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Tag: "labor"

Transgender Worker Protections

[ 10 ] December 22, 2014 |

I neglected to mention this last week, but let me say a quick word lauding the Obama Administration for extending workplace protection rights to transgender people, at least in the public sphere. This is a move toward applying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to this category of people who have long faced discrimination. An important advance.

Book Review: Gregory Wood, Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old In America, 1900-1960

[ 14 ] December 21, 2014 |

Gregory Wood’s Retiring Men examines the intersection between masculinity, work, and retirement in the first six decades of the twentieth century. He argues that the crisis over retirement in a changing economy shaped connections between manhood and work during these years, an issue of real importance in the unstable economy of the New Gilded Age.

At the core of Wood’s book is the desperation of older workers in the American workplace of the early twentieth century. Work has long been at the center of identity for American men. Men have long held the single-income household dear, however fleeting in reality. Even more dear is the ability to support oneself and not have to rely on family or charity. But as industrialization became more intensive and mechanized in the early twentieth century, with faster machines and larger factories requiring hordes of young, strong workers, older men found themselves out of work. That included men as young as 40. And there was simply nowhere for many of them to go. Wood’s book is filled with the words of desperate men, despairing over their economic plight. With work considered the proper state for men, the lack of work meant the lack of manhood. The many letters and statements Wood quotes from the aging and unemployed are heartbreaking. Railroad conductor MS Thornton was finished at 47. He told a reporter, “Premature white hair told heavily against me. At 35 I was gray and at 40 I suppose I looked like a man of fifty.” His boss fired him and gave his job to a younger man. Some men dyed their mustaches and hair, but in this period, the quality of dyes were so bad that they could damage the skin or poison you. In 1902, the Los Angeles Times published a letter on a hair dye ingredient. It included “sugar of lead,” “tincture of cantharides,” “lac sulphur,” ammonia, and other fun things.

What did older workers, men and women, want? The ability to live on their own. To not have to burden their children. To maintain their dignity. The 1920s saw the rise of welfare capitalism that to some extent attempted to deal with these problems, but quickly the emphasis moved to the states. As we typically should expect from state-level welfare programs, they were inconsistent, poorly funded, and varied greatly between states. The problems of older workers would require federal attention. Poorhouses did find work for older people but were demeaning and often forced men to do traditional women’s labor like sewing, which further undermined their sense of manhood.

With the rise of successful working class politics in response to the Great Depression, the requirements of older workers became central to both the labor movement and government policy. On the latter, the most important manifestation of older workers’ needs was the Social Security Act of 1935. Yet it’s important to remember in the modern Affordable Care Act-era how disappointing the Social Security Act was for many older workers. No one received a dime until 1940 (and this was after FDR changed it from the original 1942). For older workers already struggling to find work, it did nothing. The time it took to build a Social Security account worth having meant a lot of work for older workers who couldn’t find it. The age 65 cutoff also excluded a lot of workers who were too sick or feeble to work until that age. The SSA was a huge compromise with established interests and fell well short of the hopes many workers placed in the Townsend plan, but was still popular in the short-term and hugely successful in the long-term.

Second, the importance of seniority to the new CIO unions came out of the old age workers’ woes. Usually, we think of seniority clauses in union contracts, to the extent we think of them at all, as either the fairest way of dealing with layoffs since it takes away employers’ prerogative about who gets laid off, or, negatively, as protecting older and less productive workers. But for CIO workers, seniority meant dignity. It meant still having a job at age 50 regardless of what new machinery or predilection for young male bodies bosses had. It meant life.

By the 1950s, the rise of pensions and retirement culture changed the national conversation on manhood and retirement. The lack of work still challenged workers’ manhood, but the response moved more toward organized activities like golf and jokes (and not only jokes but real issues) about gender roles in the retired household. Older men didn’t necessarily appreciate forced retirement ages, the watches they received at awkward retirement parties, being forced into women’s space in the home, and the lack of structure in their post-retirement lives, but growing consumerism found some outlet for this.

