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Tag: "labor"

Corporations: The Folks Who Want to Take Away the Weekend

[ 18 ] March 19, 2016 |

Remember the halcyon days of the past, where if you worked on the weekend and especially on Sunday, you would get premium pay? Not too long ago. Say goodbye to that.

Walmart discontinued Sunday premium pay, which had been $1 extra per hour, for new hires back in 2011. Those who had continued to receive it will receive a lump sum equal to half the amount of Sunday pay they received last year, according to a company release in January outlining a handful of adjustments that Walmart explained were a way of “simplifying its pay structure” — and reducing the overall cost of increasing base wages to $10 an hour across the board.

That hasn’t worked out so well for more experienced employees like eight-year Walmart veteran Nancy Reynolds, a 69-year-old cashier in Merritt Island, Fla., who works Thursday through Monday. Her base pay was already slightly above $10 an hour, so she didn’t get much of a raise, and the loss of a few extra Sunday dollars a week will hurt. “The younger people, the ones who haven’t been there that long, they got it, and I’m glad for them,” Reynolds says. “But they did it at the expense of me and everybody who’s been there a long time.”

In cutting Sunday pay, Walmart is actually behind most of the retail industry, which made that change as legal requirements to pay more on Sundays were stricken from state laws across the country. So-called “blue laws” once prohibited Sunday commerce altogether in 34 states in the 1960s. They were often weakened through compromise, with higher pay mandated in exchange for shopping being legalized. Even with no mandate, premium pay was often what the labor market demanded.

$10 on hour and work on Sunday. Sounds like a great future for those Indiana workers whose jobs have fled to Mexico and who are now going to vote Trump because of it! Why not vote Trump if this is your life.


An Environmental Determinist History of the Labor Movement

[ 64 ] March 19, 2016 |

lange oklahomans reach LA-cr

Above: Not people migrating to work at the River Rouge in Dearborn.

Although I write more about labor history in the public sphere, my academic training is in environmental history. As an environmental historian, there’s nothing more frustrating or annoying than environmental determinism (yes, I’m looking at you Jared Diamond). To say the least, nothing can be explained by a single factor and to say that environmental issues determine the past or future completely undermines human agency. It also places unnecessary blinders on our examination of our society that stops us from understanding just why things did happen.

I never thought I’d see a paper explaining the rise of American unions through environmental determinism. But I guess I should have known better. Here’s a summary:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 roughly half of the nation’s 14.8 million union members lived in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey. Yet these states accounted for only one-third of paid employment nationally. And those same states have held the highest unionization rates for decades. So why do some states remain heavily unionized while others do not? “It turns out there was something that happened in the 1930s that set the rank of unionization in place across states in the United States, and that rank has stayed roughly the same ever since,” says Lauren H. Cohen, the L.E. Simmons Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

The thing that happened was the Dust Bowl: a series of severe dust storms and droughts that decimated farms in the Great Plains during the 1930s, forcing thousands of families to abandon their property. Many migrated to close-by cities, often in California but also in other states, in hopes of finding jobs.

Wait, what? The Dust Bowl explains why Pennsylvania has high unionization rates?

Alas, the Dust Bowl coincided with the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, and those who still had jobs were loath to lose them to migrants. And so they unionized.

“Let’s say you were a subsistence farmer,” Cohen explains. “The drought dried up your crops. You still had to feed your family. So you traveled to the closest city and tried to get a job. Of course, that put pressure on people who did have jobs. They were working for a dollar an hour, and you were willing to come and do the same job for 50 cents. So the people who had jobs said, ‘Let’s unionize to make sure these farmers don’t take our jobs.’”

Oh, yeah, those cities close to the Dust Bowl have super high unionization rates. Dallas. Albuquerque. Houston. Oklahoma City. Huh?

Also, I will note that the authors never provide the first shred of evidence that people organizing to keep their jobs from Okies was why unions formed. I mean one could, you know, go to the words of actual union organizers to talk about why they were forming unions or to those of workers to see why they joined. But then that wouldn’t fit into a fancy regression analysis.

They considered the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guaranteed the rights of private-sector employees to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. The act certainly encouraged labor forces to unionize. But a national act applies to the whole nation, so it didn’t explain state-to-state differences in unionization rates.

The Dust Bowl, on the other hand, was a massive external force that affected only certain geographic areas.

Yes. Of course the Dust Bowl did not affect the states that had high unionization rates except for California because, yes, lots of migrants ended up there during the 1930s. But they weren’t competing for union jobs at that point. The real turning point for unionization in California was with the rise of the industrial economy during the war that created the big defense plants. And while those migrants were now moving out of the fields and into the defense plants, I’ve never seen any evidence that the growth of unions in those plants had anything to do with keeping other white people out.

