December 24, 2005

Pensions:NY Transit Strikers Show Value Of Unions

By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

Labor reporter Steven Greenhouse has an article in the NY Times today about the nation-wide battles that workers are fighting (and generally losing) to preserve their promised pension benefits. The MTA's attempt to raise the pension contributions of new New York transit workers was a major cause of the recently ended strike.

Many officials and fiscal experts assert that across the nation government pension plans face a shortfall of hundreds of billions of dollars. From New Jersey to California, government officials say that attempts - either through contract fights, legislation or public referendums - to limit the amount of money that states and cities contribute to pensions are inevitable and overdue. Labor unions, for their part, say that the worries are overblown.

"Every level of government in New York City, New York State and in states across the country face large and growing pension obligations," said E. J. McMahon, a budget expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group. "If nothing is done to bring pensions under control, all the other headaches that state governments will be facing in the next 20 years on needs like education and health will be enormously worse."

You hear a lot of that, but as Greenhouse points out, that's not the only story:
Many government employees and their unions assert that the campaign to trim pensions threatens America's social contract for the middle class: a respectable pension.

Saying that in recent contracts they had sacrificed wage increases or better health benefits for solid pensions, many public employees and their unions assert that governments are betraying their commitments by seeking to now cut pensions. Further, they argue that much of the shortfall in pension financing could be erased by a strong stock market in the next several years.

"A lot of people are exaggerating the size of the problem," said Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1.4 million government workers. "Right-wing think tanks and conservative Republicans want to do away with traditional pension plans and replace them with much-cheaper 401(k)'s at the same time they want to give all these tax cuts to the rich."

Now, over the past week I've been communicating about the strike and expressing my extreme disappointment with those who think that the "greedy" transit workers should be happy to give up benefits because they're already much better off than many other workers.

NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg exploited that sentiment during the strike:

Mayor Bloomberg repeatedly called the strikers greedy. "The public says, 'I
don't want to pay more taxes and I don't get these kind of benefits,' " he said
yesterday. "You have no idea how many e-mails I got, 'I don't make that kind of
money. I don't have those kinds of pension benefits. Why are people striking?' "
But read further. Greenhouse goes on to analyze the reasons that some workers are better off than others:
Nationwide, 90 percent of public-sector workers have traditional benefit plans - known as defined-benefit plans because retirees receive a defined amount each month- while just 20 percent of private-sector workers do. In 1960, 40 percent of private-sector workers were in traditional pension plans. One reason for the disparity: 36.4 percent of government employees belong to unions while just 7.9 percent of private-sector workers do.
So, in other words:

Union = Defined-benefit pensions: good.

No Union=Defined contribution pensions (where you contribute a defined amount, but what you get back depends on how your investments behave): bad.

Now, there are two possible conclusions to these equations:

  1. Damn unions are greedy. They're ruining America. Why should those transit workers have a right to better pay and benefits than I have? (And why, or why do they have a right to inconvenience me to keep those outrageous benefits?) They should face reality and be satisified with what I and everyone else I know has submitted to.


  2. Hmm, looks like belonging to a union means better pay and benefits. Maybe I should organize a union that would help me fight for better pay and benefits.
As I've written before, in a race to the bottom, there's no finish line. Who's to say, following Option No. 1 to its logical conclusion, that someone else doesn't come along a bit later and say Unreliable pensions with high employee contributions? Look at all the workers in this country that don't have any pensions. How dare you protest when I take the entire pension away, you greedy bastards!"

Health and safety protections? Look at the workers in Mexico and China who are dying by the thousands. How dare you object to abolishing OSHA!

But looking back at history, is that the way human progress has been made? What if people who were working 60 hour weeks with lousy pay, and no vacation days or holidays or sick days or health and safety protections had said, "Gosh, look around, there are people even worse off than I am, making even less money and working even more hours. Maybe I should just be happy with my lot in life, put my head down and get back to work."

That logic would undoubtedly make perfect sense to billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Luckily for all of us, that's not the way that workers thought throughout history. Those who advocate that mindset today are basically in favor of reversing the course of human progress.

Not a world I'd want to live in.

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December 23, 2005

Strike Postscript: In Appreciation of Public Employees

By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

Well, the NY transit strike seems to be over. I'm not sure of the outcome yet, but I'm left with a rather sour taste in my mouth about a few things.

David Sirota had the exact same feelings about many people's "support" for the NYC transit strikers that I did: they fully support labor unions and workers in principle, but get pretty damn pissed off at all the messiness and inconvenience that it causes when people are forced to take some action to preserve their wages, benefits and working conditions. And then there's the silent (or not so silent) resentment that public employees often have better pay and benefits that many private sector employees who are "better educated."

As Sirota wrote:

And there, really, is the ultimate contradiction of the argument against the transit workers. You can't simultaneously argue that the workers are absolutely essential to the city's way of life, while also arguing that they should accept pension/benefit cuts. Because if something is that valuable to you, then you need to actually pay a premium for it.
"Friends" like that are only a shade better than types like Steven Malanga conjuring up the ghost of Ronald Reagan in the Wall St. Journal (subscription required). Malanga's upset about the "porcine" benefits earned by NY public employees -- outrages like fully paid health care, pensions and decent wages -- the same benefits that most American manufacturing and industrial workers earned until relatively recently:
Public unions rarely have to strike to win such benefits. The vast and growing political power they wield in state legislatures and city halls is usually enough to swing contract negotiations in their favor. But the TWU has always been a militant organization, whose leaders, egged on by the membership, seem engaged in a game of one-upmanship even with other unions.

But now New York officials should take a page from President Reagan's playbook: The MTA should start sending out termination letters to striking workers for breaking the law, and hiring a new work force -- including offering jobs to current workers, but on terms set down by the MTA.

While rebuilding the work force, transit officials could unleash the privately owned van services and bus lines, which they currently prohibit from operating along public bus lines, to protect the MTA's and the TWU's monopoly. The MTA should begin handing out long-term contracts for these operators to provide alternate, competitive services on a permanent basis.

Between the "friends of labor" who don't want to be inconvenienced, and the Malanga types who want to just fire the lazy bastards, who provides the services that are essential to the life of New York city -- and the country?

Think about it. Let me take you to a world without public employees....

Don't bother flushing your toilet. It just empties into the back yard because there are no wastewater treatment plant or sewer workers to fix the lines and treat the waste on the other end.

Need a trip to the store? Get out the horse because there's no one out there fixing the roads.. And make sure you drive extra carefully with no working traffic signals, no traffic cops and lots of people driving without licenses. Better take the gun along with the horse, because there's no law enforcement and no corrections officers to guard the criminals that had been apprehended.

Oh, and if you're water still works, save it up. Because if your house catches on fire, there are no fire figters to put it out. Don't try actually drinking the water though, because without EPA enforcers, it's too polluted to even give to your horse.

