Scholars are beginning to rethink the Gilded Age through the framework of the New Gilded Age. Providence College sociologist Cedric de Leon is at the forefront of this movement in his new book The Origins of the Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. He examines the origins of the “right to work” idea in the mid-nineteenth century, attempting to provide a historical background to formerly union states like Michigan and Wisconsin embracing a war on unions and implementing right to work legislation that allows public sector workers to opt out of union dues while forcing unions to continue representing them. Using Chicago as a case study, he explores how workers conceived of the challenges of the new capitalist economy as avoiding dependence on employers. Self-reliance and the shunning of dependence were central to the growth of American political culture and mythology in the first century after the Revolutionary War and this shaped working-class politics of the antebellum period.
As the nation moved toward the Civil War, fears over the expansion of slavery creating wide-scale dependence of the white working class to the planter class allowed the nascent Republican Party to initially recruit workers into the fight against the South, even as the party’s economic ideology rapidly developed into the pro-corporate mentality that would feed the Gilded Age upon the war’s conclusion. As Chicago workers felt betrayed that the war had spawned increasingly large corporate powers, they began organizing for workers’ rights, including an 8-hour day movement in 1867 and the famous strikes of 1886 that led to the Haymarket Riot, where an anarchist responded to police violence by throwing a bomb into a crowd of police.
The political parties responded harshly to this worker challenge through both ideological constructions and state violence, such as the execution of anarchist leaders after Haymarket. Elites twisted the ideas of freedom to fit an ideology revolving around the freedom of contract. In other words, unions were unnecessary and dangerous because they interfered with a worker’s right to sign a contract for a given wage he negotiated with his employer. Of course this ideology ignored the power relations between workers and employers, as well as the actual struggles of workers in Chicago to make a living but exploiting the working class was the point.
Who else is not at all shocked that the children of union families have higher social mobility as adults? Why, it’s almost like growing up in an economically stable household allows children to worry about things like school instead of homelessness!
A new study suggests that unions may also help children move up the economic ladder.
Researchers at Harvard, Wellesley and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released a paper Wednesday showing that children born to low-income families typically ascend to higher incomes in metropolitan areas where union membership is higher.
The size of the effect is small, but there aren’t many other factors that are as strongly correlated with mobility. Raj Chetty of Stanford and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard, who pioneered this method of examining economic mobility, established five factors that are strongly correlated with a low-income child’s likelihood of making it into the middle class: the rate of single motherhood in an area, the degree of inequality, the high school dropout rate, the degree of residential segregation, and the amount of social capital, as measured by indicators like voter turnout and participation in community organizations.
Single motherhood is the most strongly correlated factor with mobility. The latest study, which relied on the Chetty/Hendren data, says union membership is roughly as strongly correlated with mobility as the other four factors.
The researchers looked at the expected income of people ages 29 to 32 whose parents were at the 25th percentile of income nationally when they were teenagers. They found that a 10-percentage-point increase in the rate of unionization in an area coincided with a rise of an additional 1.3 points on the income distribution as the average child becomes an adult.
Let’s take the example of the average metro area where about 16 percent of workers were unionized, and children whose parents were in the 25th percentile of income earners nationally ended up at the 40.7 percentile on average as adults. A simple application of the author’s finding implies that, in a metro area where 26 percent of workers were unionized, the average child from the same place in the income ladder would end up in the 42nd percentile.
The correlation remains statistically significant even when the researchers controlled for a variety of other social and economic variables, like the child poverty rate and median house value.
“I would have thought we could have found things that might have killed off the effects,” said Richard B. Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard who was one of the study’s authors. “And we basically didn’t.”
Obviously we need more studies along these lines, but it’s quite clear that union children do better as adults than non-union children.
Rather than blog a bunch about Labor Day I took to Twitter, where I wrote a Twitter essay and a bunch of follow up stuff about my views on the history of American workers. The core tweets were storified and you might be interested in them.
Some other things of note today on labor.
Will Missouri go right to work? No one is sure.
Good for Obama ordering paid sick leave for federal contractors. Another point in his late-term actions for workers, other than that Trans-Pacific Partnership thing, which pretty much counters all of it.
Slate pulled a pretty good Labor Day #slatepitch by suggesting that anti-union Yuengling is a great beer to drink on this holiday.
There’s a lot of organizing happening in the Silicon Valley. Can’t happen fast enough.
Texas governor Greg Abbott is a terrible human.
We celebrate Labor Day in Texas where employees have the right to work free from union coercion & free to reap rewards from hard work.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) September 7, 2015
Of course, this comes the same day yet another Texas worker died in a refinery. He was expressing his true freedom through death.
