November 24, 2004

Labor Is the Source of All Wealth

(cross-posted from Daily Kos)

. . . so went the motto of the labor movement during the first real boom of labor organizing, around the turn of the last century. It's an intuitive idea -- without work, there is no food, no power, no industry, no construction. Without labor, all the money in the world is little but colored paper. As Joe Hill wrote in a more radical time,

If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains;
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still.

Which is, of course, true, although it's certainly the case that working people in the US have never had the kind of solidarity envisioned by Hill. I quote Hill's verses simply to illustrate the elementary principle that it is only though human toil that wealth exists.

But as Harold Meyerson brilliantly explains, the Bushies never let facts get in the way of some good winger ideology:

Though his reelection campaign brilliantly marketed President Bush's anti-intellectualism, the truth is that his administration has trusted more to pure theory than virtually any modern president's. The Iraq war is a triumph of ideology over the facts on the ground (it's certainly not a triumph of anything else). And, as it's currently shaping up, Bush's second term looks to be even more theory-driven than his first.

Theory certainly is driving the administration's tax policies. In his first term, Bush took an ax to the taxes on dividends and mega-estates. In his second term, according to a story by The Post's Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, the president is looking at eliminating taxes on dividends and capital gains and creating generous tax shelters for all investment income. The theory here is that investment, not labor, is the real creator of wealth -- so the taxes on investment income will be scrapped, while those on wages will keep rolling along.

And in the name of this theory, Bush seems willing to sacrifice much of the social compact that made America, in the second half of the 20th century, the first majority middle-class nation in human history.

As John Edwards -- the message man of the 2004 primaries -- so eloquently put it, Bush and his cronies favor wealth over work. And now they're primed to enshrine their philosophy in law, even as it tears apart the American middle class.

Posted by Trapper John at 01:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 10, 2004

Comments broken

Sorry for the frustration of people trying to do comments. Somehow a key file in the MoveableType software got nuked and I'm looking for a backup. Since they aren't supporting older versions anymore, it's a bit of a pain. If anyone has a version 2.64 version of MT (or therebouts) and could email me (at the mt-comments.cgi file, it would be much appreciated.

Update: Go over to new design at for the new design with comments.

Posted by Nathan at 02:06 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

The SEIU plan & Forced Mergers

I just posted this as a comment over at the NUP blog, but I figured I might as well put it up here as well.

Simply put -- the portion of the SEIU's plan advocating that the AFL Executive Council force mergers is wrong, untenable, and destructive to solidarity and the basic principles of unionism.

One of the SEIU's main proposals is that "the AFL-CIO should have the authority to require coordinated bargaining and to merge or revoke union charters, transfer responsibilities to unions for whom that industry or craft is their primary area of strength, and prevent any merger that would further divide workers' strength."

The idea of the AFL-CIO Executive Council -- the ivory tower of organized labor, as divorced from the rank and file as any body of the labor movement -- ordering American and Canadian workers to leave their union and join a new union is at once offensive and laughable. It's offensive to the essential idea underpinning the labor movement -- that working people have the God-given right to choose their own representative. Working people are the foundation, the raison d'etre of the entire labor movement -- but on a day-to-day basis, most people don't see themselves as part of the movement. They see themeselves as everyday people doing their jobs, and they rely on their union to do one thing -- to stand up for them on the job. Most couldn't care less about the machinations of the Executive Council -- they simply need a union that will work for them. And to tell people that because of broad, historical developments, they have to join a new union -- one that has no experience dealing with their employer, one where the business agents are new and haven't built a relationship with the employees, one where the union's primary interests lie in another portion of the industry or another industry entirely -- that's arrogant and wrong. If people aren't being served by their union, they have the opportunity to get rid of it. If the members voluntarily seek to merge with other workers in a different union, that's great. But when DC bureaucrats force a merger in the manner of Churchill imperiously drawing the boundaries of the Middle East, it's wrong.

But the idea isn't just wrong -- it's not tenable. Sure, there are some weak, small unions that it won't be hard to merge, because the unions have lost any strong sense of identity. But a lot of the smaller unions, especially in the building trades, aren't mergeable. Does anyone really believe that the Elevator Constructors -- a small union with about 25,000 members, but with nearly total market share -- are going to allow themselves to merge with anyone? How about the Ironworkers? Or, outside of the trades, the ILWU? These unions may be small, but they're a lot stronger in their industries than some of the large service and industrial unions are in theirs. They have long histories and fierce senses of independence and solidarity. The often bargain with specialized employers in specialized industries. You can't merge them by fiat -- any attempt to do so will simply drive them out of the AFL.

Some of the SEIU's proposal makes real sense. The increased organizing expenditures (including the idea of dedicating all of the Union Plus royalties to organizing), the per capita rebates for organizing, the strengthening of CLCs (and, presumably, local building trades councils) -- these are good ideas that deserve real consideration. But the anti-democratic, heavy-handed, staffer-driven plan to compel mergers -- even mergers of healthy, thriving unions -- simply to satisfy preconceived notions of what makes a strong union -- is not worthy of our movement.

