The only known recording of Mother Jones for your Thursday night. This is from an interview on what she claimed was her 100th birthday in 1930. She did exaggerate her age somewhat and when she died that year, it is thought she was actually 93.
On December 8, 1886, the American Federation of Labor formed at a meeting of union officials in Columbus, Ohio. The most successful labor federation in American history, the AFL has long had its critics on both the left and right, but ultimately its founding president Samuel Gompers understood the realities of Gilded Age politics and how to negotiate the best possible deal for workers in that atmosphere.
It is a bit hard to talk about the American Federation of Labor in 2013. Samuel Gompers has a pretty bad reputation among progressives. Some of it is deserved. For instance, Gompers openly lied to Congress about Industrial Workers of the World sabotage and supposed connections with Kaiser-led Germany during World War I because he wanted the government to crush the rivals to the AFL. Gompers created an organization that would not organize Asians, blacks, women, children, or the people of the new industrial factories, i.e., the burgeoning American workforce. Gompers’ AFL considered itself a movement of the elite skilled workers, making a mass movement of American labor impossible. His craft unionism meant that when factories were organized, it was into 10 or 12 different unions in the same workplace, each with its own agenda, as opposed to the later industrial unionism that would finally challenge the AFL fifty years later. Gompers supported anti-immigration legislation, from extending the Chinese Exclusion Act to ending Japanese immigration to the Immigration Act of 1924.
Hard guy to love.
But we can set all this aside for a minute and at least focus a touch on what the AFL did right?
First, we need to understand the milieu the AFL grew out of. 1886 was notable for 2 major events in American labor history. The first was the collapse of the Knights of Labor after the Haymarket Riot. The Knights had very quickly transformed from a fraternal organization into a massive social movement due to the 8-hour day appeal. But the Knights not only had no ability to manage its suddenly huge constituency, but it had few concrete ways to achieve these gains. The 1880s was a period where Americans were struggling to even comprehend the rapid growth of industrial capitalism and many sought highly simplistic one size fits all solutions like the Single Tax, Chinese Exclusion, or the 8-hour day. The AFL understood the complexities of modern capitalism much better and took a different strategy of working toward concrete, if limited, improvements in the conditions of working people. And they achieved a great many victories through the union contract, especially considering the open hostility of employers and the government through much of its early history. The AFL actually was a splinter movement from the Knights. When the latter organization attempted to find a way to make itself financially stable through encouraging local unions to withdraw from their internationals and become direct affiliates of the Knights. Although some locals agreed, the internationals revolted and thus the AFL began.
Second, Samuel Gompers was not a dictator. Just like the AFL-CIO today, he oversaw an organization made up of constituent unions that often disagreed with one another. That he supported a craft union model made this worse, yes, because it encouraged division rather than unity. But he couldn’t dictate this one way or another. This is also true of the racial and immigration problems of the AFL. Was Gompers at fault? Or was it the white supremacy of the American working class. Let’s not forget that the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory of the American labor movement and that it came in 1882, four years before the AFL formed. It wasn’t a top-down movement that led to the massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885. Blame Gompers for his share of the problem, he deserves it. But also blame the endemic and violent racism of the United States in 1886. Or 1936. Or 1966. At each time, labor was deeply divided by race.
We might also want to reconsider the AFL’s “pure and simple unionism” in our time of organized labor struggles. He and his supporters (especially P.J. McGuire of the powerful United Brotherhood of Carpenters) said labor should only care about itself and improvements in pay, hours, and working conditions, rejecting larger political agendas to transform society. If a politician was labor’s friend, labor would support him no matter the rest of his positions. If a politician was labor’s enemy, he was the enemy. Gompers eschewed federal intervention in the workplace because he did not believe the government could be counted on to protect workers. Only the union contract would. He even opposed parts of the welfare state we value today, including workers compensation, because that system as developed in the 1910s took power away from workers to sue their employers for much money in court than they would get from the government. Gompers would likely look at today’s labor movement, embedded within the Democratic Party but getting very little out of that investment, and confirm everything he believed. Not saying I agree here, but this situation is more or less what Gompers feared.
The AFL also did a tremendous amount for the American working class, or at least part of it. Its unions won major gains throughout the Gompers years (he died in 1924). They weren’t always long-lasting; ultimately, the AFL needed the New Deal as much as those fighting for industrial unions did; despite Gompers (and then William Green’s) theoretical non-partisanism (although this began to fade after about 1908 as the Democratic Party became more openly pro-labor), it actually did need to elect politicians in order to create semi-permanent victories. The AFL started slowly, won some good gains in the 1890s, took a big blow from employers in the 1900s, had major wins during World War I, and then got punched in the gut over and over in the bad 1920s. But while other social and labor movements came and went, the AFL maintained itself and its members with a solid, if sometimes uninspiring, philosophy of the union contract.
