I am always amused by the idea that technology will set us free from the hassles of work. Talk about utopian. The reality is that technology chains us to our jobs, creating a state of permanent surveilliance by our employers who demand more and more. The 40-hour week becomes a joke, both because many people cannot work at all or can only find part-time work while those who do have work have to labor well past 40 hours because the boss can track them.
Kathleen Geier, Sarah Jaffe, and Sheila Bapat have a great discussion of how the Hobby Lobby and Harris decisions conspire to undermine women’s economic security. You should definitely read the entire thing, but Sarah’s piece is especially valuable. In part:
It should go without saying that the decision to have a child or not is one of the most profound economic decisions most of us will make in our lifetimes. The Supreme Court this week made it harder for lower-income women to be able to make that choice for themselves. While I support those who argue for the right of all people to enjoy sex on their own terms, we have spent far too little time elaborating the ways in which the “culture war” is a class war.
Take Hobby Lobby. The hashtag #NotMyBossBusiness gave me some hope that the discussion of this case would turn not on religion, hypocrisy or even just on corporate personhood but on the place where Americans’ freedoms are most curtailed: work. It is, after all, the boss, not the government, who has the most say over what we do and say, whether we can pay the rent or feed the kids, the boss who has increasingly sought the right to influence our political choices and what we wear and track our every move and keystroke.
Instead, I have watched photos of people going into Hobby Lobby stores to rearrange letter-blocks to read “pro-choice” flit across the Internet as if the workers who will have to put those blocks back away are unaware of their boss’s power over them. If we were more aware of this decision as one that will affect women not simply as women but as workers, we might stop and ask ourselves what it would mean to actually be in solidarity with the people who work at those stores, to help them get what they need.
The separation between abortion care and other healthcare that I commented on above plays out in Hobby Lobby, which attempts to paint birth control not as a legally required part of a worker’s compensation package, one that allows women to work on an equal footing with the men, but as something outside, different and worse. Or, in the voices of some dismissive commentators, simply less important, not a big deal, something easy enough for women to buy on their own.
If we recognized Hobby Lobby as a workplace issue, we might reply that the people who work at Hobby Lobby stores make between $9.50 and $14 an hour (and those are actually fairly good wages when it comes to retail work) and that $25 a month (if it’s actually that cheap; that depends on which form of contraceptive you’re using) is a significant extra expense if one is, say, raising children on the wages from that job.
I think the connection between the culture war and class war especially valuable since the culture war is very much a war against poor women seeking to control their own bodies and who lack options once the effects of the culture war are literally growing inside them. And the kind of activism that just makes Hobby Lobby workers have to labor harder while doing nothing to affect the company is the sort of the buying thriftshop clothes to protest sweatshops that might not be counterproductive but don’t really do anything to help the situation.
As I stated earlier, I don’t necessarily see the UAW-Volkswagen agreement as a major victory. It’s certainly a positive thing for the workers involved, but as something to celebrate, I’m less than sure. Others however disagree (as they did in comments to the original post). Joe Atkins:
The UAW knew that withdrawing its objections to February’s tainted election, in consensus with Volkswagen, would expedite the company’s decision on the new product line,” Casteel said in a formal statement. “The fact that the new line is being announced four days after the rollout of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga reinforces the consensus that the UAW has reached with the company.”
Casteel said “a cornerstone of Volkswagen’s business model” is the Global Groups Works Council that provides employee representation on work-related issues at Volkswagen plants around the world.
In fact, Global Works Council chairman Bernd Osterloh, a strong supporter of union representation at the Chattanooga plant, was recently appointed to the board of directors of Volkswagen’s American operations. At one point, Osterloh said he would work to prevent the new SUV line from coming to Chattanooga if workers there didn’t get union representation.
Local 42 will not collect dues for the time being, and participation is voluntary. However, the UAW hopes membership will grow to a size that gives it weight in representing workers’ concerns at the plant. No formal agreement exists with Volkswagen regarding the local, but a “consensus” exists that allows the local to work with the company in the future, Casteel said.
This non-traditional approach to worker representation is somewhat similar to other efforts across the South to help those who have no collective voice vis-à-vis management. Examples include the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, both of which have won agreements with major corporations despite the fact that farm workers aren’t covered in the National Labor Relations Act.
The victories by FLOC and CIW are significant not only because of region but because of the type of laborers and industry involved (migrant immigrants in a heavily exploitative industry existing far from the view of most Americans). Comparing the UAW deal to those unions actually depresses me because these are workers with more power, with a long-standing powerful union backing them, with the extremely unusual arrangement of international labor unions and the company supporting them, and on a big shop floor, traditionally a relatively easy place to organize, at least compared to the fields or small shops. The innovation is definitely something I support, but I still have trouble seeing it as a big win.