For comments, go to the new version of LaborBlog

Posted by Trapper John at 11:05 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fight Over Future of Labor Starts

This is it.

SEIU has officially launched its challenge to the AFL-CIO on how to organize the labor movement for the future. It's called Unite to Win, a website that will be the center for discussion and debate on what labor needs to win.

The starting point is the challenge facing labor laid out by SEIU President Andy Stern:

When 1 in 3 workers were in a union when the AFL-CIO was founded 50 years ago, union wages and benefits brought everyone up.

But since then, unions have represented a decreasing percentage of the workforce. They have been growing smaller instead of growing stronger.

Today, only 1 in 12 private sector workers are in unions. Workers in our country are divided not only into red and blue states, but into union and non-union states (and you won't be surprised that they are pretty much identical).

The agenda proposed to deal with this challenge is not a minor tweaking of present AFL-CIO policy but a controversial agenda for change:
  • Divert $25 million per year of AFL-CIO annual revenue to organizing Wal-Mart as the key target for the labor movement.
  • Deny political endorsement to any politician who does not support labor law reform.
  • Eliminate smaller unions and merge them into larger industry-wide unions who will be required to coordinate national bargaining.
  • Lead unions in key industries should receive half their dues back from the AFL-CIO to be devoted to new organizing.
  • Local central labor councils should be strengthened and all unions locally should be required to participate in regional organizing strategies.

    These are the most controversial proposals; others include a fight for national health care, strengthening organizing generally, improving political work by unions, increasing diversity in the labor movement, and strengthening ties with global unions.

    Probably no proposal will be more enraging to some other unions than the one calling for mergers and the elimination of smaller unions. And since Wednesday is the meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, Andy Stern will no doubt hear an earful from those unions. The leaders of the Machinists union have become point as leading critics of SEIU and its allied unions like HERE-UNITE:

    Richard Sloan, a spokesman for the machinists' union, criticized Mr. Stern's proposals, asserting that they were part of a power play in which Mr. Stern and his allies were seeking to take over the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

    "It's not Andy Stern's role in life to say to 60 other international unions that you got to do it my way or the highway," Mr. Sloan said. "That's just dead wrong. There's an arrogance to that. He fails by misunderstanding the nature of the labor movement - this isn't a set of elites that dictates to us. This is a democratic movement."

    At their convention in September, the machinists' delegates authorized the union's executive council to withdraw from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if its political opponents won control of the federation.

    Here's the thing. SEIU's proposals and how it runs its own union is not immune to criticism, but the critics need an alternative agenda to be taken seriously. We need a debate and concrete change or Bush and his corporate allies will steamroll the labor movement in the next four years.

    This is self-consciously the same point as when the CIO proposed changes in the American Federation of Labor back in the mid-1930s. The result then was a split in the labor federation and a frenzied competition between the two rival federations to organize new workers. Maybe that is the result we will see today, but with a hostile federal government, that may be a harder trick to repeat. So "uniting to win" may be a better result this go round, but something's got to change, and the SEIU proposals are at least a good place to begin the debate.

    And since the website encourages comments on its blog, you can join in. So join this debate on the future of democracy in the workplace.

    For comments, go to the new version of LaborBlog

    Posted by Nathan at 08:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack
  • Fight for New Unity Gets Underway

    SEIU is launching its campaign to retool the labor movement.

    * According to this story, Andy Stern sent a letter to AFL-CIO executive board leaders today calling for a commitment to change before Bush is inaugerated again:

    * A web site that includes specifics about how and why New Unity supporters believe the movement needs to change has been set up here:

    For comments, go to the new version of LaborBlog

    Posted by Brendan Sexton Never Died at 01:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    November 08, 2004

    More On The New Unity Partnership

    Two pieces quite critical of the New Unity Partnership seeking to reorganize the AFL-CIO have just been published...

    The founder of the Association for Union Democracy, Herman Benson, has a piece in New Politics and labor scholar Richard Hurt has a piece in Working USA [requires registration]. Now that the election is over, this debate is sure to heat up.

    Posted by Leo Casey at 05:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    2004 Labor Campaign

    Here is the AFL-CIO's report on the 2004 labor campaign.

    Members of unions have always cast a more progressive vote than their non-union working class counterparts, and the figures from this year continue that trend. The problem is that with the forces of American labor declining, both absolutely and relatively, they do not account for the same proportion of the general electorate they did forty or fifty years ago.

    Posted by Leo Casey at 05:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Reflections On The Labor Campaign

    Like most of you, I am still in the midst of one deep funk, in a deeper set of blues than even Picasso in his blue period, over the election returns. But I do have some thoughts about the labor campaign...

    I went to Pennsylvania, a battleground state, the weekend before election day and stayed there through the actual elections. I ended up there by happenstance: my brother lives in northeastern Pennsylvania, in the city of Scranton where he teaches at the university, so I figured it would be both less expensive for the union and easier on me to stay with him.

