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Tag: "labor"

Heat Stress as Global Health Crisis

[ 5 ] November 24, 2015 |

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With climate change leading to the warming of the planet, we need to start thinking about heat stress as a major global health problem that deserves serious attention. This story on Central American sugar workers should alarm you and move you to thinking about these issues more carefully.

Protecting agricultural workers from heat exposure is more problematic. Back in El Salvador, supply chain NGO Solidaridad has been piloting a project at sugar cane mill El Angel with partner La Isla Foundation to see if new tools and cutting methods, as well as better working conditions (providing shade and water, and enforcing breaks), can help improve health and productivity. Sven Sielhorst, global sugar cane programme manager for Solidaridad, says: “We need strong partners to make sure that these improved work practices get broadly adopted in Central America and any other region where this disease occurs.”

Trabanino is calling on employers to take a lead on reducing workers’ exposure to heat stress both now and in the future. “Small changes in working conditions can have a big impact,” he argues, adding that “prevention [of heat-related illnesses] is not only cheaper, it’s far easier than treatment.”

Of course, given the sugar industry’s long indifference toward its workers (not to mention history of just working slaves to death), the less than robust believe in workers’ rights in nations like El Salvador, and the utter and complete indifference of American and European food companies who buy the sugar (or the vast majority of American companies for that matter) to the conditions of their supply chain, I’d say the chances of seriously protecting Central American sugar workers from dying of heat stroke seems remote. We could do something by demanding the Corporate Responsibility Act I lay out in Out of Sight that would make corporations legally accountable for those supply chains. Sadly, that is not happening anytime soon.

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Labor’s Decline and Fall

[ 20 ] November 22, 2015 |

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Above: Sewing workers strike, 1937

If you haven’t read Rich Yeselson’s discussion of why organized labor has declined so far from its postwar height, you should do so. It’s a pretty right-on analysis that combines how mechanization and efficiency has undermined unions throughout the developed world with the unique political scene of the United States that has led to a much more fundamentalist hatred of unions among employers than Europe (which the sociologist Kim Voss notes in her comparison between the U.S., Britain, and France extends back to the Knights of Labor era in the U.S.) that has created a political scene in this nation that has always made it harder for unions to succeed. The the South has always had outsized political influence here makes it all the harder.

With the brief exception of the late 1930s followed by the anomalous period of the Second World War when the government needed the active support of unions to maximize military production, labor has never had a juridical and statist presumption that it should institutionally survive, let alone flourish. For much of its history, and to this very day, the courts, business, and conservative media and politicians have sought to diminish labor’s power, if not crush it outright. With the exception of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (which opponents immediately sought to undermine and whose legal fate was unresolved for two years), there has never been a statist framework in the US that explicitly sought to ensure labor’s institutional viability across the branches of the federal government and state governments. And without that statist presumption, unions had to confront what historian Nelson Lichtenstein has labeled a special form of “American exceptionalism”: “the hostility managers have shown toward both the regulatory state and virtually all forms of worker representation.” Lichtenstein goes onto note that the absence in the U.S. of “self regulation or cartelization” found in Europe and parts of Asia. Decentralized “competitive disorder” made non-rationalized wage and benefit increases imposed by firm-by-firm unionization (rather than the sectorial model of collective bargaining found in Europe in which the extra cost burdens of unionization was socialized across economic sectors) a great threat to companies and triggered a particularly vicious, sometimes violent, response. The brief period of labor’s zenith did not diminish the desire of its enemies to undermine it—on the contrary, it was a persistent provocation: a reminder of the power business had lost and wished to regain. Thus when, via the decline in manufacturing and a corresponding loss of political influence, unions weakened in the 1970s, the business class seized that moment and, by the construction of politically and intellectually influential think tanks and a massive increase in their congressional lobbying, counter-mobilized to crush them. It only took a decade or so of labor’s increased vulnerability to prove how wrong Eisenhower’s benign notion was that “only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries” wished to bust American unions. In fact, the entire business class of the United States, large and small companies alike, wished to bust American unions and when, given a chance to do so, seized it.

The structural reasons for union diminution, i.e., trends in political economies that affected the entire advanced world, are well known, if sometimes distorted and misread under the rubric, “globalization.” Yes, millions of first world jobs in manufacturing and mining have disappeared since the Second World War. Manufacturing and mining jobs peaked in 1953 at about a third of total employment. After a steady decline through the 1973-74 recession, they briefly returned to a 22% figure in 1978, but a steady decline from there accelerated in the 21st century. Today, manufacturing represents fewer than 9% of all jobs (although productivity increases make manufacturing a significantly larger share of GDP). Many of these jobs did go overseas. But many others were just lost to productivity gains. In mining, for example, there are, perhaps 80,000 jobs today compared to over a half million—almost all of which were unionized–in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Coal provided close to 2/3rds of our energy then—making the imperious president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, one of the most powerful people in the country, Now, coal provides under a third of our energy and, as climate change policy becomes more pressing, it is an industry which, like tobacco, has taken on an anti-social cast.

Very much worth your time.

Unionize the Charters!

[ 14 ] November 21, 2015 |

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One of the best strategies for dealing with the union-busting charter schools is to unionize said charters. That is happening, especially in Chicago. There are difficulties in reconciling an anti-charter position with organizing those teachers, but the unions can work that out. Unionizing these schools are the nightmare of Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown, Arne Duncan, and Scott Cowen. That alone should make it a top priority.

More here.

Southwest Negotiations

[ 20 ] November 20, 2015 |

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An interesting summary of the labor tensions at Southwest, where pilots have rejected a contract that included a big pay raise. Despite what some people think however, a union is not just about pay and there are a lot of issues that Southwest has not been willing to deal with, including an unwillingness to pay retroactive checks to the pilots for the years they were without a contract. Southwest pilots are also concerned that the airline entering into codeshare agreements will undermine their union. But a big issue is, as is often the case, work rules and working conditions:

Southwest is also seeking substantial changes in work rules. Starting around 2007, Southwest’s major competitors won far more flexibility in scheduling their pilots’ workdays, improving productivity. By contrast, Southwest was thriving while its rivals were re-working contracts in bankruptcy. So, it kept raising the pay it offered and did nothing to bring its highly restrictive work rules in line with the new freedoms aiding Delta, American, and United.

It’s not clear if the pilots’ union is opposing Southwest’s work rule proposals, or if they will eventually agree to them.

By around 2012, Southwest had gone from parity in overall costs to a 20% disadvantage compared to its competitors. As profits soared across the industry, the gap in compensation between what Southwest and its competitors offered narrowed substantially. What remained was the chasm between Southwest’s highly restrictive work rules and the flexibility offered by other carriers like American and United.

Today, the other big airlines can generally assign their pilots to a maximum of 13.5 hours of “duty” per day, which includes the duration of the flight and the time required to prepare and lock up the plane. (That duty period can be shorter if, for example, the workday begins at 11 p.m.) But under Southwest’s rules, the duty day is isn’t nearly as long. In part, that’s because the carrier traditionally specialized in short-haul routes of one to three hours. Today, though, Southwest is challenging the other major airlines in coast-to-coast and other long-haul routes from Atlanta, La Guardia in New York, Washington Reagan, and other airports catering to lucrative business travelers. It’s also entering the international market for the first time, with flights to the Caribbean and Central America. As Southwest goes long-haul and overseas, its needs a longer duty day for pilots.

The tighter cap on hours substantially raises its labor cost per mile flown. And during negotiations, the airline’s executives aimed to move the pilot schedule regulations closer to the industry norm. They were willing to boost pay to get there.

My own belief is that eventually enough pilots will accept the pay raise–or perhaps a somewhat higher one in the next round of talks–to pass this through. But regardless of whether you agree with the pilots demands, this is a useful lesson that unions are not solely or even primarily about wages. They are about workplace dignity and giving workers a voice in their own employment. There’s no good reason that the pilots should give all this back to Southwest, even if the pay raise is an incentive to do so. But for about 60% of the pilots, that’s not enough. This will be an interesting case to watch.

Jail the Wage Thieves

[ 11 ] November 20, 2015 |

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The more wage thieves that are prosecuted and forced to serve time in jail, the more likely it will be that employers won’t steal their employees’ wages. Also, New York Attorney General Eric Schneidermann has really been a leader on these issues and I hope he moves to higher office, replacing Cuomo or Schumer at some point.

Erik Visits an American Grave (VI)

[ 9 ] November 19, 2015 |

This is the grave of John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1898-1908.

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Mitchell was born in 1870 and a founding member of the UMWA in 1890. That’s right, he was 20. He’d been working in the mines since 1876. Yes, at the age of 6 he was working. He rose rapidly in the new union, becoming close with Mother Jones. He became president in 1898, a position he would hold for a decade. His most important accomplishment was shepherding the union through its huge victory in the 1902 anthracite strike in Pennsylvania, when Theodore Roosevelt intervened to mediate the conflict instead of sending in the military to suppress it. The union grew from 34,000 terms to 340,000 during his term. The thing about Mitchell though, even though he was close with Jones, is that he also liked living the good life and he began running in some high-end circles, including with business leaders. This eroded the trust of the rank and file in his leadership. He was eventually forced out when the union told him he would have to give up his National Civic Federation membership where he hobnobbed with the wealthy. He refused and resigned. He died of tuberculosis in 1919.

When Buzzfeed runs its inevitable “25 Hottest American Labor Leaders,” Mitchell is going to show serious game.

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John Mitchell is buried in Cathedral Cemetery, Scranton, Pennsylvania

TPP, Vietnam, and Labor

[ 9 ] November 18, 2015 |

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The U.S. and Vietnam have a side agreement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that supposedly makes it easier for labor unions to organize. It sounds good in theory but probably will do nothing to protect worker rights.

A pact between Washington and Hanoi to strengthen labor unions in Vietnam could give workers more bargaining power, but the impact will depend on how Vietnam carries out the agreement, longtime Vietnamese government advisers and other specialists said on Thursday.

The side agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership calls for Vietnam to pass legislation that would legalize independent unions, allow them to strike and let them seek help from foreign labor organizations like the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Sounds good, right! But….

But Tony Foster, the managing partner of the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offices of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a big global law firm, said that the labor provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership had been expected, and that it was unclear how much change they would bring to Vietnam.

The central question, he said, will be the extent to which the trade agreement increases the influence and independence of labor unions.

“The devil is really going to be in the details on a lot of this stuff — I’m sure people are going to be parsing it very carefully to determine what will really be required,” Mr. Foster said in a telephone interview from Hanoi. “It will be a balancing act for the government, and I’m sure they will comply, more or less.”

Multinationals have shown much more interest this autumn in investing in Vietnam, and the anticipated labor provisions of the trade accord have caused little concern among companies, he added.

That this doesn’t worry the corporations is a sign that this is probably going to be totally meaningless, or nearly so. First of all, there does not seem to be any hard consequences to Vietnam if they ignore it. The corporations certainly won’t care. The TPP gives all the benefits to the Vietnamese government up front. The real political concern here is getting the TPP through Congress. Once that happens, what’s the enforcement mechanism? If there was an enforcement mechanism and–most importantly–if workers themselves could access that mechanism and file complaints–then it would be a good thing. As is, this will probably go the way of other labor provisions in these big trade agreements and do almost nothing. It’s also worth noting, since the evangelists of free trade never actually ask workers in other countries what they think, that the Vietnamese labor movement opposes the TPP because it feels that it will make it harder for them to improve the conditions of workers.

Speaking of such things, this is a good place to remind people of my talk tonight in Providence at AS220 at 5:30 (although really at 6). I talked about the TPP with RI Future if you want to get a preview.

Ban the Box

[ 30 ] November 16, 2015 |

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I don’t think anyone mentioned this when it happened two weeks ago, so let me do so here. Obama deciding to “ban the box,” i.e., eliminate the job application question about an applicant’s criminal record for the federal government, is an important step forward for both racial and labor justice. As is common, racial justice is labor justice and labor justice is racial justice. This movement has enough momentum that at least a few Republicans, like Chris Christie, are also supporting it. Hopefully, we can eliminate this discriminatory question from job applications entirely. The question is inherently racist given the racism of the criminal injustice system and it furthers institutionalized racism and poverty for people convicted of nothing more than holding marijuana while black.

It May Not Surprise You That……

[ 95 ] November 15, 2015 |

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Giant corporations and their outsourcing firm friends are gaming the H1-B Visa program to get almost all of the immigrants, squeezing out all other employers.

Congress set up the H-1B program to help American companies hire foreigners with exceptional skills, to fill open jobs and to help their businesses grow.

But the program has been failing many American employers who cannot get visas for foreigners with the special skills they need.

Instead, the outsourcing firms are increasingly dominating the program, federal records show. In recent years, they have obtained many thousands of the visas — which are limited to 85,000 a year — by learning to game the H-1B system without breaking the rules, researchers and lawyers said.

In some years, an American employer could snag one of these coveted visas almost anytime. But recently, with the economy picking up, the outsourcing companies have sent in tens of thousands of visa requests right after the application window opens on April 1. Employers who apply after a week are out of luck.

“The H-1B program is critical as a way for employers to fill skill gaps and for really talented people to come to the United States,” said Ronil Hira, a professor at Howard University who studies visa programs. “But the outsourcing companies are squeezing out legitimate users of the program,” he said. “The H-1Bs are actually pushing jobs offshore.”

Those firms have used the visas to bring their employees, mostly from India, for large contracts to take over work at American businesses. And as the share of H-1B visas obtained by outsourcing firms has grown, more Americans say they are being put out of work, or are seeing their jobs moved overseas.

Of the 20 companies that received the most H-1B visas in 2014, 13 were global outsourcing operations, according to an analysis of federal records by Professor Hira. The top 20 companies took about 40 percent of the visas available — about 32,000 — while more than 10,000 other employers received far fewer visas each. And about half of the applications in 2014 were rejected entirely because the quota had been met.

Two of those applications came from Mark Merkelbach and his small engineering firm in Seattle. For water projects in China, he needed engineers and landscapers who speak Mandarin, and he could not find them in the local market. With his H-1B visas denied, Mr. Merkelbach had to move the jobs to Taiwan. Another denial went to Atulya Pandey, an entrepreneur from Nepal who founded an Internet company in the United States and now can no longer work legally in this country for his own business.

This is just more evidence that we need legal crackdowns on outsourcing if we want to preserve any sort of American jobs. The H1-B Visa program should be a good thing that helps build the nation through bringing in workers that can help companies while diversifying the nation. But this level of abuse by corporations who want to outsource as many employees as possible is actually forcing work abroad. The system needs serious reform if it doesn’t contribute to income inequality and joblessness rather than promoting the needs of innovative companies.

The TPP and Labor Rights

[ 25 ] November 15, 2015 |

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Finally, details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are going public. A few points and initial thoughts.

The deal would grant multinational corporations the right to challenge laws and regulations in secret tribunals when they are considered trade barriers. Countries can ban tobacco companies from taking part in these tribunals.

The agreement’s language was influenced by multinational companies including pharmaceutical firms, recording studios, agribusinesses, and others. Critics say the deal was forged in secrecy.

The pact calls for improved freedoms and more attention to the needs of indigenous people and overall public health, better access to medicine for people living in the TPP countries and increased protections for drug patents.

Malaysia, whose Prime Minister Najib Razak is accused of stealing nearly $700 million from a development fund, would be required to allow freedom of movement for victims of human trafficking and negate rules restricting labor unions.

With the threat of trade sanctions, TPP countries are required to ban child labor and employment discrimination and give workers the right to form unions.

New markets would open for Vietnamese clothing firms and Malaysian electronics companies.

First, the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts are still horrifying precisely because there is no accountability at all. If nations can’t pass laws based on their own interest without extra-legal courts overruling them, that’s a major defeat for democracy worldwide. That tobacco companies are excluded actually just reinforces this point because all it is doing is claiming one industry is too immoral for these courts. Thus an exception is claimed but who decides in the future if an interest lacks the moral fiber to participate? I don’t per se have a problem with international courts making some level of decision on trade issues. But they have to have some sort of openness and accountability and they have to allow citizens some level of access. Creating international law that undermines the ability of citizens to improve their own nations is a horrible idea.

The greater powers to Big Pharma, agribusiness, and entertainment companies are all deeply problematic, allowing primarily American companies to profit off poor nations by undermining the ability to provide cheap medicines and the extension of America’s ridiculously pro-corporate copyright laws.

I simply don’t believe that the provisions around labor rights will be enforced. We have a long history of trade deals and they never work out for worker rights. Malaysia is required to crack down on its human trafficking, but what is the actual consequence for not doing so? As we saw from the Obama administration’s reclassification of Malaysia’s human rights record in order to allow that key trading partner into the TPP, it’s unlikely, especially as many administrations in the future are likely to care less about international labor rights than Obama. And while banning child labor and the like is great in principle, if workers can’t access this agreement and instead it depends on nations and their powerful corporations, all of whom have interests in keeping this system of child labor, color me extremely skeptical about all of this.
Judy Gearhart of the International Labor Rights Forum has similar thoughts:

In fact, language for an effective labor chapter offered by a coalition of national union federations from the affected countries was largely ignored:

The agreement makes no progress on enforcement, ignoring common-sense proposals like requiring the parties to conduct timely, impartial investigations of allegations of non-compliance and firm deadlines for implementing necessary reforms.

Requests to prohibit the trade of goods made with forced or child labor and to establish mechanisms to seize such goods at the border came out with the TPP merely “discouraging” trade in goods made with these egregious human rights violations.

Requests to include protections for migrant workers, such as regulating labor recruiters or prohibiting confiscation of passports, were wholly ignored, despite well-documented, systemic exploitation of migrant workers in a number of TPP countries.

Proponents of the TPP argue that separate bilateral agreements on labor and human rights for Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei will improve conditions in these countries despite long-standing disregard for the most fundamental human rights, such as freedom of association and elimination of forced labor. This argument is based on the flawed premise, however, that serial labor rights violators will make necessary reforms after they receive the benefits up front.

We have seen this approach fail repeatedly. In the lead up to the CAFTA vote in 2005, the Bush Administration promised that the U.S. government would hold Guatemala, Honduras, and other parties accountable if they failed to improve their dismal records on labor rights enforcement. Ten years later, despite the filing of complaints that clearly show how Guatemala and Honduras continue to fail to enforce their labor laws, worker organizers continue to face threats, abuse, and worse. The Solidarity Center reported last month that more than 70 worker activists have been killed in Guatemala since 2007, and the AFL-CIO reported more than 30 were killed in Honduras since 2009.

I just talked about how these trade agreements have consistently failed Guatemalan workers. There’s not much reason to believe that nations like Vietnam and Malaysia will treat workers any better. As Gearhart states, if you give all the benefits for nations who have no interest in labor rights up front, they are unlikely to then enforce those rights and it’s even more unlikely that the corporations with major investments in these economies are going to accept those nations being thrown out of the agreement or pressing major sanctions upon them.

In short, like NAFTA and CAFTA, it’s highly likely the TPP is not good for the world’s workers. But we keep swallowing the bill of goods supporters of these trade agreements give us about how it will help workers in the U.S. and abroad.

Bought and Sold by the Nail Salons

[ 16 ] November 15, 2015 |

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You may remember the big New York Times nail salon labor expose of a few months ago that made a real difference in allowing these workers, primarily women with few English skills and often here without documentation, to have some semblance of dignity in their lives. Well, the nail salon owners know how to fight back. By buying off politicians:

In a packed hall in the Bronx a few months ago, Ron Kim, a New York State assemblyman, stood clutching a ceremonial pen in his left hand, the other extended into the crowd as labor advocates, politicians and immigrant rights workers thronged to shake it. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had just used the pen to sign into law a bill protecting nail salon workers from labor abuses and potentially dangerous chemicals. It was a measure that Mr. Kim, who represents the mostly Asian enclave of Flushing, Queens, had spent a painstaking summer helping to craft.

Less than a month later, however, Mr. Kim, a Democrat, began to publicly question the law — particularly a provision designed to protect workers from wage fraud. He soon became one of the statute’s most vociferous critics.

Other elected officials and civic groups have expressed concerns about the statute, which passed the State Legislature after The New York Times published a two-part series in May on abuses in the industry. They argued the law was discriminatory and overly burdensome on immigrant-run businesses, and contended it unfairly lumped responsible nail salon owners in with those who are mistreating workers.

But Mr. Kim came to play a critical role in the owners’ battle, helping them strategize and connecting them to a lobbying firm where he used to work. Among the firm’s first tasks was to help with public relations around a lawsuit filed by the owners challenging the legality of portions of the law.

There is clearly a political upside in the nail salon fight for Mr. Kim, who in interviews covered by the Korean-language press has alluded to his hope that the issue will help mobilize Asian-American voters and in that way strengthen his position in the Assembly. More tangibly, Mr. Kim’s campaign coffers are swelling.

Give the nail salon owners credit–they may be immigrants themselves but they rapidly learn the American way of fighting against pesky reformers. A big check will do it.

Child Performers

[ 61 ] November 12, 2015 |

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Child models and performers are workers too and they deserve protection, often from their own parents. Glad to see legislation introduced into Congress to given them those protections.

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