So I’d like to think there is still a lot to learn from the American Federation of Labor, and not just things not to do. This was the most successful labor movement in the history of the United States, it’s relationship with politicians in the early decades maintained labor’s independence and ultimately maximized its political strength, and its understanding (even if that was an acceptance) of capitalism meant maximizing its ability to squeeze real benefits from employers that made workers’ lives better and avoided quixotic and simplistic solutions to what ailed the working class. The AFL’s social, racial, and anti-radical positions means that it is probably nobody’s idea of what the modern labor movement should look like. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t create a lot of positive change that the entire working class benefits from today.
This is the 84th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Today is the largest mobilization of fast food workers in history, with workers across the country engaging in a one-day strike. The basic demand is a $15 an hour wage. SEIU has played a major role in spurring this movement, even though it has little to gain immediately since the chances of a union contract that would pay dues is low to nonexistent in the near future. But this is the kind of forward thinking leadership that labor needs to take with non-union workers in industries away from their base (in SEIU’s case, health care and government) that won’t necessarily build the dues structure. The recent populist push for higher wages, coming out of Occupy and seen most concretely in the Sea-Tac $15 minimum wage passed last month, is a good sign that people are uniting around a specific concrete goal as a first step. Rep. Raul Grijalva is pressing Obama to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers covered by government contract, which he can absolutely do but almost certainly won’t. But it is more concrete pressure from the left that combined with people on streets, can and I think will move more Democrats toward making meaningful changes in the national wage laws.
Greenhouse’s piece linked above cites economists claiming a higher wage would lead to a lot less employment, but I am skeptical of this and don’t see any real evidence as to its truth. If mechanization is cheaper, it’s going to be cheaper at $7.50 too and a few bucks an hour to the few workers in a fast food joint isn’t going to make or break that process. It’s certainly possible that an employer could try to staff with less workers, but that’s another problem that workers can organize around. It’s also of course worth noting that employers and their lackeys make these arguments about every improvement in the conditions of workers and have since at least the Civil War.
My criticism of most 3rd party political campaigns are well known. I see them, personified by the Nader campaigns, as quixotic attempts every four years to show left-wing anger with the Democratic Party but completely lacking any legitimate political strategy, movement-building skills, or long-term plans. They appear and disappear and nothing happens during the election off years. They don’t organize locally, they don’t try to challenge the Democratic Party on the city and county levels. Essentially, they are spasms of self-righteous anger that occasionally do enough damage to elect Republicans, which then makes life for the 99% much worse. Also, thanks for Iraq, Ralph.
But here is an alternative. Lorain County, Ohio is a Democratic dominated county. The split there is between unionists and centrist anti-union hacks. When the Democratic Party overturned a Project Labor Agreement that guaranteed union jobs, labor took matters into its own hands. The Central Labor Council ran its own set of candidates for City Council and won most of the races.
This isn’t a full-fledged third party movement. But it’s exactly how labor and third party activists should operate. You start on the local level, you organize, and you win. You then build from there. What the CLC will do going forward is unknown. But not only have they sent a message to the Democratic Party that they can win elections if the Party doesn’t fall in line behind labor, they have provided a guidebook for how those to the left of the Democratic Party can reject the party and still make a difference.
If only the Green Party activists and Nader defenders would learn from this.
On November 30, 1999, protests began in Seattle, Washington against the World Trade Organization. The WTO meetings offered unions, environmentalists, and various social and economic justice activists from around the world a forum to voice their rejection of the neoliberal free trade agreements of the late 20th century that had undermined American unionism, allowed corporations the mobility to flee meaningful labor agreements or environmental restrictions, thrown millions of farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands as cheap American agricultural goods flooded world markets, and stripped people around the world of the ability to influence the economic conditions of their nations and the social and economic safety nets created in the twentieth century to provide people with a modicum of dignity. These protests raised an important hue and cry against this injustice, but became most known for the violence that took place on the streets.
The general story of what went down on the streets is pretty well known. A loose coalition of people opposed to free trade agreements decided to target the WTO meeting in Seattle as a general point of protest. The protest was supposed to be nonviolent, but as is usually the case, there wasn’t much of a mechanism to ensure that it actually was so. The idea quickly caught fire and at least 40,000 people came to the protests, making it the largest international protest against free trade in world history. I don’t want to spend much time focusing on the idiotic black bloc anarchists who decided to break Starbucks windows during the protest and undermine the nonviolent mission of the protests without permission from the other stakeholders. I also don’t want to focus on the fascistic police response by the Seattle Police Department, which should allay any mythology that the police will ever be on the side of working class protest, unless it is very much in their own interest to do so. I’d rather focus here on the role of the labor movement. But by the evening of November 30, the streets of Seattle were at war and the labor and environmental organizations who had planned the thing found their message swamped in a sea of violence and the media coverage of it.
Labor’s involvement in the protests came in the wake of the federation increasingly realizing that the good old days were no longer true. There was a lot of denial and trying to ignore the problem of labor’s collapse in the 90s, although the defeat over NAFTA and the ascendance of John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO were clear signs that at least some people were trying to take it seriously.
The first moment of the protests, and really more accurately the weeks before the protest, saw an uptick in conversations about how labor was finally reaching out to other social organizations. “Turtles and Teamsters” was the phrase used to describe this phenomenon, an apt one as this came just a few years after the resolution of the ancient forest campaigns and spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest that saw environmentalists and labor at each other’s throats. But environmentalists and labor had long had much in common and had for the last three decades had off and on alliances over specific issues. So this was not unprecedented but was meaningful at this point, particularly in its public nature. And at the protests, Steelworkers and Earth First members were making many of the same points–that free trade agreements undermine both good working conditions and environmental standards, that workers breathe in the same air as environmentalists, and that without meaningful protections on labor and environmental standards, a race to the bottom would ensue around the world, which is of course exactly what has happened.
After the protests, recriminations were everywhere, particularly against the Seattle city government and police, as well as the anarchists. Organized labor’s role in the whole event was largely forgotten. Left leaning discontent quickly moved on to the Nader campaign, while 9/11 changed the course of the nation’s history, or at least so popular culture likes to believe. But in the narrative of the left, 9/11 is what killed any chance of meaningful continued actions against unfair trade.
Even without the black bloc protestors and 9/11, we can legitimately question whether any real movement would have developed out of Seattle that would have led to meaningful alliances and a program for change. I am skeptical. It was immediately clear that this was a moment where various people could protest against something but that what would come next was a question no one was prepared to answer. That isn’t denigrating the moment, but everything that happened at Seattle was the easy part. That’s why I’m a little skeptical about the 9/11 claim; it seems like a cop-out for the fact that there wasn’t really any meaningful alliance building going on that would lead to an obvious next step. Once host cities and countries isolated the protesters from the function of the meetings, there wasn’t much else the various movements could do because there wasn’t any other plan. It’s possible that had the AFL-CIO and environmentalists placed the repeal of NAFTA and other free trade agreements as the one and only thing on their agenda and fought like the devil to make it happen–well–it probably still wouldn’t have worked given the overwhelming dominance of neoliberal ideology among the Republican and Democratic Party at the time. But that was probably the only concrete place where such alliances could have really made a difference where it counts–in the law. And in any case, such an alliance was not really feasible. I don’t disagree that on a national activist scale, 9/11 and the War on Terror dropped economic concerns from a high priority–and even today, look at so many of the people progressives claim to love and how little many of them ever talk about economic issues–but honestly, there’s not a whole lot of evidence from the last 40 years that what passes for the non-union left in this country has had much real impact on the nation’s trajectory.
But that doesn’t mean that commenters of the time didn’t hope it was so. The WTO protests was the first time I remember labor writers and activists and historians make statements that I’ve seen over and over again since–at the Wisconsin protests, during Occupy, after the Chicago Teachers Union strike–that this is the moment when labor will turn it around. This is almost entirely wishful thinking and it places a big burden on those trying to build a movement, but once people started realizing that the American labor movement was in very real trouble, they began hanging enormous expectations on whatever pocket of labor uprising popped up at a given moment.
So what to make up the WTO protests for labor? Ultimately, it’s not much. It is an important moment in public perception. But the ultimate effect of these protests upon the American working class was basically zero and the odds were long against it ever becoming something more than zero, even if the protests and the aftermath nationally took an entirely different course.
This is the 83rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
For those of you who like long, detailed reports about the struggles of working people to earn a decent living in the United States, this report on home care workers is very much worth your while. An excerpt:
In-home workers are more than 90 percent female, and are disproportionately immigrants. One out of every nine foreign-born female workers with a high school degree or less works in an in-home occupation. In-home occupations are growing rapidly, driven by sharp growth in direct-care work, including personal care aides and home health aides.
In-home workers receive very low pay, and many have trouble getting the hours they need.
The median hourly wage for in-home workers is $10.21, compared with $17.55 for workers in other occupations. After accounting for demographic differences between in-home workers and other workers, in-home workers have hourly wages nearly 25 percent lower than those of similar workers in other occupations.
In-home workers are more likely to work part time than other workers. This is due in many instances to their own preferences, but it is also the case that a larger share of in-home workers than other workers want (and are available for) full-time jobs, but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.
The median weekly pay for in-home workers who have or want full-time work is $382, compared with $769 for workers in other occupations. After accounting for demographic differences between in-home workers and other workers, in-home workers who have or want full-time work have weekly wages 36.5 percent lower than those of similar workers in other occupations.
In-home workers rarely receive fringe benefits.
Only 12.2 percent of in-home workers receive health insurance from their job, compared with 50.6 percent of workers in other occupations. The majority of in-home workers who receive health insurance from their job are agency-based direct-care aides (18.4 percent of whom have employer-provided health insurance). Only 4.9 percent of maids and 6.3 percent of nannies receive employer-provided health insurance.
Only 7.0 percent of in-home workers are covered by a pension plan at their job, compared with 43.8 percent of workers in other occupations. The majority of in-home workers who are covered by a pension plan at their job are agency-based direct-care aides (10.7 percent of whom are covered by a pension plan). Less than 3 percent of maids and nannies are covered by a pension plan.
In-home workers have a higher incidence of poverty than workers in other occupations.
Nearly a quarter—23.4 percent—of in-home workers live below the official poverty line, compared with 6.5 percent of workers in other occupations.
Twice the official poverty threshold is commonly used by researchers as a measure of what it takes a family to actually make ends meet. More than half—51.4 percent—of in-home workers live below twice the poverty line, compared with 20.8 percent of workers in other occupations.
One of the strengths of SEIU comes from its ability to organize some of these workers and deliver concrete improvements in their lives. Given the growth of this sector of labor and the desperation of those who work at it, not to mention the fact that they lack the common shopfloor experience that has traditionally bound workers together, SEIU’s work organizing these workers is all that much more important.
A useful list of food products for your Thanksgiving made in union shops. If you have a choice, choose union-produced food.
After the Tarzeen fire and Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh over the past year, killing over 1200 workers in total, European companies subcontracting to those factories have stepped up and built a system of compensation for the families of the dead, the injured, and the unemployed. And that’s a positive. The American companies–not so much:
Even as labor advocates single out Primark for praise, they single out Walmart for criticism — partly because production documents recovered after the Tazreen fire indicate that two months before that fire erupted, 55 percent of the factory’s production was being made for Walmart contractors. Walmart has repeatedly been asked to contribute to the anticipated $6 million compensation program for Tazreen survivors and families.
“Walmart is the one company that is showing an astonishing lack of responsibility, considering that so much of their product was being made at the Tazreen factory,” said Samantha Maher, a campaign coordinator for the British arm of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European anti-sweatshop group.
Walmart has also been asked to contribute to the planned Rana Plaza fund because production documents were found in the building rubble indicating that a Canadian contractor was producing jeans for Walmart in 2012 at the Ether Tex factory inside the building. Walmart said that unauthorized contractors were producing garments without the company’s knowledge.
After the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington, wrote to Walmart to urge its participation in the compensation efforts, Rajan Kamalanathan, Walmart’s vice president for ethical sourcing, responded in an email that Walmart did not intend to participate. He wrote that “there was no production for Walmart in Rana Plaza at the time of the tragedy” and that the Walmart-related production at Tazreen was unauthorized.
I can’t speak much about the European companies. But for the American apparel industry, it is once again obvious that its ultimate labor vision is the Gilded Age in the United States, when workers risked their lives every day they went to work and companies held no responsibility for the safety of its laborers. That the present system of outsourcing clothing production also mirrors that of the Gilded Age makes this even more conspicuous. And that like in the Triangle Fire, the companies involved face no ramifications after the Bangladesh disasters helps demonstrate this thesis.
There should be a special circle of Hell for Wal-Mart executives.
While we can all be happy that the filibuster is finally dead, let’s also pay attention to just who Obama is nominating to these judgeships. Such as Patricia Millet, designer of Starbucks anti-union campaign:
“I find it troubling, because Ms. Millett and her firm Akin Gump went well beyond what I consider the bounds of decency and morality in the very aggressive anti-union campaign they really designed and helped Starbucks carry out,” Daniel Gross, a founding member of the Starbucks Workers Union, told Salon. “The campaign that Ms. Millett and her firm architected and really co-led, and continues to co-lead with Starbucks, involved all of the scorched earth tactics which are starting to come to light more and more.” The White House, the AFL-CIO and Starbucks did not provide comment on Millett’s Starbucks work in response to Thursday inquiries. Akin Gump declined to comment.
After 11 years as an assistant to the solicitor general at the federal Department of Justice, Millett joined the top-flight firm Akin Gump, whose website describes its “Labor Relations Strategic Advice and Counseling” practice as including “union avoidance” and “the defense of unfair labor practice charges …” Millett’s clients there included the coffee giant Starbucks, which faced a union campaign by the Starbucks Workers Union, an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies).
You know, it shouldn’t be hard to find Democratic candidates for the federal judiciary who haven’t actually designed anti-union campaigns.
The two proposals differ a bit in the details, but they use roughly the same mechanism to reach the same goal, so we’ll go with Demos’s proposal (described in full here) for ease of explanation. Basically, the argument is this: Walmart throws off enough cash in profits each year that it could easily raise the wages of its workers by about 50%, so that they all made about $25K per year, which is what activists are seeking. Currently, the company just uses that cash for other purposes. Like what? Well, Demos points out that Walmart spent $7.6 billion last year buying back its own stock shares, a maneuver designed to buoy the stock price and dividend payments. From the report:
Walmart’s share buybacks further consolidated ownership of the company in the hands of the heirs to company founder Sam Walton, increasing the Walton family stake in the corporation to above 50 percent. In addition, the buybacks increased the value of ownership among the Waltons and the other remaining shareholders. Yet buybacks did nothing to boost Walmart’s productivity or bottom line and had no direct benefit for Walmart’s customers or frontline employees. Despite the lack of productive benefit, massive share buybacks at Walmart have become a regular occurrence: according to data compiled by Bloomberg, Walmart has bought back about $36 billion in stock in its four previous years, while in June 2013 announced a new $15 billion share repurchasing program at its annual shareholder meeting.
Oh, well, no then! Priorities must remain intact–making the Walton family EVEN WEALTHIER!
I do think if anyone still believes that super rich people reach a point where they think they are rich enough, they shouldn’t believe that.
Our valued commenter Murc took a job at Macy’s. When he was hired, the company gave him a lovely anti-union pamphlet. He then sent it to me. I have photographed and it and am providing it for you to see. You’ll notice a couple of things. First, while such a pamphlet is legal, it’s brimming with half-truths about unions that are intended to do a combination of scaring workers and making them think a union is a waste of their time and money. The highlight for me is when Macy’s says a union can’t guarantee workers benefits; technically true but what it really shows is just that Macy’s is going to refuse to negotiate for higher wages with a union. After all, “neither party is required to make a concession.” Ah. My second favorite line is about how workers once needed unions but “Today, workers no longer need a group to fight for these rights. They are guaranteed by law.” If I was drinking water when reading then, I would have done a spit take. Anyway, the more we publicize the anti-union activities that goes on behind the scenes, the better. I just am showing the text side of the pamphlet, which has most of the good stuff.
Now, I don’t think there is any kind of campaign to organize department store workers, at least nothing I know of. But remember, you don’t have to pay a union money to work here. Of course, without a union you won’t actually make any money.
The faculty at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law are upset because of their raises that are not only insulting, but evidently an insult with an extra dark message.
The AAUP Chapter at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the State of Ohio alleging that the law school retaliated against certain faculty in the award of merit raises in 2013 and 2014 because of their union activities. Faculty were placed in four merit raise bands — $5,000, $3,000, $666, and $0 — based on scholarship and scholarly influence (40%), teaching as measured by student evaluations (40%), and service (20%). The complaint alleges that eight AAUP organizers received raises of $0 or $666, despite “exemplary scholarship and teaching scores.” The complaint charges that the $666 raise in effect calls “AAUP’s organizers and AAUP Satan.” In a memo distributed to the central administration and copied to the entire faculty, one of the eight AAUP organizers alleges that:
[The $666 figure] is a universally understood symbol of the Antichrist or Devil — one of our culture’s most violent religious images. Implicitly, but unmistakably and obviously intentionally, [the Dean] used his powers to set faculty salaries as an occasion to brand his perceived opponents as the Antichrist.
The university denies it of course. And really, who knows.