    Northeastern Pennsylvania is rust belt before there was rust belt. Once the home of the Molly Maguires, one of the finer contributions of Irish immigrants to the American labor movement, its coal mining and steel industries never recovered from the Great Depression. Cities like Scranton and Bethelehem, Allentown and Lehigh in the next valley south, are down and out, with little economic dynamism. During the days that I walked two blue-collar towns on the borders on Scranton [Dunmore and Archbald], I found that at least one-third of the union households on my precinct lists were retirees. And it is more than a little bit disconcerting to have people tell you, again and again, that the person you are calling for on your telephone list has been dead for five years. It leaves you feeling that you are in part of the world that history has left behind.

    The labor campaign was interesting in that it was organized by two folks who had been in Scranton for months -- one from SEIU and one from the AFT. That is all the more interesting because neither of these internationals have any real presence in the area -- as far as I can figure out, the SEIU has a small hospital it just organized, and the AFT has nothing [the local teacher unions are NEA]. Yet when it came time to put together a ground campaign, two unions with a real record of organizing had the people to put into the area and run the effort. My partners in the precinct walking were also interesting. Both were locals that took days off from work to do campaigning -- one a middle aged woman Steelworker working from a place that had nothing to do with Steel [a business school] and the other a middle aged woman Machinist from a place that had nothing to do with machine shops [she was a municipal employee of Scranton]. There were about eight SEIU workers who were part of the group that had taken leaves of absence to do campaigning, and they had been in Scranton for some time. [Talk about depressed: can you imagine how they feel?] It seems that the campaign reflected very much the reality of a labor movement in transition.

    It is also worth noting that on election day, we ran into five other teams of folks working on behalf of the Kerry campaign -- not only folks from the campaign proper, but also other union folks, and MOVEON.ORG and ACT folks. We did not run into a single Bush team. The Kerry forces seemed a whole lot better organized: they were a sea of Kerry lawn and house signs, and far fewer Bush signs.

    But although we won the county and the state, it was not by a whole lot. Clearly, the Bush forces were organized. Some of this is explicable in terms of the Bush forces concentrating on areas of greater strength [there were areas. such as Clarks' Point suburbs of Scranton, which were more upscale than where I was], or areas they needed to win Pennsylvania, such as the Philadelphia suburbs. But it is also clear that the Bush forces were organized in different ways. Bush signs were often combined with pro-life, anti-abortion signs. It seems to me that they were using church and religious networks which did not go door to door, but targetted, perhaps by phone, their contacts.

    What all of this means, we need to figure out. I would not put too much stock in the exit polls, but my own experience suggests that the evangelical and fundamentalist vote was pivotal in this election. We were good, but it wasn't enough.

    Posted by Leo Casey at 03:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Employers Slashing Benefits

    Bush is presiding over the complete government takeover of health care for retirees. That's the result of employers' elimination of benefits for retirees across the country, forcing them to rely almost exclusively on Medicare:

    Unless the benefits are guaranteed in a labor agreement, companies generally are not obligated legally to maintain these entitlements. Faced with surging medical costs and burgeoning retiree populations, many employers are trimming their contributions to existing retirees' health coverage and eliminating coverage entirely for future retirees.

    Thirty-six percent of large firms offer the benefit, down from two-thirds in 1988, according to a 2004 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

    An estimated 12 million seniors covered by Medicare also get benefits from employers, according to human relations consultant Hewitt Associates. An additional 3 million younger retirees between the ages of 55 and 64 rely on company benefits to bridge the gap until Medicare kicks in.

    Yet the ranks of companies that continue to provide such benefits are rapidly dwindling.

    Ten percent of large companies eliminated all subsidized health benefits for future retirees last year, according to a 2003 survey by Kaiser and Hewitt.

    More telling, 20 percent said they are "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to terminate all subsidized benefits for future retirees in the next three years.

    Make no mistake-- Bush's complete neglect is allowing employers to abandon commitments made to retirees over decades to pay for their health care and pensions.

    And the result is not just a worse life for those retirees but more costs for existing taxpayers, as those costs are absorbed by the government.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    November 06, 2004

    What Should the Democratic Party Do?

    Lots of people blogging and otherwise punditing about what the Democratic Party should do now. I've got the answer right here ...

    in this poster from 1929. (via Cool Gov).

    I am serious as could be.

    Posted by Sam Heldman at 03:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    November 05, 2004

    Elliot Bredhoff (1921-2004)

    The eminent union lawyer Elliot Bredhoff died this week -- one of the first generation of CIO lawyers, one of the architects of the "Steelworkers Trilogy" that established labor arbitration, and a tireless advocate for unions and their members.

    It's hard not to be grumpy this week, so let me just say that he was a blue-state guy who helped a lot of people.

    Posted by Sam Heldman at 08:14 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack