January 31, 2005

Celebrity-Driven Labor Coverage

The Sunday NY Times Magazine gave Andy Stern the front page treatment and the result was sadly disappointing. There is some good stuff in there, but it's ultimately a pretty shallow exercise in cliches about the labor movement.

Let's start with a small touch that's ultimately telling about the perspective of the piece. The author repeatedly refers to "union bosses", the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can't fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It's ultimately a phrase that is used to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: workers get a vote in a union.

Yet nowhere in the piece is any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other unions' leaders are mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely Anna Burger, who is described as Andy Stern's "political aide", ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography.

Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York's 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office's control, or Sal Roselli, leader of California's nursing local.

When I lived out in California, no one in the local labor movement even knew who Andy Stern was, but everyone knew Sal as a key force in unionism in California. And it's people like Sal and Dennis who ultimately determine whether Andy Stern keeps his job, not visa versa. And it's their members who determine if Sal or Dennis keep their jobs-- a fact Dennis Rivera knows well, since he got his job by leading an insurgency against a previous incumbent leader.

Then there's this silly line at the beginning of the piece:

Over the years, union bosses have grown comfortable blaming everyone else -- timid politicians, corrupt C.E.O.'s, greedy shareholders -- for their inexorable decline. But last year, Andy Stern did something heretical: he started pointing the finger back at his fellow union leaders.
What a crock. Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlour game among union activists. John Sweeney won election as AFL-CIO leader in 1995 centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership.

And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade, and a host of other changes were made.

All Andy Stern is arguing is that not enough was done. But he's continuing an argument that's decades old, which is why other unions could easily contribute alternative proposals for change. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily sets up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical "old union" resister to change. Buffenbarger's proposal for expanded labor media is mentioned, but that's about it.

The personality-driven media around Andy Stern is to be expected from a media that prefers celebrity politics to policy discussion in politics. The piece touches on a few important organizing campaigns-- the Beverly health care organizing drive in Arkansas, organizing New Jersey janitors -- but it never really goes into the detail to connect them to the proposed SEIU reform proposals.

The most interesting part was the dilemma over global unionization and how to convince American workers to link their fates to improving the lives of workers in developing nations like China:

Sure, there was an obvious logic to unionizing foreign phone operators or machinists: American workers won't be able to compete fairly for jobs until companies have to pay higher wages in countries like China and India. But how would it look to workers in America? How would you avoid the appearance that you were more worried about the guy answering the phone in Bangalore than you were about the guy he replaced in Iowa?
I'm glad to see the Times devoting serious coverage to the labor movement. Maybe next time they can give it the depth they give to debate's on business every day on the business pages.
Posted by Nathan at 07:34 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 28, 2005

Wal-Mart Defines "Immediate Family" as Gay Partners

Well, at least they are using that definition in their SEC filings about how they define insider trading. Hopefully, if gays are liable for the sins of their partners, they'll soon get the benefits that go with that family relationship.

Posted by Nathan at 05:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Union Density Falls Again

Drip. Drip. Drip. Year after year.

One more year that the Bureau of Labor Statistics announces that a falling percentage of workers are in unions:

12.5 percent of wage and salary workers were union members, down from 12.9 percent in 2003...

The rate for private industry workers, at 7.9 percent in 2004, was about half what it had been in 1983.

One dangerous trend is that not only is the percentage of workers in unions dropping, but the total number of union members is dropping, after stabilizing for most of the 1990s.
Posted by Nathan at 06:47 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Return of the Spoils System

Back in the 19th century, work for the federal government was part of a partisan spoils system, where supporters of a President were rewarded and opponents punished. Since the Civil Service Act of 1883, legislation has worked to insulate federal employees from pressure to toe the partisan line of the President's party.

Well, that's now ending, starting with the "Homeland Security" department where new rules will allow managers to punish the 110,000 Homland Security employees and even fire employees who act independently.

The administration assures the public that these "reforms" eliminating collective bargaining rights and ending civil service protections are just to improve performance, or as they describe the new rules:

  • Employees rated less than fully successful do not receive pay increases
  • Individual expectations aligned with organizational goals
  • System results in improved organizational accountability
  • Non negotiable management rights expanded to assure ability to act
  • Bargaining on procedures prohibited, but management required to confer
  • Homeland Security Labor Relations Board (HSLRB) established to ensure mission focus, provide one-stop dispute resolution
  • Mitigation permitted only when penalty is wholly without justification
  • Just look at those last two items. "One-stop" dispute resolution means that employees complaining about abuses in the Homeland Security Department will appear before a panel created and controlled by the head of the...Homeland Security Department. Unlike other federal employee labor boards, whose members must be confirmed by the US Senate, the Homeland Security boards will just be political appointees with no independent review by anyone outside the administration.

    And no appeals will apparently be allowed unless the employee can prove that there is no conceivable basis for the adverse action against the employee. As long as the Department can tell a plausible story for why they retaliated against an employee, he or she is toast.

    But, you ask, would this administration so abuse the law to force employees to toe the administration's propaganda line?

    This is an administration whose political employees have broken the law distributing fake propaganda to the news on the taxpayers dime and paid off columnists to promote administration policy. Now, with these new rules, employees of the Homeland Security department will have to join the administration's propaganda campaign or see their pay slashed and even lose their job.

    A coalition of federal unions have filed a lawsuit against the administration challenging the new rules, arguing:

    "Without true due process, managers will have free rein to retaliate against employees who challenge management decisions. The narrowed scope of bargaining in the new regulations allows management to implement transfers and shift changes with impunity. To see how this could work, one need only look at the Office of Special Counsel, where career employees who spoke out against management decisions suddenly find themselves transferred to offices thousands of miles away from their homes. Who now will be held accountable if the DHS fails its mission?"
    As I noted back in 2002 when the new Homeland Security law was being debated, these changes endanger the public, as was shown in review of retaliation against whistleblowers in the FBI, which has long lacked many of the civil service protections of the rest of the federal government:
    Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who revealed the incompetence of the agency leading up to 911, testified before Congress and identified the "risk aversion" by agents and "micromanagement" by top level supervisors as a key source of the problem. Agents are so afraid of retaliation that they are unwilling to "rock the boat...We have a culture in the FBI that there's a certain pecking order."

    The non-union FBI has been wracked by scandals of whistleblowers trying to expose incompetence in their agency, only to suffer harassment to keep quiet. In the mid-90s, chronic problems in FBI crime labs were highlighted by whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst, a scientist-agent, who along with colleagues were suspended for their service to the country. Despite praise by Senators for his courage, Whitehurst suffered demotions, internal investigations, and forced psychological treatments. Similarly, when a wiretap translator in D.C. raised suspicions about a coworker's connections to a suspicious group under surveillance, despite the verification of much of her story, the FBI fired her for publicly raising her concerns.

    As I argued at the time, "why would we create a whole Department with the same culture of arbitrary retaliation and risk aversion as the FBI?"

    But the answer of course is that what's bad for the nation's security is very good for serving the partisan propaganda goals of the Bush administration.

    Update: Kevin Drum and Liberal Oasis

    Posted by Nathan at 05:55 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 27, 2005

    Wage Criminals Busted by SEIU

    The ugly reality is that literally millions of workers in the US work near or below the minimum wage. Criminal theft of their wages is a day-to-day fact of life in their lives.

    And usually no one cares. If millions of middle class families were being blatantly robbed of often thousands of dollars every year, the government would be declaring a new war on crime. But since it happens to poor people- who cares?

    Well, at least there's some good news as unions increasingly help these workers win class action lawsuits to recover their stolen wages. SEIU announced today a massive class action settlement with contractors for some of the largest supermarkets in the country.

    An interesting aspect of the settlement was that the investigation that revealed the large-scale scheme was funded by the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), a fund set up by SEIU in cooperation with union businesses to uncover illegal activity. Workers benefit and the unionized firms don't have to worry about being undercut economically by competitors profiting from illegally low wages.

    That points up one avenue for ratcheting up labor rights: enlist the handful of good employers to support reforms that force their low-wage competitors to either raise their labor standards or be shut down.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 26, 2005

    Hartford Wal-Mart Opens w/Union Visitors
    on the Doorstep

    Early in January, I mentioned that Hartford had passed an ordinance requiring that a Wal-Mart (and other retail stores) opening on public land allow community members, including union organizers, to talk to customers and workers in the parking lots and sidewalks of the store.

    Well, today was opening day and as this story tells, various unions and the Connecticut Working Families Party, which helped pass the ordinance, were outside welcoming workers and customers with information about Wal-Mart's bad employment policies. From reports I've received, the reception by customers and workers was pretty good, as the organizers held a bakesale to raise funds for the "Wal-Mart Families Health Care Fund," so the ordinance is already helping in the goal of eventually unionizing the store.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:14 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    Small is not Necessarily Democratic

    Chris Bowers at MyDD.com, in talking about reforming labor, discusses the argument of those who prefer strong union democracy to SEIU's centralized approach to building its union. Chris argues this:

    Regional locals and fewer unions might mean more power for an individual union, but it also means less grassroots input and less local democracy. It means fewer local officers, less attention to local concerns, and adopting a significantly greater top-down approach...Certainly, it is important to increase activism and militancy at the local level, to find new means of getting our message out, and to increase political participation, but the sort of reorganization that SEIU proposes is the most expedient means of increasing union power. While more active, democratic unions are important goals, the primary goal is more powerful unions that can improve working conditions, period. If a union is not improving working conditions for its members, then it serves no purpose.
    I think Chris has this formulation wrong. Democratic unions are crucial, because without them, timeservers and crooks take over unions and destroy them. And democracy feeds stronger activism by members that leads to better working conditions for members.

    The problem with this debate is that it usually gets framed as undemocratic centralization versus local democracy.

    Not that SEIU is immune to criticism, but many unions with strong local power have very undemocratic union structures. As for SEIU, leaders like Dennis Rivera of Local 1199 in New York state are directly elected -- and he got his position in a contested, hard fought race for that position. Direct election of leaders is a big demand of many union democracy advocates and, while Andy Stern himself is not directly elected, he is directly accountable to the directly-elected leaders of the large "locals" that have been created in SEIU's new structure.

    Compared to the layers of indirect elections in many unions, SEIU doesn't look bad from a democratic viewpoint. It's been using trusteeships -- claiming locals are mismanaged and directly administering them for a while -- a little bit too heavily for my tastes, but some of that was needed to root out what were in many cases quite undemocratic (and ineffective) local structures.

    I'm not arguing that SEIU wins on all democratic virtues, far from it, but the debate shouldn't be polarized as if local equals democratic and centralized equals undemocratic.

    And on a political level, big decisions need to be made at the national level of union politics, so if a union members vote is only for a leader of a small local union, it's actually rather hard for their views to translate into real choice at the local union ballot. The smaller the union local, the more likely the elections will turn on local personalities, while national union votes are far more likely to turn on the big issues labor faces.

