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Tag: "labor"

Labor Conditions and Your Clothing

[ 44 ] February 3, 2016 |

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As we all know, most of our clothing is now made in Asian sweatshops. The clothing companies intentionally know as little as possible about the conditions of production. They contract it out and then close their eyes. They refuse all responsibility for what happens so long as the clothes come in at price and on time. Otherwise, they don’t want to know. They don’t want you to know either, which is part of the reason why they claim that not only don’t they know, but they can’t really do much about it. This is of course a lie. In any case, what are the conditions of production in Indian sweatshops?

Among the worst of the findings in the report was that some Bengaluru factories kept women (the majority of garment workers) in hostels monitored by male security guards and severely restricted their movements. Most were allowed to leave for only two hours a week, usually on Sunday to buy groceries and other items, and only after registering with a guard. The rest of the time, women were expected to travel only to and from work, and guards recorded when they arrived at and left the hostels.

The ICN, it’s worth noting, didn’t record these practices at the two factories known to produce for H&M and C&A, though the C&A factory did employ guards. The H&M factory hostel only housed men, and they were allowed out until 11pm.

Workers could use phones to talk with friends and family, but the report points out that they had little to no opportunity to interact with labor advocates, making them more vulnerable to abuses. Indeed, some hostels segregated migrants by region, paying certain groups less. All made at least the minimum wage, though Bengaluru’s garment industry has previously been singled out for its unfairly low wages.

Many of the workers were also afraid of punishment. If a woman returned late, for instance, she could be made to wait outside the gate for hours until a guard let her in.

The report found that the hostels generally provide the bare minimum. At a hostel run by Arvind, which supplies H&M, men slept on three-tier bunk beds in large, divided halls. There are no kitchens, the water supply is irregular, and one bathroom serves 12 to 14 people. “Nothing is good,” one Arvind worker said. “But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way.” Workers also had to pay to stay there.

As I have documented over the years here and in Out of Sight (recently named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2015–yay!), these conditions are basically the same in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. These are the clothes you are wearing today or yesterday or tomorrow. The question is what you are going to do about it? When are we going to start demanding that our politicians make these conditions a priority? When are we even going to begin questioning them about the basics? Does even Bernie Sanders have a meaningful position on global labor exploitation by American companies? If so, I haven’t heard it. We have to publicize these conditions and demand that our clothes are made in humane conditions. We have to demand that our fish is not produced by slaves. We have to at least publicly criticize the Obama administration when it reclassifies Malaysia’s human rights record just after human trafficking camps have been discovered so that it can include the nation in the TPP.

Right now, we are failing at all of this.

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Are Strikes the Answer to Labor’s Woes?

[ 28 ] February 1, 2016 |

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Shaun Richman thinks so.

Our challenge is to inspire even non-union workers to think about their power and how to exercise it using the tools we have on hand: a union movement with miniscule density in only a handful of service and public sector industries largely led by staff who have precious little personal experience with leading job actions. We should be clear about how deep this deficit is.

One of the most promising labor projects of the moment is Bargaining for the Common Good. This is an effort by public sector unions in Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio to align their bargaining demands with each other and with community demands around progressive taxation, affordable housing, youth incarceration and government transparency.

These community demands fall well outside a union’s scope of bargaining and are therefore technically illegal. But as long as the unions also have demands that are within their legal scope (not hard to do when employers refuse to pay people what they deserve), then the unions can press the community’s case. This is a brilliant way of getting community to see unions’ fights as their own and of building worker and community power—and the next Chicago teachers strike will likely be the highest profile test of the theory this side of the Mississppi.

What follows could be bigger. A number of public and private sector unions in Minnesota have contract expirations in 2016. Their bargaining demands for the common good are focused not just on their individual employers but also on the largest employers in the state: Target and Wells Fargo. This is the potential for the closest thing we’ve seen in a while to a general strike (something Minnesota has a history of doing).

Another promising project is the Fight for 15. Some have dismissed the series of rolling one-day strikes for increases in the minimum wage and organizing rights as mere P.R. stunts. But there is something deeply radical and significant at play here. Workers who don’t even technically have a union are proving their value—and their power—to their bosses by withholding their labor. And the response from the general public is, at worst, a sort of patronizing “Well, good for them” but more often something a bit closer to “Go get ‘em!”

As I write my new book for The New Press, No Retreat, No Surrender: American History in Ten Strikes (first draft due in June, yikes!), I am musing on these questions a lot. And, as any good historian would probably say, it depends. The real lesson of studying strikes is that they can serve as a great window into their time. Sometimes they are aspirational, demanding and winning real changes in the lives of workers. The Flint Sit-Down Strike is one of these moments, where a small group of workers taking radical action can inspire millions to improve their own lives. Some of the IWW strikes like at Lawrence or the timber strikes in the Northwest serve some of these functions as well. Other strikes can be more consumeristic in content, such as the Oakland General Strike of 1946, where workers shut down the city for no radical purpose. They just wanted more money for themselves. That really helps us understand the consumer republic of the postwar period. Other times though, what strikes really tell us is that workers are desperate. The strikes become last-ditch efforts to save what they once had, whether the Gilded Age strikes of workers losing control over their own labor or the strikes of the 1980s like at Hormel or Phelps-Dodge that companies used to crush unions entirely. These incidents are more sad than anything else.

So this leads us back to the question of whether strikes are part of the answer for labor’s woes. I don’t know. The CTU strike was pretty inspirational, in part because Rahm is such a villain and in part because they did some great things. But it’s not like the CTU has beaten back Emanuel in the years since. That strike was defensive and CTU remains in a defensive posture today, just trying to keep teachers’ jobs and schools open.

On the other hand, it’s true enough that in the New Gilded Age, organized labor is going to have all their long-used tactics rendered ineffective by the Supreme Court, the Koch Brothers, and hostile Republicans around the nation. Friedrichs is just the latest example. There may be a time when a strike or series of strikes becomes that spark that shows a newly aggressive American working class.

In any case, we really need people who are thinking hard about how to express worker power in an era where they are seeing power stripped from them. Things like the Fight for $15 are great examples of how that power can be reclaimed, although actually winning some victories does have to happen at some point. Certainly whatever does bring worker power back in the United States is going to take some new strategies in combination with some traditional strategies. More analysis of these new strategies is necessary, which is why articles like Richman’s are important.

Recording the Workplace

[ 75 ] January 31, 2016 |

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As I have noted in posts here and in Out of Sight, the greatest threat of ag-gag laws, which criminalize knowledge of what happens inside agricultural operations to fight against animal rights activists getting hired to work so they can record and publicize the mistreatment of farm animals, is that if knowledge of one workplace is criminalized, why wouldn’t the law criminalize all public knowledge of what happens inside all workplaces? It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. It’s one that corporations are well of and have tried to implement. Luckily, Obama’s National Labor Relations Board is there to stop them, at least for now. It may not surprise that the corporation in discussion here is Whole Foods, whose interest in the lives of poor people largely extend to photos in their stores of happy brown farmers to provide an sheen of authenticity to their high prices and cultural appropriation and perhaps to their employees which they won’t allow to join a union.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in a 2-1 decision, ruled against blanket employer policies banning employees from taking photos or recordings in the workplace. Such policies would, in the view of the NLRB, having a chilling effect on employee’s ability to record or photograph workplace safety violations or actions that were discriminatory.

Whole Foods’ unsuccessful argument to the NLRB was that its policy allowed for a free and open discussion in the workplace, without concerns of statements appearing on the Internet. But the NLRB found that a blanket ban went too far, as it was “essential” in many cases to have a photo or video in order to prove a violation of an employee’s rights.

This is somewhat different of course than an ag-gag bill because the NLRB has no authority unless the images are recording workplace safety violations. But the principle is very important.

This case also is another reminder that we can demonize the other Democratic Party candidate all we want to, but the election in November is far, far more important than who wins the nomination.

How the Wagner Act Laid the Groundwork for Affirmative Action

[ 5 ] January 31, 2016 |

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Very interesting Touré Reed analysis at Jacobin:

The case for affirmative action — like unionization before it — proceeded from the view that anti-discrimination policy was in the public interest. Though the history of federal workplace anti-discrimination initiatives dates back to the New Deal, President Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925 — which authorized the federal government to cancel contracts with vendors who failed to take “affirmative action” to redress employment disparities — is generally understood as the start of the modern era of anti-discrimination policy.

The Kennedy and later the Johnson administrations argued that workplace discrimination was a drag on the national economy, viewing racism as an irrational encumbrance on productivity. The Kennedy administration’s case for a fair employment practices bill — what would eventually become Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — thus centered on the Commerce Clause, placing workplace discrimination in the purview of the federal government.

Those who imagine that market-oriented programs offer the best route to racial equality today should recall that opponents of Title VII, like Republican senator Barry Goldwater, argued that fair employment practices legislation violated “freedom of contract.”

But while anti-discrimination legislation necessarily infringed on an employer’s right to hire, fire, promote, or demote whomever they wished, the Wagner Act had already abridged this right — as proponents of anti-discrimination law understood at the time — thus establishing a precedent for affirmative action.

In fact, the phrase “affirmative action” first appeared in a Wagner Act provision that directed judges to impose financial penalties on employers who discriminated against union organizers.

The eventual implementation of affirmative action in the workplace likewise drew on precedent stemming from the Wagner Act. As study after study has shown, few if any employers use quotas — which are not mandated by Title VII. Instead, employers hoping to avoid costly lawsuits established offices of equal employment to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination law.

These new equal employment offices were modeled on the labor relations departments union and non-union firms established in the wake of the Wagner Act. Moreover, many of the policies implemented by equal employment offices to ensure fair employment practices — including in-house grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, published guidelines for promotion and termination, salary classifications, and open bidding— were already in use by labor relations departments partly because unions had demanded them.

The Wagner Act and the labor movement it helped spawn are perhaps the clearest expression of the social-democratic impulses informing the old New Deal Democratic coalition. As such, the links between the right to collective bargaining and anti-discrimination legislation draw attention to the historic importance of social democracy to so-called civil rights issues.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine on what basis black civil rights leaders — who lobbied on behalf of a group that accounted for just 10 percent of the nation’s population — would have demanded a fair employment practices act in the 1960s, if the Wagner Act had not already established a precedent, in the name of the public good, for abridging the right to freedom of contract.

Simply put, the civil rights movement’s victories required an interventionist state — as was understood by all of the principal players, on both sides, at the time. And while the New Deal had significant limitations, its efforts to enhance the purchasing power of working people — centered on fostering a more stable form of capitalism — established a framework for a rights discourse that would prove indispensable to African-American civil rights.

Cursing and Labor Law

[ 12 ] January 31, 2016 |

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Does labor law protect cussing at your bosses? It depends. And that’s the subject of this story about how Murray Energy, a horrible coal mining company, has fired a couple of workers for swearing at bosses in what the workers call a labor action. Now, for context, coal miners work blue. So do their bosses. This is not a conversation for those who find swearing a mortal sin. For example:

The coarse language, according to workers, extended all the way up to the company’s CEO — Mr. Bob Murray himself.

After Murray Energy took over the mine in late 2014, Bob Murray laid out his company’s rules in a meeting with workers. “These are my f—— rules, and if you don’t like it, there’s the f—— door,” he said, according to workers who testified before the NLRB.

So, in this atmosphere, this is what the workers did:

Richard Harrison and Jesse Stolzenfels used to work at the West Virginia mine. In late 2013, Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal companies, took the mine over from a previous owner. Shortly thereafter, the company tried to implement a controversial production-based bonus program.

Workers at the mine, who are represented by the United Mine Workers of America union, voted it down. But the company went ahead and adopted the plan anyway — in violation of its labor contract, according to the union. Murray Energy disagrees and maintains it followed the agreement.

Under the program, workers received bonuses based on the amount of coal they extracted. Many opposed it on safety grounds, including Stolzenfels and Harrison, according to court filings. The latter, in particular, had a history of a speaking out over safety. Meanwhile, the company told miners who disagreed with the plan that they could opt out of it by writing “void” on their checks and returning them.

In February 2015, Harrison and Stolzenfels took this route — but not before adding some profanity-laced flair. Harrison’s check, for $11.58, read, “Void Void Kiss My Ass Bob.” Stolzenfels’ check, for $3.22, read “Void Eat S— Bob.” The company responded by suspending both of them with “intent to discharge,” citing the employee handbook’s policy against profanity.

For this, they were suspended and canned. So is this a labor issue? What legal protections might these workers have?

“Certainly there are many people who would feel uncomfortable or disapprove of the [workers’] conduct,” said Angela Cornell, director of the labor law clinic at the Cornell University Law School. Ultimately, though, that’s not what matters.

The National Labor Relations Act, the federal bedrock of American labor law, gives workers the right to engage in “protected concerted activity” — to join together with one or more co-workers and speak out over pay and working conditions without facing retaliation. “In this context, workers have more rights than they would otherwise,” Cornell said.

For example, an angry worker who comes into the office and fires off an expletive at his or her boss is unlikely to be protected by the National Labor Relations Act. But if that worker drops an f-bomb or two while she’s complaining with co-workers about say, long hours or unsafe working conditions, her speech is more likely to be protected.

A separate federal law that covers mining safety offers comparable protections.

Cornell University’s Angela Cornell said the angrily worded missives from Harrison and Stolzenfels don’t appear to be isolated or individual incidents. Instead, they seem to be part of a broader workplace dispute — one that involved tense disagreements over workplace safety and the miners’ collective bargaining agreement.

Of course, workers can lose protections if their conduct is especially reckless or egregious — for example, by making a violent threat to a supervisor, or by trying to sabotage their employer’s business. Indeed, that’s precisely what Murray Energy is arguing.

The company maintains the voided checks did not amount to “protected concerted activity” in the first place. But even if they did, the company argued in its post-hearing brief, the miners forfeited their protections by engaging in “indefensible or abusive misconduct.”

The board’s general counsel disagrees. It also noted in its post-hearing brief that employees have used “far more biting and insulting profane language” toward management and not lost their protections. In previous cases, for instance, workers have legally confronted their supervisors with such epithets as “egotistical f—–,” “stupid f—— moron” and “f—— liar.”

Cynthia Estlund, a labor law professor at the New York University School of Law, said the labor board tends to give workers a fair amount of leeway when they express grievances. “It’s not that profanity is protected as such,” she said. But “from the beginning, the board has given employees some breathing room when they’re engaging in protected, concerted activity,” she added.

Right now, the two workers are being paid by their employer to stay at home.

Interesting case.

How Unions Screw Each Other

[ 27 ] January 30, 2016 |

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Above: Members of UNITE-HERE Local 217

I know the Rhode Island story everyone wants to discuss is the death of Providence’s ex-scumbag mayor Buddy Cianci. Who will teach our children how to ride of wave of rape, kidnapping, and graft to national fame now? He will be laying in state at the Providence City Hall next week if you want to go pay your respects and drop a bag of cash in the coffin for old time’s sake.

But a detail in this story of our governor securing a Providence tax break for a hotel development brings up to me a more interesting and useful issue: how most unions really suck at solidarity with each other.

The tax-stabilization agreement languished in the City Council for several months as private labor unions publicly sparred over the terms of the deal. On one side, the construction trades painted the hotel project as a significant job creator that will pour millions of dollars into the local economy. On the other side was Unite Here Local 217, the local hotel workers’ union, which wanted the Procaccianti Group to commit to staffing their hotel with union members.

Raimondo confirmed what was widely whispered in City Hall circles over the last few months: she helped nudge the project along.

She said she made a personal phone call to Council President Luis Aponte. Others on her staff called members of the City Council Finance Committee on the day they voted to send the deal to the full council. (Three of the Finance Committee’s five members work in state government; another works for the hotel workers’ union.)

Guess which union lost? That’s right, it was UNITE-HERE. The back story here is that the Laborers union really wanted the hotel because it wanted the construction jobs. UNITE-HERE wanted the hotel too, but it wanted union jobs and it wanted a $14.25 minimum wage tied to inflation. Now, you’d think that the two unions could come together here. But the company said it wouldn’t build the hotel with that wage. And it wouldn’t build it without the tax break. So LIUNA stuck the shiv into UNITE-HERE. It gave the its support for the tax break. It also, behind the scenes, gave its support to the Rhode Island law banning municipalities from setting their own minimum wages, a law Rhode Island saw fit to borrow from Oklahoma. LIUNA and most of the Rhode Island building trades are mostly made up of white people. UNITE-HERE is heavily Latino and African-American. You can make the connections as to one big reason why solidarity does not exist here.

Labor’s Southern Strategy

[ 5 ] January 30, 2016 |

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Justin Miller reviews labor’s latest southern strategy. Articles like these come out every few years, talking about the latest way the AFL-CIO is going to organize the South. And of course it never happens. Will it happen this time? No, probably not. However, it is still useful both to get at what the AFL-CIO is doing in the South and what its potentials and problems are. Basically, the unions are targeting particular cities with diverse populations to fight locally for change, both the unionization of workplaces but also at the municipal level to pass politically progressive legislation like wage theft bills and higher minimum wages and for public transportation systems that would get its members to their jobs. These are good things. On the other hand, we can look at the Chattanooga disaster, where even with technical Volkswagen support (although a lot of opposition from VW bosses on the ground), the UAW could not win an election to organize that plant. That was an embarrassing and awful loss. And the reason the UAW lost the election was racism. Grover Norquist and the like funded ads playing up that unions equal Detroit and we all know what Detroit really means.

Meanwhile, if you look at what the AFL-CIO is doing here, it’s about mobilizing black and Latino workers. This is a smart, but limited strategy. Unions simply are never going to organize white southerners in any large numbers. It flat will never happen. Racism is ultimately what undermined Operation Dixie in the 1940s and it is what continues to undermine southern unionism. There are related issues as well like evangelical Christianity and paternalistic traditions here too, but race is the fundamental problem. In 1946, it was African-Americans who wanted unions and it’s the same, along with Latinos, in 2016. So focusing (increasingly scarce and soon to be more so after Friedrichs) resources where they are going to pay off. And practically, especially in cities like Dallas and Houston where you have huge non-white populations that are not politically mobilized, this could help lead to increases in voting that would begin to find turn Texas purple. That’s all good. But at the same time, municipal government is a very limited place to make change when you have hostile state governments. And with white supremacy the order of the day last four centuries, voters in most if not all southern states are going to continue electing racist and anti-worker governors and state reps. And even if the numbers of non-whites grow in the South to look like Texas, gerrymandering means that the mountain to climb is even steeper.

So the AFL-CIO efforts in the South are interesting and have value. But they have a limited upside.

H1-B

[ 93 ] January 30, 2016 |

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The H1-B immigration visa is a sticky issue. I of course support immigration and I have no problem with an immigration program targeting highly skilled workers, although I see no reason that they should have preference over the world’s tired and poor either. But when you have outsourcing companies working with Disney and other huge corporations to cut American jobs directly in order to import cheaper labor and then make the American labor train the new workers, well, that’s a huge huge problem.

Even after Leo Perrero was laid off a year ago from his technology job at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — and spent his final months there training a temporary immigrant from India to do his work — he still hoped to find a new position in the vast entertainment company.

But Mr. Perrero discovered that despite his high performance ratings, he and most of the other 250 tech workers Disney dismissed would not be rehired for at least a year, and probably never.

Now he and Dena Moore, another American laid off by Disney at that time, have filed lawsuits in federal court in Tampa, Fla., against Disney and two global consulting companies, HCL and Cognizant, which brought in foreign workers who replaced them. They claim the companies colluded to break the law by using temporary H-1B visas to bring in immigrant workers, knowing that Americans would be displaced.

“I don’t have to be angry or cause drama,” said Ms. Moore, 53, who had worked at Disney for 10 years. “But they are just doing things to save a buck, and it’s making Americans poor.”

Ms. Moore had also trained her replacement. After she was laid off, she applied for more than 150 other jobs at Disney. She did not get one.

Responding to the frustration of American workers, Congress in December renewed and increased a fee on outsourcing companies that it had allowed to lapse. Larger companies employing many H-1B workers in the United States will pay an extra fee of $4,000 for each new H-1B visa — up from $2,000 — and another $4,000 to move an H-1B immigrant who is already in the country to a new employer.

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat who has been openly critical of Disney’s layoffs, offered a bill to reduce the H-1B quota by 15,000 visas a year to 70,000. The issue came up in the presidential race, as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican candidate, introduced a bill with Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Republican hard-liner on immigration, to sharply increase the minimum wage for H-1B workers to $110,000 a year, to discourage outsourcing companies from using the workers to lower wages.

Cruz and Sessions are terrible people. Racism may well be their motive. And $110,000 is too much for an H1-B minimum wage. However, there does need to be curbs on bringing in individual workers with the direct intent of laying off specific American workers. It’s simply inhuman to force people to train their own replacements. The H1-B program helps build a diverse and successful America. In principle, I support it. But between the gaming of the system by big outsourcing corporations and the widespread use of it not to find needed workers but as another way to get a nice quarterly profit report by Disney and other companies, reforms are indeed needed. Well-trained workers from India do have a place in the United States. But this is a bridge too far.

Will Friedrichs Free Union Activities?

[ 20 ] January 28, 2016 |

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No, of course not. But that’s not going to stop some labor reporters from trying to make the case, as they usually do with anti-labor legislation or decisions. In this case, Shaun Richman claims it could help unions escape speech restrictions that limit their activities.

Public sector unions, whose ability to function is immediately at stake in the Friedrichs case, are not covered by the federal labor act. Instead, many states passed laws that are modeled on the NLRA. But with a crucial difference: when bosses get to pass laws that apply to their employees (which, if you think about it, is exactly what public sector labor law represents), they’re guaranteed to make it even more unfavorable than private sector rules.

Unsurprisingly, many states make strikes by public sector employees like the CUNY faculty and staff totally illegal, or else severely restrict them. Many states also make many union demands illegal, either by statute or by judicial decisions. The Friedrichs case, by inserting public employees’ 1st Amendment rights into collective bargaining could give unions a very useful tool for reversing many anti-union measures that are on the books.

So, in order to overturn this long-settled precedent the parties behind Friedrichs—egged on by Justice Alito—are lodging a wildly expansive argument that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political. Bargaining demands, grievances, labor-management committees, job actions: all of it, goes the Friedrichs argument, is political, thereby making the collection of agency fees compelled political speech.

Let’s think about some of the implications of this argument. For starters, the Taylor law that tells CUNY faculty and staff that they will be fined and their leaders imprisoned if they strike seems clearly to be a coercive restriction on their chosen method of political speech. If the Professional Staff Congress is hit with any penalties for either planning or going through with a job action, one hopes they can time their appeals to reach higher level courts after the Friedrichs decision comes down in June.

Perhaps most deliciously, the right-wing Friedrichs effort is in direct opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s offensive agenda in Wisconsin. Walker’s anti-union Act 10 did a lot of nasty things to public employees, some of which will continue to stand. It took away payroll deduction and forced unions to annually recertify as the collective bargaining agents for their members.

But what mostly caused union membership to plummet in the state was that certified unions were prohibited from bargaining over anything of substance; not just raises that exceed inflation, but duties, hours and work schedules and every other everyday issue that workers want to have a voice at work about.

If Justice Alito gets his way, then Scott Walker is suddenly massively violating the free speech rights of Wisconsin public employees. I humbly suggest that every union still certified demand to bargain the day after the decision. They could throw their old contracts on the table and sue every school board and state agency that refuses to discuss those items. I’d also suggest that they begin drawing up some new picket signs.

The problem with this is political. It’s entirely likely that the partisan New Gilded Age SCOTUS hacks who would make Stephen Field and David Brewer proud will simply issue a ruling on these issues contradictory to Friedrichs to fit their own political positions. Maybe there’s an interesting precedent here, but these precedents have to be recognized by courts first. I sure don’t see Alito and Roberts doing so. Friedrichs itself is already going to be counter to the Court’s own rulings on corporate free speech. Look at Kennedy’s reasoning in oral arguments:

There is another important distinction between the teachers who brought the new case and investors in companies. The First Amendment is a limit on government power, and it does not directly affect private agreements, whether between companies and shareholders or between private employers and their workers.

But at last week’s argument, Justice Kennedy mused about whether that should be so, at least in the context of labor unions.

“I think that’s correct as a basic distinction,” he said of the difference between the government and private employers. But he told the teachers’ lawyer that laws requiring workers at private firms to pay fees to their unions could also raise a First Amendment problem.

“That is state participation in the very kind of coerced membership and coerced speech that you’re objecting to,” Justice Kennedy said of such laws.

Also, I think Richman misstates what caused union membership in Wisconsin to collapse, for which I think there are a cluster of reasons, including that a whole lot of union members were also Walker supporters and were not active in their union to begin with, along with the unions not being prepared for this and thus being caught unawares.

Richman is certainly right that unions had better have a Plan B. And they do, although how fast its implementation will be remains unknown. But it’s not like they don’t all think they know what is about to happen to them. No one is sitting back and assuming Scalia won’t go along with his Republican colleagues.

Cobalt Workers and the Global Supply Chain

[ 34 ] January 28, 2016 |

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Once again, investigators are exposing the horrors of the global supply chain that corporations rely on for their raw materials and much of their production. This time it is the cobalt used in the tech and automotive industries. Bad stuff here:

Cobalt mined by child laborers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be entering the supply chains of major tech companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, as well as auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and Daimler AG, according to an investigation from Amnesty International and Afrewatch, a DRC-based non-government organization.

The report, released today, lays out how cobalt mined by children as young as seven is sold to a DRC-based subsidiary of Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company. The subsidiary, Congo Dongfang Mining International (CDM), processes cobalt ore and sells it to companies in China and South Korea, where it is used to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for use in smartphones and electric cars. Amnesty contacted 16 multinational companies listed as customers of the battery makers, based on investor documents and public records. Most said they were unaware of any links to the companies cited in the report, while others, like Apple and Microsoft, said they were evaluating their supply chains. Amnesty says that none of the companies provided enough information to independently verify the origin of their cobalt supply.

The investigation is based on interviews with 87 people who work or have worked in informal, artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC, including 17 children between the ages of 9 and 17. Amnesty and Afrewatch obtained photographic and video evidence of the hazardous conditions in which many of the miners work, often without basic protective gear or safety guidelines. The children interviewed for the report said they work up to 12 hours a day to earn between $1 and $2, and typically work above ground, gathering and washing rocks from defunct industrial sites or nearby lakes and rivers.

They carry heavy loads, face physical abuse, and are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals and dust, the report says, risking long-term lung disease and in some cases, death. Prolonged exposure to cobalt dust has been linked to “hard metal lung disease,” which is potentially fatal, and many artisanal mines are poorly constructed and ventilated. At least 80 artisanal miners died in the DRC between September 2014 and December 2015, according to information gathered from a UN-operated radio station, though the report notes that the true figure is likely much higher since many accidents are not reported.

The parameters for a solution here is actually fairly simple–Apple and Samsung and Daimler and the other corporations need to be held legally accountable to international labor standards over child labor, workplace safety, wages, and treatment of workers on the job. The corporations say it would be too hard to monitor these workplaces, but this is of course ridiculous. They just don’t want to do it. It would not cost a lot of money to have one or two people on site that inspected the mines, made sure there were no children there, and told recalcitrant employers that they would no longer accept their cobalt if they didn’t fix the problems. They just don’t want to bother. Yes, to make this effective, we have to have enforcement mechanisms and that isn’t happening overnight. But these problems and the other problems I lay out in Out of Sight are political problems. It takes no great imagination to work out a regulatory regime once the political problem is solved. That’s where we need to be imaginative and put our political pressure. That’s how we stop kids from dying while mining cobalt. I would hope all of us would consider this a political priority. Alas, I do not believe most progressives even care about this at all outside of just a vague “yeah, that’s pretty bad” sentiment. We did have one victory on this when the Dodd-Frank Act required publicly traded companies to at least disclose whether they use conflict materials. That’s information we can use to ratchet up the political pressure.

A Story of Justice and Victory

[ 6 ] January 28, 2016 |

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There’s a lot of bad news in the world. Employers treat employees horribly around the world and it is mostly getting worse thanks to the global sourcing of production. Domestic employees are often even more exploited. But sometimes it does get better. Such as in Colombia, where this is a story worth celebrating:

Since Ms. Roa quit her last job as a maid in 2005, she has had remarkable success in getting the Colombian government and ordinary citizens to wrestle with that question and reconsider how domestic workers ought to be treated, as a matter of principle and under the law.

Ms. Roa didn’t set out to become an activist or a labor leader. During her first months of unemployment, she heard plenty of harrowing tales from other maids. When a labor organization interviewed her as part of a research study, she wondered whether it might be possible to form a union.

“We are invisible; it’s as though we don’t exist,” Ms. Roa recalls telling other domestic workers. “If we show the state what we go through, they’re going to realize it’s an enormous problem.”

There were plenty of skeptics, but Ms. Roa got leaders at a coalition of labor unions in Medellín to champion her cause. Their efforts, which included a social media campaign called “Let’s Talk About Domestic Workers,” began getting press coverage and the attention of policy makers.

In 2012, Colombian lawmakers agreed to adhere to an International Labour Organization treaty that set international standards for domestic workers. The following year, the Labor Ministry issued rules that require employers to provide health insurance and other standard benefits to domestic workers. The union Ms. Roa leads serves as an advocacy group, but it does not have formal bargaining authority.

This is a fight that is hardly over. It’s also a huge victory for domestic workers and an important precedent that hopefully can be applied around the world. In all the stories we discuss on the problems of the world, we also need to celebrate the victories, however rare. Those are important.

Marijuana and Labor

[ 9 ] January 26, 2016 |

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Most people don’t care about labor law. Most people don’t care about union politics or strategies either. That includes most progressives. But there are occasions where the intricate details of labor strategy do see the light of publications because of the industry. The best example of this is in the professional sports unions, because people are fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers far more than they are fans of U.S. Steel. It provides an opening for a more nuanced and detailed discussion than usual. Among certain circles, this is also true of the newly legalized marijuana industry in the four relevant states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. So how could marijuana workers unionize? Raymond Hogler:

One union strategy is to ignore federal law and engage employers through a cooperative strategy modeled on the employee representation plans popular in the U.S. in the early 1900s. The ERPs, as they were known, featured elected employee delegates who dealt with the employer on workers’ behalf. The landmark example is the plan created by John Rockefeller Jr. and MacKenzie King following the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Rockefeller’s ideal of industrial democracy created a national template for employment relations until the New Deal and led to a vast expansion of company unions.

Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), the author of the NLRA, viewed ERPs as incompatible with the macroeconomic function of collective bargaining and outlawed them in Section 8(2) of the NLRA. In Wagner’s view, those entities could not effectively raise wages for workers and overcome the effects of the Great Depression. The ban is still in place, and it explains the highly publicized union drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. The auto manufacturer agreed to union participation in its works council, but it insisted that the United Auto Workers win recognition as a representative under NLRB procedures. Volkswagen eventually accepted the union based on authorization cards and established a formal relationship. The UAW soon thereafter released a statement describing its “new vision for the future of unionization” through the works council.

Given the ambiguity of our labor law, cannabis workers and the UFCW might approach employers with a similar scheme for representation. The strategy would not require certification at the state or federal level, and it could be formalized through a memorandum of understanding setting forth the basic rights of the parties. The agreement could contain provisions for arbitration to resolve any disputes about its terms. The cigar manufacturing firm of Straiton & Storm developed such a program in the 1880s, and company president George Storm a few years later testified before a congressional committee about the virtues of the system for both labor and management. ERPs could easily be used the same way in the cannabis industry.

A second innovative approach is to bring the sale of cannabis under direct state control and treat workers as public-sector employees with collective bargaining rights conferred by the state. Don Stevens, the mayor of North Bonneville, Wash., created a public development authority under state municipal law to fund a retail marijuana outlet. Stevens believes that his town drug store is unique in the country, if not the world (his business cards are titled the “The Marijuana Mayor”). The operation has repaid its initial financing and will soon be making a profit that can be dedicated to improving parks, roads, schools and other municipal functions. As government employees, the store’s workers are eligible to unionize under state law if they want. Stevens says they have the same wages and benefits as other municipal employees and, as a result, are more than satisfied with their jobs.

In other words, these are options available to a wide number of workers, but it’s useful to think about them in terms of this newly legalized sector. The idea of making weed workers state workers is also enough to make any conservative head explode.

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