The drought-year unionization density predicted relative unionization density in 1943, 1953, 1973, etc., all the way up to 2013. (These findings held true only in those industries in which migrants tried to find jobs during the Dust Bowl—manufacturing jobs, for instance, but not teaching jobs.) In other words, it wasn’t all migration but only the migration related to the Dust Bowl droughts that predicted modern unionization patterns.

“Droughts caused migration. Migration caused pressure on the current workforce. Pressure caused the workforce to unionize. And that unionization just has an incredibly long tail,” Cohen says.

I’m really glad these researchers have a complex view of the past. One things causes another which causes another. OK. Glad we can make these claims without complicating them. I guess I’m in the wrong field.

“I think the reason why this paper is important, especially now, is that unions are a hotly debated issue within policy and within our political process,” Cohen says. “Some people say we absolutely need them. And some say there was a time in history that we needed them, but we’ve outgrown that time. I think both sides have to confront the fact that a fair amount of unionization that exists today was set in place in a random way. So if you want to say unions are great, or if you want to say they’re awful, either way you have to explain why something so obviously great or so obviously awful can be so significantly influenced by something that is essentially random.”

No. Just no. Good lord.

There is so much wrong here. We are talking problems solved by taking History 101. First, there’s no evidence that I am aware of that white migrants from the Dust Bowl played a major role in manufacturing unionism or even trying to take manufacturing jobs during the Depression. These were mostly rural people and they wanted to stay mostly rural people. They most famously went to California but also many went to places like southwestern Washington where they bought up logged-off land to start a new generation of impoverished farming. Many of these migrants of course did eventually end up in the suburbs working in manufacturing, but that’s a generation later. This is a non-issue in the 1930s.

Second, relatively few Dust Bowl migrants ended up in union-dense states. You did see rural migration to these states during the 1930s. Mostly it was from southern Appalachia. Those people did affect the union campaigns of Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, but a) they were not fleeing climate disasters and b) the unions didn’t appear to keep these workers out. If anything, they joined the unions to keep African-Americans out.

Third, the development of mass unionization in certain states was not “random.” It was a complex confluence of factors that included a) the Fordist factory floor that employed thousands of people which did not exist in most states, b) traditions of socialism from European immigration, c) state governments willing to tolerate unions, d) sizable Catholic and Jewish populations versus the evangelical Protestantism of the South and Great Plains. Could climate-based migration play a role in union history? Sure, I guess. But is this argument had merits, wouldn’t have there been some sort of union growth in cities near the Dust Bowl to protect workers from this new competition? Yet there was so little union presence in these states that even Democratic politicians from these states could attack unions with ferocity and vote for Taft-Hartley because there was no labor movement to speak of in their states. Thus, you have LBJ using his strong anti-unionism as a major campaign point in the 1948 election to the Senate, even though his opponent was equally anti-union.

In other words, this is a dreadfully wrong argument. Of course it is made by a professor at the Harvard Business School.

Capital Mobility and Trumpism

[ 223 ] March 19, 2016 |


As I have been saying throughout the election season, the collapse of the working class thanks to capital mobility is going a long way to feed Donald Trump’s popularity.

The fuzzy video, shot by a worker on the floor of a Carrier factory here in the American heartland last month, captured the raging national debate over trade and the future of the working class in 3 minutes 32 seconds.

“This is strictly a business decision,” a Carrier executive tells employees, describing how their 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment will be sent to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day — less than what many on the assembly line here make in an hour. As boos and curses erupt from the crowd, the executive says, “Please quiet down.”

What came next was nothing of the kind.

Within hours of being posted on Facebook, the video went viral. Three days after Carrier’s Feb. 10 announcement, Donald J. Trump seized on the video in a Republican presidential debate and made Carrier’s move to Mexico a centerpiece of his stump speeches attacking free trade.

In fact, many Carrier workers here say that it was not so much Mr. Trump’s nativist talk on illegal immigrants or his anti-Muslim statements that has fired them up. Instead, it was hearing a leading presidential candidate acknowledging just how much economic ground they’ve lost — and promising to do something about it.

Mr. Trump has repudiated decades of G.O.P. support for free trade, calling for heavy tariffs on Mexican-made goods from the likes of Carrier. This has helped put him within arm’s reach of the Republican nomination.

Opposition to trade deals has also galvanized supporters of Mr. Sanders, helping him unexpectedly win the Michigan Democratic primary this month. At the same time, it has forced his rival Hillary Clinton to distance herself from trade agreements she once supported, like the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 deal with Mexico that is an important part of President Bill Clinton’s political legacy.