Here’s a 1981 ad from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union about buying union label clothing. Union clothing made in the U.S. definitely is part of history, sadly.
Last week, I wrote about the ATI lockout of their union mills. Wanted to highlight this issue once again. The United Steelworkers held a big rally in Pittsburgh yesterday to pressure the company to end the lockout and negotiate a fair contract with the union. The lockout and union-busting could devastate the steel towns that rely on the wages of union members for businesses to survive. That’s the theme of this USW-produced video, focusing on a pizza shop owner standing with the USW because it’s in his own financial interest to do so (also because he knows it’s the right thing to do). Check it out.
I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of The Enemy Within (in Britain it is going by Still the Enemy Within). This is a powerful documentary on how Margaret Thatcher busted the coal miners’ unions in the 1980s. If this is of interest to you, I highly recommend hunting down a copy, perhaps through getting your library to purchase one if possible. Told strictly through the eyes of the miners and their wives, along with video clips of Thatcher and other conservatives, the film is a very useful document for understanding the decline of the postwar labor movement, which was far more than just an American phenomenon. I am far from a scholar of Europe so I can’t speak with any real authority about the claims the workers make, but they certainly believe they were really very close to winning what turned out to be a catastrophic loss to a government seeking to destroy their union, which was the backbone of the British left. But the workers claim that had the other unions shown solidarity and walked off the job in support, as opposed to empty words and some money or if all the British mines had joined the strike (Thatcher intended to split the miners by giving a few choice mines some extra money while seeking to bust the other unions) that they could have defeated the government and perhaps the worst parts of Thatcherism broadly. Even though this is a depressing story, the film also shows how solidarity between groups with little in common with miners (elite students, gay and lesbian activists) was created, how women stepped out of traditional gender roles during the strike, and how personally empowering the strike was for at least some workers. I suppose, as a non-Europeanist, I would have liked a bit more context about Thatcherism and about what happened to the interviewed workers after the end of the strike, but those are pretty minor complaints. I’d check the film out if I were you.
Who else is excited to have your workplace performance monitored by drones? I know I am shocked to see technological advancement embraced by employers to control workers!
You may have some questions about just how McDonald’s runs its franchising operations and why the company is the focus of so much attention with the NLRB’s Browning decision from last week. Of course, franchising can mean a lot of different things with a number of varying arrangements. In the case of McDonald’s, the company seeks detailed control over the franchisee in ways that other fast food companies do not, arrangements that suggest an almost Don Blankenship-level of control over work that makes an argument it is not a joint employer highly dubious. Jeff Spross has more on this.
The funny wrinkle in McDonald’s case is that a lot of the company’s franchisees really don’t like the model. They have to pay the corporate mothership 4 to 5 percent of their revenue for a franchise fee, and then another 4 to 5 percent to go into an advertising fund. The franchises then have to pay another 12 percent to McDonald’s for rent. Meanwhile, the central company gives franchisees a slew of requirements in terms of remodeling, computer systems, and other expenses they must incur to stay in the franchise agreement.
By all accounts, McDonald’s has cracked down on its franchisees in recent years. It controls most of the prices on the menu, and between that and its hefty operating demands, it’s squeezing franchisees so that the way to make the business model successful is to pay the workers less. Dissatisfaction amongst McDonald’s franchise owners is reportedly at an all-time high, so they clearly feel they’re under fire.
But then you have to ask: Under fire compared to whom? The average American worker, or other small business owners pulling down $100,000-plus a year?
Another wrinkle, according to Kalnins, is that McDonald’s is genuinely an outlier in the aggressiveness with which it deals with its franchises. In other chains, franchisees can own hundreds of stores, and sometimes be public corporations unto themselves. But “McDonald’s really wants small owners,” Kalnins explained — somebody overseeing three, four, or five units. “Somebody who’s checking out what’s going on in those units every day.”
The upside for McDonald’s is franchisees who are “much more loyal and will do what you want them to, because of their smaller size.” The downside is a far more aggressive interference on the part of McDonald’s in terms of the running of the stores and its relationships with workers.
Another thing that makes McDonald’s an outlier is it’s one of the few chains that owns the property for every last one of its stores, and thus charges its franchisees the rent. Kalnins said he’s spoken with franchise consultants who figured that while the 12 percent of revenue that McDonald’s charges for rent is high compared to the standard 10 percent small businesses usually face from real estate owners, it’s not extraordinary. But “if you add the rent to it then certainly they’re paying more than for other chains. And that’s relatively unusual.”