While this is a good book overall, there are a couple of weaknesses worth noting. First, despite the powerful stories Wood tells about the crisis of aging in the early twentieth century, the stark shift to middle-class work and the office after World War II papers over the tenuous nature of this type of employment for a lot of people who had suffered greatly earlier in the century. Given that so many of the retirees he talks about in this era had long histories in the working-class culture of the pre-war period, building those connections and talking more about the tenuous nature of retirement in the post-war period for many workers would have been helpful. Some of this critique is mitigated by the fact that Wood consciously centered his study in how retirement and masculinity was portrayed in the dominant culture and certainly in the postwar period that did shift to the middle class.

Second, I really wish this study hadn’t ended in 1960. Wood provides a brief conclusion, but there is a real story bringing this through the 20th and early 21st centuries with the end of the guaranteed comfortable retirement a pension was supposed to bring. Instead, in the aftermath of the post-1973 economic stagnation and decline of both the working and middle classes, the end of industrial work through outsourcing and automation, and the power of the corporate conservative movement repealing the economic gains of the twentieth century, the idea of the respectable retirement has increasingly disappeared in American culture. While I am somewhat less concerned than Wood about the impact of this on masculinity per se, how this unease and poverty reshapes American culture is a powerful question that deserves more study.

Overall however, Retiring Men is a valuable addition to our understanding of agism and work in American history, an important subject that should help us focus on these issues in the present.

Call the Waaaaambulance!

[ 24 ] December 20, 2014 |

Businesses are very, very sad because the National Labor Relations Board did not tip the balance of workplace power toward them even further when it ruled for faster union elections.

Last Friday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued long-awaited new rules to modernize and streamline union certification elections and to eliminate the worst cases of pre-election delay. The board is mandated to protect the rights of employees to form unions and bargain collectively, but numerous academic studies have demonstrated that the current NLRB election process fails to protect workers’ free choice.

One major problem under the current system is that unscrupulous employers use delaying tactics to undermine employee choice. Thus, the NLRB’s new rules seek to reduce unnecessary litigation and delay in the union certification process; to ensure that workers, employers and unions receive timely information; and to provide for the electronic filing of election petitions and other documents. The rules were published in the Federal Register on Dec. 15 and will take effect on April 14, 2015.

Predictably, anti-union groups and their Republican allies have claimed that the rules will deprive employers of sufficient time to campaign against the unions. One prominent anti-union law firm complained that the rules would “minimize” an employer’s time to “run an anti-union campaign,” while the International Franchise Association apparently believes they will enable unions to “silence” employers like McDonald’s. The National Retail Federation, which represents Wal-Mart and other billion-dollar retailers, described the NLRB’s modest reforms as “devastating,” and Republicans, who say that the current broken system has “worked well for decades,” have proposed legislation that would mandate even longer pre-election delay (H.R. 4320). In short, representatives of big business and right-wing lobbying organizations oppose any attempt to promote basic fairness in the union certification process.

Employers hate this because they rely on a long period of time to engage in a coordinated campaign of intimidation against employees that includes sophisticated anti-union firms. A quick election means that workers will be able to express their voice without this intimidation.

Of course both parties are the same and therefore Rand Paul is the only progressive alternative in 2016.

Work in the Walmart Economy

[ 44 ] December 19, 2014 |

This is why unionizing Walmart is so important and why just ballot measures for the minimum wage isn’t enough to improve the lives of workers. Unions are about dignity and power on the job, which is why companies hate them. Because those companies want to make pregnant women work with chemicals and then fire them when they complain:

Candis Riggins says that she isn’t the only pregnant worker who was discriminated against by Wal-Mart. And despite having a policy stating it will make “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant workers, Riggins alleges that Wal-Mart made it virtually impossible for her to safely work through her pregnancy.

“I made it clear to my supervisors that I wanted to keep working and that I could do several other jobs well,” Riggins said this week in a statement. “I just needed to keep away from the chemicals, but Wal-Mart said, ‘No,’ even though I know they gave light duty to a coworker of mine when he hurt his back. Finally, I was forced to choose between a healthy pregnancy and my paycheck. No pregnant worker should have to make that decision.”

In the claim, Riggins states that the chemicals she was forced to work with while cleaning bathrooms at the store made her ill, and that bending over for hours at a time caused her severe back pain. The pain became so intolerable that she went to see a doctor, who recommended lighter duty during the rest of her pregnancy. When she went to her supervisor with this information, she was moved to mopping and sweeping the store, work she said still exacerbated her back pain and involved chemicals that made her ill.

Finally, she was moved to be a greeter at the door. But the time on her feet, at least 8 hours, according to the claim, was still hard on her, so she asked if she could sit on a stool. She was told she could not sit, despite other workers with injuries being allowed to sit while greeting customers. According to the claim, “Wal-Mart has engaged in a pattern or practice of gender discrimination against female sales associates and in policies or practices that have a disparate impact against women.”

Child Labor on Mexican Farms

[ 20 ] December 15, 2014 |

The Los Angeles Times has another installment in its outstanding series of labor exploitation on the Mexican vegetable farms that supply U.S. markets. This piece is on the rampant use of child labor that picks your vegetables. Once again, American corporations openly seek these arrangements out to lower costs. It should be illegal and they should be prosecuted for selling products made with child labor.

The False Promises of Prison Labor

[ 29 ] December 15, 2014 |

Prison labor not only takes jobs away from non-prisoners who earn wages, but it is a corrupt system that does not save the state money, as the Seattle Times reports. There is also no evidence this unpaid labor creates skills for prisoners they can use upon their release.

But behind CI’s glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor, a Seattle Times investigation has found.

Far from being self-sufficient, CI has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent over three years on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.

CI has reaped millions of dollars — money it keeps — by inflating prices of furniture it sells to state agencies and public universities, capitalizing on a law that requires they buy from prison factories. In many cases, prisoners didn’t make the items, but CI instead bought prebuilt furniture then resold it with markups, previously undisclosed state records show.

The Times also found dozens of private business owners in Seattle and statewide who say they’ve had to stop hiring or lay off workers, victimized by unfair competition from an inmate workforce paid as little as 55 cents an hour.

“Have we had some problems?” said Danielle Armbruster, director of Correctional Industries. “Absolutely.”

“I believe in this program. We hope to expand and reach even more inmates. If we help just one inmate, then that’s one less victim in the future.”

But CI can’t substantiate that key claim — that inmates who work in Correctional Industries commit fewer crimes after release than those who do not. State recidivism studies often contradict each other and are rife with shortcomings, failing to account for thousands of inmates who commit new crimes, according to a Times analysis.

Likewise, officials have publicly claimed that CI inmates more successfully gained jobs after release, but they actually have no idea which offenders get jobs or where they’re working.

While for prisoners themselves, doing something with their time is better than sitting in their cell, the problems with prison labor are myriad.

Higher Wages but No Unions

[ 37 ] December 14, 2014 |

It’s hard to argue against Harold Meyerson’s point that it is a lot easier to win higher wages for 100,000 people than to unionize 4000. Or unionize 20. The barriers to both winning a union election and securing a first contract are so great today, even as there is such an overwhelming desire to raise minimum wages by the Maoists making up the electorate of Nebraska and Arkansas, that it leaves one despairing for organized labor’s future while having strong hopes for real worker victories at the ballot box. The problem of course, as Meyerson well knows, is that unions are not just about minimum wages. They are about dignity on the job, grievance procedures, collective actions, benefits, and wages above the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is an unalloyed good, but it is not the be all and end all of progressive economic legislation. Plus, unions play a major role in these struggles for higher minimum wages but with each lost job, each shuttered local, each failed contract campaign, they lose the economic basis to provide that key support. So the future of these struggles remains tenuous as well.

How to Regulate Production

[ 14 ] December 14, 2014 |

Imagine if this was the standard for regulating production rather than the exception that took a decade of hard struggle to win:

Growers in the Fair Food Program are prohibited from firing workers who complain about working conditions. Paychecks must be calculated based on electronic time card systems, which are difficult to fudge. Growers must hire their workers directly rather than through labor contractors, comply with surprise inspections, and they have to fire supervisors who abuse or sexually harass worker, or who allow children to work in their fields. Workers’ complaints, collected via a 24-7 hotline, are investigated within two days of being received.

If the FFSC finds that a grower both failed to follow the rules and failed to correct them once caught, the corporate buyer switches to another approved grower, and the noncompliant grower loses business.

This fall, Whole Foods was the first retailer to introduce the Fair Food Label, a labeling program for tomatoes grown under FFSC, in stores. “It’s been a wonderful program,” says Erik Brown, senior global produce buyer for Whole Foods, adding that it helped him to bring “dignity” to his work.

In the program’s first four years, FFSC staff interviewed 7,500 workers in person, and processed nearly 600 complaints from workers, according to the report. Of those, the FFSC found about 40 percent were valid reports of violations of the Fair Food Program; another third of complaints were for conditions not covered by the program. Over the same period, the FFSC suspended seven growers from its program.

This should be the standard, with routine real inspections and a process to deal with problems. This is what needs to happen everywhere from the apparel factories of Bangladesh to the vegetable farms of Mexico. Anywhere that sends products to the United States. Instead, this is a unique program developed in response to a decade or organizing the Florida tomato fields by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of Latino farmworkers. The CIW is hoping to expand this to the state’s berry fields and spread it around the nation. That would be great. But it shouldn’t take this level of organizing to win these kinds of inspections. They should be government mandated.

Questions That Aren’t So Hard to Answer

[ 61 ] December 12, 2014 |

Here we have yet another article on the decline of the middle class, by which of course the author actually means the words you can’t say in America–the working class. In other words, we had good paying jobs that allowed people to be upwardly mobile. Now we don’t. And now I’m going to write 2000 words on the mystery of why this is instead of just saying the obvious, which is that corporate greed led to massive outsourcing which undercut unions which undercut the ability of the working class to influence policy. This led to policies allowing the elite to concentrate wealth in their own bank accounts they could use to create policies even more favorable to themselves. Thus the jobless recoveries, purchasing of elections (and even more influence in policy!), shrinking economic safety net, long-term unemployment, and generational declines in economic mobility when compared to people’s parents.

I know the Washington Post doesn’t want to run a column ripping corporations and policy makers for greed, but that is actually the answer to why we have a downwardly mobile working class and shocking levels of income inequality.

“The Occasionally Repulsive Gift That Keeps on Giving”

[ 60 ] December 10, 2014 |

The above quote is how Michael Powell describes the NFL in this Times article on the horrible treatment of the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleaders, a problem experienced by these workers through the NFL.

Supervisors ordered the cheerleaders, known as the Buffalo Jills, to warm up in a frigid, grubby stadium storeroom that smelled of gasoline. They demanded that cheerleaders pay $650 for uniforms. They told the cheerleaders to do jumping jacks to see if flesh jiggled.

The Jills were required to attend a golf tournament for sponsors. The high rollers paid cash — “Flips for Tips” — to watch bikini-clad cheerleaders do back flips. Afterward, the men placed bids on which women would ride around in their golf carts.

A not-incidental detail: The carts had no extra seats. Women clung to the back or, much more to the point, were invited to sit in the men’s laps.

For these and more humiliations, and for hundreds of hours of work and practices, Alyssa and her fellow cheerleaders on the Buffalo Jills received not a penny of wages, not from the subcontractor and certainly not from the Buffalo Bills, a team that each year makes revenue in excess of $200 million.

I’m sure if more cities would fund the stadiums of billionaire owners, they’d finally have enough to pay cheerleaders a living wage. Or, you know, any wage. The Bills are only team to pay the cheerleaders nothing, but most pay them horribly.

Greenhouse on Labor’s Decline

[ 28 ] December 9, 2014 |

The outstanding New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse took the New York Times buyout and is leaving the paper. The chances the Times will replace him with a full-time labor reporter I’d guess are slightly north of 0 so it’s real loss. Greenhouse sat down with Lydia DePillis for a conversation about his career and what has happened to American unions. His discussion of organized labor’s decline is worth noting here.

Q: You started at a pretty interesting time for the labor movement — as it was really headed into decline. Where did unions go wrong? Were there avoidable mistakes?

A: For two decades, maybe three decades, unions fell asleep at the wheel in terms of organizing. Under the late George Meany, and under Lane Kirkland, they were working very hard to represent the workers, but they didn’t work hard to grow and add members. During the 1980s, businesses became much more aggressive in demanding concessions from unions in collective bargaining. That was spurred in part by President Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 for their illegal strike. And also there was the horrific recession of 1982, and that combined with the real pressures of globalization, in the steel industry, tire industry, oil industry. American companies thought they needed to get much more serious about pulling down costs, fighting foreign competition, and they saw that the way to do that was to get much much tougher in fighting labor unions.

Q: When did unions figure out that something was wrong?

A: In my view, one of the reasons why John Sweeney was elected [as head of the AFL-CIO] in 1995 was that the leaders of other unions realized that labor was doing far too little organizing, that labor was too defensive. He was trying to show more energy to grow and fight back. So in 1995, he had what looked like a very promising plan to reverse labor’s decline. And he got the AFL-CIO to spend far more money on organizing; he worked very hard to ally with immigrants, with young workers, with faith leaders.

If you had a management consultant come up with the 10 things labor needed to do to turn around, I think Sweeney did eight or nine of those things. And even so, labor was really not able to reverse its slide. The main reason for that was continued very strong and sophisticated resistance to unionization drives. And a second factor is that unions were asleep at the wheel in the 1970s and ’80s about spreading their message and making people realize that union members weren’t just a bunch of well-paid workers trying to maintain their privileges and great benefits, didn’t do enough to explain to the public at large the advantages, especially to lower-wage workers.

So when in the late 1990s unions were really trying to rally people, I think a lot of the workforce knew very little about unions, didn’t care about unions, what they heard about unions was always negative, like unions were involved in a strike, closing down rail, there was a fight with teachers unions demanding more wages. Unions allowed themselves to be seen in the negative. If unions were going to turn around, they needed to show more that they were a positive force, that they deliver for workers and society.

In 1995, when John Sweeney led this new voice of labor movement, they saw real promise in turning around and expanding the labor movement. And I think the big difference now with Richard Trumka is they realize, labor’s gotten much weaker, and we really need to ally themselves with other powerful groups in society, with environmental groups, and immigrant groups and progressive community groups. And they realized that labor has been knocked down so many pegs that to really achieve a higher minimum wage or better safety standards, you can’t get that through Congress, it can’t elect the friendly lawmakers it needs unless it works with African American groups, environmental groups, and so on.

Unions still hope to grow by organizing workers, but they’re not having much success. And many rational union leaders could say, ‘I could invest a million dollars to organize 5,000 workers,’ and rationally conclude that ‘the chances of winning are small because if I invest that much, they’ll send consultants and lawyers and besides a lot of workers may not be that interested.’ So I think a lot of unions are saying it’s not worth throwing a lot of money behind organizing right now. But I think unions are worried that their membership is declining, and the have less dues money coming in, so that means they can do less in organizing, less in politics, and so they’re in a sorry cycle downward and they’re trying very hard to figure out how to reverse that.

So the SEIU has been looking for ways to mobilize low-wage workers. And UFCW has been trying very hard to mobilize OUR Walmart workers. There are a lot of unhappy fast-food workers who feel they’re underpaid, and SEIU saw there was a large pool of unhappiness among the nation’s 4 million fast food workers. So it’s spent several million dollars to get this movement rolling, and I think it’s really caught fire now. I think a lot of fast-food workers are eager to get involved and to protest and to push McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, to pay them more.

Whether they can achieve $15, fast-food workers paid just below $9, that’s a very big leap. And you would expect the companies and their franchises to fight it very very hard.

Secondly, the SEIU hopes to figure out a way to unionize these workers. And I do not doubt that if an election were held tomorrow, a majority of the 15 workers or the 22 workers at this restaurant or that restaurant would back a union. But it would be very, very, very hard to get a contract. The SEIU would have to spend millions of dollars on lawyers seeking to negotiate a contract, and it’s going to be very hard to get the companies to agree. So the union’s trying to figure out a way to pressure the parent companies to pressure their franchisees into agreeing to unionization somehow. And if the SEIU pulls that off, it would be a huge coup, but that’s a big “if.” And it’s conceivable that a unionized franchisee might close down, just like Walmart closed down its first unionized store in Canada.

Few points to note here. First, I think we really overstate the fault of organized labor in its own decline. Greenhouse is generally correct here–the unions of the 70s and 80s did a poor job of organizing and bringing low-wage workers into the movement, but the real issues are outside internal union politics. The increasingly aggressive tactics of corporations beginning with the Powell Memo and coinciding with the rise of modern conservatism are a potent duo of problems for organized labor. For all the talk about needing to organize workers, there are real questions about whether this is actually a good investment for unions because the fight to get a contract is so weighted toward the employer.

Second, Greenhouse is absolutely right about the necessity of organized labor to ally with other progressive organizations to get its agenda across. The problem of course is when the agenda of the AFL-CIO is not the agenda of individual unions, as we have seen over Keystone, with the Laborers openly bullying other unions. Trumka might see the necessity of working with the Sierra Club. LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan does not. Since the American labor movement is actually really decentralized, there’s not much Trumka can do.

Third, there are those in the labor movement who will criticize SEIU for anything it does. The fear and even hatred of Big Purple is very strong for some. I don’t want to get into this in much detail here, but SEIU does operate differently than a lot of unions and that leads to a great deal of tension internally in the labor movement. But however one falls on these issues, the union is answering the call to organize more workers. Does this pay off for it in the long run? Hard to say. But criticizing it for organizing workers, as some do because SEIU, is not useful. Moreover, SEIU and UFCW especially deserve credit for working with laborers who may never be union members. But the Walmart workers and the fast food workers have really turned up the heat on the minimum wage and hard lives of American labor in very useful ways.

Does any of this turn around the American labor movement? Hard to believe it will in the current climate, not with a nation happy to tear down the rest of the nation’s unionized workers, a Republican Party working closely with corporate America to destroy unions, and a Democratic Party that primarily sees the movement as useful for GOTV and fundraising efforts but which too rarely pays that back in concrete ways.

Expanded OSHA Rules

[ 12 ] December 9, 2014 |

Good call from Obama’s OSHA:

Beginning Jan. 1, OSHA rules will go into effect that may reveal higher daily death and injury counts on the job. Although most workplaces are far safer today than in the past, terrible accidents do occur, and the agency is implementing some broader reporting requirements for employers.

The new rule expands the list of severe work-related injuries that all employers with 10 or more employees must report to OSHA. The reports must be made within eight hours of the event. Reports also must be submitted within 24 hours for any work-related hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye. Previously, employers had to report only hospitalizations of three or more employees resulting from a workplace accident or illness.

Ridiculous that this isn’t already the case.

Little less thrilled about this:

The other big change in the new rules is an update of the list of industries that are exempt from routine injury and illness reporting requirements based on their “relatively low occupational injury and illness rates.” That change possibly could reduce some reporting requirements, but the full effect isn’t yet known.

I don’t think exempting industries is a good idea here because there are almost ways workplaces can be made safer and healthier. If office work seems like a place that should be exempted from OSHA requirements (and I don’t know if it is exempted or will be but it seems likely), what about ergonomic standards that could make that work healthier and happier for employees?

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