Of course, you can always put the kids to work, because there's no school or teachers for them to go to anyway. But they might as well stay home and inside anyway, because the air's become too polluted for them to play outside. Anyway, there's no time to play, because they'll be tending the garden you planted when you realized that there are no FDA inspectors to check the meat you used to buy and ensure that your veggies aren't full of carcinogenic pesticides. And, come to think of it, I'm not so sure about that garden either, because the soil's no so good anymore. Without those feared regulators, we've got lead back in gasoline and house paint. Turns out it was good for you.

Hopefully you still have a job, but good luck getting there without public transportation. Anyway, you'll be climbing over the garbage just to get to your car because no one's picking up the trash. And you better have a pretty nice insurance policy, because without anyone out there enforcing workplace safety laws, you've got a much lower chance of coming home alive and healthy.

True, you can always fly off to somewhere where life is better, but would you get on an airplane with no government authority making sure maintenance is done correctly? Are all those airplanes falling out of the air due to faulty maintenance done by underpaid, untrained workers? Who knows, because there's no NTSB inspectors left to investigate plane crashes? If you do manage to get away from it all, don't forget to take grandma with you. She'll need you more than ever without Medicare, Medicaid and public hospitals.

Sure, you could just privatize everything as the Wall Street Journal recommends. I'm sure all those minimum wage, untrained workers with no benefits would be motivated to provide quality service -- even if you could afford it. But you may have to spend an extra night a week paying your school, road, private police, private fire, road repair and garbage collection bills, in addition to the water, electricity and gas bills you already pay. (That is, unless Halliburton is hired to run the entire country.)

Of course, you could complain to your political representatives, but who are they going to listen to? You, or the companies who make the voting machines and run the elections now that elections have been privatized?

There are a couple of bright sides though: Lower taxes and no public employee strikes.

Among all of my white collar acquaintances are several who worked at some point in their lives as construction workers, dish washers, and factory workers -- they look back kind of fondly and some even wish they could do it again. But I rarely find anyone who expresses any desire to do many of the unpleasant, dirty and dangerous jobs of the public employees I used to represent: wastewater treatment plant worker, corrections officer, mental health aides, sanitation workers, etc. These are mostly jobs that people don't even want to think about in any detail, even though they're essential to our lives.

What we're seeing here are public employees who, because of the work they do and the unions they belong to, are finally earning some decent wages and benefits and the opportunity to retire at a reasonable age. So, instead of complaining about the inconvenience they've caused by fighting to keep those benefits, maybe people -- especially good, labor-friendly liberals -- would be better putting their energy into organizing unions and striving to attain those benefits and privileges for themselves and others in this society.

We'll let Sirota finish it up:

The lesson for New Yorkers in all of this should be very simple: you really value transit workers, way more than you ever thought. They ARE "essential" as you say - and maybe instead of applauding your politicians when they give away billions to swimming-in-cash companies like Goldman Sachs, you should be angry that they aren't focused on what you now realize is the most "essential" thing that your taxpayer money needs to be going to: keeping your city's basic services running, and responding to the modest demands of workers who do that.

Luckily, polls say most New Yorkers innately understand this and side with workers. But as the strike ends, those who don't understand this basic reality and who still blame workers for having the nerve to fight for their rights need to take a real hard look at themselves in the mirror and ask whether deep down in that place they don't talk about at parties, they really hold a deep hatred for working class people in general.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 22, 2005

Lives And Deaths Of NY Transit Workers

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space

Lots of trees being killed and electrons being wasted talking about the hardships of those trying to get to work during the strike.

Very little written about the hardships of being a NY transit employee.

For a little enlightenment, I searched the Confined Space archives and came up with a number of posts about the lives and deaths of NY transit workers.

First, for those who think that unions no longer serve a useful purpose, read this post from earlier this year about a Wall St. Journal article describing how unions like TWU Local 100 contributed to creating the middle class in New York, and are now trying to preserve it.

New York's MTA, with an annual operating budget of $8 billion, has been a haven for African-Americans seeking upward mobility since the 1940s, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr. joined other Harlem activists in pressing city-owned and private transit lines to hire more blacks. The Transport Workers Union's legendary president, Michael Quill (1905-66), was active in the civil-rights movement and once brought Martin Luther King Jr. to address workers, then mostly white, on the subject. Today, about half of the membership of the union's Local 100 are either African-Americans or West Indians. The local's president, Roger Toussaint, arrived in New York from Trinidad in 1974 and started at the MTA as a subway cleaner, as did several of the top MTA managers with whom he negotiates.
Then there's this post about the hazards to workers and passengers in the New York subway tunnels. The TWU is fighting for better marked exits, brighter tunnels, improved evacuation procedures and more employee training on helping passengers escape underground dangers.

And here's how the MTA treats you if you're unlucky enough to be killed on the job:

Sometimes you gotta wonder…..Last January, NY subway conductor Janell Bennerson was killed when her head slammed into a fence as she leaned out of the cab. The New York Transit Authority has now determined that her death was her own fault because she leaned out too far and kept her head out longer than the TA requires to watch the platform.
And here's a post about howTWU Local 100 came to the defense of a New York City Transit (NYCT) supervisor who was charged with responsibility for the 2003 death of a transit worker, when it was actually due to inadequate staffing levels.

Finally, there's this death of a subway motorman a few weeks ago that "highlights the need for transit workers, including motorman and conductors, to have CPR training and ready access to defibrillators, which can save the lives of heart-attack victims if administered quickly."

Rubbing The Union's Noses In The Mud

I also ran across this article today by long-time labor activist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., former Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO. He currently serves as President of TransAfrica Forum.

The strike that truly commenced on Tuesday, December 20, 2005, is a strike against the notion of New York being the Emerald City. It is a strike of workers who are insisting that they, as working people, have the right to work AND live in the City of New York. That means that they must have wages and benefits that make it possible to live stable lives. It must mean that the conditions of their employ are safe and secure and that they are treated like human beings rather than as trained animals.

Yet the strike is about something else as well. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying to sneak in something very familiar to workers around the USA. They want a two tier situation, that is, a differential in the treatment between newer workers and older workers. In this case, newer employees would need to pay more in healthcare than older employees. Two-tier situations are toxic. The newer employees come to resent the older employees, feeling that they have been sold out or sacrificed. It completely undermines the morale of a workplace, and thereby has a detrimental impact on the ability to get the job done. Thus, TWU Local 100 is right to stand up to this.

What makes this entire situation so completely bizarre is that the MTA has been running a substantial surplus. In this situation, the demand for givebacks is completely absurd. The only reason that givebacks could be demanded under these circumstances is to simply weaken the union and rub their noses in the mud.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 21, 2005

I'm Rich, I'm Rich!!!

Or so at least TPM Cafe's David Sclar seems to think:

Can We Eliminate the $130 Billion Health Insurance Tax Break That Favors the Wealthy?

Nearly everyone views this tax subsidy as a valuable means to encourage the purchase of health insurance, but it means we're already spending billions in tax dollars. The problem with this form of spending is that it goes to those who need it least. According to Porter, the federal government expects to provide about $130 billion in tax breaks in 2006 to employed and self-employed Americans. About half of that tax break currently goes to families with incomes over $75,000, and over 25 percent to families earning over $100,000 per year. These numbers are from President Bush's advisory panel on tax reform.