Given all of this, how is McDonald’s not the direct employer of the workers? They are of course, even if they’ve offloaded the onerous parts of hiring onto the franchisee. And became McDonald’s corporate so controls all the details of work, this operates in some of the same ways that the apparel industry’s exploitative subcontracting system does–by making sure that the only way the franchisee is going to make any money is to squeeze workers as hard as possible, with a bottom baseline only a federal or state labor law that may or may not be stringently enforced on the ground. This is another reason why we need to push back against these sorts of labor arrangements through holding corporations legally accountable for the workers making their products regardless of whether they are directly employed, subcontracted, franchisees, temp workers, etc. These latter systems exist precisely for the kind of advantages McDonald’s has created here. Hopefully the NLRB will continue bringing this system back under control.
There was a lot of good commentary late last week to the NLRB decision in the Browning-Ferris case, ruling that joint employer status applied to this contractor for the purpose of unionization and other labor law, potentially repealing some of corporations’ favorite strategies for protecting themselves from legal accountability. Let me link to a couple. First, Catherine Fisk:
The most interesting implication, given the recent strikes in the fast food industry, is whether the decision means that corporate restaurants like McDonald’s are the joint employer with their franchisees. The Board has cases pending that will present this issue and it will decide them in due course. The test the Board articulated in Browning-Ferris is that two entities are joint employers “if they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment” which includes “hiring, firing, discipline, supervision, and direction,” as well as “wages and hours,” “the number of workers to be supplied, controlling scheduling, seniority, and overtime, and assigning work and determining the manner and method of work performance.” And the Board said the codetermination of these matters need not be done “directly and immediately, and not in a limited or routine manner” but it is enough if the control is exerted in an “indirect” or “routine” way so long as the user employer “affects the means or manner of employees’ work and terms of employment, either directly or through an intermediary.”
What the dissent is anxious about is precisely what workers’ rights advocates have been talking about for decades. Should companies that effectively dictate working conditions by the price they are willing to pay suppliers (whether it is suppliers of labor, as in Browning-Ferris, or suppliers of goods, as in supply chain cases) be obligated to bargain with the employees who supply that labor or those goods? Should janitors or security guards in an office building or warehouse workers be able to pressure the building manager or the logistics company (as opposed to the labor contractor for which they work) for a pay raise or safety protections?
One issue the Browning Ferris case does not decide but the dissent talks about at some length is whether the common law right of control test adopted by the majority also has implications for a different issue, which is the difference between employees (who are workers that a hiring entity has the right to control) or independent contractors (workers that the hiring entity does not control). The majority said little about this, but the dissent lambastes the majority for adopting a version of the common law test that might narrow the definition of independent contractor, making more workers employees. If the dissent is right, then the years long effort of Federal Express to run a huge package delivery service without employing any drivers might fail, and so, too, might Uber’s argument that it’s become the country’s fastest-growing taxi service by simply being a technology company that employs no drivers.
Great! Republicans’ worst nightmares are precisely what I and so many other labor supporters hope happens. These follow-up NLRB cases are going to be incredibly important and I think the fears of the dissent point the way they are probably going to go. Of course, there is a legal appeal as well that conservatives will push, which rationally should allow the NLRB jurisdiction but given conservative judicial activism may well not. E. Tammy Kim interviews people on both sides of this issue that lay out the stakes.
“The Board’s tortured analysis will undoubtedly be met with skepticism and will be rejected by local franchise owners, legislators and, ultimately, the courts,” said Steve Caldeira, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association. “IFA and its allies are asking Congress to intervene to halt these out-of-control, unelected Washington bureaucrats to preserve the established joint employer standard relied upon by America’s 780,000 franchise businesses and the 8.5 million jobs they directly create.”
While groups like the IFA accused the NLRB of ignoring the economic reality of the franchise structure, the Fight for $15 fast-food movement applauded the Board’s recognition that large corporations exert control over individual stores and restaurants.
“McDonald’s is the boss — that’s true by any standard,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15. “The company controls everything from the speed of the drive-thru to the way workers fold customers’ bags. It’s common sense that McDonald’s should be held accountable for the rights of workers at its franchised stores.”
Although the NLRB’s ruling only applies to labor law and not employment cases — minimum wage, overtime or discrimination — it could influence other venues. Several such cases brought by Fight for $15 workers are pending in federal court.
“The Board has been out of whack with federal and state laws with respect to employment,” said attorney Moshe Marvit, fellow at the liberal think tank the Century Foundation. “The decision is influenced by other agency decisions, and OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), for example, will follow the Board’s lead.”