    The key is not the size of the locals, but whether the union elections are fair and opponents have a real chance to get their views out. Almost all unions have problems on that score, but that is where labor reform advocates should put their focus.

    Update: To add an example of needed reforms as unions centralize, a decision by an Appeals Court last fall required direct elections at regional councils of the Carpenters, arguing that as traditional functions of locals are moved to higher regional bodies, those bodies must meet the requirements of direct and fair elections by the members.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:09 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    In These Times on Labor

    The magazine has a special issue on labor. Check it out.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 25, 2005

    Blog Labor, Not "About Labor"

    Well, it's good to see Matt, Brad, Ezra and Chris are talking about the virtues of blogging about labor.

    Which is a start.

    But rather than all this meta-talk about labor, I'd love to see folks analyze real labor fights in the detail that bloggers take on other issues. Sure, the SEIU versus AFL-CIO smackdown got some blog press, but that story broke during the DNC convention (probably not coincidentally with Andy Stern's sense of how to get attention). But the bread-and-butter fights, the strikes, the organizing campaigns-- those need the blog energy to educate the public about why they matter.

    My standard line is that the press covers unions only in two cases-- when they are going on strike or when their leaders are being indicted. Most people couldn't tell you what a grievance is or how arbitrations are used to enforce a worker's rights under a union contract.

    I'll give a point to Henry Farell at Crooked Timber about a NY Times story about a Human Rights Watch report about violations of workers rights in the meatpacking industry.

    But why do we have to wait for a classic liberal group like Human Rights Watch -- who have done good work in this area, I should add -- to speak out before a lot of liberals will take labor abuses seriously?

    An NLRB Outrage: Instead, maybe people should be signed up to receive emails from American Rights At Work, the labor-supported but independent organization that is directly facing off against the anti-union forces. Just this week, they highlighted a horrific outrage at the National Labor Relations Board.

    Here's the story: in any labor election, union-busting lawyers cajole and threaten supervisors into becoming campaigners against the union. Supervisors hold captive audience meetings, tell workers the company will shut down if they vote for the union, and campaign day-after-day on company time to defeat the union. And this is all legal.

    But guess what? According to a 3-2 decision at the NLRB, if one lower level supervisor advocates FOR the union, the whole election is tainted and the election gets thrown out.

    To add to the twisted logic of the decision, the supervisor in question didn't even know they'd legally be counted as a supervisor, since the NLRB and the Supreme Court have increasingly declared that low level employees with minimal oversight responsibilities still count as supervsisors (and by the way, lose all protections under labor law).

    So that's the double standard in our workplaces. Employers can REQUIRE supervisors to campaign full-time against the union, but workers can't campaign for the union during that same work time and if a supervisor promotes the union AT ALL, the whole union drive is illegal and the election is thrown out.

    So let's see some more blogging about these kinds of attacks by the Bush administration's NLRB.

    Posted by Nathan at 11:03 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    January 24, 2005

    Bowers Rants on Anti-Labor Liberals

    Chris Bowers over at MyDD.com goes on a rant against liberals, who think it's okay to support a pro-choice politician who is anti-labor, but would never support a pro-labor politician who was weak on abortion rights (as may be the case in the Pennsylvania Senate race in 2006). As Bowers writes:

    Here is an ugly truth about the netroots: we are the not so rich version of the DLC that we claim to hate. Our lack of interest and knowledge about labor is stunning. The importance of these issues among the netroots is revealing. Pop quiz--can anyone even tell me what private sector card check means, much less what it would mean to this country? The last time I used that term in a blog article, it elicited only questions, no affirmations.
    Hopefully, most folks who read this blog know what "card check" means in the context of union rights, but the point Bowers makes is accurate across the blogosphere and most liberals.

    However, I actually think he's wrong about the Democratic Party overall, that it's "sold unions down the river for middle-class liberalism." There are actually fewer anti-labor politicians in the party than there were a few decades ago. Democrats voted overwhelmingly in recent trade votes against "fast track" authority for both Clinton and Bush and have lined up strongly behind labor rights bills. They resisted union-busting in the 2002 Homeland Security bills to the point that Senators like Max Cleland were attacked as Osama-loving traitors for refusing to screw labor in those voters. Sure, Democratic leaders could push labor issues harder but they face unyielding filibusters by the GOP. No issue is more partisan these days than a vote on core labor issues.

    No, in this case, Bowers first impulse is right. The problem here is not with the Democratic leadership but with its non-labor base of voters, who don't understand the issues and thus don't campaign hard to educate their fellow voters. The ongoing union-busting in the airline industry has gone barely unmentioned by most liberal blogs and one outrage after another comes down from the National Labor Relations Board without comment. If similar decisions were happening on abortion or race, it wouldn't be blogged from the far ends of liberal opinion outlets, but most liberals just don't give a damn.

    No, the political leaders (who need labor help at elections) are actually ahead of much of the base on core labor issues. It's the liberal opinion leaders, not the elected ones, who need to clean up their act and take labor issues more seriously on a day-to-day basis.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:21 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

    January 21, 2005

    Street Heat in the Restaurant Industry

    A nice profile in the NY Times of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which I mentioned a couple of days ago, and its executive director, Saru Jayaraman. As the article says:

    The center is on a roll. This fall, it plans to open a restaurant, Colors, on Lafayette Street near Astor Place, to be owned and governed by workers. On Tuesday, the center is set to release what it describes as a groundbreaking report on the state of the restaurant industry.
    But like any good organizer, Saru wants the attention on the worker members, not herself, and criticized the reporter for doing this kind of personality profile:
    "As an organizer, I don't think that this is appropriate," she says somewhat sternly. "The point is that restaurant workers lead their own struggles for justice. I'm just a spark in the fire."
    Always the dilemma for organizers dealing with the press. They want personality more than substance, and Saru has a good story (read it), so that's the hook to get more publicity on the bad employer actions in the restaurant industry.