Why not eliminate these subsidies - and their associated problems of "job lock" and distortions to business decisions, as discussed in a previous post on GM - and spend the same money to insure those just above the poverty line?

Why not? How about because there are a lot of middle class people -- including some of the striking transit workers -- who couldn't afford good quality health insurance without that subsidy.

Why is it that so many people who are supposedly on our side are flacking the conservative line on cutting middle class subsidies? I'm a strong proponent of single payer and any other sane system for ensuring that everyone has access to good quality health care. And I wouldn't have a problem with capping or phasing out the health insurance subsidy for people who are truly wealthy. But unless you're a conservative, how does sticking it to middle class people in order to help the poor make sense?

The next time you're wondering, why is it that so many working people don't trust Democrats to look out for their interests, the answer is, we're saddled with people like David Sclar.

UPDATE: if you want to know what unions are trying to do to solve our health care crisis, check out UFCW's Health Care for All initiative and SEIU's Americans for Health Care campaign -- and if you live in Maryland, be sure to help Americans for Health Care override Governor Ehrlich’s veto of Fair Share Health Care, which is scheduled for a vote on January 11.

Posted by RalphTaylor at 05:37 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Against Slavery

Yes, Jordan is right that I am so envious of those blogging the transit strike (Can you send over another Banana Lassi? Namaste.)

But just a quick point that's the most basic about the Taylor Law-- and any law that prohibits strikes.

They are slave laws, nothing less. They tell people they must show up to work on threat of government-backed punishment.

Early in the 20th century, the courts regularly banned most strikes, even in the private sector, and labor progressives denounced those court decisions as a violation of the 13th Amendment ban on involuntary servitude. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 ended much of that power to ban private strikes but left intact the ability of governments to enforce slave conditions on their employees-- covenient that. (Of course, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and followup laws led to the banning of a range of other private strikes as well).

Getting paid is not enough to make someone free. They have to have the right to refuse to work, which is why the right to strike is promoted as a basic international human right.

Lech Walesa recently led a group of Nobel Prize winners who condemned US labor practices. It's worth remembering that all those Solidarity strikers in the Lenin Shipyard were government workers. Yet the same folks who loved illegal union actions in Poland often denounce public employees in the US going on strike.

Commuters don't have to love the transit union strikers -- although they should since they are fighting not just for themselves but a whole range of workers -- but should be ashamed of themselves if they endorse the Taylor Slave Labor Law.

Posted by Nathan at 08:51 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Blogging the Transit Strike

By Jordan Barab,Reprinted from Confined Space

(You've got to feel bad for Nathan. Not only is he missing the strike-related transportation snarl in New York, but he's missing writing about it. What poor planning for a honeymoon!

Meanwhile, I will do my best to keep up (hopefully with the help of others), but I've got a job that doesn't allow blogging, as well as my other blog with lots of readers to keep happy. In the meantime, use the comments - JB)

Most of the major blogs seem to be ignoring one of the biggest news stories of the year: The New York City transit strike. Some of the bigger blogs that covered the strike are listed below. Read them. Read the comments too for a sometimes inspiring, sometimes depressing taste of what blog readers think about the strike.

One presumes that most of these blog readers are liberals, yet in many cases support for the strike is surprisingly shallow or even hostile. The strikers' issues aren't well understood (fault of the new media or the union?), people assume the strikers are lazy, greedy slugs, people don't understand that strikes are not vacation days for the strikers -- especially when they're ruled illegal by the courts and strikers are being fined.

People fall into the trap of assuming that because most workers these days get less than the transit workers in terms of pay and benefits (thanks Wal-Mart), that the transit workers should face reality, settle for less and be happy about it. They forget the important lesson that in a race to the bottom, there's no finish line.

Finally, people assume that struggles like these should somehow come without any kind of hardship for the public. I feel bad for people walking to work in frigid New York, and worse for those low income folks who can't even get to work. But ultimately, the strikers are sacrificing not just for themselves, but for all of us. Workers in this country didn't get where they are today (in terms of decent pay, vacations, 8-hour work days, pensions, health care benefits, etc) without struggle, often bloody, illegal struggles that may have inconvenienced or even hurt "innocent" bystanders. And much of the reason that all of those hard-won benefits are being lost today is that more people aren't in unions and willing to put their jobs on the line to maintain those hard-won benefits.

Finally, people complain that the bad strikers are breaking the law because the "Taylor Law" makes public employee strikes illegal in New York. What people need to understand is that the Taylor law is a shameful example of how this country treats public employees like second-class citizens. Unlike private sector employees, public employees have no federal right to even form unions, much less strike, unless the state gives them that "privilege." To this day, only about half the states in this country provide public employees with the right to form unions and bargain collectively.

To make matters worse, public employees are not covered by OSHA unless the state chooses to cover them. Only 24 states provide their public employees with the right to a safe workplace (NY is one of those, although the law has suffered under Pataki.)

The rights that public employees do enjoy were earned through strikes and militant actions in the 1960's and 1970's, and political action after that time. Now, Republican governors are starting to take some of those rights back and we just saw CA Gov. Schwarzenegger attempt (unsuccessfully) to eviscerate the political power of public employee unions.

So what we're seeing in NY is just more of the same discrimination of those who make life in this country livable.

OK, enough of my blathering. Read what others have to say:

  • Jonathan Tasini's Daily Blog: Everyone's Strike
    So, if the riding public is looking for a reason to rally behind the workers, it's this: the workers are willing to endure hardship and lost wages so they can protect the economic futures of those people who aren't even working in the transit system. That's an admirable step, even if a billionaire mayor can't grasp the concept.

    And that stand is one that will have an effect on the tens of thousands of other public employees who will be targets down the road for the same negotiating ploy--undermine the livelihood of future workers by assuming that current workers won't put their own livelihood on the line for people they don't even know. In preparing his members for a strike, and making it clear what's at stake, Touissant has shown, in my opinion, remarkable leadership.

  • My DD: On the NYC Transit Strike

    Now, I can understand that many city commuters can't bring themselves to support this strike. Taking away public transportation from a city that relies on it, especially at the holidays, is incredibly hard to swallow. I'm sure the commuters feel that everything can be negotiated to a compromise settlement that works out in everyone's best interests and that a full strike wasn't necessary. But I'd challenge each and every one of them to find a job that's as dirty, tough, and dangerous as one being done by a city transit worker.

    We'd all do well to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, this strike is about nothing short of the dignity of workers.

  • Steve Gilliard: On Strike
    Anyone who thinks these people make too much ought to consider why much of New York is thriving and not a ghetto wasteland. Those salaries build homes, pay taxes, buy cars. In short, while you tour Harlem and live in Billysburg ii is because people with stable jobs and good salaries buy homes and live there. The dollars paid by the MTA to the TWU's members go to the city, support the city, unlike the suburban based police and firefighters.

    Yet, Bloomberg and Pataki disregarded that and the effect on business and backed the union into a corner. And they deserve the blame as much as the union or MTA for this. They tried to bully these people like Giuliani did, but that leadership lost their jobs because they buckled.

  • And lots more by Gilliard here.

  • David Sirota: The Superlaws That Undermine Working Americans
    But whether the unions demands are "fair" or not is not the real point here – the point is that superlaws like the 1967 statute being used to break the workers' strike undermine the entire concept of unions and workers' rights. Ask yourself a question: what is the one tool that ordinary, blue-collar workers have that can really help them assert economic power in a way that can minimally compete with the massive economic institutions (corporate/government) that run our society? The answer is ultimately through the threat of a strike – whether a strike happens or not. Without a union having the power to strike, they cannot threaten to strike and that means there is no real reason an employer should listen to any union requests, because the employer knows the union can't back up its requests with any consequences.
  • And, of course, my Confined Space piece yesterday: NY Transit Strike: More Than Just Money
Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:45 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 19, 2005

NY Transit Strike: More Than Just Money

By Jordan Barab. Reposted from Confined Space

Those of you in the New York area or who follow labor issue know that New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers may go on strike at midnight tonight if no agreement is reached between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union. As with most labor disputes and strikes, most of the media's attention is on the money issues -- wages, pensions and benefits. -- particularly considering that the MTA is sitting on a $1 billion surplus.

But in most labor disputes there are important issues at stake other than dollars and benefits: dignity on the job, and in this case, workplace conditions including on-the-job hazards and abuse from riders.

New York Times writers Steve Greenhouse and Sewell Chan highlight some of these issues:

In a survey of 792 bus drivers, station agents, subway conductors and train operators released last week, Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations provided considerable evidence that many workers feel mistreated and undervalued - which could push them toward greater militancy.

The survey, which was conducted in the spring and summer, found that 24 percent of bus and subway workers said they faced serious hazards more than once a month, including smoke, dangerous chemicals and extreme temperatures. It also found that 70 percent felt that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's policies and procedures were unfair.

Many workers said their jobs failed to provide for essential needs. For example, 78 percent said they lacked access to bathroom facilities at least once a month; 51 percent of bus drivers said they had problems finding a bathroom one or more times a day.

New York City Transit, the authority subsidiary that runs subways and buses, issued 15,200 disciplinary violations last year, but workers said they felt they were often blamed while supervisors and passengers were not held accountable. In the survey, 13 percent said they faced abuse from supervisors regularly, while 74 percent said they faced a verbal or physical threat from passengers at least once a year.

The bottom line is that being treated like shit doesn't make for good labor-management relations:

Valerie Spears, a station agent in Manhattan, said she was angry that agents were being asked to stand outside their booths to answer questions. She noted that agents had been beaten and even killed on the job. "I can't settle for what they're trying to do to us," she said. "I don't want to be killed in front of a booth."

Jimmy Williams, a station cleaner, said: "We need better facilities. It's cold. No clean restrooms. No ventilation. We have peeling paint in the rooms where we change. There are no tables for lunch."

Horace Edwards, a subway-car inspector, said he was under pressure to allow cars into service. "With management, it's all about performance," he said. "They want the subways cars to be on time. A lot of cars go out with violations. They tell us to overlook it."

In addition to the safety issues, the main issues separating the two sides are pensions and health insurance. The MTA offered pay raises of 3 percent a year in a 27-month contract, which the union rejected and that the retirement age for new employees be raised to 62 after 30 years of service. The union wants to lower the retirement age to 50 after 20 years on the job. Transit workers can now retire at age 55 after 25 years of service.

The union accused the MTA of trying to create a two-tier system of employees. New transit hires would pay one percent of their earnings for health benefits while also getting a 1 percent match in a 401K.

ATU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint

said the union would agree to reduce its demand for raises from 8 percent to 6 percent annually over three years, in exchange for fewer disciplinary actions. He also said transit employees needed better training and security.

"We need better treatment for workers," he said, calling the proposal the union's "dignity and respect package."

In response to the planned strike, Mayor Bloomberg is planning on easing laws that prohibit taxicabs and livery cars from picking up passenger at bus stops. But the drivers are having none of it. Turns out they know what "solidarity" means:
Two leaders in the taxi and livery industry, which is highly fragmented, said today that their members would not abide by the plan because they wanted to show solidarity with the transit workers, not take advantage of them.

Julio Alvarez, president of the United Drivers Group, which represents several thousand of the 23,000 livery drivers based at local car service companies, said his members face fines of $350 for picking up a street hail or $500 for picking up passengers waiting at a bus stop and suspension of their license for picking up multiple passengers. Now, he said, the city is asking the livery drivers to violate those same rules to help New Yorkers withstand the effects of a transit walkout.

"We're going to do our normal routine work that we do every day, and we're not going to just do something different just to break the strike," Mr. Alvarez said.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a left-leaning group that represents several thousand of the 42,000 licensed yellow-cab drivers, said: "We won't be scabs for the city. If this strike happens, we consider it more of a lockout than a strike, with the way the M.T.A. has conducted itself. We won't participate in bringing down the wages of another work force."

We'll know what happens in a few hours. The stakes are high. New York's Taylor Law prohibits public employees from striking -- yet another example of their second-class status in this "democracy."
Posted by Jordan Barab at 10:49 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Outsource Matt Bai's Job

Matt Bai has joined the chorus of liberals flacking for Wal-Mart --only in Matt's world not only can't we expect decent benefits from companies like Wal-Mart, we can't expect decent wages.

This argument over Wal-Mart's virtue or villainy is interesting but ultimately academic; it is like having had an argument, at the dawn of the microchip, about the merits of automation. The service economy is a reality of our time, and it would be wishful to expect that its engine can sustain the middle class in the way that industry once did. Wal-Mart didn't ask to be the new G.M., and even if it wanted to treat its employees as generously, it couldn't; ; Furman concludes that Wal-Mart's profits would be obliterated by adopting companywide health care or a significant raise in wages. It makes little sense to blame one company for the pain caused by a profound economic transformation.
Matt's solution: "a total reimagination of the basic contract between government, businesses and workers."
Does it make sense to expect businesses to finance lavish health care plans when foreign competition is forcing companies to cut their costs? Isn't government better equipped to insure a nomadic work force while employers take on the more manageable task of childcare - a problem that hardly existed 50 years ago?
And not-to-blame companies like Wal-Mart and its corporate brethren will just go along with this? In between extorting massive tax breaks from local government and helping Bush stay in power so he'll give them more goodies at our expense, these companies will allow us to write a better social contract -- and toss in corporate-paid childcare as a gesture of goodwill?

I could address the problems with this argument -- e.g., the complete absense of any discussion of power or unions -- but I have a simpler solution. I'm sure the New York Times could find a very smart writer in India or China who could crank out the same argument for one fifth the salary. Maybe then the Matt Bai's of this world would spend less time showing how clever they are in saying "Wal-Mart's not to blame" and more time talking about how we fight our way out of this hole. And if not, at least I'd save a little money on my Times subscription.

Posted by RalphTaylor at 07:35 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 18, 2005

Life and Labour Come Cheap in the Name of Global Competitiveness

Reprinted From Confined Space

This is a speech by Fiona Murie, Director of Occupational Health and Safety in the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers, on being awarded the Inernational Award from the Occupational Health Section of the American Public Health Association. The award recognizes individuals with outstanding achievement in the field of occupational health and safety outside the United States.

Dear friends and colleagues,

I would like to thank you most sincerely for your kind recognition of my work in the field of occupational health. This award is particularly meaningful since it comes from my peers in the US, for whom I have the greatest respect and affection. You are working in one of the most difficult countries in the world, in fact, where standards are constantly under attack and where labour rights that are taken for granted in many nations are still being fought for here.

I have spent most of my working life in the trade union movement, supporting the men and women who are the real heroes of the improvements in working and living conditions of their members. I refer, of course, to the workplace trade union representatives and organisers. As Director of Occupational Health and Safety in the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers, my role is to work with the 315 trade unions affiliated to us world wide, and with our team of staff working in our regional offices around the globe. I work with them to help them to improve their trade union structures on health and safety, to improve their legislative, policy and collective bargaining agenda to include health and safety, and to use health and safety as a central element of their organising strategy and services to their membership.

My mission is really to popularise health and safety, to demystify the technical aspects and to promote workers participation in prevention activities. This work includes a number of Global Campaigns, for example on the 28th of April, International Workers Memorial Day and the campaign to achieve a Global ban on the use of asbestos.

We have a very broad view of health and safety at work, believing it to be not so much a technical subject as a social, and indeed political, concern. We have a strong rights -based approach, using the Internationally recognised Labour Standards of the ILO as our baseline. This means defending the right to join a trade union, the right to organise and the right to collective bargaining. We need these fundamental principles and rights at work in order to guarantee all other labour rights, including the right to a safe and healthy working environment.

Trade Union rights are human rights. However, the need for employment is so desperate that many workers around the world have no choice but to accept dirty, dangerous and illegal working conditions if they are to be able to feed themselves and their families that day. Every day we see that hunger is the worst enemy of the law, as negligent employers evade their legal duties through the use of informal labour. Fair access to decently paid and safe work must form an important part of any poverty reduction strategy in any nation in the world, particularly when, for many people their principal or their only asset is their ability to carry out unskilled labouring work. The increasing numbers of deaths, injuries and cases of work related ill health is the most visible consequence of increasingly exploitative employment policies and labour practices. In my view, health and safety at work is our Trojan horse in the trade union movement.

Business and governments use "globalisation" as a cosh to beat down workers and working standards. The thinly veiled – in fact, increasingly explicit -agenda is that both life and labour must come cheap in the name of global competitiveness. Whether it is in brick kiln in India or a BP refinery in Texas City we can see a clear and deadly consequence.

The role of trade unions in identifying and preventing hazards at work has never been needed more and, paradoxically, has never been more difficult to achieve than in the current economic and political climate where the principal or sole criteria is that labour has to be at a bargain basement price and without any social responsibilities on the part of the employer. As a consequence, we are seeing more and more outright hostility towards organised labour. Employers continue to repress trade union rights, while governments do nothing to enforce them. Many governments, and multinational companies, seem determined to crush those who seek to defend such rights.

Death threats are the weapon of choice in this anti-union war. A total of 356 such threats were recorded in the year 2003 including 295 in Colombia alone. Such threats are to be taken seriously. Colombia is still the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist, with 184 murders in 2002; 90 trade unionists murdered in 2003 and 99 in 2004. Being a trade unionist is dangerous. In 2004, 145 people worldwide were killed due to their trade union activities, and there were over 700 violent attacks, and nearly 500 death threats.

Most of these murders take place during industrial disputes or collective bargaining negotiations. Trade unionists in many countries continue to face imprisonment, dismissal and discrimination, while legal obstacles to trade union organizing and collective bargaining are being used to deny millions of workers their rights.

Our job in the field of occupational health is to confront exploitation and to defend the most basic right of all – that is to leave home for work and to return home to our loved ones safe, sound and with our dignity intact. It takes our combined strength, locally, nationally and internationally to combat this profits before people approach, to combat the disposable worker approach - the denial of workplace risks, the denial of compensation, the denial of basic human rights in the workplace.

I believe that this award reflects the quality and quantity of shared achievements in this important area of trade union work and, believe me, this award will encourage me, and all of my colleagues, to redouble our efforts to improve working conditions in our sectors in the years to come.

Many thanks
Fiona Murie

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December 16, 2005

Jury Awards Paralyzed Construction Worker $32 Million

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space

A jury has awarded construction worker Norman Pelletier $32.1 million for an accident that left him paralyzed below the waist over ten years ago when an overhead steel beam broke loose and struck him.

Pelletier's employer was Berlin Steel, but the jury's verdict was against Sordoni Skanska Construction Co. of New Jersey, the general contractor. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Pelletier the right to sue Skanska in 2003. Skanska had argued that Pelletier shouldn't be able to sue them because he worked for one of its subcontractors. Under workers' compensation laws employees can't sue their employers.

Pelletier was 42 and working for Berlin Steel Construction Co., a subcontractor for Sordoni Skanska, when he was injured on June 20, 1994, during an expansion project at a Pitney Bowes facility in Shelton.

According to testimony, he and other workers were installing steel decking, and got out of the way as other workers used a crane to place a 2-ton beam overhead. Unbeknownst to Pelletier and the others, one end of the beam was improperly welded to a column.

A few minutes after Pelletier returned to his duties, that end of the beam broke loose and fell, striking him in the head, which was protected by his hard hat, but fracturing his spine, causing paralysis and other injuries.

The Supreme Court's decision in Pelletier's case is already having a broader effect:
According to information compiled by Jury Verdict Research, a Pennsylvania-based research firm, Pelletier's jury award is among the largest known in Connecticut in workplace injury cases.

Before Thursday, the largest verdict was believed to be $5.8 million, awarded in May 2005 to a Montville construction worker. That man was injured in 1998 when a trench collapsed around him and coworkers at a Konover Construction Co. site in Willimantic.

The Supreme Court's decision in Pelletier's case, which allowed plaintiffs to sue general contractors for failing to ensure safety at job sites, was cited in the Konover case.

Even before I wrote this I received an e-mail complaining of the unfairness of this verdict, given the size of the verdict and the fact that Skanska wasn't the employer.

But, as I've written repeatedly (most recently yesterday) the workplace regulatory/enforcement system in this country is fatally flawed. Between workers comp exclusions, ridiculously low OSHA penalties, and the scant likelihood that any given workplace will ever be inspected, there are almost no meaningful legal disincentives for employers to endanger workers, or for chemical companies to manufacture hazardous chemicals. Given the political environment in which we live, lawsuits are one of the few remaining ways to send a strong message to employers (or chemical manufacturers) that there is a serious penalty to be paid for endangering workers.