The potential for that influence is real and could be meaningful, albeit pretty reliant on the Democrats winning the election in 2016. Meanwhile, what are conservatives saying? It’s pretty comic!
For example, the NLRB’s new standard could force Silicon Valley startups to hire the receptionists and cleaners they currently get from staffing or property management companies. It will adversely impact the innovative sharing economy, where technology has drastically lowered transaction costs, enabling people to come together to share services in novel new business relationships. In the end, some jobs will be absorbed by companies’ corporate headquarters, to minimize unexpected liability; some jobs will be eliminated. The NLRB has set back the clock 40 years, to an era of corporate giants when few people had the option of being their own bosses while pursuing innovative employment arrangements.
Also great! Outside of the double speak that claims exploitative working relationships is freedom.
The horrible killing of the Virginia TV crew has once again shown that a) gun violence is inherently political, b) that the National Rifle Association is a front organization for murderers, and c) that we need gun control, which of course won’t happen. But it’s also a reminder of how common violence at the workplace. Errol Lewis:
A more fruitful discussion worth having is about the scourge of workplace violence, which the killings of Parker and Ward certainly was. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, while workplace violence has dropped in recent years, it is still startlingly frequent. Nearly a decade ago, according to the agency, 20 workers were murdered every week. A more recent report shows the tide of violence declining, but as of 2009, 521 people were killed on the job and 572,000 non-fatal violent crimes took place, including rape, robbery and assault.
That averages out to more than 10 lives lost every week. Many of the tales are grisly: As CNN pointed out last fall, a fired UPS employee in Alabama shot two former colleagues to death before killing himself; a laid-off worker in Oklahoma went to his old plant and beheaded the first person he saw; and a traffic controller in Illinois set fire to his workplace and slit his throat.
And all those happened in a single week.
But there’s more because a sadly not surprising amount of this workplace violence is directed at women, as was the case this week. Dan Keating:
Many people work at dangerous heights, or with deadly chemicals or crushing equipment. But, as the gruesome killing of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward reminded us Wednesday, murder happens surprisingly often on the job. Out of nearly 4,600 workplace deaths in 2013, 9 percent were caused by homicides, according to the census of workplace deaths by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s a pattern that disproportionately affects women. After car accidents, homicide is the most likely way for women to die at work, representing 21 percent of workplace deaths. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to die many other ways. Murders represent 8 percent of workplace deaths for men, preceded by car accidents, falls and contact with objects and equipment.
The murder threat for women is different. Both sexes die most often at the hands of robbers, and both also murdered at about the same rate by co-workers. But more than a third of women murdered at work are killed by boyfriends, spouses, exes or other relatives. For men, that category of killer is almost zero.
“When women are at work, their exes always know where to find them, don’t they?” said security expert Chris E. McGoey in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Workplace violence is another way that the national epidemic of gun violence affects all of us and it gives organized labor an entry into pushing for rational gun policies. I don’t doubt of course that advocating for gun control would irritate a good number of union members for which gun identification is more meaningful than class identification, but cutting back on the opportunities for gun violence is the right thing for working Americans.
Probably the most underreported story in American labor right now is what’s going on steel. There are more unionized steel jobs in the U.S. than you’d think and a lot of those union contracts are expiring on September 1. That means a lot of labor strife, with companies seeking to destroy their unions. One of the most egregious cases of union-busting right now is Allegheny Technologies Inc (ATI), which has locked out its workers in order to force enormous contract concessions for the workers to keep their jobs.*
ATI still wants to run. They just want to bring American labor down to Bangladeshi working levels. No, seriously. ATI is actually advertising on Craig’s List for scabs. What would the working conditions be like?
Must be able to lift up to 50 lbs. and work in a standing position for entire shift (12 hours/day) in a high heat/temperature manufacturing environment. Workweek is 84 hours/week.
Previous experience in a metal manufacturing or processing facility is required. All positions require working for unknown duration and are temporary. THIS IS A LABOR DISPUTE SITUATION – EMPLOYEES WILL BE TRANSPORTED ACROSS A PICKET LINE.
They are paying a lot of money for this, which would last precisely as long as the lockout goes on. But 84 hour work weeks? That’s 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, of hard hard work. And given this is Pittsburgh with its still powerful union culture, I’d guess that if they do get workers, and they probably will given the wages and poor choices for working-class people, they will be coming from outside the region by and large.
There are 2000 USW members out of work right now thanks to a company that wants to repeal decades of union victories. There is going to be a large rally in Pittsburgh to support the workers on September 1 at noon. There will rallies the same day for locked out steelworkers in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I plan on being in Pittsburgh for this. Hope you can support these workers if you are near one of the four locations.