Exit polls after the Michigan primary , for example, showed that a clear majority of both Republican and Democratic voters believe international trade costs the American economy more jobs than it creates.

Nicole Hargrove, a 14-year Carrier worker, said she was an undecided voter and was uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s attacks on immigrants, particularly Mexicans. “But I’d like to turn him loose on the financial world,” she said. “Maybe if Carrier had to pay more to bring stuff in, they’d think twice about moving jobs out.”

Mark Weddle, 55, started work at Carrier 24 years ago and earns $21 an hour running a machine that makes heat exchangers. “I have two brothers-in-law from Mexico,” he said, explaining why he disagrees with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

But when it comes to Carrier, “we’ve all worked our butts off,” he said. “And now they’re going to throw us under the bus? If Trump will kick Carrier’s ass, then I’ll vote for him.”

That’s pretty much what Mr. Trump has threatened to do. At rally after rally, to rapturous crowds, he vows to impose a 35 percent tax on Carrier products from Mexico. Then, the laugh line: “I want to do this myself, but it is so unpresidential to call up Carrier.”

And Mr. Trump vows not to take Carrier’s calls until it agrees to change course. “As sure as you’re here, they will call me up within 24 hours,” he promises, and say to him, “‘Sir, we’ve decided to stay in the United States.’”

Consistently in the comments of this blog, people wave away these connections or say it is an acceptable cost to pay for global capitalism. Well, maybe. But you have to live with the political consequences of a declining working class. And while people may support dreamy ideas like Universal Basic Income or more politically possible ideas that would help around the margins like an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, none of these things are happening now while all the manufacturing jobs are in fact disappearing. And whether that is because of capital mobility or it is because automation, we have zero concrete plans on what to do with millions of working class people. At best, we might give slight subsidies to retraining programs for careers that pay less and may not have a future anyway. At worst, we start drug testing for people who get on public assistance or slash those programs to nothing anyway.

The doctrine of unrestricted free trade has been basically bipartisan for many decades now. But no one ever thought hard enough about what this would look like when all the manufacturing jobs were gone. We are now finding out. This opens the door to demagogues taking advantage of what is worst about the United States–xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, political violence, strongmen, intimidating journalists, fascism. When you give working Americans no good options, we might think they would turn to socialism. And a few have, as the Sanders campaigns demonstrates. But without widespread leftist organizing in working-class communities, which in working-class white communities largely does not exist, the appeal of racial and class prejudice added to the appeal of seeing someone tell off the forces that have doomed them to stagnation and poverty, that’s very powerful. That’s the Trump voter. Unless we do something for working-class Americans, even if Trump is defeated this year, the door is open for more demagogues and political violence in the near future.

The question is what to do about it. The answer has to be, in part, jobs that pay well and allow people to live dignified, upwardly mobile or at least stable lives. And for proponents of unrestricted capital mobility and extreme globalization, they simply have no answer on how to do this. We as a nation are reaping the results of their indifference.

Labor and Hillary

[ 74 ] March 16, 2016 |


To paraphrase Hamilton Nolan, did organized labor fuck up by supporting Hillary Clinton?

That is not probable, of course. With the backing of the big unions, Hillary Clinton stands today as the statistically likely nominee. Since Sanders’ upset win in the Michigan primary, she has been raising her voice about her promised opposition to the TPP and other free trade agreements that she supported not too long ago. So it is as good at time as ever for labor leaders to ruefully review Hillary’s actual record on these things. As Dan Kaufman laid out in the New York Times this weekend, that record is not encouraging. She was a happy Walmart board member as the company busted unions; she has repeatedly talked out of both sides of her mouth on free trade, assuring workers she is against various free trade agreements during campaigns only to help enact them once she is safely in power. At a time when manufacturing wages have been stagnant for 35 years and wage inequality across the board continues to grow, there is nothing in Hillary Clinton’s record that should give average workers confidence that she will keep her many promises to them if the political situation should favor breaking those promises.

By backing the perceived safe choice over the candidate who actually agrees with it more, the labor movement helped to ensure that the candidate who agrees with it more will not get the nomination—during what could well be the only election campaign in our lifetime that a candidate as pro-labor as Bernie Sanders could actually win, thanks to the insane and unelectable opponent that the other side could nominate.

Well done, union leaders. You have successfully sold your own interests out in advance. When Hillary Clinton inevitably sells you out again in the future, you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves.

Meanwhile, Dan Kaufman has a Times op-ed asking Hillary which side she is on:

The depth of Mrs. Clinton’s estrangement from labor may not be known until April 5, when Wisconsin holds its primary. Since 1960, no Democrat has won the general election without winning the state, and a loss to Mr. Sanders in Wisconsin could foreshadow trouble against Donald Trump, whose opposition to free trade helped propel him to victory in Michigan. Exit polls there showed that a majority of Republican voters also believe that free trade takes away American jobs. Mr. Trump decisively won that group. “You know, Michigan has been stripped,” Mr. Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper the day after his victory. “You look at those empty factories all over the place. And nobody hits that message better than me.”