Every couple of weeks Tammy and I list all the workers we can find that have been killed on the job over the past two weeks. (And I can't even attempt to list those who, like Norman Pelletier, are permanently disabled or who die of work-related cancers and other diseases)

All too often, I hear from the parents or children or spouses or inlaws of these workers. They're angry at the insignificant OSHA penalties and frustrated that nothing came from the death of their loved ones that will at least teach a lesson to those who would be so careless with the lives of other workers.

At least Norman Pelletier and his wife Reine can be confident that his injury -- and the resulting lawsuit that he won -- will serve as a warning to other contractors that cutting corners and taking shortcuts with workers' lives can be extremely costly.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 15, 2005

Republicans at Crossroads

Inside the Beltway, the Republican coalition is split down the middle over the best way to fix our immigration system.

In a rare schism, employer groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pressing to kill a Republican-sponsored measure that would require businesses to verify that all of their workers are in the United States legally and would increase penalties for hiring illegal employees.

Lobby groups including the chamber, the National Restaurant Association and the Associated General Contractors of America are so vehement in their opposition that they will consider lawmakers' votes on the bill a key measure of whether they will support them in the future.

Meanwhile, 23 miles west of DC in Herndon, VA, the wingnut wing of the Republican party was making their feelings known as a new center for day laborers opened today:
About two dozen activists from two groups that oppose illegal immigration -- the Herndon chapter of the Minuteman Project and Help Save Herndon -- stood sign-to-sign with members of a recently formed pro-laborer organization, HEART (Herndon Embraces All in Respect and Tolerance).

For the most part, the interaction was spirited but peaceful and nonconfrontational, except for one moment when Bob Rudine, a member of the Minuteman Project and Help Save Herndon, said illegal immigrants "are raping our children."

This is the question facing the Republican party: what do they want to stand for?

Eleven years ago, the Republican Party had a similar choice in California. They chose anti-immigrant hysteria, and in doing so helped give Democrats a lock on the state.

Obviously the Reps aren't going to, say, support strong unions as a way of solving the immigration crisis; I doubt there were many cheers of joy at the U.S. Chamber of Congress when 5,000 mostly immigrant janitors in Houston recently voted to join a union. But there are fair and just solutions that even a Republican could agree to. It will be interesting to see what the party of Lincoln decides to do.

For more information about a better way to fix our immgration system, visit the New American Opportunity Campaign.

Posted by RalphTaylor at 07:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 14, 2005

Off to my Honeymoon in India for a month

So I'll be having a couple of guest bloggers plus the usual occasional posting by other labor folks in my absence. And I may pop in with a few insights from my travels in India-- but don't expect anything too deep. We're mostly going to the usual touristy areas, so I won't be trumping Tom Friedman with any first hand insights from Bangalore.

So happy holidays everyone! And I mean that with every intention to annoy Bill O'Reilly et al!

Posted by Nathan at 12:27 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Oh Come All Yee Hypocrites

Given the latest Christian Right crusade against "Happy Holidays," you might think they'd also be in the forefront of fighting for an issue near and dear to Jesus' heart: how we treat the poor. You'd be wrong.

As the House gears up to cut food stamps, raise Medicaid fees, etc while passing yet another tax cut for the rich, some religous leaders are stepping up:

Leaders of five denominations -- the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ -- issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings "good news to the poor."

Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: "Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan."

In between threatening Macy's and Bloomingdale's with a boycott, will Concerned Women for America be joining the protest?
Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives "know that the government is not really capable of love."

"You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need," she said.

How about the Family Research Council? Now that they've successfully pressured Boston to call their "holiday tree" a Christmas tree, are they going to take on Republican poor-bashing?
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government's role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

"There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact," he said. "But it does not say government should do it. That's a shifting of responsibility."

The Family Research Council is involved in efforts to stop the bloodshed in the Darfur region of Sudan as well as sex trafficking and slavery abroad. But Perkins said those issues are far different from the budget cuts now under protest. "The difference there is enforcing laws to keep people from being enslaved, to be sold as sex slaves," he said. "We're talking here about massive welfare programs."

Fighting to ensure we call our green vestige of sun god worship -- what the Pilgrim's second governor, William Bradford, denounced as a sign of "pagan mockery" -- a Christmas tree, or fighting to ensure that poor people in the richest nation on earth don't go without food and are treated when they're sick? What Would Jesus Do?
Posted by RalphTaylor at 06:33 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 13, 2005

Kansas City Star Clobbers OSHA

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted From Confined Space

It's a delightful, but all-too-rare occurence when reporters (and not just lonely bloggers) actually see the sham that this nation's attention to workplace safety has become.

Only hours after starting his first day on the job, Les James was dead.

The 25-year-old father of three was working on a window-cleaning crew in July 2000. Suddenly, the window-washing rig fell off the roof of Research Medical Center, catapulting James to his death 84 feet below. Two other window washers were seriously injured.

That morning, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation. OSHA cited the Holden, Mo., window-cleaning company — which had a fatal accident only four years earlier — for serious safety violations in James’ accident, records show.

The company’s fine: $2,700.

So begins a Kansas City Star series on OSHA and workplace deaths, focusing on the low penalties for workplace deaths.

I'm officially nominating Star reporter Mike Casey for Confined Space Journalist of the Year. Instead of just regurgitating the usual "on one hand...on the other hand" debate, Case and Star staff analyzed 27,281 Kansas records in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s inspection database from July 1972 through January 2005, looked at trends in average fines and industries with the most fatal or serious injury accidents, interviewed more than 100 people and reviewed thousands of pages of records for these stories. And with the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in Columbia analyzed the 3.3-million record OSHA database for the United States and its territories

What has emerged is a tragic indictment of this country's commitment to ensure a safe workplace for every American worker, a story that would be news if it were actually news. Unfortunately, as the Star found, James's story is just business as usual for the agency charged with protecting the health and safety of American workers:

The Star found that in 80 such fatal and injury accidents, half of the fines Kansas City area employers paid were $3,000 or less. Regulators and OSHA lawyers reduced employers’ initial fines by nearly 60 percent. Adjusted for inflation, fines last year averaged less than they were in 1972.

And in three accidents that killed five area workers, OSHA changed its most serious citations from willful violations to “unclassified” — removing the word “willful” in describing the violations — and then significantly reduced the fines.

Nationwide, fines were even lower in the last decade. Half of the fines employers paid were $2,500 or less in fatal and injury accidents involving at least one serious violation.

Many experts said low fines were a symptom of the agency’s weakness, even when taking enforcement action in the worst accidents.

But the current administration defends the "penalties," having discovered new laws of human nature: people actually don't respond to fines or punishments -- I guess because they really just wanted to do the right thing all along:

“As far as we’re concerned, the amount of the penalty is incidental to the accomplishment that we get as the result of that inspection,” [OSHA Regional Administrator Charles] Adkins said.

But even former OSHA administrators decried the low fines.
“Fines are not a deterrent,” said Charles Jeffress, who led the agency in the Clinton administration. “The level of fines that Congress has authorized is an insult to the American worker.”
Jerry Scannell, an OSHA administrator in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, said: “It’s almost like chump change with some companies.”

OSHA’s own policies state that penalties should be “sufficient to serve as an effective deterrent to violations.”

