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Tag: "labor"

The Problems with the Trans Pacific Partnership

[ 7 ] November 28, 2015 |


Last week, the New York Times editorial board nailed the fundamental problem with the Trans Pacific Partnership on labor issues:

Obama administration officials say the T.P.P. goes further on labor standards than those earlier pacts. For example, the T.P.P.’s labor chapter requires all 12 countries to adopt minimum wage, working hour and occupational safety regulations. That is an improvement, but it could turn out to be mostly symbolic because the agreement does not specify how countries should set minimum wages. Nor does it establish any minimum standard for safety regulations.

Experts say the most important labor provisions are found in side agreements the Obama administration reached with Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei individually to address specific problems like barriers to union organizing and the treatment of immigrant workers from countries like Myanmar. These countries will have to change their labor laws in specific ways before they are allowed to export goods duty-free to the United States.

The agreement with Vietnam, a country run by a communist government, would require that workers be permitted to form independent unions that are not affiliated with the Communist Party and would have the right to bargain collectively and to strike. This should help workers who have been exploited to demand better pay and better working conditions.

American labor leaders are unconvinced these side deals and the labor provisions that apply to all countries will sufficiently improve union power. They have long worried that trade encourages a race to the bottom, hurting American workers. But offshoring to developing countries has been going on for years, and the T.P.P. is unlikely to change that. Labor leaders rightly point out that even under the pact, the Vietnamese government does not have to let new unions form federations to represent workers at the national level for up to five years after the agreement becomes effective, which is expected to happen in 2017 if it’s ratified by Congress.

By far the biggest concern, aside from the particulars of the side deals, is whether President Obama’s successor will actively enforce the T.P.P.’s provisions. The Obama administration has been slow to bring significant cases against countries like Guatemala when they violate existing trade agreements.

In 2008, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Guatemalan workers’ organizations filed a complaint against the Guatemalan government for failure to enforce its own labor laws, as mandated by the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement. After years of negotiations with Guatemala, the Obama administration took that case to arbitration last year to force the country to prosecute abusive employers and make it easier for workers to form unions.

And let’s point out that while I’m glad Obama took the Guatemalan case to arbitration, this has been going on for 7 years now before even reaching this step which in itself does nothing for Guatemalan workers. A process this glacial is not one that is useful for workers. If this is the best we can do within these trade agreements, then the trade agreements are the enemy of workers in the developing world. Many of these workers know this, which is why they oppose the TPP. Without an independent enforcement power that workers themselves can access, without real and delineated punishments for nations who violate the labor provisions of trade agreements, and without consequences for wealthy nation companies who are complicit in these violations, these agreements simply will not work in workers’ favor.


This Day in Labor History: November 26, 1910

[ 7 ] November 26, 2015 |

On November 26, 1910, a factory building in Newark, New Jersey caught on fire, killing 25 textile workers. This should have been a call to arms for workplace safety reform, but because it was in Newark and wealthy people did not see the people making their clothing die, nothing happened. The situation would be very different after those wealthy people did see workers die precisely four months later in New York during the Triangle Fire.

The working conditions of the Gilded Age were extremely dangerous. The 1842 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation established the doctrine of workplace risk, by which workers were said to have agreed to labor in unsafe conditions when they took the job and thus had no legal recourse to compensation if they were hurt or killed. This was one of a series of 19th century court decisions that allowed companies to do whatever they wanted in the name of progress, whether it was kill workers or decimate ecosystems. Workplace deaths became commonplace. Particularly in mining, workplace disasters that killed 100-200 workers, but more often, a dozen or more, would be all too common. Other industries would often kill workers one by one, through production that designs that threw a single worker into a sawblade every other day but would not kill the dozens needed to gain national headlines. By 1910, discontent with this systems had manifested itself that some judges and juries were beginning to find for dead and injured workers in court cases, scaring companies about their potential financial liability and pushing them toward recommending weak workers compensation laws to protect their interests. The first of these would pass in 1911.

The Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, which made nightgowns, occupied part of a four-story building in Newark. On November 26, 1910, at about 9:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the factory. Owned by a New York woman named Barbara Glass, this was a circa 1860 factory building that lacked any fire extinguishing technology. There were several different factory operations in the building. The first floor was a box factory and a machinist shop. On the second was another box factory while the third floor was a light bulb manufacturer. There were a total of about 200 workers in the building as a whole, of which 75 percent were women. The fire actually started in the light bulb factory. The description of this process makes you wonder why there weren’t more fires. Basically, to carbonize filaments for electric light bulbs, the workers connected the filaments to two poles in vulcanized cork placed in the mouth of a small metal can. An iron pipe connected this can to a can of gasoline used to carbonize the filaments with an electric current shooting through the gas-filled can for the carbonization. Someone would manually fill the gas cans with a big barrel of gasoline sitting outside the factory. Gasoline spilled on the floor and somehow, possibly because smoking was not uncommon in factories, the gas caught on fire. The workers immediately threw sand on the fire and it seemed to kill it, but in fact it was still smoldering and a few minutes later it exploded anew, jumping to the ceiling. There was a firehouse directly across the street from the factory, but even so there was nothing the firefighters could do to extinguish in flames. In fact, several firefighters were injured rescuing workers.

