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Tag: "labor"

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!

This Day in Labor History: October 31, 1978

[ 8 ] October 31, 2016 |


On October 31, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. An amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the new law stated the pregnant workers “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes as other person not so affected, but similar in their ability or inability to work.” This law was the culmination of a long movement to give female workers equal rights on the job, as opposed to special protections that could ultimately lead to discrimination against them.

Earlier women’s activism in the workforce tended to focus on protecting women on the job, often granting them special rights that would protect them as mothers. The Consumers’ Bureau led by Florence Kelley was central to this strategy, which played a critical role in the Muller v. Oregon case that carved out an exemption from the predominant idea of employees entering into a voluntary contract with employers and thus deserved no protections. Because women were mothers, the Court decided that reducing their work hours made sense. Battles between women’s labor activists and Alice Paul’s branch of the women’s movement continued for the next 50 years, as the National Women’s Party focused exclusively on the Equal Rights Amendment and worked with employers to defeat labor legislation. By the 1970s, these debates had become more than stale. The women’s movement united around the ERA and women were demanding true equality on the job. The 1970s saw serious activism on women’s reproduction and work for the first time. The 1975 decision by Idaho’s Bunker Hill Mining Company to demand the sterilization of women working in certain jobs, wrapping itself up in a fetal rights argument to protect itself against unsafe working conditions demonstrated the need for broader equal protection of women on the job.

Moreover, courts were finding against pregnant women’s rights. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in General Electric v. Gilbert. GE had an insurance plan that paid part of a worker’s wages for 3 weeks for any disability except disabilities caused by pregnancy. GE employee Martha Gilbert took the company to court. GE’s policy violated the 1972 EEOC policy covering pregnancy. But they feared the men would start wanting time off when their partners had children and that doctors would allow “malingering” women to stay at home. Gilbert won her case at each level until she reached the Supreme Court when William Rehnquist wrote an opinion for the majority that pregnancy discrimination didn’t exist becuase pregnancy is what made women different than men. But the decision also opened the door for Congress to clarify the issue. Feminist lawyers agreed. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that if Congress was “genuinely committed to eradicating sex-based discrimination,” it could provide “firm legislative direction assuring job security, health insurance coverage, and income maintenance for childbearing women.”

Congress has never gone as far as Ginsburg wished of course. But in response to GE and other cases, it did pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by a vote of 376-43 in the House and 75-11 in the Senate. President Carter signed it soon after. As with most labor laws, it had an unfortunate exception to any employer with less than 15 employees. Everyone else could not treat pregnancy any different than other occupational disability. Treating pregnant workers differently became sex discrimination. This law specifically reversed General Electric v. Gilbert. But the PDA also had some pretty severe flaws, problems that of course made it easier to pass. It did not provide any new benefits for women workers. It depended completely on whatever programs employers provided for other workers. If an employer had no health benefits for workers, pregnant workers would receive no benefits. If an employer did have health benefits, they would now have to include pregnancy. Five states went further than the federal law. California mandated that employers had to grant pregnant workers 4 months of unpaid leave with job security, effectively a precursor of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Still, the new law led to a whole new set of discrimination cases. When Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock did not improve its health plan to include full coverage for childbirth to the female wives of male workers (as opposed to its female workers), this led to a suit. In Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock v. EEOC, the Court ruled in 1983 that the company must provide the benefit to the wives of workers. Even the California extension of the right led to a suit, when a bank employee filed a case in 1982 when, after a 3-month leave after a difficult pregnancy, was fired because the employer said the PDA superseded the state law. The bank sued to repeal the state law. This once again split feminists between labor feminists and the National Organization of Women. NOW urged that the federal law which eliminated gender difference be upheld but also argued that Title VII required the extension of benefits as opposed to their removal, as argued by the bank. The Coalition for Reproductive Equality in the Workplace, led by Betty Friedan, worked with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), many other unions, and Planned Parenthood in support of the California law, noting that the statue did not protect women like laws of the past, but rather remedied the discriminatory impact of employer health policies. In California Federal Savings and Loan Association v. Guerra in 1987, the Supreme Court found in favor of the California law by a 6-3 margin, with Scalia joining the majority strictly out of his belief that federal laws should not supersede state laws. Thurgood Marshall wrote the decision that noted that Congress and California had similar goals and that the employer was free to extend benefits to other disable employees. It might be special treatment, but it paved the path to equal treatment. Byron White, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist dissented, as one might expect.

I borrowed from Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws from Women Workers, 1890s-1990s in the writing of this post.

This is the 197th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Well Shiver Me Timbers!

[ 9 ] October 29, 2016 |


You mean that providing working-class people good paying jobs is a critical part of fighting poverty? And that industrial labor can make a huge difference in solving this problem? Amazing!!! Who knew!

James Branch’s life seemed destined to follow a familiar arc in the streets that surround the Marlin Steel factory, where he bends metal from sunrise until near dark.

He fathered a child while in high school, dropped out, then spent a dozen years selling drugs. He went to prison and, afterward, squatted in abandoned houses in West Baltimore. He worked the fryer at Popeyes and fought the temptation to go back to dealing on street corners that many Americans will know from the television series “The Wire.”

Fortunately, things turned around for Mr. Branch.

Now 40, he earns just over $20 an hour as a skilled machine operator at Marlin Steel, a small maker of specialized metal baskets used by much bigger manufacturers like Ford Motor, Boeing and Merck. He owns a car, rents a two-story townhouse with an airy backyard and recently watched the daughter he fathered at 16 as she graduated from college with a degree in psychology.

What altered Mr. Branch’s fate? There was his own discipline, of course, like completing a two-year course in metalwork between his shifts at Popeyes. Or getting up at 3:45 a.m. and taking three buses to avoid being late for his first factory job.

But his success is also because of the unlikely survival of Marlin Steel, a rare breed: the urban industrial manufacturer.

Marlin is a thriving factory in a place that, over the last half-century, factories have fled — first to the South, and later to Asia. That flight haunts the United States perhaps most in its urban areas — especially neighborhoods that once housed the nation’s working class — and helps explain why many African-Americans in particular today live in poverty in metropolises like Baltimore, Detroit, Newark and St. Louis.

But bromides about reeducation and retraining programs for jobs that lead nowhere and place the blame on workers when they fail are so much easier! And of course no one is claiming that industrial jobs are ever going to flee back to the United States. But it also demonstrates that work, including industrial work, needs to be part of the American economic strategy for working people. And it just hasn’t been for a very long time. That isn’t going to mean new GM factories that employ 20,000 people on the shop floor. But maybe more of these smaller factories can play an important role. Most critically, industrial labor with decent wages can provide hope and dignity for working people. And that is absolutely crucial for the stability of the country, as we are seeing during this election cycle. However we accomplish this, whether through McDonald’s paying $20 an hour or finding ways to create new industrial jobs, working-class people or people generally that simply don’t have the skills or the inclination to go to college simply must have a path to a dignified life. Unfortunately, policy makers have not taken these questions seriously enough over the past half-century.

Income Inequality/Racial Inequality

[ 18 ] October 29, 2016 |


It’s hardly surprising that growing income inequality would exacerbate other forms of inequality. Thus, this EPI study demonstrating the connections between income inequality and black/white wage gaps is more depressing than shocking.

What this report finds: Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, but the increase has not occurred along a straight line. During the early 1980s, rising unemployment, declining unionization, and policies such as the failure to raise the minimum wage and lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws contributed to the growing black-white wage gap. During the late 1990s, the gap shrank due in part to tighter labor markets, which made discrimination more costly, and increases in the minimum wage. Since 2000 the gap has grown again. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.

Why it matters: Though the African American experience is not monolithic, our research reveals that changes in black education levels or other observable factors are not the primary reason the gaps are growing. For example, just completing a bachelor’s degree or more will not reduce the black-white wage gap. Indeed the gaps have expanded most for college graduates. Black male college graduates (both those with just a college degree and those who have gone beyond college) newly entering the workforce started the 1980s with less than a 10 percent disadvantage relative to white college graduates but by 2014 similarly educated new entrants were at a roughly 18 percent deficit.

What it means for policy: Wage gaps are growing primarily because of discrimination (or racial differences in skills or worker characteristics that are unobserved or unmeasured in the data) and growing earnings inequality in general. Thus closing and eliminating the gaps will require intentional and direct action:

Consistently enforce antidiscrimination laws in the hiring, promotion, and pay of women and minority workers.

Convene a high-level summit to address why black college graduates start their careers with a sizeable earnings disadvantage.

Under the leadership of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, identify the “unobservable measures” that impact the black-white wage gap and devise ways to include them in national surveys.

Urge the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to work with experts to develop metropolitan area measures of discrimination that could be linked to individual records in the federal surveys so that researchers could directly assess the role that local area discrimination plays in the wage setting of African Americans and whites.

Address the broader problem of stagnant wages by raising the federal minimum wage, creating new work scheduling standards, and rigorously enforcing wage laws aimed at preventing wage theft.

Strengthen the ability of workers to bargain with their employers by combatting state laws that restrict public employees’ collective bargaining rights or the ability to collect “fair share” dues through payroll deductions, pushing back against the proliferation of forced arbitration clauses that require workers to give up their right to sue in public court, and securing greater protections for freelancers and workers in “gig” employment relationships.

Require the Federal Reserve to pursue monetary policy that targets full employment, with wage growth that matches productivity gains.

These policies all make a tremendous amount of sense for labor issues generally, not only those that generate racial inequality.

Freelancer Rights

[ 32 ] October 28, 2016 |


The rise of the freelancing economy is quite disturbing to me for the same reasons as the much of the rest of the outsourced, franchised, temp, gig economy–workers have effectively no rights and protections and are totally at the whim of whoever hires them for basic things like getting paid. I think everyone in the online writing world has either done work and not been paid despite promises or knows someone who has been the victim of this sort of wage theft.

New York is acting to give freelancers much needed rights.

The New York City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to give freelance workers a set of protections against wage theft that are believed to be the first of their kind in the country.

Known as the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, the measure requires anyone hiring a freelance worker to agree in writing to a timetable and procedure for payment, and increases the potential awards to freelancers bringing legal complaints against those who have failed to pay them promptly.

The bill represents one of the earliest policy efforts to grapple directly with the growth in the so-called gig economy — a term that typically refers to the likes of temporary workers, contract workers, independent contractors and freelance workers. According to one estimate by the economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger, this group grew to almost 16 percent of the work force in late 2015 from roughly 10 percent in early 2005.

“New York is in some ways at the center of the gig economy, of the evolution of the economy to more independent and contingent work,” Brad Lander, the councilman who introduced the legislation, said.

But Mr. Lander, Democrat of Brooklyn, added that the existing employment and labor laws are “so badly outdated they don’t give the basic protections all workers expect, much less broader support and benefits to all workers in the growing gig economy.”

The Freelancers Union, a group that played a key role in shaping the measure, estimates that there are nearly 4 million freelancers in the New York metropolitan area. A recent survey by the group found that half of all freelancers nationwide said they had encountered trouble getting paid in 2014, and that more than 70 percent struggled to collect payment at some point in their careers.

Sara Horowitz, the union’s executive director, said one of the bill’s most consequential provisions could be the requirement of a written contract for any freelance relationship for which the compensation is at least $800 over a four-month period.

To say the least, we need these protections on a national scale.

The Communists and the CIO

[ 17 ] October 28, 2016 |


As far as it goes, this history of communists and the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s that Jacobin published is sound, both factually and historiographically, except for saying

Though its role is rarely mentioned, and even less frequently assessed, the Left was central to the organization of this new dissident union federation.

which makes absolutely no sense at all. If anything, the role of the left in the building of CIO is overdiscussed since basically no one writes about these issues but leftists interested in the communists. But whatever.

The problem, as often happens, is in the conclusions. What are we to learn?

Any revival of a left-wing unionism today will have to involve a serious emphasis on building a shop-floor presence within unionized workplaces, rather than just in the union staff positions more attainable for the political left. With an entrenched leadership bureaucracy committed to a failed strategy of collaboration with US capitalism, union staff will always be limited in their role.

Whether or not union bureaucracies have a failed collaboration with American capitalism, this struggles to make much sense because of the enormous differences between shop floors in 1937 and 2016. Communists were successful in unions like UE, and for that matter the entire CIO was successful for this reason, largely because the electrical industry had shopfloors where thousands of people worked. Mass organizing could result from this arrangements. Similar shop floors simply do not exist much today. Maybe in meatpacking and a few other industries. But not to any meaningful extent for organizing the American workforce. So maybe communists do get jobs as nurses and take over SEIU locals. That’s fine. But the structural issues of transforming unions are if anything harder than they were in 1937.

While individuals can do great work and contribute real talent, the task of reforming and reorganizing the US labor movement remains a political battle to be won within the unions through a rank-and-file upsurge from below. Many of today’s union leaders recognize this — and, like John L. Lewis, they’ll knowingly deploy left-wing organizing staff despite being unfriendly to left-wing objectives, because they’re entirely confident that the union, and not the leftist political project, will end up keeping “the bird.”

I can buy this.

Despite the Communist Party’s enormous shortcomings — including the opportunism of the Popular Front era and their shameful role during World War II — many CP-led unions nonetheless left an inspiring legacy. Many locals waged militant strikes and aggressively expanded the “frontier of control” on the shop floor far beyond the legal interpretations of collective bargaining.

OK, but let’s not handwave away said shortcomings. The biggest problem with the Communist Party union operatives is that they were indeed taking orders from Moscow, meaning that they switched positions at party directives and put those priorities over the priorities of the workers. And the workers noticed and acted, often actively participating in the driving out of the communists from the unions after World War II, but even before, writing to the Dies Committee, begging a federal investigation of their locals.

Of course any leftists taking over a union today are unlikely to be CP members and aren’t going to be following the orders of Putin or anyone else in Russia so maybe it’s irrelevant, except that to the author, it is not. A return of socialist based unionism (and we’re talking radical socialism here, not the Swedish kind) from below is the stated goal here:

Socialists within the labor movement must adopt a strategy of building up bases of local support that can be leveraged within and between unions for coordinated aims. Socialist politics are crucial to building a fighting labor movement, capable of giving expression to worker militancy across various industrial sectors and, ultimately, even the entire economy.

And that’s fine. But the lessons from the CP are not just the positive ones of organizing and solidarity. They are the negative ones of all the ways these unionists screwed up.

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