But the agency is limited by law to maximum civil fines of $7,000 for each serious violation and $70,000 for each willful violation. Those maximums have not been raised since 1991. And OSHA’s policies allow it to reduce fines for companies with fewer than 251 employees and for other factors.

The rest of the article joins the debate over whether OSHA fines do any good. Advocates of stronger penalties argue that because OSHA can visit relatively few workplaces every year, big penalties are needed to set an example. But even the Star doesn' realize how few workplaces OSHA is able to visit, claiming that "It would take inspectors many years to visit every workplace under their jurisdiction."

Years? Not even close. Actually, according to the AFL-CIO, on a national basis, it would be closer to a century for OSHA inspectors to visit every workplace in the country.

Interestingly, opponents use the same facts to argue against higher penalties:

“A lot of employers … are never going to see an OSHA inspector, and that fear is never going to motivate them,” said Marc Freedman. “I’m not convinced employers look at the OSHA citation situation in deciding whether they’re going to do the right thing in protecting their employees.”

Indeed, some businesses said the fear of workers’ compensation costs is a bigger factor in eliminating safety hazards than OSHA fines.

Actually, if anyone thinks that either fines or workers comp is an adequate deterrent, I have a 15 foot deep unshored trench I'd like you to climb down into.

Susan Baker, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University who has expertise in occupational safety, argues that “Until the fine for ignoring a hazard is bigger than the cost of fixing the hazard, a lot of employers won’t do anything.”

Well, OSHA has a long way to go before its penalties are that high.

The Star also discusses an OSHA innovation -- the "unclassified penalty."

About 15 years ago, OSHA began changing some of its willful safety violations — its most serious charge — to “unclassified.”

The reclassification does not change OSHA’s findings, but it removes the words “willful,” “repeat” or “serious” in describing the nature of the violations, OSHA’s Adkins said.

OSHA records show that the agency uses the unclassified citations as a “settlement tool” to correct safety hazards quickly and avoid lengthy litigation. The change also allows employers to avoid the stigma of being labeled a willful violator, records noted.
But the newspaper found that changing willful violations to unclassified in at least three local fatal workplace accidents also was accompanied by dramatically lower fines.

Adkins said the agency has a policy of collecting at least 80 percent of a proposed penalty in settlements that involve unclassified violations, but he acknowledged, “That doesn’t always occur.”

Indeed. Case goes on to cite three cases where OSHA penalties were reduced from 40% to 72% after the penalties were downgraded from willful to "unclassified.

“I think it’s really outrageous,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. “There should be no unclassified citations, particularly in the case of fatalities.”

Oh, and by the way, don't waste a lot of time looking for "unclassified penalties" in the OSHAct -- because they exist. Congress must of overlooked the benefits of helping employers avoid the stigma of being known to their friends as willful killers.

And then there's this old news:

Killing Workers Is A Misdemeanor, according to the OSH Act

That fact is nothing new to Confined Space readers, but I'm thinking most Americans would be shocked. As Clinton Administration OSHA director Charles Jeffress says: “By saying, ‘It is a misdemeanor to willfully kill a worker’ just underscores the lack of value put on a worker’s life by Congress.”

“They’ve gotten out of the standards business.”

So says Eula Bingham, who led the agency in the Carter administration. Even Jerry Scannel of the Bush I administration agrees:

“Standards development has been slow — slower than it should be.” Scannell suggested that Congress or the Labor Department could require the agency to establish safety and health standards within three years.
Hmm, interesting idea. I wonder what current OSHA leadership thinks about that suggestion?
The Star requested an interview with acting OSHA Administrator Jonathan Snare to discuss standards, but he declined. A Labor Department spokesman said it was inappropriate for Snare to comment while the nomination of Edwin Foulke Jr. as OSHA administrator was pending before the Senate. Foulke also declined to be interviewed.

In a written statement, OSHA said the Bush administration had issued some standards, but not ones that would have wide economic impact.

As usual, this excellent series leaves me with mixed emotions. Although it's great that the Star invested so much inand resources developing this series, it also points out how pathetic most of the rest of the media is in this country. There's no reason to believe that the situation in Kansas is unique. There should be reporters in every state busy writing similar articles. And readers should rise up and force politicians to try and defend the underfunding and understaffing of OSHA. They should be forced to go before the parents, spouses and children of those who gave their lives so cheaply to earn a living and defend their refusal to strengthen OSHA's penalty structure.

And anyone who whines about how oppressed small businesses are by evil OSHA regulations, or dares to support the shameful legislation in Congress that further weakens OSHA should be kicked unceremoniously out of office.

Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Casey. For your next story you might want to look into a group of Kansas workers who are in even worse shape than the employees you just covered: public employees in Kansas (and 26 other states) who have no OSHA protection. Another story that shouldn't be news.

Kansas City Star Series

Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:04 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 09, 2005

Celebrate Him in Poland, Ignore Him in America

When Lech Walesa led labor unions in Poland denouncing the crushing of workers rights, he was celebrated in the American media.

But when he headlines a list of Nobel Peace Prize winners denouncing, among other things, the denial of basic human rights to American workers, he's largely ignored. In commemoration of International Human Rights Day (which is Saturday), Walesa, along with Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter and seven other Nobel winners have signed on to the following letter denouncing the violation of workers rights around the world, from Burma to the Ukraine. But here is the paragraph that America should be paying closest attention to:

the wealthiest nation in the world—the United States of America—fails to adequately protect workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. Millions of U.S. workers lack any legal protection to form unions and thousands are discriminated against every year for trying to exercise these rights.

We cannot remain silent in the face of these and other serious abuses of workers’ rights.

What Americans don't want to face is that the US is in direct violation of international human rights agreements in its labor laws.

Back in 2000, Human Rights Watch published a report, Unfair Advantage, that detailed the range of ways in which US law violates accepted covenants on labor rights.

Or you could read the report by the International Confederation for Free Trade Unions -- the organization the US promoted when it was denoucning labor practices in Communist countries -- which issued its USA: Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2004).

If you want to take action, the AFL-CIO has an online petition in support of the Employee Free Choice Act to make the freedom to form a union a reality for more workers in our country.

Posted by Nathan at 08:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 08, 2005

Wal-Mart Losing the PR War

According to a new Zogby poll, people are not buying the idea that Wal-Mart is good for the American economy:

The poll found that 56 percent of American adults agreed with the statement - "Wal-Mart was bad for America. It may provide low prices, but these prices come with a high moral and economic cost." In contrast, only 39 percent of American adults agreed with the opposing statement - "I believe Wal-Mart is good for America. It provides low prices and saves consumers money every day."
40% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of the company, nearly double its unfavorable image at the beginning of 2005.

Even more to the point, the number of regular shoppers at Wal-Mart has fallen significantly. A the beginning of 2005, 69% of the population shopped at the company at least once or twice a month. That dropped to 51% by November.

Here's the shocking finding-- progressives have been able to create a significant shift in public opinion and shopping habits, a testament to the strong coalitions built in the last year.

Here's to an even more successful 2006!

