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This Day in Labor History: November 27, 1937

[ 15 ] November 27, 2016 |


On November 27, 1937, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) debuted its play “Pins and Needles,” which would become the longest running musical of the 1930s. This cultural form of labor feminism at a time when organized labor was dominated by male workers is a vital and important moment both in the cultural history of work but also in the history of women and work.

The ILG was founded in 1900 and despite conservative leadership, became the union that New York garment workers organized in during the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 and the aftermath of the Triangle Fire in 1911. During the 1920s and early 1930s, like many New York based unions, it was riven with strife between radicals and anti-radicals, leading to labyrinthine power struggles not worth revisiting here except to say that the constantly shifting ideology of the Communist Party ultimately hurt the radical cause. Eventually David Dubinsky rose to lead the ILG in 1932. Dubinsky consolidated control quickly, ruling the union with an iron fist, which was ultimately undemocratic but also turned it into a functional organization instead of one constantly in turmoil from infighting among political factions. The union also was dominated by male leadership despite the fact that the large majority of its membership was women. Labor feminism would struggle to develop internally in such a structure.

The ILG’s Educational Department sought to create cultural productions and artistic outlets for its members that included art, dance, and theater. In 1934, the Educational Department reorganized and created a theater troupe made up of union members. These weren’t professional actors. The were just everyday women working in the garment industry whose union thought it would be useful to enhance their creativity, an idea that is far away from unionism of recent decades. Louis Schaffer led this effort and he had a vision to bring the labor movement to the extremely popular cultural form of Broadway productions. ILG president David Dubinsky thought this was a great idea. Schaffer recruited professionals to write the play and train the actors. A cast of 55 mostly female garment workers were trained to become actors. This took time to accomplish. He could have brought in professionals, but in his determination to make this a truly working-class production, he had to bring the workers up to standard in their acting ability. This would ultimately delay the production’s opening by about 18 months. It finally opened to the public on November 27, 1937, after several practice performances.

The production was written and directed by men, but centered women operating in the larger political struggles of the time. Schaffer wanted Pins and Needles to entertain working class people by focusing on working class issues. In order to accomplish this mission, Pins and Needles did not have a set script. The workers themselves constantly reworked the songs, making them about themselves. There were anti-Mussolini songs and other songs about the international anti-fascist struggle, but as the play developed over its many performances, it ultimately became much more about the women and their lives. Labor feminism became the play’s central theme.

The critics largely loved the show. It had good tunes, catchy lyrics, and everything that the public would want in a popular production. At first, it only played on the weekends because the workers were still full-time employees in garment factories. Eventually, they were able to obtain leaves from their jobs to perform full time. The cast also expanded into a second set for late afternoon shows that could reach workers who could not attend in the evenings.

As the labor politics of the 1930s often went, there was a lot of talk about racial equality within the ILG and with the cast of Pins and Needles, but not much actual racial equality in practice. The first black cast member was Olive Pearman, who had only a small supporting role as a seamstress. Black unionists sharply criticized Schaffer for ignoring black voices and he later did add a couple of black cast members, but no Latino cast members were ever hired on the production. Other cast members were pressured to suppress their Jewish identities and even change their names. And of course when the production was on the road, it was subject to local segregationist laws, which it did not try to challenge. The cast itself was quite leftist, although Schaffer himself was anti-communist and some fired cast members claimed they were redbaited out of the production. Dorothy Tucker, one of the actors, remembered, “there were a few socialists and a few communists among us.”

In March 1938, the cast went to Washington DC to play at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt. The first road show began in April 1938 with shows in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among other cities. As demand grew, more workers joined the production, but Schaffer also brought more professional and semi-professional actors into the production, causing tensions behind the scenes. The first road show ended in January 1939, after 319 performances in 34 cities. The cast and show continued to change and professionalize, as most of the workers did eventually have to head back to their jobs in the garment factories. New versions of the production formed until finally, after 1104 performances, the show closed in New York in June 1940. It then went on the road for one last tour, closing for good in Los Angeles in May 1941.

As World War II began and the left-leaning unions moved toward supporting the war effort, Popular Front cultural productions began to fade, collapsing completely in the Cold War backlash after the war. No labor plays ever followed up on Pins and Needles. I can’t really argue that the failure to center working class cultural productions really made much difference in terms of shaping the future of the labor movement, the end of a creative labor movement seeking the broader production of a specific working class culture is ultimately something lost.

For more on Pins and Needles in the broader context of the Popular Front, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century.

This is the 201st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


This Day in Labor History: November 17, 1968

[ 61 ] November 17, 2016 |


On November 17, 1968, the New York State Education Commissioner reasserted control over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn, ending the strike by teachers that started when African-American activists fired white teachers in their schools in violation of the union contract. This fraught incident represented the difficult relationship between organized labor and other social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated the increased militancy of teachers unions during this period, and suggested the complexity of labor’s responses to social groups making new demands upon society.

In 1967, African-Americans in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, working with a pretty wide variety of white allies, demanded community control over their schools. More than 95 percent of the students were African-American or Latino and about 2/3 of the teachers were white. Such demands were increasingly common among communities of color during this era, especially among Chicano activists in the Southwest. They believed their schools were failing because of their inherent racism of the educational system. They believed the teachers were racist too. They wanted the students to learn about their history, read literature written by black writers, and be part of the revolutionary change demanded by Black Power activists nationwide. The city allowed Ocean Hill-Brownsville and a couple of other districts to experiment in community control beginning in 1967. Much of this community control movement nationwide had a strong anti-union element to it, especially among whites who supported it. One architect of the idea wanted to “destroy the professional education bureaucracy,” i.e., the unions.

The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers. They were largely Jewish and many considered themselves liberals or leftists. Other teachers were indeed pretty racist. This was a tricky issue. African-American parents had real concerns. On the other hand, the teachers had a collectively bargained contract. The head of the UFT was Albert Shanker. The contract he had negotiated with the city allowed teachers to advance through a serious of standardized tests that could allow them to move ahead depending on how they did on them. This merit-based system Shanker and the rank and file believed represented teachers effectively. It did indeed serve the white teachers well. But as standardized teachers often go, African-American teachers tended not to score as highly. So the tests and the contract did institutionalize racism.

Responding to this, the community activists fired several white teachers, violating the contract. Black teachers and whites who were not union members but committed to community control of the schools replaced them. Shanker and the UFT when ballistic and 350 teachers in the district went on strike on May 22. The community fired them all. Technically this meant that they were returned to the New York central school district office, where they would have to show up and hang out all day rather than actual firing, but it was effectively firing the teachers. This strike was a foretaste of the broader response once the new school year started in the fall. The activists behind community control wanted to ensure the fired teachers would never work again. Said the head of the community board who fired the teachers, “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in this city. The black community will see to that.”

Shanker himself and the UFT as an institution had worked for civil rights. They had actively supported Freedom Summer in 1964. The UFT’s field rep in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was Sandra Feldman, a member of Harlem CORE and a volunteer during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But this was a bigger principle for the union. No union can survive if they can’t defend members’ jobs from arbitrary dismissal. Said Feldman, “From the point of view of the union, it was a totally basic issue. You’re talking about nineteen people who were told in effect: ‘You haven’t got jobs anymore.’ The Union really had no choice.”

The strike shattered the long alliance between Jews and African-Americans in New York politics. The UFT’s official stance on ethnicity was a melting pot idea that promoted teaching about ethnicity in the context of a Cold War nationalism that promoted individual achievement and consensus politics. The black activists in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rejected this liberal pluralism, especially the teaching of black history as equivalent to the European ethnic groups who had assimilated into American society. Of course black history is very different than European ethnic history, with systemic discrimination not only defining African-American life in 1968, but today. And many of the activists were openly anti-Semitic. One black teacher wrote a poem about Shanker that read “Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head, you pale faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.” Most of the New York left sided with the black activists, arguing the UFT was not acting in good faith. Others, including A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington, spoke out in favor of the UFT. Said Randolph, “If due process is not won in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what will prevent white community groups from firing black teachers or white teachers with liberal views. What will prevent local Birchites and Wallaceites from taking over?” The AFL-CIO also supported their UFT brethren.

Mayor John Lindsey was initially supportive of the community control plan. But Shanker was frankly much more powerful than the people promoting this idea. The school year started with the entire school system going on strike for 36 days. 54,000 of the city’s 57,000 teachers walked out. The strike quickly forced Lindsay to backtrack. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools still operated despite the strike, although with the teachers striking outside, the education was not exactly effective. Over one million students had no school. Finally, on November 17, the state took direct control over Ocean Hill-Brownsville, ending the community control. The fired teachers were reinstated and the new teachers let go. Conflict at the school and in the community remained high. Albert Shanker became nationally famous over the strike.

Woody Allen would later portray Albert Shanker as the man who blew up the world in Sleeper. He would be posthumously granted the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. Sadly, I don’t have to say which President Clinton.

I borrowed from Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s , and Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession to write this post.

This is the 200th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Union Decline and Trump’s Rise

[ 90 ] November 14, 2016 |


One thing about the apocalypse: those who specialize in a particular part of it suddenly become high demand. I spoke to The Atlantic:

In Michigan, home to the influential United Auto Workers, Republican Governor Rick Snyder passed one such law in 2012 amid mass protests. In the first year after the law went into effect, union membership in the state fell by 11 percent (though it has inched up a bit since then). In 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed the same type of law through with similar results. “Republicans knew this would decimate unions, and now we can see the impact,” says Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island.

Back in the 1980s, unions represented 22 percent of private-sector workers, he says. Now they represent only about 8 percent. Loomis points to two major historical shifts that inflicted major damage to the labor movement: the drying up of manufacturing jobs in the late 1970s as factories moved overseas, and more recently, Republican-led movements to pass laws restricting unionization. This year, West Virginia became the 26th state to pass right-to-work laws, which went into effect this summer.

But it’s not just right-to-work laws that have weakened the labor movement. Unions had tried to stop the impacts of globalization and automatization, Loomis says, but “they were overwhelmed by a bipartisan belief in globalized trade and nobody has taken long-term unemployment and community decline seriously.” Neither Ohio nor Pennsylvania has passed right-to-work legislation, but their industries—and the chance that they would vote Democratic—have fallen nevertheless.

The election results in Nevada reflect a stark contrast. Hillary Clinton won the state with the help of the labor movement, and in particular, with the help of Culinary Union, which put on an aggressive campaign to mobilize its 57,000 members to vote for Democrats. Clinton won by a large margin in Nevada and so did the state’s Democratic Senate candidate, Catherine Cortez Masto. “The key difference is that they were able to organize working-class people to get their votes,” says Loomis. There is also another key difference: The Culinary Union is mostly made up of Latino workers in the hotel and service industry, a different demographic from the predominantly white factory workers in the Rust Belt who made up the base of the labor movement there and have since seen their jobs disappear.

The real dichotomy in this election is how different right to work states have different labor movements. The role the Culinary Union plays in Nevada is a real model for other right to work states. Not easy to emulate but important. I hope to have more on this soon. It would help if I wasn’t getting migraine headaches as a result of post-election anxiety and fear and thus losing days of work.

This Day in Labor History: November 12, 1928

[ 7 ] November 12, 2016 |


On November 12, 1928, workers for United Fruit in Ciénega, Colombia went on strike. This uprising against the total domination of United Fruit over workers’ lives represents how the company sought to control entire countries in its attempts to dominate the banana trade. The ensuing massacre of those workers a few weeks later demonstrates the very real power the company had in accomplishing that goal.

Founded in 1899 in a merger of fruit companies operating in Central America since the 1870s, United Fruit became arguably the most powerful company in the Americas in the early 20th century. It cut deals with nations to provide them with infrastructure in return for total control over the economy and significant control over politics. By 1901, Guatemala contracted with United Fruit to run its postal service. By 1930, it was the largest employer in Central America. It routinely demanded governments do its bidding and used it deep connections within the U.S. government to use American state power to accomplish its goals if necessary. The term “banana republic” originates with UFCO’s domination over nations like Guatemala and Costa Rica. It also had significant operations within Colombia, particularly the Caribbean coastal lowlands, perfect for large-scale banana production. The area around Santa Marta, a port town along a lovely bay, was the center of UFCO operations in the nation. Ciénega, a small town west of Santa Marta where many plantations were located, became an area where workers started resisting the total domination of the company over their lives.

The preparation for the strike began in October. On October 6, workers issued a set of demands that included a day off per week, hygienic dwelling places, compensation for accidents at work, a 50 percent pay increase for the lowest paid workers, the end of company scrip, weekly payments, sanitation, hospitals, and a number of other demands that highlight just how hard these workers lives were. These workers did not make enough to feed their families unless they brought their entire families with them. Employers and foremen often used to use the wives and daughters of workers for their sexual pleasure. Workers’ wages were routinely stolen by contractors and workers did not have actual contracts with UFCO. This was rank exploitation.

After a month of the company ignoring their demands, the Unión Sindical de Trabajadores de Magdalena issued an ultimatum to either negotiate with the workers or face a strike. The governor of the state of Magdalena urged the company to sit down with the workers. It refused. On November 11, workers gathered in Ciénaga. They declared a strike to begin the next day.

Immediately, the government was hostile. Colombian president Miguel Méndez was a conservative with no patience for the workers. He appointed General Carlos Cortés Vargas as military chief of the banana zone. Working closely with United Fruit’s paid informants, it used the company’s trains to transport troops through the region. The soldiers received extra money for this work to break any possibility of solidarity with the strikers. Company employees rode trains with the soldiers, pointing out workers it wanted arrested. Local officials did side with workers, including the mayor of Ciénega, a Liberal Party stronghold. Because of this significant solidarity, Cortés Vargas worried about his ability to police the region or even control his own troops, many of whom had worked on the banana plantations in the past.

Tensions grew on December 4, when UFCO started paying scabs to pick the fruit. Workers resisted, stopping the trains from passing through. Cortés Vargas then arrested hundreds of strikers. Responding to the strike, United Fruit demanded action. It used its connections in the press and the U.S. government to paint the strike as communist-dominated. During this imperialist period of American policies toward Latin America, with dozens of invasions of nations around the Caribbean Basin whenever the U.S. felt its interests under attack in any way, this was a very real threat. Company officials and the American embassy cabled to the State Department about the red threat. The Coolidge administration then sent word to the Colombian government that if it did not bust the strike, the U.S. might send in the Marines to do it for them.

The government decided to crush the strike. It suspended the rule of law in the banana zone. About 1:30 a.m., according to Cortés Vargas later account defending himself, he ordered his troops with machine guns to the train station. Workers refused to disperse when ordered. The troops then opened fire on the workers. We don’t know how many workers died. Minimum, it was several hundred. Some have claimed it was upwards of 2000. United Fruit itself told the U.S. embassy that between 500 and 600 workers were slaughtered, but the embassy revised that number to over 1000 within a few weeks. Amazingly, the massacre did not actually succeed in its major goal of dispersing the workers and ending the strike. Workers continued to gather. But with UFCO unwilling to negotiate, they had nowhere to go or nothing to do and the strike eventually faded. What was very clear though to all involved is that the sovereign power on the Colombian coast was not based in Bogota. It was out of United Fruit’s New Orleans’ headquarters.

The massacre was massive and grotesque. United Fruit then tried to cover it up by destroying all evidence in its own archives about the entire situation, including the photos it took. It did keep all evidence of worker violence, including photos of burned company stores or other company buildings, as displayed at the top of this post, in order to shape future tales of the event.

United Fruit’s domination of the region continued for decades, most notoriously in getting the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala when he nationalized some of the company’s unused land for agrarian reform and land redistribution.

I borrowed from Kevin Coleman’s essay, “The Photos That We Don’t Get to See: Sovereignties, Archives, and the 1928 Massacre of Banana Workers in Colombia,” in Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman, eds., Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism.

This is the 199th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

SEPTA Strike Ends

[ 88 ] November 7, 2016 |


Everyone who thought that the Philadelphia transit workers union should not use the opportunity to use its leverage to win its contract dispute can now relax. SEPTA settled its dispute with Philadelphia and will have full service tomorrow for election day. Not surprisingly, this leverage got the union a pretty good contract from what is known, with improvements in wages and pensions. This is what unions are supposed to do.

This Day in Labor History: November 7, 1861

[ 19 ] November 7, 2016 |


On November 7, 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the South Carolina sea islands. Suddenly having to deal with the existence of thousands of slaves with no masters, the military engaged in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. This precursor to Reconstruction is an important moment in American history, one that proved to skeptical whites that blacks would work without slavery and one that demonstrated the very real limits even for abolitionists in thinking about the post-slavery future in the South.

It’s a little hard to imagine the debates about black work in 1861. The idea that African-Americans were inherently lesser than whites was so ingrained, it was a real and open question in the North whether black people would work without white supervision. In part, this is what the Port Royal Experiment was about. What would black people do on the cotton farms without their masters? Moreover, the North really needed the cotton. It’s own textile factories had suddenly lost their raw supplies when the Civil War began and the U.S. had lost one of its leading export products to Britain, which Lincoln desperately hoped to keep out of the war. So a series of factors came together in South Carolina to create the need to figure out what a post-slave economy might look like.

By January 1862, the military was working with the black population to grow cotton for the army instead of for the slaveholders. General Thomas Sherman sent a request to the north for teachers to come and work with the slaves. The official beginning of the Port Royal Experiment was that April, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase appointed Boston attorney Edward Pierce to organize a relief effort and training program for the slaves that would include hospitals and schools and programs to allow the slaves to buy land and farm for themselves. By May, 53 missionaries and educators were on their way to South Carolina. The ex-slaves were employed in growing cotton for the wage of $1 for every 400 pounds they harvested. Edward Philbrick led the labor plan. He ended the slave system of gang labor, gave workers garden plots for themselves, and provided a variety of incentives for the workers. Ultimately, men like Philbrick wanted to implement the free labor ideology at the heart of the Republican Party in the South and teach it to the ex-slaves. As the government took over more plantations during the war, it began to implement Philbrick’s plan through its confiscated lands.

In 1863, President Lincoln built on this program by allowing for the limited confiscation of Confederate plantations and the division of the land among the slaves. Limited to 40,000 acres of abandoned plantations, most of the impact took place in the sea islands. The land was sold for $1.25 an acre. Although most African-Americans could not afford anything near this price, local freed slaves bought about 2000 acres of land with the money they could scrape together. Northern whites could also buy the land and did so, creating new plantations for themselves worked by paid laborers. The freed slaves also founded their first free town in South Carolina, Mitchelville, on Hilton Head Island. By 1865, it had 1500 residents. Largely these residents wanted to live away from white people, whether from the North or the South. They wanted freedom, autonomy, and independence to make their own decisions about life and work.

The government’s role in redistributing the land and taking care of the ex-slaves was, like much in the Civil War, deeply contradictory and filled with bureaucratic chaos. The soldiers under Sherman and the civilians sent down by Chase clashed constantly. The soldiers routinely beat and raped the slaves, stealing their food and their land. All of this outraged the missionaries and of course the freed slaves, but little was done, despite the official complaints. Congress never clarified what exactly should happen in the sea islands. Chase’s military men cared about getting the cotton in any way possible while his civilians wanted to teach citizenship to the ex-slaves. No cohesive plan ever developed and thus the success of the experiment was compromised from the beginning. The cotton did come, but not to the extent that it had before the war, in no small part because a lot of the ex-slaves did not want to grow cotton. A boll weevil epidemic also took a major toll on the crop. Philbrick himself believed the experiment a failure because the ex-slaves did not do precisely as he wanted them to do. He ended up selling off the plantation he had bought to the residents in small plots.

The Port Royal Experiment was tremendously successful in one way–it demonstrated to skeptical northerners that black people would work for themselves. Again, I recognize that this seems obviously self-evident but that was not the case in the early 1860s. Unfortunately by 1865, support for the redistribution of Confederate land to the ex-slaves had become very low throughout the North. Even among most Republicans and abolitionists, the sanctity of private property would be more important than economic redistribution. The suffrage became the key for abolitionists to lock in black rights, despite the fact that the first thing the ex-slaves wanted was access to land.

As for the land already redistributed in 1863, Andrew Johnson ordered it given back to the original white landowners in 1865, even after William Tecumseh Sherman had extended it through Field Order No. 15. The Port Royal Experiment came to a sad end. But not all of the land was claimed by the ex-owners and black landowning remained significant in the area well into the 20th century.

In the late 1930s, Sam Mitchell, one of the last remaining living people who lived through this told a Federal Writers Project interviewer, “I think slavery is just a murdering of the people. I think freedom been a great gift. I like my master and I guess he was as good to his slave as he could be, but I rather be free.”

The most complete historical discussion of the Port Royal Experiment is Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, which I recommend.

This is the 198th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

In Conclusion, Both Parties Are the Same

[ 222 ] November 6, 2016 |


I was a pretty good boy this whole election. I avoided dealing with leftier-than-thou people on Facebook who talked about the evils of $$$$hillary and how she wants to start a new Cold War against noted ally of the American left, Vladimir Putin. But yesterday, I finally succumbed to some very stupid people. This was an error. The one good thing about this election is making it clear who should be culled from my Facebook world.

In any case, if you still know people who can’t imagine sullying their bodily fluids by voting for Hillary Clinton over a fascist, note to those people that the corporate lobby is freaking out because they fear Clinton court appointees will rule right to work laws unconstitutional. Which would be the greatest thing imaginable.

Building Coalitions with the White Working Class

[ 305 ] November 5, 2016 |


One of the least appealing things to me about liberals during this election has been the gleeful dismissal of the white working class, the open desire to not have to think about them anymore in some sort of new Democratic Party that does not need their votes to win. I do get some of that–after all, the equation in the media where “working Americans = white men” is very annoying. But in the end, racist that many white working class people may be, they are still Americans and not only deserve economic policies that give them the chance for a dignified future, but in fact should be a target of class-based organizing that builds bridges with working people of other races and ethnicity. Sarah Jaffe highlights one example of this, in Indiana.

 Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) had hired a construction company that used some union labor and some non-union, undocumented workers to helm an expansion project. The unions involved reached out for help to the Workers’ Project, at the time an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council (CLC), to represent workers who weren’t formally members of the Council’s member unions. The unions had planned a campaign under the banner of “Local Jobs for Local People,” but Workers’ project co-founders Tom Lewandowski, at the time president of the CLC, and Mike Lauer, director of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, argued against this framing—it would contribute to xenophobia, to us-against-them thinking. Instead, Lewandowski says, “Our operational theme for this campaign was going to be, ‘If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked.’”

Community outreach also paid off when a local Mexican restaurant owner stepped in to help with the campaign, offering lunch receipts from Saturdays as proof that the laborers were working overtime for which they weren’t getting paid. “We ended up eventually developing enough trust among the undocumented workers that they began to come to meetings,” Lewandowski says. “I would have them sign their names on a sheet and I said, ‘What do you want to call yourselves? Because you are a union at this point.’ They said ‘IPFW Construction Workers Association.’” The union workers kept an eye on safety conditions for the undocumented workers, and when the non-union workers held an informational picket outside the job site to protest threats to their jobs, the building trades honored their picket line and refused to work. Eventually, some of the undocumented workers won settlements; some of them also got into the unions.

“If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked” isn’t a TV-ready campaign slogan, but it speaks to the core organizing philosophy of the Workers’ Project: Solidarity, not scapegoating. In Indiana, where Donald Trump won the Republican primary handily and selected his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, trying to rally anger about trade and immigration into a wave he can ride into the White House, such campaigns have special significance. While organized labor has begun only in recent years to reverse course on immigration, to support the rights of undocumented workers and guestworkers and welcome new immigrants into its ranks, in Fort Wayne, organizers were building a bulwark against Trumpism long before Trump hit his first campaign stage. They were doing their best to create a model for the rest of labor as the old model crumbled around them.

The Workers’ Project exists to organize the broader community around issues that matter to working people. It is not a union, but it is supported by union members; it is not a community organization, but it is open to the community. Some of its projects, like the annual Labor Day picnic, draw near 6,000 people; others, like a high school workers’ initiative spearheaded in the 1990s, focus on specific people left out of labor unions. Over the years, its funding and staffing have fluctuated; some projects lasted for years and others wrapped up quickly. But its mission has remained consistent, says Cheryl Hitzemann, who has worked with the Workers’ Project for years: “to help give workers some voice and power in the workplace, the economy and the community.” To act as a counterbalance to business and corporate interests.

She places this in the larger context of the labor movement figuring out what to do with its Central Labor Councils and the community-based unionism it knows it needs to survive, but doesn’t always do a great job of supporting. Moreover, she makes the compelling case that if any movement is going to build cross-racial alliances within the working-class, it is going to be organized labor. There really isn’t anything else that speaks to workers as workers, instead of as whites, as Christians, or whatever. The labor movement is far from perfect, but its politics have improved in the last two decades. It can certainly do better, but supporting what it has done so far is also critical. And projects like the one in Fort Wayne are necessary to fight against the racist politics dominating the white working class in this election.

Trump’s Workers

[ 15 ] November 3, 2016 |


Donald Trump will treat the American working class, regardless of race and religion, the same as he has treated his own workers.

Since voting to unionize last December, employees at Las Vegas’ Trump International Hotel say their famous employer has refused to acknowledge or negotiate with the union. The Trump International Hotel employs more than 500 workers who clean rooms or prepare and serve food and drinks, more than half of whom voted to unionize almost a year ago.

“He says he’s a big negotiator, but he doesn’t negotiate with the workers,” Elsabeth Moges, who has worked as a Trump International housekeeper in Las Vegas for four years, told Business Insider.

In Las Vegas, 95% of hotels on the Strip and in the downtown area are unionized, making Trump Hotel, which the candidate co-owns with billionaire Phil Ruffin, an anomaly. Union workers make about $3 more per hour than workers at Trump Hotel, and receive pensions and healthcare benefits, according to workers and the Culinary Union, Nevada’s powerful hospitality union.

This discrepancy, Moges says, and the desire for greater job security helped drive her and fellow employees to push for a union.

“We work very hard every single day and we’re not appreciated,” she said.

Even before the vote to unionize, the Culinary Union says the hotel attempted to block pro-union efforts. Trump Hotel, meanwhile, has accused union supporters of pressuring workers to vote for the union by saying they would be fired if they didn’t vote for unionization.

The Trump Organization did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

“He’d tried to do everything he could to intimidate the workers, and scare them, and get them to vote no,” Culinary Union spokesperson Bethany Kahn told Business Insider. “That’s a little concerning for someone heading into Election Day.”

In August, the union filed a complaint to the NLRB regarding Trump International’s refusal to bargain, which is illegal. The NLRB has not yet issued a decision on the case.

Trump’s ongoing refusal to negotiate with the union has created many opportunities for workers to speak out against the candidate.

“He says he wants to make America great,” housekeeper Marisela Olvera told ThinkProgress in April. “Well, he should start here in his own house, his own business. He always brags about how he has millions and millions and millions of dollars, but he pays his workers less than most in Las Vegas.”

“Why doesn’t he want to respect us and make time to negotiate,” Celia Vargas, another Trump Hotel employee, told the Los Angeles Times in April. “Like everybody, I’m confused.”

I doubt Vargas is actually confused. The answer is of course obvious, which is that Trump is a liar and a bully. Everyone in the Culinary Union knows this, which is why it is absolutely central to Democrats winning in Nevada next week.

Philly Transit Strike and the Election

[ 110 ] November 3, 2016 |


The Transit Workers Union is on strike in Philadelphia. Their contract expired November 1 and the have many legitimate beefs, including over scheduling and health care. Some are worried that this could impact the presidential election, depressing voter turnout in Philadelphia on Tuesday from those relying on public transportation in that city, i.e., Clinton voters.

SEPTA, the region’s public transportation authority, and members of TWU 234, a union belonging to the AFL-CIO, failed to come to an agreement on a new contract. Horwitz said the primary disagreements focused on the scheduling of workers, who he said were frequently not given adequate time to eat, rest between shifts or take bathroom breaks.

In addition to the issues over scheduling, the union is fighting to raise the cap of workers’ pensions and secure affordable health care. The timing of the strike is unrelated to the election and is tied to contracts that expired between the two sides at midnight last night.

A press representative from SEPTA spoke to ABC News by phone but declined to elaborate on a statement made to the press last night regarding the strikes. In it, SEPTA expressed hope that an agreement could be reached between the two sides by Nov. 8.

“We are hopeful that a tentative agreement will be reached before Election Day. If we foresee an agreement will not come to pass, SEPTA intends to seek to enjoin the strike for Nov. 8 to ensure that the strike does not prevent any voters from getting to the polls and exercising their right to vote,” the statement said.

And let’s be clear: Despite what SEPTA leaders are saying, this is totally timed to maximize their leverage. When would the workers have more leverage to force the government to do the right thing? What better opportunity than a tight election with an unimaginably horrible president potentially brought to power because Philadelphia voters couldn’t get to the polls? You might say that this is a bad thing. But unions are about extending worker power. And this is how you do it.

Ed Rendell’s response is to call for the state legislature to take away SETPA’s strike rights, using nakedly partisan reasons to do so, which to say the least is the wrong answer. The right answer is for the city and the state to give the workers what they want. The election may ride on it. Time for Tom Wolf to step in and potentially save the nation from Trump.

What Else Makes Corporations Sad?

[ 85 ] November 1, 2016 |
4/9/15 BANGOR, Maine -- Supporters of raising the minimum wage attend an April meeting hosted by Bangor Councilor Joe Baldacci at Abraham Lincoln School in Bangor.

4/9/15 BANGOR, Maine — Supporters of raising the minimum wage attend an April meeting hosted by Bangor Councilor Joe Baldacci at Abraham Lincoln School in Bangor.

The minimum wage also makes corporations sad. And their power in state legislatures usually means that they get their way, not to mention in Congress. But in 24 states, there’s another option: the ballot measure. And once again, we see a bunch of states seeking to raise the minimum wage through the suffrage.

On the ballot in Washington state is an initiative that will raise the minimum wage from its current level of $9.47 an hour to $13.50 an hour by 2020. In Arizona, Colorado, and Maine, voters will consider raising the bottom wages to $12 an hour by 2020. In Arizona and Washington the measures that would establish mandatory paid sick leave. If passed, the increased minimum wages impact more than 2.1 million low-wage workers.

“We all know that our economy is broken. We have seen that elected officials are just failing to do anything about it,” says Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, a group that helped launch and finance the ballot measure campaigns. “The best way for us to make the changes that impact working Americans immediately is not to wait for politicians to figure this out but for us to support ballot measures that allow voters to speak out.”

The California SEIU mega-local United Health Workers launched the Fairness Project last year, as part of President Dave Regan’s strategy to get minimum wage increases on the ballot in the 24 states that allow such measures. “This is the best value in American politics,” Regan told The Washington Post last year. “If you can amass $25 million, you can put a question in front of half the country that simply can’t be moved through legislatures because of big money in politics.”

Of course, Republicans are freaking out, especially given that all these measures look likely to pass.

The measures’ popularity with the voting public hasn’t kept prominent Republicans from coming out in opposition. Senator John McCain, who is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign, has echoed industry talking points—like those of former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi—that any increase to the minimum wage will devastate business profit margins and will inevitably result in automation. “Twice I’ve talked to groups of franchisees here in Arizona, Taco Bell and McDonalds, those places that give you the first rung on the ladder. They said, ‘Fine. The next time you drive up to a window, you won’t be talking to a person. The next time you they hand you a hamburger and French fries, it will come out a slot.’ … They have a certain profit margin. They cannot raise their cost of their product or people will stop purchasing it. So what are they going to do? They’re going to automate. So somebody is going to have to convince me that it’s good for employment in America, and I don’t think it is,” McCain told the Tucson Weekly in September.

Never mind that in 78 years of the minimum wage, we literally have zero evidence that a single minimum wage increase has ever led to a net decrease in jobs. None. Despite the models of economists, we simply have no evidence that this has ever happened. That’s worth stating over and over and over again in these debates.

Maine’s blustery Governor Paul LePage took the anti-raise argument a step further, saying that raising the minimum wage in his state wouldn’t just kill jobs—it would (somehow) kill senior citizens. “To me when you go out and kill somebody, you go to jail. Well, this is attempted murder in my mind because it is pushing people to the brink of survival,” LePage said earlier this month, referring to two advocates of the minimum wage increase. “They are deliberately and knowingly hurting Mainers.”

Evidently, the truest form of freedom is unpaid labor. That wouldn’t kill any Mainers!

I’m still amazed LePage didn’t end up as Trump’s VP choice.

What Makes Corporations Sad?

[ 25 ] November 1, 2016 |


The government enforcing labor law makes corporations and their lackeys very sad:

Have you seen It is a how-to manual for employees to file charges with the full gauntlet of federal labor-and-employment agencies ― EEOC, NLRB, OSHA, and DOL Wage-and-Hour Division.

Let’s examine my favorite whipping boy, the NLRB, as an example. lists the following topics as examples of rights of engagement with others to improve wages and working conditions:

I am being prevented from engaging with others to improve my working conditions.

My boss threatened to fire us if we vote for the union.

I am being retaliated against for supporting an effort to bring in a union to improve my work situation.

I can’t get hired because the industry knows me as a union supporter.

We formed a union and are trying to bargain with management, but they refuse to meet with us.

I brought complaints to our union steward and/or foreman about the crew not having adequate safety equipment and they retaliated.

We are afraid to talk to one another about our wages and working conditions because our employer has a handbook rule prohibiting release of confidential information.

I sent an email to my co-workers during break time about seeking a raise and my employer suspended me for unauthorized use of its computer system.

I was fired for chatting about my supervisor with other coworkers on Facebook.

Each is hyperlinked to a general informational page, which includes a link to another informational page on how to file a claim, which includes a non-retaliation reminder and a link to contact info for each NLRB regional office.

The pages for the EEOC, OSHA, and DOL offer similar info for each, including the page explaining to employees how to file claims.

While this information is accurate, I wonder why these agencies feel the need to troll for business. I’ve had EEOC charges sit with investigators for as long as 18 months without a resolution, and I’ve had OSHA investigators tell me that they are so busy investigating complaints that they do not have the time to sit at their desk to close out files. There is nothing more frustrating than having to send an email to a client that reads, “You know that charge that’s been hanging over your head for the past six months. Well, tack on another month; nothing new to report.”

Have you ever heard such a sad story before? Laws protecting workers and the government letting workers know what rights they have due to said laws? I have not seen such an outrage since the tobacco companies got busted for openly lying about the relationship between their products and cancer. Corporations sure can’t catch a break in this socialist dystopia!

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