The workers on the bottom floors escaped, but not on the fourth floor. Six of the workers burned to death while 19 jumped. Forty more were injured while escaping. Most of these women were young. The oldest was 59-year old Catherine Weber while the youngest was Mildred Wolters, age 16. Three sisters by name of Millie, Tillie, and Dora Gottlieb all died. They were 19, 21, and 29 years old respectively.

As was not uncommon with these Gilded Age disasters, the fire got a lot of publicity, with national news stories covering it. But it did not lead to any broader calls for workplace safety reforms. The Progressive reformers trying to improve the lives of workers did act. The Women’s Trade Union League assigned Ida Taub to investigate the fire and testify before the relevant bodies. She sent a letter to the coroner’s jury, asking to be heard at the January hearings. They said yes, but almost immediately dismissed her as soon as she started. The foreman stated, “unless you have a complaint of criminal negligence on the part of an official, you had better take your stories to the Corporation Counsel and have him prosecute for violations.” The coroner’s jury decided, “They died from misadventure and accident.” And thus nothing was done. In the end, the Gilded Age doctrine of workplace risk still held sway, with most juries, even as late as 1910, finding in favor of widespread corporate murder of their employees.


The mayor set up a relief fund for the families of the deceased and contributed $100. There were some other contributions. And that was it. There was no meaningful compensation for survivors or the families. The fire did worry officials concerned with a similar situation in their city. The New York fire chief said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.” And indeed it would.

Ultimately this story and the story of Triangle are key to understanding not only the awful working conditions of the Gilded Age but how change occurs. As many scholars have pointed out, most workplace safety legislation in the United States only passes after a horrible disaster galvanizes attention. Often even that is not enough, as we see from the Newark fire. It wasn’t until Triangle, with the physical connection between workers and consumers becoming disturbingly manifest, that meaningful change took place. Today, that physical connection is largely impossible. At best, when workers die at the Kader factory or Rana Plaza, the best we can hope for is enough media attention that it stays in the news for a cycle. It took over 1100 deaths to move European companies to do anything about the terrible conditions of labor in modern sweatshops. For American companies, that was not enough. With us unable to even find Bangladesh on a map, there is certainly no Triangle-like pressure for force corporate reforms. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have worse workplace safety conditions than other nations…. Only workers’ lives we are talking about here.

So little has been written on the Newark fire, except in the context of mentioning it for Triangle, that I had to go hunt up old insurance industry journals from the time to write this post. The March 29, 1911 issue of The Insurance Press provided most of the details about the fire itself and what was happening in that factory building.

This is the 161th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

They Couldn’t Wait Until After Thanksgiving

[ 38 ] November 25, 2015 |


U.S. Steel decided they couldn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to lay off 2000 workers at its Granite City, Illinois facility. What a lovely holiday those unemployed workers will have. At the same time, U.S. Steel is demanding 20,000 union workers give away much of their contract in current negotiations, no doubt using the threat of Granite City and another recent shuttered factory in Birmingham as a threat. It’s true enough that the remnant American steel industry is not in great financial shape but one could also try to work with the United Steelworkers to deal with the situation instead of using it as an opportunity to attack organized labor. And there’s no excuse for laying off people the week of a holiday. At least have the common decency to wait until Monday. But that’s capitalism for you.

Heat Stress as Global Health Crisis

[ 5 ] November 24, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

Labor’s Decline and Fall

[ 20 ] November 22, 2015 |


Above: Sewing workers strike, 1937

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

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

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

Very much worth your time.

Unionize the Charters!

[ 14 ] November 21, 2015 |


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

More here.

Southwest Negotiations

[ 20 ] November 20, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jail the Wage Thieves

[ 11 ] November 20, 2015 |


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

Erik Visits an American Grave (VI)

[ 9 ] November 19, 2015 |

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


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

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


John Mitchell is buried in Cathedral Cemetery, Scranton, Pennsylvania

TPP, Vietnam, and Labor

[ 9 ] November 18, 2015 |


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

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

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

Sounds good, right! But….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ban the Box

[ 30 ] November 16, 2015 |


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

It May Not Surprise You That……

[ 95 ] November 15, 2015 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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