Posted by Nathan at 09:49 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 07, 2005

Anti-Unionism is the Date Rape of Corporate Crime

Even most liberals deny anti-union crime is widespread or deny that it's even a serious crime at all and anyways the folks doing it are such swell people, we can't expect us to like treat them like criminals, do you?  If unions have been decimated in American workplaces, it's must really be their fault-- they must have been asking for it.   You know, when you wear such pretty medical care and pension funds, employers are just being normal, red-blooded capitalists when they wipe out unions to get at them.

If you wonder why I get angry when folks say nice things about corporate criminal union busters like Wal-Mart, maybe you should read the new report by American Rights at Work which details the extent and severity of that corporate crime wave, a crime wave where tens of thousands of workers are victimized each year with stolen jobs and crushed lives.

As this study highlights, a typical union organizing drive starts with a majority of workers signing cards in support of having a union.    Yet in the course of the elections, corporations embark on full-scale illegal assault on their workforce:

  • 30% of employers fire pro-union workers.
  • 49% of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union.
  • 51% of employers coerce workers into opposing unions with selective bribery or favoritism.

    The end result is that despite starting almost every union drive with majority support, by the time the corporate wave of crime is over, only 31% of union elections end with a vote in support of the union.

    But look, I'm a realistic. Most people will hear about the report, say tssk, tssk-- and next week you'll be talking about union leaders inflexibility or other failings as the explanation for the lack of unions in American workplaces, despite the fact that 50% OF WORKERS SAY THEY WANT ONE! [Business Week: "Fully half of all nonunion U.S. workers say they would vote yes if a union election were held at their company today"}

    Given this degree of corporate criminality, how are labor folks supposed to take liberals seriously who even discuss Wal-Mart or other big croporate criminals as a "progressive" force? This is a company that shut down a whole store in Canada when it voted to unionize to punish the workers and chill organizing at any of its other stores.

    But I understand-- illegal anti-union activity isn't "real crime" so it's okay to debate whether Wal-Mart is a "progressive" force.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:50 AM | Comments (19) | TrackBack
  • December 06, 2005

    The Attack on Pensions

    Verizon announced that all of its non-union employees were losing their guaranteed pensions in favor of 401(k) individual accounts. The plan also cuts off all retiree health benefits for all workers hired in the future or currently with less than fifteen years at the company.

    Two comments-- one, this is what it means to have a union. They can't impose this change but will have to ask permission at the next bargaining session. Just remember, there was only one group of workers at Enron, the Sheet Metals Workers union folks, who didn't lose their pensions to the company's manipulation of the stock price, since they had their own plan with guaranteed benefits.

    The broader point is that the problems of Wal-Mart at other low-wage, low-benefit companies are going to cost the taxpayers and society far more than you can calculate:

    When Sears froze its pension plan last January, it said it had to do so because it was competing with other large retailers, like Wal-Mart, that did not offer pensions to workers.
    Since many of the costs will be dumped onto the future when retirees and others find they can't cover their pension and health costs due to various crises. These companies are just dumping many of these costs onto the public, since most of our welfare state has depended on the assumption that most workers were covered by company health and pension systems, so the government would have to pick up the costs of only a small portion of retiree costs.

    That's rapidly changing and the political and budgetary costs are going to radically change. Some may celebrate it as a chance to create more universal systems of coverage, but it's just as likely that these costs will squeeze out funding for many other programs effecting the most vulnerable in our society. Just look at the House GOP-- willing to vote for a prescription drug benefit for most retirees, yet slashing food stamps and other benefits for the poorest Americans.

    Forget social security-- the real crisis of American's retirement future is happening in corporate America as future benefits are being slashed by the day.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:27 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

    New Orleans: Kick 'em When They're Down

    By Jordan Barab, Reprinted From Confined Space

    It never ceases to amaze me how, whenever a crisis hits, Republicans instinctively go after the very workers that society depends on to pull them out: public employees. It happened after 9/11 and now it's happening again in New Orleans.

    Gulf Coast Watch blog reports that SEIU Local 21 led a successful charge against Louisiana Senate Bill 5which would have

    allowed parishes and municipalities to slash wages for teachers, water and sanitation workers, social workers, and other public employees for up to six months AFTER a declared state of emergency was terminated
    Republican Senator Tom Schelder withdrew the bill after the legislature was hit by flood of emails and phone calls by a very nice coalition that came together to oppose the bill:
    Opposition to this bill was supported by the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith Network, and members of newly formed NOAH (New Opportunities for Action and Hope), founded by community and labor organizations in Louisiana in order to ensure that as LA rebuilds

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

    December 01, 2005

    MYDD on Houston Victory

    Matt Stoller has a good piece on why labor is so crucial to progressive politics.

    Posted by Nathan at 03:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    5000 Janitors Organize in Delay's Back Yard

    Nothing like this has been seen in twenty-five years in Houston: 5000 Houston janitors have organized a union at the four largest cleaning companies in the city.

    Now what's the big deal about 5000 members? Tasini, with Ezra Klein chiming in, treat it as a tiny drop in the bucket. As Tasini argues:

    [W]hile 5,000 new members is nothing to sneeze at, we need to keep in mind that, as a whole, organized labor needs to recruit a NET of 1.5 million members a year to raise its overall density in the workforce by just ONE PERCENT. So, in essence, we need a Houston janitors' victory almost every day to grow the labor movement's power.
    Which let's numbers get in the way of analysis of why the Houston win is one of the most important victories in decades.

    5000 new members in New York City would be a yawn-- in fact, SEIU has organized far more than 5000 janitors in northern New Jersey in recent years, which is important but not life changing for the labor movement.

    But these workers were organized in the South in the private sector, a feat that promises new tactics to support a range of organizing in the region.

    The failure to organize the South is the number one, two and three reason why the labor movement peaked after the end of World War II and has been in slow then faster decline ever since. Without unions in the South, it meant that jobs could be shifted more easily out of pro-union areas even for companies that wanted to be in the United States; just look at the Japanese car plants.

    And, as significantly, the lack of unions in the South left unions with no political presence in a giant region of the country, meaning that even moderate Democrats did not politically defend union interests in Congress or in state legislatures enacting "right to work" laws and other anti-union measures.

    The success of the janitors union was driven by new tactics to put national pressure on the contracting companies to force them to recognize the local janitors in Houston, a tactic that if it's perfected and replicated could leverage more and more Houston's "every day."

    And in the shorter term, just think of the Houston janitors as a beachhead in hostile territory. We can sometime look at the numbers and forget how significant even a small union presence can be in an area with very little organizing at all. Do these numbers-- janitors pay dues of roughly $20 per month, or a bit over $200 per year. Multiply by 5000 and you suddenly have an organization with $1 million per year to promote organizing and political mobilization in the Houston area.

    Add a few more around the region and you've added what will automatically become major new political and social institutions in regions that now lack them. Just by existing, the Houston janitors will be an example to other workers that they can organize and they can win even in the South-- a key message for any hope of labor revival.

    So yes, 5000 Houston janitors is a tremendous victory of historic proportions.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:29 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack