in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day I can Address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare freedom Will rain in spite of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from all the Slavers.”

This is the promise of freedom. This is how African-Americans self-emancipated. They simply walked away. When Confederate power faded, as it did with the arrival of American armies near plantations where male authority was waning as the war went on because of military service, they took their lives into the own hands. They effectively stopped growing cotton and rice, stopped working in the house, stopped supporting the plantation system. They followed the American army to freedom. They wanted more–primarily land, education, and eventually, the vote. Most of that would be temporary or denied or granted and then repealed in the case of Sherman’s Special Order No. 15 that gave slaves 160 acres of confiscated plantation lands between Charleston and the Florida border. The promises of emancipation would not be fully implemented. But whatever happened, slavery was dead. And it was dead in no small part because the slaves themselves decided they wouldn’t be slaves any longer.

And, not surprisingly, the now-freed slaves joyously rubbed their freedom in their masters’ faces when they could. The brilliant letter from ex-slave Jourdon Anderson to his ex-master Col. P.H. Anderson when the latter wrote to ask him to come back to work on the plantation after the war is the best way to conclude:

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

This is the 175th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Uber, An Employer

[ 52 ] April 12, 2016 |

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Uber and Lyft run their whole model on assuming their “employees” are independent contractors, meaning that the companies get to rake in the profit without assuming most of the risks and costs of the operation. This is of course dubious and hopefully the courts will find in this way. Alex Rosenblat sums up her research on whether Uber is in fact an employer:

Last year, my colleague Luke Stark at NYU and I spent nine months studying how U.S. Uber drivers interact with the platform. We analyzed online driver forums, where tens of thousands of drivers share advice and compares notes on their experiences and challenges with the Uber system. We also conducted in-depth interviews with seven drivers to explore worker experiences of the on-demand economy.

We found that through Uber’s app design and deployment, the company produces what many reasonable observers would define as a managed labor force. Drivers have the freedom to log in or log out of work at will, but once they’re online, their activities on the platform are heavily monitored. The platform redistributes management functions to semiautomated and algorithmic systems, as well as to consumers.

Algorithmic management, however, can create a deal of ambiguity around what is expected of workers — and who is really in charge. Uber’s neutral branding as an intermediary between supply (drivers) and demand (passengers) belies the important employment structures and hierarchies that emerge through its software platform.

Uber sets the rates. Uber has full power to unilaterally set and change the fares passengers pay, the rates that drivers are paid, and the commission Uber takes. While Uber’s contract with its “partners” outlines (section 4.1) that the fare Uber sets is a “recommended” amount (drivers technically have the right to charge less, but not more, than the pre-arranged fare), there is no way for drivers to actually negotiate the fare within the Uber driver app.

Uber sets the performance targets. Uber’s three main performance metrics are the driver’s rating, how many rides the driver accepts, and how many times they cancel a ride. Generally, Uber requires drivers to maintain a high ride acceptance rate, such as 80% or 90%, and a low cancellation rate, such as 5% in San Francisco (as of July 2015), or they risk deactivation (temporary suspension or permanent firing) from the platform.

Uber’s system enforces blind acceptance of passengers, as drivers are not shown the passenger’s destination or how much they could earn on the fare. While this could deter destination-based discrimination, and Uber markets this as a feature of its system, whenever Uber drivers accept a ride, they effectively take a financial risk that the ride will only cost the “minimum fare,” an amount that varies by city. In Savannah, Georgia, for example, the minimum fare is $5 for uberX, which drivers perceive as unprofitable, because Uber takes a $1.60 booking fee (formerly a “safe rides” fee) off the top, plus their commission of at least 20% on the remaining $3.40. That leaves the driver with $2.72, not accounting for any of their expenses, such as gas.

There are also sections on how Uber acts as management and plays a major role in “suggesting” drivers’ schedules. The conclusion:

In many ways, automation can obscure the role of management, but as our research illustrates, algorithmic management cannot be conflated with worker autonomy. Uber’s model clearly raises new challenges for companies that aim to produce scalable, standardized services for consumers through the automation of worker-employer relationships.

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