    As long as they spell the organization's name right :)

    Posted by Nathan at 07:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 20, 2005

    At Least Some Workers Benefit from Inaugural

    Even if a second Bush inauguration promises gloom for most American workers, the DC festivities gave hotel workers in that city the leverage to win a good new contract. As a head of the local union explained, "I think having the inaugural as a leverage point and having our membership willing to sacrifice money that they would have made was a key" to getting an agreement. And all the hotel workers get double pay for working on Inauguration Day, so at least a bit of that GOP money flowing in the city will be going to the workers checking their bags and setting up the convention halls.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Obit for Murdered Iraqi Labor Leader Hadi Saleh

    The Guardian has this wonderful obituary for Hadi Saleh, a man sentenced to death and hunted by Saddam Hussein, even as he would oppose the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Having covertly been a leader on behalf of labor rights in Iraq since 1980, he helped found the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU)-- which the Bush administration would militarily attack and politically undermine by retaining Saddam's anti-union laws.

    It is sad that for all many pundits wistfully discuss an Iraq not divided by ethnic and religious ideology, they largely ignore the Iraqi labor movement and men and women like Hadi Saleh, who seek exactly that vision:

    Hadi Saleh's commitment to trade unionism was a vital feature of his vision for a democratic, peaceful and federal Iraq, which would unite all Iraqis, regardless of their background, ethnicity or religion. For him, trade unions would be the key to achieving such unity. Thus he championed workers' rights to organise and to strike to achieve decent jobs, pay and working conditions: the basic building blocks of strong, non-sectarian trade unionism. Such a strategy remains the only way to defeat the IMF shock therapy and trans-national economic occupation, which has been imposed undemocratically on Iraqis by the occupying powers.
    His murder by what appears to be the ex-security forces of the old regime doesn't fit simple versions of either the pro- or anti-war story line, so his story is largely being ignored in the mainstream news. But his death should be on the front page representing the attacks on the best hope for a non-sectarian future for Iraq.
    Posted by Nathan at 07:31 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    Workers Win Union at Second Quebec Wal-Mart

    Want to see why the Bush NLRB is trying to crush even voluntary card check recognition of unions in the United States? Look North where Quebec requires companies to recognize a union whenever a majority of workers sign cards requesting one:

    Paul-Andre Lapointe of Laval University said Quebec's labour laws and courts are much more pro-union than those in the United States, where he said employers can use threats of closures or promises of wage hikes to thwart a union drive.

    In Quebec, "the state and the courts have a favourable bias for unionism; the right of workers to participate in their working conditions is seen as a dimension of industrial democracy," Lapointe said.

    "That's the goal of the labour code; it doesn't mean it campaigns for unions, but it gives equal rights to employees during a union drive, to balance things out."

    That was the the labor law in the United States, as well, in the 1930s and 1940s until the 1947 Taft-Hartley Law ended the practice of the NLRB recognizing unions based on card checks. Instead, the best unions can do in the United States is negotiate voluntary recognition by an employer -- usually after applying other kinds of political or economic pressure on the employer just to end the usual threats and intimidation of workers under the NLRB process.

    And the Bush NLRB is even trying to undermine or even outlaw that voluntary recognition process.

    Over half of US workers say they would join a union if they had a real chance to do so, but current labor law makes it so dangerous that less than 10% of workers in the private sector have done so. The fact that another 40% are so terrorized that they can't act on that desire to be in a union is one of the shames of US democracy.

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

    January 19, 2005

    From Ashes of 911
    A New Worker-Owned Restaurant

    When the north tower collapsed on 9-11, seventy-three workers at the famed Windows on the World Restaurant died. But the survivors, in collaboration with the local restaurant union and other allies, came together to form a new organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), to advocate on behalf of the rights of restaurant workers in the city.

    And one result of that effort is a new cooperatively-run restaurant owned by thirty-five of those largely immigrant Windows survivors and launched with the support of ROC.

    The restaurant has raised a large part of its initial capital from the Italian cooperative movement, a nice sign of international worker solidarity.

    I've done quite a bit of political work in support of ROC in the last two years, so I'm happy to see this new venture successfully moving forward.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 18, 2005

    NUP Dismantled

    According to this report at the American Prospect, the unions making up the New Unity Partnership have dissolved their alliance, essentially declaring mission accomplished:

    “I think it served its purpose,” [UNITE-HERE head] Raynor told the Prospect. “It sparked this great debate in the labor movement, which is what we wanted. Now, we want it to be an inclusive discussion, not an exclusive one. The list of unions calling for reform has expanded. Hopefully, the AFL-CIO now becomes the vehicle to reform the labor movement.”

    ...Raynor told the Prospect that he “was very encouraged by the [AFL-CIO] executive committee meeting on Monday,” January 10, at which the presidents of the Federation’s largest unions discussed the Teamsters’ and other proposals. “I was impressed with the commitment union leaders showed to making the necessary changes -- more than cosmetic changes,” he said. “There’s a growing majority for substantive change.”

    Rather than let critics attack the NUP and avoid the substance of the debate, the leaders apparently decided to formally end the initiative. Whether other internal tensions between the unions was involved in the decision is unclear, but the we'll see how the internal AFL-CIO debate goes this year as to whether the NUP has a lasting legacy.
    Posted by Nathan at 04:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 17, 2005

    Martin Luther King Jr. on Labor

    Few people remember why Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis the day he was murdered.

    He died helping to organize a union of garbage workers, a fight that had become an epic symbol of the struggle of southern workers fighting both racism and union busting in the South. AFSCME -- the parent union of the Memphis garbage workers -- maintains a web site in commemoration of that strike and MLK's contribution. As a contemporary report explained:

    The Public Employee, April 1968

    A victory over the reactionary city administration of Memphis was scored here by Local 1733, SCME. The administration, led by Mayor Henry Loeb, capitulated, ending a 65-day strike that began February 12.

    The celebration, however, was tinged with sadness as it was recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while in Memphis to aid the striking public works employees. "Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city," [AFSCME head] Wurf told the hushed meeting. "He helped bring us this victory."

    Dr. King came to Memphis in response to an appeal from Negro clergymen and led a march in support of the strikers that ended in a brief flare of violence when 30 young militants left the march and clashed with police. This set the stage for Dr. King's return to Memphis to lead another march, scheduled for April 8, on City Hall. On the evening of April 4, Dr. King was shot from ambush by a sniper...The cause of the strikers was so close to Dr. King that his widow came to Memphis to lead the march he had planned. This occurred on the day before Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta.

    This was just part of MLK's long time commitment to empowering workers as a key part of the fight for civil rights. As Martin Luther King said during the strike:
    Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor's needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
    It's a theme I hit often, but today is a good day for may progressives to remember why labor's right to organize is critical to all progressive values.
    Posted by Nathan at 09:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 16, 2005

    GOP Plan: Taxing Work

    Tax "reform" is Bush's other big idea after privatizing Social Security. Part of his "ownership society", the main headline is expanded tax-free savings accounts. But if savings and their returns are untaxed, something's got to be taxed. As this long and indepth analysis emphasizes:

    In theoretical terms, Bush's cuts have brought the United States tax code closer to a system under which income from savings and investments aren't taxed at all and revenues would be raised exclusively from taxes on labor. The consequence of those policies is that a greater proportion of tax revenues now come from what the middle class earns and a smaller proportion from what the wealthy earn.
    That should be the frame for progressives.

    The GOP plan is to tax work, punish work. If you work for a living, the GOP wants to tax your sweat.

    Don't let them emphasize what they aren't taxing. We need to emphasize where the tax burden is going to fall.

    Posted by Nathan at 05:34 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 14, 2005

    Bush Admin Promotes Corruption in NJ

    My boyhood home, New Jersey, is known for a tad bit of, err, irregular financial dealings with public contracts. So former Governor McGreevey issued an executive order last fall to restrict the "pay to play" practices in the state to discourage the issuing of public contracts to political contributors to policians in the state.

    But the Federal Highway Administration is apparently punishing the state for the rules, withholding $347 million in federal funds, claiming that the rules undermine federal competitive bidding requirements. New Jersey has filed suit to block these federal actions.

    I'm waiting for the details but this is part of a general conservative strategy of claiming that government restrictions on who receives public contracts -- whether anti-corruption rules or living wage laws -- interfere with the "free market" which should only worry about the lowest bid made. Massachusetts rules that prohibited purchasing of goods from Burma were struck down by the Supreme Court as impinging on foreign policy. A California law prohibiting state funds going to contractors using those funds to bust unions was struck down as conflicting with the National Labor Relations Act. Even more quietly, an international General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) is being negotiated that would further restrict state and local ability to regulate their own public contracting.

    As larger and larger portions of public money are distributed through private contractors, this is a covert strategy to destroy public accountbility over those funds and impose neoclassical free market principles on how those funds are spent in the name of "competitive bidding" rules. A nasty trend that progressives need to be fighting every step of the way.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:33 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 12, 2005

    Steelworkers- PACE Merger
    Still Little Money for Organizing

    The Steelworkers -- having merged with the rubber workers a few years ago -- anounced a merger with Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), itself a merger of the old Paperworkers with the Oil and Chemical workers union.

    Reflecting the lack of clear logic to the merger, the new union has the ungainly name of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied-Industrial and Service Workers International Union. This follows the failed attempt of the Steelworkers to merge with the United Auto Workers and Machinists back in 1999-- a merger that would have had a clearer logic in merging manufacturing unions in the metal trades.

    But the merger will at least increase the economies of scale for organizing by the combined union, although the initial comments by union leaders still don't reflect the urgency to make organizing the core priority:

    "We're going to be the largest union in a number of crucial sectors of the North American economy," Mr. Gerard said. "We'll be able to bargain better agreements and better represent our members, and by doing that, we think we can do a better job organizing additional workers."
    While the union claims plans to spend $30 million per year on organizing, this is not as impressive as it might seem given that the Steelworkers by themselves back in 1998 announced a plan to spend $40 million per year.

    Since the annual budget of the Steelworkers was $560 million and that of PACE was $62 million in 2003, the announced organizing budget is less than 5% of the combined annual budget of the combined union-- a pathetic amount.