*Let’s face it–the reason this is so underreported is that while the United Steelworkers is a really good union, their communications strategy with the general public is significantly behind a lot of other large internationals. Get with the social media USW! I should be knowing about this stuff as it is happening. I found out about it on Tuesday and only because I was with labor people in Pittsburgh. Even in the labor media, there’s been very little coverage.
On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, DC. This famous event is of course most often remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or more specifically the 3 lines of it that conservatives have decided justify their own positions. But even among liberals and civil rights activists what is often forgotten or downplayed in the memory of this event is the central role economic issues played in it. Most of the economic agenda of the 1960s civil rights movement in fact is barely remembered. That’s a huge problem because not only were African-Americans fighting for the opportunity for economic advancement as well as to end segregation and for the vote but also because it presents an incomplete history which takes away part of the reason this movement so challenged American life.
First, it’s worth noting that the original idea for the March on Washington came from a union. In 1941, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to protest hiring discrimination in defense plants as the nation was gearing up for World War II. Like most issues concerning minorities, FDR didn’t really care but he didn’t want the bad publicity so he caved and ordered the end of hiring discrimination on government defense contracts. This opened up a lot of jobs to African-Americans during World War II and helped build the black middle class that would do much to push forward the freedom struggle after the war.
Randolph was still active in the movement in 1963, although more as a senior figure than a major player. But he, Bayard Rustin, and others revived the idea of the march to push John F. Kennedy to do something on civil rights, which he had been frustratingly reluctant to do. Rustin was hired to organize the event. Rustin had been a communist in the past and that greatly worried anti-communists like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (who did not even want to make a statement about the death of W.E.B. DuBois at the March because he hated him for his communism but who did when he realized Randolph would do it and it would be favorable), but he had played a role in the planning for the 1941 march and he had Randolph’s trust. Of course Strom Thurmond used Rustin’s role to paint the entire march as a communist front and J. Edgar Hoover rejected a report showing no significant communist infiltration into the civil rights movement, but this was just standard fare from the white supremacist American power structure.
The NAACP and most importantly Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference agreed to the idea while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were happy to use the opportunity to take on Kennedy publicly and directly for his inaction. The civil rights movement was a diverse movement with a lot of different groups and aims. That meant some careful alliance building was needed. But the different groups did come up with specific goals to fight for which included not only the passage of civil rights legislation, but a $2 minimum wage ($15.60 today), federal employment law banning discrimination in public or private hiring, and the expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include agricultural workers, domestic workers, and the rest of the workers excluded when the law passed in 1938.
During the March itself, Bayard Rustin read all these demands on live television, which may be the only time a list of labor demands has received that kind of coverage. A. Philip Randolph led off the speeches by saying, “We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom” and that “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of a human personality” in arguing for housing reform.
Playing a key role in the March on Washington was United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Organized labor often has a bad reputation on civil rights during this era, mostly for a good reason. Reuther is an important exception. This doesn’t mean he could instantly turn UAW locals into beacons of racial harmony. Turns out that racial solidarity has a lot more power with a lot more people than class solidarity and UAW officials found that out the hard way when they tried to push civil rights on the shop floor. But that’s an issue for another entry in this series. Reuther provided key labor support for the event. The AFL-CIO paid for a lot of the infrastructure of making this event happen, including the buses to get people to Washington and the UAW paid for the sound system that would blast King’s speech into history. This all happened over the opposition of George Meany, who did not care much about civil rights before this and who opposed an official federation endorsement of the march. But the AFL-CIO did officially support the Kennedy civil rights bill. It is said that Meany however was so moved by Randolph’s speech at the March that he created the A. Philip Randolph Institute to promote African-Americans in the labor movement.
Reuther stated in his speech, “And the job question is crucial because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” Reuther knew that he had a friend in King because even as a lot of internationals and locals resisted the civil rights movement, King consistently supported the progressive causes of labor and frequently spoke to labor audiences. And of course as King went on, he became more and more focused on economic justice as a centerpiece of the larger freedom struggle, to the point of dying while supporting the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968.
While it’s difficult to measure the precise impact of the march on the political process so soon before Kennedy’s death, we can pretty clearly say it led to the inclusion of the Fair Employment Practices clause into what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Also please notice how little a role Martin Luther King has played in this post. The March on Washington was not all about MLK, although that in no ways diminishes his importance to the movement or the “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was a lot more than one man giving one speech.
This is the 156th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.