….Sorry for not including the link, I wrote this before a long and horrible day of travel and so just saw I forgot it now. Here is the original link, for what it’s worth 20 hours later.
Among the many potential impacts of the Hobby Lobby decision is for employers to claim unionization of their workforce violates their religious beliefs. This is already percolating through the court system, most famously at Duquense University, when that Catholic institution of higher education used this argument (because all know the Pope hates unions or something).
By declaring that “closely held” corporations may hold religious beliefs, the court may have provided businesses with a new tool for crushing workplace unionization drives. In addition to declaring themselves exempt from contraception mandates and non-discrimination laws, religious employers may soon be able to argue for an exemption from collective bargaining laws.
“All you need is one employer saying, ‘My religious beliefs tell me I shouldn’t collectively bargain,’” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. If an employer takes the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to court and uses that argument, it could set the table for a major court battle over the future of union rights in nominally religious workplaces.
Religious primary and secondary schools are already exempt from collective bargaining rules, thanks to the 1979 Supreme Court case NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over schools “operated by a church to teach both religious and secular subjects.” As a result, schools operated by the Catholic Bishop of Chicago were under no obligation to recognize employee unions, no matter the circumstances. Putting religious schools under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, the court reasoned, would present “a significant risk of infringement of Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.”
Other religious schools have seized on the decision over the years. Most recently, Perelman Jewish Day School in Philadelphia decided to stop recognizing its teachers’ union, citing NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago as legal justification. A March 28 article from the labor-friendly magazine In These Times suggested that the school’s actions may have earned it the title “the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting.” But the Perelman case may wind up being less important than another legal fight brewing elsewhere in Pennsylvania. In 2012, adjunct professors at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University requested the right to hold a union election, only to have the school claim a religious exemption. The crucial difference in this case is that Duquesne is a university, not a religious day school like Perelman or the Chicago Catholic schools.
The implication of Alito’s opinion in Hobby Lobby, if fully implemented, opens the door to employers using religious exemptions to avoid every law they don’t like, which I have no reason to believe reasonable moderate Sam Alito would oppose.
One of the world’s most exploitative industries is seafood, mostly for rich nation consumption. Two of the biggest areas of production are in southeast Asia and the Gulf Coast. In the southeast Asia fisheries, slave labor is far too common, with frequent killings of workers, usually immigrants from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, for actions such as asking to be paid. Things aren’t quite that bad on the Gulf Coast, but they are pretty terrible.
So it is positive that seafood workers in the Gulf are working with the National Guestworker Alliance to try and put pressure on the big retailers like WalMart and Whole Foods over working conditions. Those companies don’t care if supply workers live or die, as we see from WalMart’s response to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. But putting pressure on them at least gets people’s attention and hopefully builds the movement necessary that humane working conditions can return to this country.
As most of you know by now, Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers came to an agreement to create a union local in the company’s Chattanooga plant to represent the workers who want to join. This agreement will not include any dues collection until after a collective bargaining agreement is reached. It comes in the face of the UAW’s devastating election loss earlier this year after unprecedented political interference.
My general reaction to this agreement: meh.
I suppose it’s not a bad thing. For those who want representation, they have it, sort of. It doesn’t exactly show the union in a good light to people around the country who are maybe on the fence about joining, since it does seem to ignore the vote, but who really cares. The bigger question is whether it is remotely replicable or whether we would even want it to be. I’m skeptical. I have a hard time seeing the UAW taking a hard line with Volkswagen on anything given that the company and union have already agreed for it to exist. Of course, the UAW isn’t talking tough to any of its employers at this point. This can only be replicated if other employers want the UAW in their factories enough to create such a system. That’s unlikely. The Volkswagen case is unique because of the pressure the company faces from its German unions, a level of power that American unions do not have.
More positively I think is promoting the idea of minority unionism, where a voluntary group of workers seeks to stand up for themselves in the face of hostility from employers and even other fellow workers. There’s no reason why this sort of unionism shouldn’t be promoted. No, it isn’t going to lead to big membership gains and dues infusions to the unions nor is it likely to lead to a collective bargaining agreement, but it still can provide workers a voice on the job and lead to concrete gains when workers are angry enough to act.
At best, this agreement between VW and UAW leads to real material gains for union members and it convinces others that joining up is in their best interests. Whether that happens or not in the face of the two-tiered contract the union agreed to with the Big Three that helped doom the Chattanooga vote, I don’t know. And I suppose it already has led to more jobs, with VW following up this announcement with one picking the factory for the construction of a new SUV. Hopefully workers see the connection between unions and more jobs and sign up.
On July 11, 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union formed when eleven white farmers and seven black farmers met in Tyronza, Arkansas to form a union of sharecroppers to fight for poor farmers’ rights. Perhaps the last gasp of the Farmers Alliance potential to reach out across racial lines and transform rural life, the STFU sought to empower sharecroppers to fight for economic rights during the dark days of the Great Depression.
The Great Depression was very hard on poor southern farmers. In fact, the Depression there had really started in the 1920s. Crop prices plummeted after the overproduction of World War I. By the time the official Great Depression began in 1929, the farm economy had been terrible for years, meaning the sharecroppers on southern land, a labor situation that had begun as something of a compromise between freed slaves and white landowners after the Civil War but had since spread to employ poor whites as well, were in entrenched, awful poverty.
Arkansas sharecroppers, 1930s
Tyronza, Arkansas was a bit odd for the rural South as there were active socialists in the area. This was not totally unknown in the South, but rare enough by 1934. Floods and droughts had ravaged the region in recent years and the national attention these received interested socialists in the area. As those ideas began spreading into the area, some locals, even merchants, showed interest in an economic system that offered an alternative to a capitalism that had not worked out for their region. Living in Tyronza was Harry Mitchell, a socialist and sharecropper. He and a gas station owner named Clay East saw that the owners were not sharing their Agricultural Adjustment Act payments with the sharecroppers and they began organizing their neighbors into what became the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
The STFU’s main mission was fighting against the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The New Deal promoted agricultural centralization, which threw thousands of sharecroppers off their land. The Okies coming to California in the 1930s, were mostly fleeing the loss of their land rights from AAA-related centralization, not the Dust Bowl. It was the same in eastern Arkansas. AAA had two provisions that severely hurt sharecroppers. First, it had no provisions to ensure that the money landowners received to reduce farm production trickled down to sharecroppers. They were expected to share it but the owners were just keeping it all. Second, it encouraged the eviction of sharecroppers through its centralization policies, in effect if not in word. In 1934, these farmers had nowhere to go. A decade later, the jobs of World War II would give them opportunities. These did not exist in 1934. Eviction meant moving to a strange place with no likely hope of a job.
The first strike began in the fall of 1935, when Mitchell led sharecroppers out for $1 per pound of cotton versus the 40 cents the owners were offering. When the owners compromised on 75 cents (and some went all the way to $1), the workers declared victory and returned to work. Of course, the response of landowners to this movement was violence, especially once the unionization campaign began. The STFU was a threatening organization to the white power structure. That it was integrated automatically made it dangerous. The first commission of STFU representatives to travel to Washington to appeal to the government included two African-Americans in its five members. At one meeting, four armed whites walked in and ordered all the blacks to leave if they did not want to be lynched. Many members were thrown off their land for membership in the organization. Beatings of organizers took place while police violence was common and threatened lynchings scared many members. STFU offices had to move from Tyronza to Memphis, where the urban environment provided more safety.
The STFU soon spread from Arkansas to Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee. It claimed 7500 members in Oklahoma, demanding land redistribution, with land owned by banks given to small farmers. In Arkansas, it forced politicians to create the Governor’s Commission on Farm Tenancy. Oklahoma passed the Landlord and Tenant Relationship Act in 1937 to encourage long-term residency on the land and promote the government as a mediator of the problems of the sharecropped farm, but conservative outrage led to its repeal in 1939.
Unlike previous farmer movements like the Populists, STFU leaders actively thought of themselves as in the same boat as industrial labor and thus sought to become a union like in eastern factories. The STFU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ agricultural union, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) in 1937 but withdrew a year later, worried that UCAPAWA’s communist leadership was looking to take over the STFU. UCAPAWA president Donald Henderson saw the STFU as a utopian vanguard of rural revolution rather than a real union and attempted to overwhelm its leadership with paperwork so he could take it over. When the STFU leadership withdrew, it led to UCAPAWA ending its attempts to organize in the fields, focusing on the canneries, where the CIO (and the CP) was always more comfortable. The break with UCAPAWA severely hurt the STFU’s ability to function, especially as several of its leading organizers were CP and stayed with the union. Two-thirds of its locals collapsed.
As the STFU and landowners battled each other with increasing intensity, the situation finally received some attention from the government. This led to the Resettlement Administration (RA), intended to help sharecroppers find better lives. But the funding for the RA always remained small and the solutions it developed long-term rather than immediate. The government also created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), to provide low-cost loans to poor farmers who wanted to buy their own land but this was not a realistic option for the vast majority of STFU members. The 11,000 farmers around the nation it helped in 1939 was a nice start, but far too small to deal with the scale of the problem. Ultimately, the government did little to alleviate the problems AAA had spawned for sharecroppers.
The STFU declined by the early 1940s. Mitchell continued leading it, called the National Farm Labor Union after 1945, for the rest of his life, but it was only a shadow organization except for some success organizing the California cotton fields in the 40s. Because of the mechanization and industrialization of farming, most of the cotton labor force disappeared from the fields not long after World War II. The same happened for many other crops. The exception to this history of agricultural labor is Latino farmworkers, laboring in exploitative conditions not dissimilar to that of the early 20th century American South. On these farms, usually in more difficult to mechanize fruits and vegetables, the fight continues.
This is the 114th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Worker deaths in the energy industry have risen dramatically over the past five years because of the oil and fracking booms. That’s not necessary though. Better worker training would cut down on a lot of these accidents, but the companies, not facing harsh penalties from the federal government, put inexperienced workers in dangerous situations. Raising all OSHA fines tenfold would save a lot of workers’ lives.
As we talked about here earlier, the idea that the kids just aren’t doing their activism right because I’m too lazy to find out what the kids are doing today is a stupid critique of modern activism, in part because students are doing awesome things. Pressure from students at Rutgers led that university to cut off contracts from two apparel companies who refused to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Now Outdoor Cap, which made their hats, is crying about it.
On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation revolutionized the relationship between the federal government and organized labor and gave workers a fair shake from the government for the first time in American history.
When Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1933, the economy was in the worst state in American history. But Roosevelt wanted to help business, not hurt it. His first New Deal labor legislation was really more a pro-business measure. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) intended to bring business on the board with a reform program, and in fact parts of the act were welcomed by corporations, especially as it promoted bigness to undermine harmful competition. Somewhat unintentionally, the NIRA’s provision protecting collective bargaining for workers was interpreted by American workers as giving them approval to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor movement helped cleave corporate support from the New Deal.
In 1935, when the right-wing Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt moved for greater empowerment of workers. In fact, it was only when the NIRA was shut down that FDR moved toward this greater empowerment of workers. He was originally skeptical of the act because it did so much for workers and seemed anti-business. But the election of 1934 created an overwhelmingly liberal Congress that the political space existed for Roosevelt to take such a significant step. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) shepherded the bill through Congress (and giving it its popular name of the Wagner Act). Wagner had long been a champion of labor. He had served as chairman of the New York State Factory Inspection Commission in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire and built upon that to become a Democratic senator from the state in 1927. Wagner was the Senate’s leading liberal during the New Deal, shepherding a variety of legislation through the body, particularly around labor issues.
The NLRA guaranteed “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The law applied to all workers involved in interstate commerce except those working for government, railroads, airlines, and agriculture. The agriculture exception, as in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, continues to lead to the exploitation of agricultural workers today and is one of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Deal, although arguably including agricultural workers might have dampened support for these laws enough that they wouldn’t have passed.
The most important part of the NLRA was the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, creating a government agency with real authority to oversee the nation’s labor relations. The government had now officially declared its neutrality in labor relations, seeing its role as mediating them rather than openly siding with employers to crush unions. This was a remarkable turnaround in a nation where unionbusting was a good political move for the ambitious pol. After all, Calvin Coolidge, out of office only 4 years before Roosevelt took over, made his name by busting the 1919 Boston police strike.
Business went ballistic after the NLRA passed. Business Week ran an editorial titled “NO OBEDIENCE!” It read: “Although the Wagner Labor Relations Act has been passed by Congress and signed by the President, it is not yet law. For nothing is law that is not constitutional.”
Conservatives immediately challenged the constitutionality of the NLRA. But Roosevelt’s war on the Supreme Court, while damaging his prestige and ability to get new legislation passed, did have an effect. The pressure of a changing nation by the time the case came to them had an effect. In the 1937 decision in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the government and the act’s future was ensured. Within a year of the decision, three justices retired and Roosevelt ensured the future of his programs.
It’s also important to remember what life for workers was life before the National Labor Relations Act. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t form strong unions and thus were poor, although that was a piece of it. It’s that companies could do basically anything they wanted to in order to stop or bust a union. They could hire spies. They could hire a police force. They could kill union organizers. They could fire you for joining a union. Corporations had all the power and workers had none because in the end, the government was willing to back up the companies through legislation or even through military intervention to bust unions. The NLRA ended that, perhaps not entirely, but largely. Leveling the playing field meant workers now had the right to a decent life, a right they were happy to grasp and fight for. And fight for they did, as union membership skyrocketed after the NLRA was upheld by the Court.
In other words, social movements require accessing the levers of power, even if that means compromising on key principles, in order to codify change.
As is the case with most legislation, it proved susceptible to conservative regulatory capture and today the NLRB is a shell of its former robust self thanks to Republican attacks on it as one of the few agencies dedicated to giving workers a fair voice on the job, a principle to which the Republican Party opposed in 1935 and opposes in 2014.
This is the 113th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.