    Posted by Nathan at 05:24 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 11, 2005

    Bush Hikes Tax on Pensions 50%

    Having helped encourage the bankrupty of multiple airlines and their pension funds, thereby dumping their liabilities on the government Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the Bush administration has now proposed to hike annual mandatory premiums to deal with the Bush-created $23.3 billion deficit in the fund. The proposal is also to hike the premiums even more on companies with low credit ratings-- a fiscally reasonable move but one that will just further encourage such companies to dump their pensions as a cost-saving move.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 10, 2005

    Anti-labor Legislative Agenda

    This is part of a series highlighting the legislative agenda of the corporate Right. Part of thinking like the opposition is highlighting the broad agenda of the rightwing, so that the public sees the full range of their desired assault on our rights:

    Start with the National Right To Work Committee, the corporate-backed anti-union lobbying organization, which lays out their legislative goals for the coming Congressional session in their January newsletter. Here are the main laws they want passed (some links are to old versions, since new legislation hasn't been published in all cases):

    National Right-To-Work Act - This law would prohibit employers and unions from negotiating requirements that all workers pay fees to the union for their share of the costs of negotiating and administering the contract. Instead, any worker would be free to enjoy the benefits of the union contract, require the union to represent the worker in any grievance, yet pay nothing to the union for these services. Many states have passed such laws, so this would make this rule mandatory nationally. A good critique of state "right to work for less" laws here.

    Ban Card Check Recognition - This law would prohibit employers from recognizing unions through "card check" procedures, such as a majority of workers signing cards requesting a union. Instead, workers would be forced to go through the delays and frustrations of the NLRB election process. See here for a good analysis of the problems in federal labor elections and the benefits of card check.

    End Protection of Salted Workers- Because unions have so many obstacles to communicating with employees during union campaigns, some unions purposefully place pro-union people in workplaces to promote the union. This law would allow employers to fire any employee placed in a workplace as part of such a "salting" campaign. See here for a defense of salting by pro-labor Congresspeople.

    Expand "Extortion" Prosecution of Unions- This law would allow unions to be indicted for extortion if any union members engaged in violence during the course of a strike. The law would overturn a 1973 Supreme Court case which emphasized that while individuals engaged in violence could be indicted for their role in promoting violence, the government could not use criminal conspiracy laws to indict unions collectively for such acts. See here for an analysis of this attack on unions.

    There's a lot more anti-worker laws percolating in Congress, but these are the top priorities of the NRTW folks to keep an eye on.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 08, 2005

    MA: Law Would Protect Janitors When Companies Change Hands

    States continue to be where the action is for new labor law innovation. In Massachusetts, state legislators are proposing a law that would require companies that change hands to keep janitors from the building's existing cleaning company for 90 days, instead of immediately bringing in a new custodial crew.

    This is critical in promoting job stability, since such contract workers are always afraid that if they demand better work conditions, a company will just switch contractors. This way, a company knows that they can't as easily eliminate "troublesome" workers demanding their rights just by switching cleaning crews.

    The Mass law is modelled on California's 2003 Layoff Protection Act, which requires companies to keep contracted labor for 60 days before providing a new labor source, Arroyo added. California's act is not specific to janitors.

    Posted by Nathan at 04:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Bush: Limit Asbestos Victims RIghts

    Progressives need to be clear that the discussion about medical malpractice by Bush is a stalking horse for the much larger corporate goal of limiting all liability claims.

    The public is inherently sympathetic to obstetricians facing the high costs of malpractice insurance. So Bush has flogged medical malpractice relentlessly.

    But he's now tipped his hand to the next step: limiting claims by victims of corporate harms, such as asbestos makers like Halliburton:

    President Bush concluded a week of campaigning to overhaul the nation's civil justice system on Friday by urging swift Congressional approval of legislation that would sharply limit the steadily growing number of lawsuits by workers and others who claim to have been injured from asbestos...

    Critics have said that one reason the White House may have been less visible on the issue in the past is that until recently a main beneficiary of such a measure could have been Halliburton, the large oil field services and construction company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

    There have been many discussions on creating a system to compensate victims more quickly and simply than using the court system. But the legislation supported by Bush ignores the harms to many victims of asbestos:
    Although lawsuits for mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers could go forward, those for other serious, but non–cancerous asbestos conditions such as asbestosis might not qualify. S.B. 413 and similar legislation is being pushed by asbestos companies and their insurers.

    Sen. Max Baucus (D–MT) expressed his concern about all asbestos victims..."I am concerned that in a rush to address a perceived crisis in our courts, Congress may do an injustice to hundreds or thousands of injured people by arbitrarily denying those people the ability to protect their rights."

    THe rhetoric is typical of Bush. He picks out one group to highlight as supposedly benefitting form legislation -- in this case cancer victims of asbestos -- in order to promote legislation that would destroy the rights of many other people.
    Posted by Nathan at 06:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 07, 2005

    Judge Throws Out United Bankruptcy Deal

    At least this judge found that an airline was abusing the bankruptcy court system. United and its pilots had cut a deal dumping the pilots pension costs onto the Pension Guaranty Corporation-- but only on the condition that the airline negotiate the end of pensions for other workers and unions at the company.

    The judge found that the deal was "unduly tilting the bankruptcy process", which forces all sides back to the drawing board. The other unions are still fighting hard to preserve their pension rights, so this gives them more chance to fight.

    Posted by Nathan at 04:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Airline Bankruptcies: Higher Taxes for Good Firms

    Even as airlines are using the bankruptcy courts to bust their unions and destroy their workers' pensions, a side story is the mounting debts of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government agency which will take over the costs of those workers' pensions (although not pay them their full benefits).

    But the costs are substantial. The proposed elimination of US Airways pensions will cost the federal insurance fund $2.3 billion. The proposed takeover by the fund of the United pilots pension fund will cost the PBGC a total of $1.4 billion.

    The result of all these bankrupt firms dumping their liabilities on the government is the looming insolvency of the PBGC itself:

    It has gone from an $8 billion surplus in 2001 to a $23 billion deficit in 2004, raising questions about its long-term ability to pay retirees their pensions.
    To solve the problem, the insurance rates that fund the PBGC will have to be raised, raising costs on companies that actually continue to provide pension funds to their workers.

    This is what makes the bankruptcy courts actions so vicious. They strip airlines of their pension liabilities, allowing them to go out and compete with lower costs against existing firms that continue to take care of their workers. And those firms that take care of their workers by providing pensions will see a tax hike to cover the past mismanagement of those now low-cost competitors.

    Let's be clear-- whether by intent or incompetence, the present policy of the government is to do everything possible to destroy existing pension funds for workers.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:22 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 06, 2005

    Hartford Passes Wal-Mart Public Access Law

    Consumers and workers challenging abuses by Wal-Mart will have a new weapon when the company opens a store in Hartford: those activists will be able to enter company property and tell customers and workers about those abuses:

    For the first time in Connecticut, among the first times in the nation, a local ordinance gives union organizers - and any other groups - the right to do their thing on Wal-Mart property, peacefully and within reason, without fear of the boot or handcuffs.

    They can rouse rabble right up to the front door of the 155,000-square-foot store. This is a big deal at Wal-Mart, which has so far remained 100 percent non-union in its North American stores in part by keeping labor organizers as far as possible from its "associates."

    Since I helped pass this law as part of my day job, this legal change is near and dear to my heart.

    A basic problem in modern urban developments is that we are losing the public space to protest the loss of that public space. Workers are abused, but union organizers are barred from the parking lots where they could explain to workers their rights to organize to change those conditions.

    Activists in Hartford already have creative ideas on how to use this new found power:

    "The fight to ensure that living wages and benefits are paid to workers is a battle we plan to engage," said Jon Green, director of Connecticut Working Families, a political party as well as a coalition of labor and community groups.

    Among the organizers' ideas: a bake sale, right on the site, to raise money for Wal-Mart workers to buy health coverage.

    Back in 1992, the US Supreme Court declared that federal labor law did not give union organizers any right to access employer property during a union election campaign. That meant that employers, who have daily access to employees, can propagandize against unionization with little chance for unions to respond.

    But just because federal law gives unions and other consumer activists no right to free speech on company property doesn't mean that state and lcoal governments can't take action to create that right. And given the unlikelihood of federal labor law changes in the immediate future, state and local initiatives like Hartford are where the action will be in coming years.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:43 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    January 05, 2005

    Undocumented Workers Approved to Collectively Sue Wal-Wart

    Wal-Mart is being targetted in court by janitorial workers who were arrested during immigration raids of Wal-Mart stores in 2003. The workers allege they were illegally abused by Wal-Mart with the company using their illegal status to exploit them.

    A judge approved moving forward with a collective action by the workers and allowed their counsel to get information to expand the group of workers in the lawsuit (see full BNA Daily Labor Report below):

    In certifying the collective action, the court said Wal-Mart was required to produce the names, addresses, and nationalities of all former and current janitors who have performed work under contract with Wal-Mart since January 2000, as well as copies of the agreements with contractors.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2005 Page A-1

    Collective Action OK'd for Illegal Workers
    Arrested in 2003 Wal-Mart Immigration Raid

    A collective action on behalf of undocumented workers performing cleaning services who were arrested in a 2003 immigration raid of Wal-Mart stores was approved by a federal judge in New York Dec. 29 (Zavala v. Wal-Mart Stores, D.N.J., No. 03-5309, 12/29/04).
    Approving the conditional certification of an overtime and minimum wage claim brought by 17 named plaintiffs, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey said the plaintiffs could send a notice to thousands of janitors who worked for Wal-Mart contractors performing cleaning services throughout the United States. Judge Joseph A. Greenway Jr. limited the collective action to Wal-Mart employees and refused to expand the class to the company's Sam's Club operations.

    The ruling on the FLSA claims was the first in what is expected to be a series of rulings resulting from a November 2003 lawsuit filed on behalf of undocumented workers who performed cleaning services for Wal-Mart and who were arrested in the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids of 21 of the chain's stores. The workers also have filed claims alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1985(3)), and New Jersey's wage and hour and anti-discrimination laws.

    The workers named in the suit--who are residents of Mexico, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia--charged that they worked at least 60 hours per week without overtime, workers' compensation coverage or health insurance benefits, sick leave, or disability benefits. The workers claimed they earned between $350 and $500 a week.

    Some 250 undocumented workers were arrested Oct. 23 as a result of the government raids of Wal-Mart stores (207 DLR A-6, 10/27/03). Wal-Mart later acknowledged receiving a "target letter" from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania indicating the company is being investigated for its role in alleged immigration violations by third-party cleaning contractors (214 DLR A-13, 11/5/03). Wal-Mart has said it is cooperating fully with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and has no reason to suspect the investigation will result in the indictment of company officials.

    The workers allege a fraudulent scheme by Wal-Mart and its maintenance contractors across the United States, including stores in New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi, and Texas, to use undocumented workers to provide janitorial and cleaning services. The original complaint alleged workers were "locked-in" to stores overnight to perform cleaning services.

    In certifying the collective action, the court said Wal-Mart was required to produce the names, addresses, and nationalities of all former and current janitors who have performed work under contract with Wal-Mart since January 2000, as well as copies of the agreements with contractors.

    James L. Linsey of Cohen, Weiss & Simon in New York represented the workers. David P. Murray of Wilkie Farr & Gallagher in Washington, D.C., represented Wal-Mart.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Organizing Requires Breaking the Law

    I was looking over proposals at the new AFL-CIO union strategies for change web site and I came across the American Federation of Teacher's proposal, Inclusive Strategies for Labor’s Renewal. It's pretty good, if generally less ambitious than the SEIU proposal, but one section in particular struck me as cutting to the core of what unions need to do.

    Instead of depending on existing unions to organize tough targets, such as Wal-Mart, which may be beyond the capability of any one union, the AFL-CIO should consider marshalling resources to start independent unions, much as new unions like the Autoworkers and Steelworkers were chartered to take on the new industrial giants in the 1930s.

    But the kicker to the argument is the hidden benefit to having independent new unions do the organizing: they have little to lose, so they can be much more aggressive in ignoring the legal straightjacket of labor law (see p. 19):

    Similarly, organizing in new areas such as high tech, insurance and banking, public and private sector employers in the South and West, manufacturing transplants, etc., may require creating new unions from scratch and even adopting unconventional tactics unencumbered by the restraints of current labor law. Existing unions have much to risk and lose through the purposeful violation of Taft-Hartley (secondary boycotts and shutdowns, sit-down strikes, etc.); organizing committees of start-up unions with no accumulated treasuries or bricks and mortar might enjoy greater strategic and tactical flexibility and would have substantially less to lose through the smart and strategic use of unconventional approaches where appropriate. The AFL-CIO could explore the legal and financial avenues for building institutional firewalls for donor unions (or for the AFL-CIO as a donor organization) that would be responsible for providing money, logistical assistance, long-term loaned staff and other help without the expectation of an organizational quid pro quo.
    This is a deep point that goes to the core of the challenge facing labor.

    The union movement can't succeed by obeying the law.

    The law after the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was designed to strangle and kill new organizing. NLRB elections have become a graveyard of delays. Union leaders face jail and their unions bankruptcy if they allow wildcat strikes or secondary boycotts.

    But new independent organizations could shoot the moon, taking actions that no established unions could responsibly do. As the paragraphs above indicate, transferring resources to such independent unions might get tricky, but recognizing that the labor movement needs organizing vehicles that can be bolder in challenging the legal restraints on unions is a welcome addition to the debate on the future of unionism in this country.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:57 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 04, 2005

    AFL-CIO Website for Discussing Future of Labor

    Responding to the National Unity Partnership challenge, the AFL-CIO has a new website, Strengthening Our Union Movement For The Future, to answer key questions:

    How should we strengthen the union movement for the future? What will it take to give working families the power we need to balance corporate power? How do we make the most of the solidarity and energy of the 2004 presidential election campaign? And most important, what will it take for the union movement to grow?
    The goal is for unions, central labor councils, state federations and other groups to prepare proposals in time for the the AFL-CIO executive council to consider them at its winter meeting, which begins March 1. The council will then formulate recommendations to be presented for action by the AFL-CIO convention, scheduled for July 25-29 in Chicago.
    Posted by Nathan at 06:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    A Slew of Books on Wal-Mart

    Wal-Mart is the Big Bad of the union movement right now and a whole new literature has arisen analyzing its evil effects. The New York Review of Books highlights a number of these new books, including Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart, by a friend Liza Featherstone.

    One thing that all activists need to recognize is that Wal-Mart combines ruthless labor policies with cutting-edge use of new technologies, much as Ford Motor company did in its headday:

    McKinsey also makes much of the company's innovative use of information technology, for example its early use of computers and scanners to track inventory, and its use of satellite communications to link corporate headquarters in Arkansas with the nationwide network of Wal-Mart stores.
    The reason this makes Wal-Mart formidable is that its advantages versus its corporate competitors due to low wages is supplemented by advantages due to greater productivity-- which means that any union challenge to Wal-Mart has to be that much stronger to threaten enough damage to corporate profits to make them come to the bargaining table.

    What is striking is how much Wal-Mart has decentralized its abuse of workers through the corporate budgetting process:

    Each year Wal-Mart provides its store managers with a "preferred budget" for employment, which would allow managers to staff their stores at adequate levels. But the actual budget imposed on the store managers always falls short of the preferred budget, so that most Wal-Mart stores are permanently understaffed. The gap between the preferred and actual budgets gives store managers an idea of how much extra work they must try to extract from their workforce.
    Without needing explicit orders, local managers are forced to violate wage and overtime laws to meet these corpoate budgetary commandments.

    The result is the worker turnover and lawsuits that have embroiled the company:

    Some 50 percent of Wal-Mart workers employed at the beginning of 2003 had left the company by the end of the year. . . Perhaps the best evidence we have of this selective harassment is to be found in the depositions of 115 women who have testified against Wal-Mart in the Dukes case, a class-action lawsuit brought in 2001. . . The suit, which alleges systematic discrimination by Wal-Mart both in the pay and promotion of women, is brought on behalf of 1.6 million female employees of Wal-Mart past and present, the largest civil rights case of its kind in US history.
    Read the article and a few of the books and studies mentioned. This is capitalism for the 21st century and we all need to understand it if we are going to fight it.
    Posted by Nathan at 06:32 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 02, 2005

    Summary of Bad NLRB Actions

    Steven Greenhouse at the NY Times summarizes recent anti-union decisions by the National Labor Relations Board.

    Like a lot of Bush policies, the goal is less to wipe labor out in one foul swoop than to kill unions bit-by-bit:

    "Taken one by one, I do not think these are the kinds of decisions that make one sit back and say, 'This is outrageous,' " said Theodore St. Antoine, an emeritus professor of labor law and former dean of the University of Michigan Law School. "At the same time, I have to concede that once more we're in the nibbling process. While none of them consist of a great big bite, the cumulative effect is to decrease the capability of unions to organize."
    Posted by Nathan at 10:53 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack