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Tag: "labor"

Fast Food Minimum Wage

[ 27 ] July 23, 2015 |


I am glad that the Fight for $15 in fast food has forced the hand on Andrew Cuomo to raise the wages of those workers to $15 by 2021. That’s a win. But it’s totally ridiculous that it is industry-based as opposed to a general minimum wage. I fear the upshot of this will be to create divisions among workers, and perhaps at the same time, to start turning already fractured minimum wage law (national, state, city) into something even more fractured if it turns on industry lines. While one hopes this leads to demands from all workers for $15 an hour, we don’t want to have to do this industry by industry. This is a problem created by Cuomo, who just set a precedent for industry-wide minimum wage differentials. I don’t like that one bit.


New Frontiers in the Global Race to the Bottom

[ 13 ] July 21, 2015 |


Labor in Bangladesh is not cheap enough for the apparel industry. Time to move to Myanmar, so long as the government–a group of military leaders not precisely known for taking the poor into consideration–doesn’t raise the minimum wage to a shockingly high 40 cents an hour.

In the last few years, top Western clothing retailers such as Gap, H&M, Marks and Spencer Group PLC and Primark Stores Ltd. have signed contracts with more than a dozen garment factories in Myanmar, the former British colony also known as Burma. The country emerged from decades of military dictatorship in 2011 and major U.S. and European sanctions shortly thereafter. It now offers some of the cheapest labor costs on the planet combined with easy access to Asian markets — both attractive features for corporations looking to source low-cost, ready-made garments for export.

Last summer, Gap raised eyebrows when it became the first American apparel company to publicly sign a contract in Myanmar since President Barack Obama eased sanctions. At the time, Gap said, “The apparel industry will play a key role in helping to fuel the economic prosperity of the country.”

But if garment-factory bosses get their way, comparatively little of that newfound wealth will flow to workers.

The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, representing about 350 factories, says the government’s proposed wage is too high and will force employers out of business. It wants its own industry-specific rate of about $2 a day instead. Starting pay in factories currently hovers around $1 a day.

An association official recalled a meeting two weeks ago that brought together representatives of about 160 factories, including the owners of plants that supply Gap and H&M, to discuss the government’s wage proposal. “At one point, we did a roll call vote to see a show of hands, who would say basically they couldn’t afford to pay it, and every hand went up,” says the group’s project manager Jacob Clere, reached on the phone in Yangon, the nation’s largest city and garment-manufacturing hub. “In terms of the membership, they’re all saying they can’t afford to pay it.”

That sentiment contrasts sharply with the repeated public assurances of brands that say they are committed to improving labor standards in Myanmar.

What I love about how the garment industry is framing this is by saying that the apparel contractors can’t pay this minimum wage. Not letting them off the hook here, but the real issue is that Gap, Walmart, Primark, etc., won’t pay enough per garment to allow them to pay that higher wage. Again, let’s be clear where most of the power resides in the global apparel industry–with the big western companies doing the contracting. The garment owners may often be awful people who treat employees with unnecessary cruelty. But they are most certainly operating with very thin profit margins thanks to the cost standards imposed upon them by the western companies. They are the ones that need to be held culpable. This is why we need international standards on wages, conditions, and other facts of work in the global garment trade, precisely so that a nation like Myanmar can pay their workers 40 cents an hour without the garment companies having all the leverage to defeat it.

This Day in Labor History: July 19, 1972

[ 65 ] July 19, 2015 |

On July 19, 1972, the AFL-CIO announced its decision not to endorse George McGovern for president. This astounding decision helped doom the already floundering McGovern campaign, helping to guarantee another victory for Richard Nixon. It also placed a permanent divide between non-labor progressives in the Democratic Party and the labor movement, one that still has not been fully bridged today. The story is actually more complicated than is usually stated, because in fact a lot of unions strongly supported McGovern.

For George Meany, George McGovern and his supporters were offensive on a number of levels. First, McGovern represented the Democratic Party in revolt, the hippies who protested inside the disastrous ’68 Chicago DNC. In the aftermath, with rules changes to the Democratic Party structure to make it more democratic, the power of the AFL-CIO leadership within the Party was challenged, even as there was room for more rank and file participation. But worse for Meany, McGovern didn’t support the Vietnam War. George Meany was a cold warrior’s cold warrior. He used his power as head of the federation to undermine socialism around the world and promote CIA activities, including, at the beginning of his tenure as AFL chief, supporting the overthrow of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Meany thought the Vietnam War was a righteous war. And that would make him hate McGovern.


There was another issue at play–the endless rivalry between Meany and the old CIO unions. Walter Reuther was dead by this time, but Meany and Reuther hated each other and what each stood for. Meany was highly concerned that the new social liberalism of the Democratic Party grassroots would empower the Reutherites both in the labor movement and in society as a whole. So undermining the social democratic unions in a new grassroots oriented Democratic Party was also on his mind.

George McGovern had a reasonably strong background in labor. He wrote his first book on the Colorado coal wars that culminated in the Ludlow Massacre. But McGovern’s record was not perfect, and that included on some of the most important labor legislation of his term. First, while in Congress, he voted for the Landrum-Griffin Act. Second, in 1966, he voted against the repeal of Section 14(b) the Taft-Hartley Act. The latter especially is pretty bad. That’s the provision that allows states to enact right to work legislation. Yet in the end, COPE, which was the AFL-CIO political arm, noted that McGovern voted with labor 93.5% of the time, about the same as Ed Muskie, if less than Hubert Humphrey, who was an outstanding supporter of unions. In any case, it wasn’t a record that should have lead to the AFL-CIO ditching him once he had won the domination. One can argue, as Jefferson Cowie has in Staying Alive, that the vote to overturn 14(b) would have hurt him in South Dakota where such a vote would have no support. Possibly, although I think Cowie, is excusing McGovern’s vote here to make a point against Meany. But, to his credit, McGovern openly said that if elected, he would fight to overturn 14(b). And as Cowie also points out, Meany’s good friend Lyndon Johnson had voted for Taft-Hartley in the first place so this was all a frame job against McGovern, a fair enough charge. And in any case, McGovern’s labor record was a hell of a lot better than Richard Nixon’s.

So Meany went to work on the AFL-CIO to not endorse McGovern. That wasn’t all that hard, really. First, Meany himself supported Nixon. Second, a lot of the building trades also supported Nixon. That didn’t mean that the federation was going to endorse Nixon; far from it. But it did mean neutrality, which was a huge and very public blow to McGovern. At the AFL-CIO convention a week before the announcement, Meany worked openly to achieve this result. Even before it was made official on July 19, the newspapers were filled with articles that this was going to happen. And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.

Interestingly, McGovern’s second choice for the vice-presidential candidate, after Ted Kennedy, was United Auto Workers president Leonard Woodcock. By this time, the UAW had withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taken out by Reuther in 1968 over Vietnam and a variety of other policies. So it’s far from clear that had Woodcock accepted whether this would have done anything more than infuriate Meany. But while Woodcock was interested, there was a lot of feeling within the UAW that this was inappropriate for a union head and he declined.

There was significant discontent within the labor movement over Meany’s tactics. A lot of unions, especially the industrial unions, were furious with him over it. They thought McGovern would be great and fully supported him. The United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, AFSCME, and a lot of less powerful unions like the International Woodworkers of America fought hard for McGovern. Thirty-three unions, representing a majority of unionized workers in the United States, ultimately officially endorsed McGovern.

McGovern also visited that site of 1972 rebellion against both corporations and staid union leaders, Lordstown, Ohio, where his genial rebellion was received very positively with the young rank and file UAW members rebelling against the boredom of their jobs and what they saw as staid union leadership. But it was all too little by far and of course McGovern was crushed that fall.

Unfortunately, this complexity within the labor movement over the McGovern decision gets lost in a general narrative that between Meany’s support for Vietnam, his hatred of McGovern, and a couple of isolated incidents where “hardhats beat hippies,” labor cannot be trusted by other progressives. It’s a cherry picking narrative that is really problematic and needs severe revision. Those incidents are true enough and George Meany was terrible, not only for what he did to McGovern, but to the labor movement as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that labor itself can’t be trusted because of some actions over 40 years ago. Rather, it means that organized labor has had some terrible leadership over the years, but that the union movement has always included some forward-thinking people who have done a great deal of good for social and economic justice everywhere. And that’s should be a lot more important today that George Meany’s call in the presidential election of 1972.

This is the 152nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Prison for Wage Theft

[ 66 ] July 17, 2015 |


A great start in New York fighting wage theft:

On Wednesday, the owner of nine Papa John’s franchises in New York City pled guilty to the first criminal case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against a fast food franchisee over wage theft.

According to court documents, including company records obtained by the attorney general’s office, Abdul Jamil Khokhar, the franchisee, and BMY Foods Inc. paid its 300 current and former workers the same base rate for any hours they worked after putting in 40 a week, which under law should be paid time-and-a-half. To get away with paying less, they allegedly paid overtime hours in cash and created fake names for the employees in the timekeeping system. They then filed fraudulent tax returns that left out the cash payments made to employees under the false names.

Khokhar’s sentencing is set for September 21, when he faces 60 days in jail. He also faces paying the employees $230,000 in back wages as well as an additional $230,000 in damages and $50,000 in civil penalties.

BMY Foods Inc. declined to comment. A Papa John’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “Papa John’s is aware of the recent incident involving one of our New York franchisees who was taken into custody this morning. These allegations do not reflect our position as a company. We have a strong track record of compliance with the law. We do not condone the actions of any franchisee that violates the law. This particular franchisee has divested itself of most of its restaurants and is in the process of exiting the system. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and take appropriate action.”

More of this. And Papa John’s itself needs to be held legally liable. Franchising exists in no small part so corporate doesn’t have to have any legal accountability for what happens in their stores. They control what they care about and let the little things like workers be on the backs on the franchisee. It’s a model that exists to help the corporation. One way it helps them is provide legal distance from the actual conditions of work. That has to change, and there has been recent signs that it is changing. We already know that Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter is a terrible human being who likes to keep his labor as poor as possible. I don’t know if Schneiderman can go farther up the food chain, but imprisoning a franchisee for wage theft is a good start.

The Struggle of Female Carpenters

[ 17 ] July 16, 2015 |


The systematic sexism inherent in most American work is particularly strong in the building trades, where sexism, work tradition, and popular perception all combine to make women a rare sight to see. Such is the case with being a carpenter:

Ask why so few carpenters are women and the answer is almost always the same: There aren’t enough resources to let women know they can be carpenters, let alone to help them stay in the industry.

“The industry doesn’t market these opportunities to women. Women don’t know anything about them,” Vellinga says. “They don’t know what these jobs entail. They don’t know how much they pay. They don’t know why they should be interested in these jobs. So most apprenticeship programs get very small numbers of female candidates.”

Chicago Women in Trades runs technical opportunities programs to help women understand basic construction skills, such as how to recognize tools and read blueprints, which they can use to secure apprenticeships in trades of their choosing. Run by unions, apprenticeships are the cornerstone of careers in the trades. During that time, apprentices earn a fraction of the salary they’ll receive once they are certified as journeymen. In return, apprentices are recognized as union members, take classes at the union school and receive on-the-job training through working with contractors at construction sites.

At least, that’s what happens in theory. While interest among women in high-paying trades jobs is on the rise—Vellinga reports that her organization’s program orientations sometimes draw over 150 women—few would-be female carpenters actually make it through their apprenticeships to become journeymen, in part because they face harassment and poor treatment.

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studies, 41 percent of women construction workers endure gender harassment. Ten percent have had their work vandalized, and another 10 percent have faced physical threats. They rarely report this abuse to their supervisors.

“There is that culture of, ‘This is where tough people come to work. And women shouldn’t be here, but since you are, you gotta be tough too,’” explains Lorien Barlow, a New York City-based filmmaker who’s spent the past two years working on a documentary about tradeswomen across the country. “If you do complain, you’ll be seen as the whiner, or the hysterical woman or the one who’s just looking to sue someone for money.”

Just one of many examples of continued sexism in the work force, which does is not an important enough issue in political discourse.

It’s also worth noting that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters has done a decent job in recent years of promoting women in the workforce. Whether that’s really accepted by the rank and file member may be another story.

This Day in Labor History: July 15, 1959

[ 11 ] July 15, 2015 |

On July 15, 1959, the United Steelworkers of America went on strike to protect its significant victories won after World War II in running the shop floor and empowering its members to live a middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps the most underrated event in American labor history, the steel strike of 1959 touches on many of the key labor issues of the postwar period. Combining the total number workers and length of the strike, companies lost more employee hours than any other strike in American history. It showed the height of worker power in American labor history on the shop floor and through the contract. It also demonstrated how government would still bust strikes when it could, a blast from the past and a foretaste of the future. Yet it also suggested just how far unions had come in American society, given how the USWA overcame these challenges and won. Finally, this was the end of the peak of American labor militancy.

During the 1950s, the nation’s major unions mae enormous gains in wages and benefits for their members. That was particularly true of the United Auto Workers and, to a slightly lesser extent, the USWA. After Philip Murray died in 1952, David McDonald became union president. McDonald is no one’s idea of the ideal union president, particularly given his total lack of charisma. There’s a reason no one talks about him today. But he was good at forcing the companies to open up their pocketbooks in contract negotiations and forcing their hand on shop floor issues. He was irritated that the UAW generally won better contracts and worked hard to make up that gap. During the 1950s, the USWA won significant wage gains, health insurance, pensions, vacation time, and other hallmarks of the working class becoming middle class through union contracts. This often took place through strikes, including in 1946, 1949, 1952, and 1955. A 1956 strike was a major victory for the USWA (and for McDonald’s leadership), leading to big wage and benefit gains.

By 1959, the American steel industry was incredibly profitable, with very little foreign competition having developed by this time. But the companies wanted to push back. Their specific line of attack was to take control of the shop floor through eliminating a section in the union contract that had given workers significant shop floor power through the grievance process. Effectively, the USWA was using the grievance procedure to take away management prerogative to rule at the workplace. This included making it very difficult for companies to lay off workers whose jobs were replaced by automation. While the high wages and benefits rankled the companies, it was the sheer gall of employees to tell them how to run their factories that really infuriated the steel industry. And so the companies decided their target would be the shop floor clauses, with the hope that this was a first step to regaining control over their workers. Less than a month before the expiration of contract, and in the middle of ongoing negotiations, the companies offered a slight wage increase in exchange for union givebacks on scheduling, seniority, staffing, and work standards. The hope was to force the union to strike and then the companies would be willing to give up everything but shop floor control givebacks.

This strategy certainly worked at first. The USWA completely rejected the corporations’ offer. More than 500,000 workers went on strike at factories around the nation on July 15. Steel production declined 90 percent. AFL-CIO president George Meany wasn’t happy with McDonald or the USWA. Being a Cold Warrior first and class warrior second, Meany worried the strike would undermine national security. He really wasn’t in a position to distance himself too far from one of the federation’s most powerful unions, so he gave it a very mild endorsement while pressuring McDonald to settle.


The strike convinced President Dwight Eisenhower to invoke the back to work clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act, forcing an 80-day cooling off period. This then led to the union filing suit in federal court that Taft-Hartley was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Court upheld the law by an 8-1 majority. The strikers had to return to work after 116 days on the pickets. Yet the union was able to survive this frontal assault. Kaiser Steel, which had long had been more willing to work with labor than many of the other companies, caved and took out the offending provision while offering a small wage increase. But the rest of the companies held out. Finally, Eisenhower realized the workers would strike again if the companies insisted on the workplace rule provision. He had Richard Nixon tell US Steel chairman David Blough to give up. With the government clearly stepping in on the side of continued steel production, the companies did surrender. The contract created a committee for the union and management to study the issue of shopfloor rights.


One lesson of this strike for us is that the idea that the companies ever really accepted unionization, even at the peak of labor’s power, is a lie. There was never a period where the companies saw unions as partners. Rather, they wanted to crush them and return to the 1920s without union shops. The reason they couldn’t is worker power. Corporations had to make public statements that they accepted organized labor as a partner. These were lies but they also reflected the need to appease that worker power. The corporations may have lost the 1959 strike, but the union was not is a good position to win in the long run. Ultimately, the rise of steel imports, which some have claimed were a result of consumers looking to foreign competition in order to avoid production problems because of these frequent labor conflicts, would undermine both the industry and the USWA. The 1959 strike was the last nationwide steel strike of the era. In the 1962 contract, McDonald did give back quite a bit of shopfloor control and made it easier for companies to let workers go because of automation. He became convinced about that the steel industry was increasingly less competitive and hoped these compromises of worker power would help. They did not. But they did create a rank and file rebellion against McDonald and in 1965, he was replaced by I.W. Abel, a very rare defeat for a major union leader to that point in labor history. But the American steel industry did not reverse its long, slow decline.

Somehow, there is not a really key historical work on the ’59 strike. Hopefully this changes soon. Jack Metzgar’s autobiographical remembrance Striking Steel is however a fantastic book that you all should read.

This is the 151st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

….I forgot to insert this earlier. Dave Alvin wrote a song about the strike. His father was an organizer for the USWA during these years.

Does Evangelicalism Have to Be Anti-Labor?

[ 30 ] July 13, 2015 |

No. Although I think the case is overstated here because while there are examples of evangelicals being pro-union during American history, by and large evangelicals have been anti-union a lot more than not.

Unions and the Democratic Primary

[ 123 ] July 13, 2015 |


The outpouring of support for Bernie Sanders has included a lot of labor people. That has made labor executives worried. First, Richard Trumka reminded state federations and locals that they don’t have the right to endorse anyone. Then, the American Federation of Teachers came out and endorsed Hillary Clinton.

This doesn’t surprise me and is pretty unfortunate, but is understandable. Union leaders are a lot less interested in primary politics and supporting (likely) losing primary campaigns from the left than in creating solid support from the likely winner. They want to make sure they are close to President Hillary Clinton rather than primary runner-up Bernie Sanders. You might say that unions should be about democracy and their members should have the right to endorse the candidate who most represents their views. I might well say you are right about that. But in the hard realpolitik world of modern class-based politics, with unions facing death, one can see why Trumka, Weingarten, and other labor leaders (expect an SEIU endorsement of Hillary very soon), would rally around the winner and hope to be closer to her inner circle.

But if the Bernie surge continues and he develops a shot to win, labor is going to look pretty bad here.

Obama’s Workplace Safety Record

[ 24 ] July 9, 2015 |


Elias Isquith has a Q&A with Jamie Smith Hopkins and Jim Morrison from the Center for Public Integrity, which has released a new series of reports on workplace safety in the United States. They have pretty harsh words for President Obama:

Were you surprised to hear David Michaels, the head of OSHA, speak so frankly to his agency’s lack of capability? That isn’t something you hear from government officials especially often, regardless of whether it’s true.

JM: I found that striking. They’ve actually been saying that for several years. In 2013, OSHA put out a press release saying as much. They said that our limits don’t protect workers in the vast majority of cases. I’ve told Jamie and my co-workers that I can’t recall another federal agency publicly saying, Sorry, but we really can’t do a whole lot. You are on your own. That’s pretty much what OSHA has been saying for a couple of years. It’s amazing.

JSH: What they’re arguing is not that they don’t want to do anything, but that they’ve been hemmed in by core decisions and other things that prevent them from issuing rules in a timely fashion. Rules do get put out, but very slowly.

People assume Democratic presidents are more pro-regulation than Republican ones. Has that proven to be the case during the Obama years?

JSH: There has been one health rule that has been put out during the Obama administration. Certainly when you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago.

JM: Simply put, the Obama administration really isn’t any better or much better than the Bush [administration]. It’s not a good record.

No it’s not. Now, one issue is of course OSHA funding. And while Obama has not made this, or workplace safety generally, a high priority, certainly Congress holds no small amount of fault here. Still, the Obama administration could do a lot more through reorienting OSHA toward more efficient ways of dealing with risks on the job and through executive orders. The only president who ever really valued OSHA to the point of making it a political priority was Jimmy Carter. And that’s too bad. One would have hoped that an event like the West, Texas factory explosion would have put a jolt into American politics that we need to take safety and health more seriously, but it completely disappeared from the national conversation by the next news cycle.

Work More!

[ 141 ] July 9, 2015 |


Jeb Bush’s hands are far apart to indicate he wants workers to labor all the hours

Jeb Bush really is a man of the New Gilded Age. His beliefs about labor are truly Lochner-esque.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Wednesday that in order to grow the economy “people should work longer hours” — a comment that the Bush campaign argues was a reference to underemployed part-time workers but which Democrats are already using to attack him.

During an interview that was live-streamed on the app Periscope, Bush told New Hampshire’s The Union Leader that to grow the economy, “people should work longer hours.”

He was answering a question about his plans for tax reform and responded:

“My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours” and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.”

That’s just what we need in this country, people working longer hours. After all, the American worker has already become incredibly productive and Americans already work ridiculously long hours compared to Europe, but there might be more profit to be squeezed from their bodies and their brains if they were to work, say, a 12 hour day. Really, the ideal should be the workers of Bangladesh and Cambodia. Those are people who know how to work long hours!

Jeb later said this was taken out of context yadda yadda, but his labor policy would be absolutely horrible as president.

This Day in Labor History: July 9, 1948

[ 7 ] July 9, 2015 |


On July 9, 1948, the International Labour Organization signed The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention. Unfortunately, the United States Senate never ratified it, showing the difficulty international standards, labor and otherwise, have always had in becoming law in the United States and the damage that can do for the effectiveness of these agreements. It also suggests just how limited labor rights really are in the United States compared to much of the world.

The International Labour Organization came to be in 1919 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. As the U.S. never ratified that treaty, it did not join the ILO until 1934. The ILO became significantly more important after World War II as it became closely associated with the United Nations. The UN asked the ILO to create a series of conventions immediately after the war, making the request official in 1947.

The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention is one of the 8 conventions that make up the core of international labor law. It is a very basic document. Article 1 urges all ILO states to follow the following direction:

Article 2

Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.

Article 3

1. Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.

2. The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.

Article 4

Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.

Article 5

Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to establish and join federations and confederations and any such organisation, federation or confederation shall have the right to affiliate with international organisations of workers and employers.

Article 6

The provisions of Articles 2, 3 and 4 hereof apply to federations and confederations of workers’ and employers’ organisations.

Article 7

The acquisition of legal personality by workers’ and employers’ organisations, federations and confederations shall not be made subject to conditions of such a character as to restrict the application of the provisions of Articles 2, 3 and 4 hereof.

Article 8

1. In exercising the rights provided for in this Convention workers and employers and their respective organisations, like other persons or organised collectivities, shall respect the law of the land.

2. The law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided for in this Convention.

Article 9

1. The extent to which the guarantees provided for in this Convention shall apply to the armed forces and the police shall be determined by national laws or regulations.

2. In accordance with the principle set forth in paragraph 8 of Article 19 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation the ratification of this Convention by any Member shall not be deemed to affect any existing law, award, custom or agreement in virtue of which members of the armed forces or the police enjoy any right guaranteed by this Convention.

Article 10

In this Convention the term organisation means any organisation of workers or of employers for furthering and defending the interests of workers or of employers.

Yet this was too far for the United States. In fact, the United States has only ratified two of the eight fundamental conventions. The U.S. voted for the convention within the ILO and Harry Truman sent it to the Senate for ratification in 1949. Secretary of State Dean Acheson assured the Senate that the U.S. would need no legal changes to comply with it. But 1949 was not an auspicious time for international labor conventions and the U.S. Senate, not in the aftermath of the Taft-Hartley Act and the rise of McCarthyism. John Bricker, the isolationist and anti-union senator from Ohio led the opposition, saying the ILO “wants to become the economic overseer of all humanity.” The fear of international supremacy over American law also motivated many senators to not support the ILO and other international legal frameworks. Bricker, based in no small part on his opposition to the ILO, attempted to get constitutional amendments ratified that would significantly reduce presidential power to agree to international law and in 1954 his amendment failed in the Senate by one vote after Dwight Eisenhower personally intervened against it. The Senate never ratified the convention. Conservatives have occasionally spoke out for ratification over the years, including George Schulz, Elizabeth Dole, and even Orrin Hatch. But it has never again received serious attention.

Today, 153 nations have ratified the convention. Among the 30 nations who have not ratified it are North Korea, Belarus, and the United States. It’s not a dead letter either. Last year, Somalia signed it. But not the United States. It undermines American credibility on labor issues worldwide. When the U.S. lectures about democracy, as it has since the early days of the Cold War, labor issues and the freedom of association are usually part of that critique. Yet many at home and abroad have noted that, once again, the U.S. does not practice what it preaches because it won’t pass the basic ILO conventions. It’s not as if the U.S. never passes ILO conventions. For instance, in 1999, the Senate ratified an ILO convention against particularly exploitative forms of child labor. But a serious commitment to international labor rights is of little interest to many senators, indicative of a nation that has not passed major pro-labor legislation since 1938. In fact, the US has ratified only 14 of the 188 ILO conventions.

We might ask whether such agreements make a difference. Obviously Somalia does not all of a sudden lead the world in labor rights. Nor do other signatory nations Bangladesh, Guatemala (which signed it under the leadership of Jacobo Arbenz), or Honduras. Enforcement matters and the ILO doesn’t have enforcement rights. Yet in a world of rampant global labor exploitation, often led by Americans companies operating internationally, it’s quite telling that the United States refuses to sign on to basic international labor rights. Like any international agreement, it’s strength is largely determined by the most powerful members. In the U.S., whether in international law or international agreements to stop Bangladeshis from dying in factories making clothing for Walmart, the nation’s political and business leaders refuse to commit to anything that might hold the powerful accountable.

I borrowed some of this from Steve Charnowitz’s paper, “The ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Its Future in the United States.”

This is the 150th post in this series. I guess that’s a sort of milestone. Previous posts are archived here.

New Attack on Protecting Interns

[ 33 ] July 8, 2015 |


I’m not at all shocked that a bunch of elite judges don’t understand the world of internships and how corporations use them to create pools of free labor. But that’s not going to stop them from undermining protections for interns. Ross Perlin:

The judge, William H. Pauley III, found that Fox Searchlight had failed to meet this test. Sadly, on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit eviscerated the six-factor checklist and replaced it with, in essence, a new legal theory of what internships are all about.

The appeals judges found, among other things, that an internship can be legal even if it doesn’t meet the traditional six-prong test, especially if it is tied to the receipt of school credit and helps the student fulfill academic commitments.

Even worse, the judges declared that “the proper question is whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the relationship.” They ignored the legal standard and ethical principle that work merits pay.

The judges stressed that internships may be legal merely because they are supposedly being overseen by the interns’ schools. But these very same institutions have been complicit in the internship boom by ignoring abuses, requiring internships for graduation and charging students for academic credit when they go off campus to do unpaid work.

The “primary beneficiary” approach leads to the atomizing result that interns cannot unite to protect themselves. The judges write that “the question of an intern’s employment status is a highly individualized inquiry,” ignoring the low or nonexistent pay and shabby work conditions common to interns in many offices and industries. Thursday’s ruling all but destroys the basis for collective action through class-action lawsuits.

At oral arguments in January — I had filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs — it was evident that the three judges had no firsthand experience of what they call “the modern internship.” Focusing on “what the intern receives in exchange for his work,” the judges completely ignore the significant benefits that employers derive from their interns.

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