While Mrs. Clinton’s pro-union shout out at the debate resonated widely, many of Wisconsin’s labor activists remain skeptical. “A lot of our job problems stem from NAFTA, and the TPP will kill us,” Gerry Miller, a United Steelworkers welder at a Caterpillar plant in South Milwaukee, told me last month. “We can’t compete with people being paid two dollars a day in Vietnam. The thing that we’re most upset about is the pandering. Democrats like Clinton speak labor out of one side of their mouth, but the corporate interests pull the strings.” (Mr. Scott estimates that adoption of TPP will result in the net loss of roughly 40,000 jobs in Wisconsin, 215,000 in Michigan and 113,000 in Ohio.)

While Mrs. Clinton has received the endorsement of many of the large national unions, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has not yet taken sides. Many union locals have chosen to back Mr. Sanders. David Poklinkoski, the president of IBEW Local 2304, a Wisconsin utility union, said his local had never endorsed anyone for any office before, but recently passed a unanimous resolution endorsing Mr. Sanders. Mr. Poklinkoski praised the senator’s consistent opposition to free-trade agreements.

After the Milwaukee debate, Mr. Poklinkoski told me that two of his members who watched it came away as Sanders supporters. But Mr. Poklinkoski was alarmed to hear that the men’s second choice was Mr. Trump. Mr. Poklinkoski believes Mrs. Clinton could be vulnerable in Wisconsin.

“I’m worried about Trump versus Hillary,” Mr. Poklinkoski said. He noted that at home Governor Walker had successfully portrayed himself as an anti-tax, blue-collar politician, an image that helped him divide Wisconsin’s workers during the state’s labor battles. “If you have a right-wing populist, you can beat a corporate Democrat,” Mr. Poklinkoski said. “Scott Walker did it three times here.”

A few points here.

1) Hillary Clinton is not and likely never will be a big supporter of organized labor. We know which side she is on–the side of corporations, more or less. This is well-established. If we imagine a scenario where Trump is such a downticket disaster that the Democrats sweep every contested Senate race and end up with 55 votes (not that I think this is likely). With a fairly significant majority that is by and large quite progressive, does anyone think Hillary Clinton will expend that fleeting political capital on the Employee Free Choice Act or a $15 national minimum wage? She might seek an $12 wage, maybe. But EFCA is going to be a lower priority, just like labor’s priorities always are.

2) Bernie Sanders would, almost without question, be better for organized labor than Hillary Clinton.

3) The core of the labor movement in 2016, especially the public sector unions, are African-American and Latino workers. These voters overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton.

4) SEIU and other unions did survey their members before endorsing Hillary Clinton. Those members said they wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton.

5) Those surveys were so early that most voters did not know who Bernie Sanders was at that time. Would those surveys look differently today? Somewhat, no doubt. Would they absolutely for Bernie Sanders? I doubt it, although they may in some unions.

6) Internationals endorsed Hillary early because like everyone else in the country, they thought the race was over before it started and they wanted to show early support to be favored during her administration. Turns out things are more competitive than they thought and it turns out that the Republicans are nominating Donald Trump, an incomprehensible thought 8 months ago.

The question that unions should be asking themselves is whether to endorse this early in the future. That’s a complicated question. These may be somewhat unique circumstances. But what would a Bernie Sanders endorsement look like? Nolan suggests that Hillary is winning in no small part because of Big Union support. This is dubious. With the possible exception of the disastrous and poorly run Nevada caucuses, there is no solid evidence that official union support has affected any of these primaries in any substantial way. Lots of union members don’t listen to their own internationals and vote for whoever they want to, including Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Sanders was able to win Michigan despite all those endorsements, largely because union members are independent members of society and can think for themselves. Moreover, in most states, unions have almost no power at all. All of those southern states where Hillary built her lead? None of them have any meaningful union presence. I don’t think there is any substantial delegate difference if unions don’t endorse Hillary early.

I’m not downplaying the money and organizational support unions provide, but they provide less and less of that every election cycle because they are being decimated in the states. That’s the core of Friedrichs, mercifully stalled. Conservatives don’t care about workers right to use their money this way or not that way. They care about kneecapping the organized labor that supports Democrats.

What would the alternative look like? What if none of the big internationals had endorsed early? A couple of things, I think. Unions could have hosted debates and forced Clinton to defend her Wall Street positions. They could have used their power to support Sanders. If it happened to work and he happened to win and he defeated Trump, then sure, that’s great. It’s all shooting the moon and you can understand why labor would not take that chance. If union leaders believe a Democrat is going to win the election, they are going to support them. These are not idealistic people. They are hard-nosed realists. I’m not saying that it was the best choice in this particular election but I can’t blame them for making it, even knowing Hillary Clinton’s flaws.

This Day in Labor History: March 15, 1940

[ 39 ] March 15, 2016 |


On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.

Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants, more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl, were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.

John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:

We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.

The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.

Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.

Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.

The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.

In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.

This is the 173rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

New Innovations in Union Busting

[ 21 ] March 12, 2016 |


Stephen Greenhouse on the new right-wing effort to crush unions: astroturf door-to-door campaigns.

For several months, Shawna Murphy, a home-based childcare provider in Seattle, had received a stream of emails, letters and robocalls – some two dozen of them – telling her she had the right to stop paying union dues.

Then early one afternoon, while the six children in her charge were napping, a man with a briefcase knocked on her door. At first Murphy thought he was a lawyer, but then she realized he might be a state inspector of childcare providers. So she opened the door.

“He said there’s this supreme court case that will impact me, and he pulled out this leaflet and told me that I don’t have to be part of the union and don’t have to pay union dues,” said Murphy, a member of the Service Employees International Union. “I told him, ‘I’m a proud supporter of the union, and you can leave now.’”

The man was one of the many foot soldiers in a highly unusual offensive against public-sector unions in the US north-west. A conservative group, the Freedom Foundation, has dispatched activists to visit the homes of more than 10,000 childcare and home-care workers in Washington and Oregon to advise them that under a two-year-old supreme court decision, they can opt out of paying union dues.

Tom McCabe, chief executive officer of the fast-growing foundation, funded by a web of conservative groups, said: “My goal is to provide freedom to union members and to give them a choice about whether or not they want to belong to a union.”

But labor leaders and their progressive allies say the group’s goals go far beyond that. Washington state in particular has passed union-backed progressive legislation recently, enacting a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a law that will allow Uber drivers to unionize. They say the Freedom Foundation’s unorthodox tactics are part of a grand plan to weaken unions and their treasuries, sap their political influence and ultimately flip Washington and Oregon from Democratic to Republican.

The idea that Washington and Oregon are going to turn Republican is laughable with or without unions, but when you have this kind of money behind you, why not try it? And it is a real threat to unions. The uphill battle the Koch Brothers face is that they have turned most of the easy states to right-to-work. Doing so in states where you have entrenched liberalism like Washington and Oregon is a real uphill battle. I’d say they have a somewhat better chance in a state like New Hampshire or Rhode Island or maybe even New York where you have Democratic legislators with very little commitment to Democratic Party values. In any case, with the money they have, they are a real threat and if you can overturn labor legislation in Wisconsin and Michigan, you can do it anywhere under the right circumstances.

Going After Franchising

[ 34 ] March 10, 2016 |


Lydia DePillis has a good profile of David Weil and Richard Griffin, the NLRB appointees seeking to hold companies accountable for their franchisers. This is freaking industry out and they are siccing their dogs on the NLRB, which I expect will be utterly eviscerated and perhaps even eliminated the next time the Republicans control the presidency and Congress simultaneously.

Their harmonious approaches have raised suspicions on Capitol Hill that Griffin and Weil are mounting a coordinated assault on businesses that depend on all forms of subcontracting, a push that has now surfaced at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee demanded to see any correspondence between the two, which they said would be “inappropriate.” And indeed, some evidence of communication between the two agencies was produced, although the Department of Labor says that’s entirely above board.

“Federal agencies can foster a more efficient and effective government by working together to learn best practices and to broaden understanding of topical developments in relevant legal issues,” said a spokesman for the department.

Weil and Griffin’s actions have prompted yelps of protest from a broad range of industries that rely on “fissuring,” as a broad range of contracted work has come to be known. But none has resisted as loudly as the franchise industry, through its trade group the International Franchise Association, which sees the action around joint employment as simply an indication that the administration is following organized labor’s agenda.

“When you have an administration that is pro-union, and appoints people who are pro-union, and you have unions spending a tremendous amount of money, it provides a fertile environment for unions and employment-related causes to take on high visibility,” says Stuart Hershman, a longtime franchise lawyer who advises the IFA.

The problem, Hershman says, is that franchisors don’t know what kinds of assistance they can provide to franchisees without becoming a joint employer. Franchisors are already spending more on lawyers to try to adapt to the new rules, he says, but they fear it won’t be enough. According to Ruckelshaus, of NELP, the number of cases being filed against companies as joint employers is rising as well.

In response, the association has built a grassroots lobbying network to try to push Congress to stop the Department of Labor and NLRB from pursuing franchisors as joint employers of their franchisees’ workers.The trade group has also recently advocated for laws adopted in a handful of states that formally state a franchisor can’t be held responsible for the actions of its employees — that doesn’t protect them from federal law enforcement, but it’s something.

This is great. Appointees like this are we will remember the Obama presidency very fondly in the future, even if we can criticize some aspects of it. Taming the franchising industry, an industry that exists so that corporations can obscure responsibility in an opaque labor system while actually maintaining a significant amount of control, would be a tremendous boon to labor. Let’s hope the next president continues with these policies.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1933

[ 22 ] March 4, 2016 |

On March 4, 1933, the newly inaugurated president Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. This first female cabinet member in American history (the second wouldn’t come until the Carter Eisenhower administration), Perkins was a remarkable figure who dedicated her life to improving the lives of working Americans.

Born in 1880, Perkins attended college at Mount Holyoke and became a prototypical Progressive reformer, upper-middle class, well-educated, and seeking to do well in a world that often blocked educated women from both marriage and work. Building on the legacies of older pioneering Progressive women like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, Perkins worked in the settlement house movement after graduating from Mount Holyoke. While there, in 1902, she was involved in founding a chapter of the National Consumers League. They invited NCL founder Florence Kelley to speak and this experience changed Perkins’ life. She graduated from college in 1902 and moved to Chicago to teach at a girls’ school against her family’s wishes. There she volunteered at Hull House and Chicago Commons, gaining experience in fighting for the working class that would mark her life. In 1907, she took a job in Philadelphia with an organization dedicated to stopping newly arrived immigrants to the city from ending up in prostitution, while also studying as a graduate student in the Wharton School. She then moved to New York to complete a master’s degree at Columbia on childhood malnutrition. In 1910, she became the Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, where she lobbied for all sorts of reforms to American working class exploitation.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins happened to be in the vicinity of the Triangle Fire. She ran over to the site of the fire and watched 146 people die to make clothing she may have been wearing. Already committed to improving workers’ lives, she became a national leader in fighting to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again. She became Executive Secretary of the Citizens’ Committee on Safety. There she led an investigation into workplace and fire safety, connecting it to the larger exploitation of workers’ lives. She convinced Al Smith and other leading New York politicians to enter the workplaces themselves, leading to major changes as they were shocked with what they discovered. New York City cleaned up its fire building codes, prohibited smoking in factories, and required new fire suppression techniques and technologies. Al Smith and Robert Wagner took Perkins’ suggestion to create the Factory Investigative Commission that led to the passage of 15 new bills by 1915 to make workplaces safer. This made Perkins a national leader on labor reform. Perkins became a close ally of Al Smith and was his leading labor advisor while governor of New York. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became governor after Smith, he named Perkins state Industrial Commissioner that oversaw the state’s labor department and the two of them worked together to fight against the deepening Great Depression.


When Roosevelt named Perkins Secretary of Labor it was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that she was a woman, an unprecedented step (I don’t believe a woman had even been considered for a Cabinet position before this). She also wasn’t a union member. Most people who had held the job of Secretary of Labor had been unionists, and with the Democratic Party far closer to organized labor than Republicans, this was expected. She had a strong agenda for what she wanted to see the Democrats do while she was in the Cabinet–create a 40-hour workweek, federal unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, the abolition of child labor, federal employment of the unemployed, and national health insurance. She would be centrally involved in getting much of this passed. She brought a young Harry Hopkins from New York to help with the federal employment programs, particularly the Federal Employee Relief Administration, which he headed.

Perkins’ primary role as Secretary of Labor for FDR was helping to write much of his key legislation to benefit the millions of impoverished Americans in the Great Depression. This included the Social Security Act of 1935. She also chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security, which oversaw all the New Deal’s economic legislation goals. She refused to deport the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union head Harry Bridges in 1939, angering congressional conservatives, but she faced no real pressure to step down. She famously called General Motors head Alfred Sloan in the middle of the night once, yelling at him for not settling with the United Auto Workers. She said, “You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men. You’ll go to hell when you die.”

Perkins and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only cabinet members to serve all 12 years of Roosevelt’s administration, although Henry Wallace served the administration as Agriculture Secretary, Vice-President, and Commerce Secretary during the entirety of the administration as well. She stepped down in June 1945. She then wrote a biography of FDR that was published in 1946. Truman named her to the United States Civil Service Commission in 1946. She worked in that role until 1953, when she became a lecturer at the new Cornell School of Industrial Relations. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

This is the 172nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Free Trade and Union Busting in Morocco

[ 3 ] February 24, 2016 |


I’ve still never seen a free trade agreement that didn’t crush unions on both sides of the agreement:

 About 500 fishing cannery workers are in crisis in the Moroccan city of Agadir, according to the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which is campaigning on the workers’ behalf. The workers, most of them women, have since last March been struggling to hold onto their jobs in the face of a vicious union busting scheme by a prominent food processing corporation, DOHA, which exports tinned fish and other delicacies to North America and Europe. The union reports that the management, “with the help of compliant legal and political authorities, has sought to dissolve the union, dismiss its members, criminalize and punish the strikers and confiscate the union leaders’ home.”

The management, according to labor activists, targeted the union representing the cannery workers, the left-leaning Confédération Démocratique du Travail, early last March, dismissing 51 employees, 45 of them women, about half of them union members. The action prompted about 500 workers to go on strike. Nearly a year later, the workers are still waging a legal battle to challenge the mass firings. The company, meanwhile (which has not yet responded to inquiries), has put the union on the defensive by suing for €280,000 in “punitive damages.” Since the union leader, Rahmoun Abdellah, could not afford the penalty, “the court ordered ‘precautionary confiscation’ of his apartment,” reports the IUF. The union confirmed by e-mail on Sunday that the the management has used “strikebreakers” to replace the regular workers, though the litigation is still pending. (Moroccan law allows employers to seek a court injunction against strikers found to be unduly interfering with business, but the union argues DOHA acted illegally.)

The conflict appears to fit a pattern of labor conflict both within Morocco and across the global seafood industry. The IUF’s fishing industry campaigns have faced massive challenges in protecting workers at large multinational processors like Philips and Philippines seafood exporter Citra Mina, which have been accused of abetting or committing abuses across the supply chain, including suppressing organizing efforts, safety violations, precarious employment, mass firings, and “slave like” conditions on fishing boats.

What’s at the core of these problems:

 The apparently weak labor protections suggest the limitations of the civil society movements that blossomed in the Arab Spring, as well as the failed promises of trade liberalization as a modernizing force in North Africa. The Morocco-US free trade deal, enacted in 2006, aimed to usher in bilateral trade and “development,” but persistent reports of labor conflicts and union suppression suggest that as long as economic exploitation remains endemic to the neoliberal economic structure, transnational commerce likely won’t encourage meaningful social reform but, rather, reinforce existing hierarchies.

Though Morocco is considered a relatively stable country within the region, the labor movement, similar to Tunisia and Egypt’s unions, has had an uneasy relationship with the state since the season of protests, sit-ins, and strikes in 2011. Buketov notes that the DOHA union is one of several new labor organizations that “were inspired and formed during the Arab Spring.” Shortly after protests erupted, Morocco’s soft-authoritarian government looked to tamp down the unrest by inaugurating “social dialogue” with civil society, opening a path to significant, if modest, reforms in the government sector and soon, the recognition of new independent unions.

But five years after the initial burst of activism, Buketov adds, “the situation is changing, the authorities decided unions have too much power and are moving on union rights.” It’s an unfortunate political reversal. According to University of Tennessee professor Matt Buehler, “Even though Morocco’s monarchy retained firm control of the country throughout 2011, Moroccan trade unionists used instability from the uprisings to drive change in domestic politics.” As the historical opposition force, the labor movement mobilized to push through important longstanding labor demands for members. When the government feared mass upheaval, talks with militant public sector unions resulted in significant wage hikes, promotions and pension increases. For Moroccan civil society as a whole, Buehler argues, “union mobilization provided an opportunity for two traditionally antagonistic opposition groups—Islamists and leftists—to ally to pursue similar goals and reward their predominantly middle class supporters.” (He underscores that in contrast with the mediagenic images of “Twitter revolution” led by youngsters seeking bourgeois social liberties, the political momentum was more organic, rooted in working-class “economic discontent and inequality.”)

Obviously the free trade agreement is far from the only issue here, but it clearly contributes to the lack of power the Moroccan labor movement has in that nation. If anyone has any evidence of a free trade agreement actually helping unions anywhere, I’d love to know it.

For something a bit more uplifting:

Wage Theft at the Super Bowl

[ 22 ] February 24, 2016 |

The plaintiff in a case against Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara charging widespread wage theft and other labor law violations writes about it:

I worked for Centerplate at Levi’s Stadium during four games, including the Super Bowl. My post was inside the Yahoo Fantasy Football Lounge, one of the stadium’s ten “premium club areas.” As I wrote in Slate — in a story reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund — I was often not given rest breaks, even during shifts that exceeded twelve hours. And on the day of the Super Bowl, Centerplate failed to pay employees for the time they spent waiting in line for — and traveling on — employee shuttles to and from the stadium. Those hours added up: of my seventeen-hour shift, five of them were spent waiting or in transit. According to California law, these hours should have been on the clock.

For many workers, wage theft is routine. In 2009, a study by three organizations — the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the National Employment Law Project, and the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development — found that low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lost more than $56 million per week due to various forms of wage theft and other forms of labor violations. Last October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that makes it easier for workers to recover back wages, including a provision that holds individual executives, and not just the corporate body, accountable for unpaid wages. Along with Centerplate, the lawsuit names Chris Verros, the company’s President and CEO, along with several other executives.

For now, I am the named plaintiff in the lawsuit. (I kept good records.) When I received my paycheck for the Super Bowl, I found that the company paid me at the overtime rate — time and a half — for all hours that I was on the clock. That was a pleasant surprise. But I, and likely many other workers, was still significantly shortchanged. Had I been paid at my regular rate of $12.25 an hour for all the hours that I worked, including overtime and double-overtime for work after twelve hours, my paycheck would have been 70 dollars greater. (In my original investigation for Slate, when calculating wages owed, I had forgotten to factor in these higher rates.)

Looking back at the Super Bowl, what strikes me is the extraordinary amount of attention that was given to topics like the quality of the turf at Levi’s Stadium, and how little consideration was given to the thousands of workers who made the event possible and who, at the very least, should get what they’re owed.

This is of course because nobody cares about people who serve them beers and soda unless they mistakenly given them Diet Coke instead of regular Coke. Those are expendable people in a society that marginalizes workers. Moreover, this is just part and parcel of the NFL’s treatment of workers that ranges from unpaid cheerleaders to downplaying head injuries among players to forcing players to spend their own money to register for tryouts.

Here’s the original article referenced in the quote, also well worth reading for more detail about what was going on behind the scenes at the Super Bowl.

Is the Wildcat Strike Back?

[ 5 ] February 19, 2016 |


Probably not in any meaningful way, but it’s interesting to see groups of workers taking these actions:

Longshoreman at the New York and New Jersey ports launched a classic wildcat strike on Friday, January 29, catching the Port Authority, the Shipping Association and their own International Longshoremen Association totally unaware. The strike, which cost businesses that rely on the ports to ship goods in and out of the country hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few short hours, was apparently in protest of a government agency, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, imposing new job requirements on top of and outside the bounds of the longshoremen’s collective bargaining agreement.

The walkout seems to have been a genuinely spontaneous action, sparked and spread within a few short minutes and over by nightfall. Industry observers are still scratching their heads at what it all meant, and whether it will happen again.

The following Monday, NYC-based drivers for the controversial “rideshare” app, Uber, began a 24-hour work stoppage and staged a rally outside of the company’s local headquarters. The tech firm is notorious for its questionable legal practices of treating its employees as “independent contractors” and often operating outside of taxi and limousine regulations in order to undercut traditional yellow cabs and car services. Drivers struck in protest of a 15% reduction in Uber’s fares, a cost that they alone must absorb.

While planned at least a day or two in advance, this wildcat strike was organized by an informal network calling themselves “Uber Drivers United,” according to the homemade fliers they handed out (although some coordination with the Taxi Workers Alliance has been noted). Uber was designed by its Silicon Valley founders to “disrupt” traditional work rules and regulation and to definitely be union free. The strikers are not demanding union recognition in the modern sense, but simply demanding a rollback of the wage cut.

While the smug business press scoffs (Fast Company said of the strike, “The irony, of course, is that by taking a slew of drivers off the road, the strike actually serves as a good opportunity for other drivers to profit from surge pricing, the fare increase that Uber imposes when demand is high”), the protests could spread to other cities.

Earlier in January, a faction of Detroit schoolteachers led by former Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) president Steve Conn staged a wildcat sickout over the abhorrent physical conditions of the school buildings that forced 64 out of 97 schools to close. Conn’s group is exactly the sort of alternative competitive union that I have predicted will become the norm if unions embrace non-exclusive members-only organizing.

Like most everything with isolated worker actions, we need to be very careful with reading anything into them. A few dozen more wildcat strikes and maybe there is something interesting going on here. But some workers will always find ways to fight for better lives and if short walkouts work, then that’s great. Definitely something to keep an eye on at least. Ultimately, we simply can’t know what will spark a new wave of workplace activism. Could be this strike or another or something a few years from now.

Photos from the Flint Sit-Down Strike

[ 3 ] February 19, 2016 |


Here’s a great collection of photos from the Flint Sit-Down Strike, an event that makes the mass poisoning of the Flint water by the state’s governor still only the second most significant thing in the city’s history.

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