February 27, 2006

Must Read: "Reflections On A 4-Year Labor Strike"

Reprinted From Confined Space

Reflections on a 4-Year Labor Strike, is a powerful essay contributed to the Daily Kos website yesterday about a woman's experiences during her stepfather's four year labor strike in the late '80s.

It's particularly important reading these days as union strength declines at the same time workers need representation most. It gives meaning to the words "solidarity" and "struggle," and exposes that lie that 'unions might have served a purpose in the olden days, but in these modern times....."

Read it and pass it on.

So it begins:

When I was a freshman in high school in a little town in northern Wyoming, my stepdad, one of 200+ union mine workers at a nearby mine, voted to strike at 12:01 AM on October 1st, 1987. It was a strike that would last four years and in the process, change our family, our town, and our futures forever.

From the day he started working in his first mine, he'd been a union member. He believed in unions as surely as he believed in the Bible, and preached the virtues of the labor movement like it was the Word of God. By the time he met my mom, he was a strike captain in the United Mine Workers of America, Local #1972. He was also a hardcore Democrat and as far as he was concerned, union and Democrat were one and the same: they both champion the little guy, the one who doesn't have the advantage of wealth or power or fame, they both value the integrity of hard work, they both trust in the power of the ordinary to do extraordinary things...they both believe that together, we are mighty.

And so it ends
I think sometimes, especially in the first couple of years after the strike ended, my parents and the rest of the striking miners and their families probably looked back on the strike and wondered what they'd been fighting for, considering how it all turned out. What had they accomplished, really? All that sacrifice and heartache...for what?

For the future, is the answer. Watching my parents' struggle, this fight that seemed so impossible, we learned first-hand just what it really means to stand up for what you believe in. The words are easy to say and talk, as they say, is cheap. But when it comes down to it, to gambling your future, your family's future, on a principle and a trust in the people who share your beliefs, the actual act of standing up, fist held high, is one of the most courageous things you can ever do.


I've always been an activist at heart, either because of the way I was raised or the way my DNA lined up or a combination of both. But in the years since the strike, my natural tendency to tilt at windmills has been tempered by the understanding of what it means: you fight every day, not because of what you hope to achieve, but because it's the right thing to do. You'll never be guaranteed a win, no matter how righteous your cause; fighting the good fight doesn't mean you get a happy ending. But you fight for what's right anyway, because it's what's right. And if you're very, very lucky, others will stand to fight alongside you. This is how great changes happen.

Now go read the whole thing. You'll be glad you did.
Posted by Jordan Barab at 11:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 23, 2006

Declining Private Retirement Accounts

The newest Federal Reserve report on changes in family finances-- looking at changes from 2001 to 2004 -- highlight the decline in families with private retirement accounts for individuals. While the news is dominated by employers eliminating defined benefit pensions, the fraction of families with individual retirement accounts also fell 2.5 percentage points in those years.

In fact, less than 50% of families have any kind of retirement account.

The hard reality is that the decline in employer pension funds are mostly being replaced by....nothing.

Posted by Nathan at 03:53 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 16, 2006

Hotel Workers Rising: THE Labor Story of 2006

It's starting now with a series of rallies in various cities, but contract negotiations in the hotel industry in cities across the country is likely to be the key labor story of 2006.

Why? Because the union representing the hotels, UNITE HERE, has spent the last few years to make 2006 a showdown in the industry. In the past, major cities negotiated their contracts in different years with little coordination. But in the last round of city negotiations, the union made sure that most contracts would expire at the same time this year.

Contracts for workers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Honolulu and Sa Francisco (some of whose hotels have been operating without a contract for two years) will all expire this year, with 60,000 workers at 400 hotels ready to walkout in the event that negotiations break down.

The key to the fight is that the hotel industry is not longer based on local ownership but is run by global corporations. Which on one hand means that the union needs to fight nationally and collectively to have the leverage to protect its wage and benefits.

But there is also an upside to this consolidation in the industry. By putting pressure on the hotels where the union still has strength, workers can leverage demands on behalf of non-union affiliates of these global companies. One of the prime goals is to demand that the hotels stop running abusive anti-union campaigns and agree to recognize the union in any hotel where a majority of workers sign cards asking to have a union, a procedure known as card check recognition.

Make no mistake. This is one of the most important union campaigns in decades, a union in a whole industry seeking to move from a defensive crouch in isolated cities to taking the offensive to take on corporations on a national scale and rebuild the union across the country.

You can read more about the campaign at Hotel Workers Rising. You can sign up to help the campaign here.

Posted by Nathan at 07:37 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 15, 2006

A Nasty Immigration Bill in Georgia

The Georgia House has passed a bill to impose a fee on illegal immigrants' wire transfers home.

Even some Republicans who don't like immigration see this bill as abusive:

[State Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton)] said he believes Rice’s bill would “tax people who are doing the best they can to provide for their families.

“I’ve got a moral problem with that,” he said.

Posted by Nathan at 09:11 AM | Comments (86) | TrackBack

February 14, 2006

How Corporate Right Lies About Union Corruption

Well, the corporate right has launched a new anti-labor front group called UnionFacts.org, dealing in dark tales of union corruption promoted by the former head of the Beverage institute, the nice folks who tell the public soda pop has no role in childhood obesity.

But it's a good chance to walk folks through how corporations lies about things like union corruption. Not that among the 15 million union members and tens of thousands of union staff, there aren't a few bad folks, but what's amazing is how much the opposition has to lie and pump up the numbers to make it seem at all significant.

For example, check out the site's page on "Union Leader Fraud & Corruption". They list $400 million in "labor racketeering" fines and civil restitution in the last five years.

Sounds bad for the union leaders, but since the information come from the Labor Departments Office of Inspector General, let's go to that department's labor racketeering site.. Check out their Statistics page on the righthand side and, yep, there are the same numbers as on the anti-union site.

But let's look in more detail at what counts as "labor racketeering" by readng the most recent "Semi-Annual Report to the Congress" by the Office. It's a PDF so scroll down to page 33 where the Labor Racketeering part starts. Some of the problems are very real, including fighting crime influence on the east coast longshoremen union, but when you get to the money fines, suddenly the defendants largely stop being union officials, but instead are businesses that defrauded the unions-- ie. the union leaders were the victims not the criminals. Here are a few examples:

Peter Wong, who controlled Pacific Group Medical Association (PGMA), pled guilty on June 14, 2005, to charges of insurance fraud and money laundering. In 1997, PGMA failed with more than $18 million in unpaid medical claims, making it one of the largest health plan failures in Hawaii’s history. PGMA had provided health coverage for 26,000 people, including members of the United Public Workers Union Local 646.

On August 22, 2005, Robert Boyd, a former Evergreen Securities Ltd. official, was sentenced to 37 months imprisonment and three years probation. On October 3, 2005, Martin Boelens, Jr., another company official, was sentenced to 46 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Both were ordered to pay more than $25 million and $14 million respectively, in restitution for fraudulently obtaining monies from investors and pension funds to be used for their personal benefit and that of others.

In April 2005, Dennis Lambka and Ronald Bray, officers of Simplified Employment Services, were sentenced to 54 months and 60 months in prison respectively, and both received three years probation. They were also ordered to pay, jointly and severally, restitution of $55,136,267. Lambka and Bray previously pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit the following offenses: embezzlement from an employee benefit plan; defrauding the United States; and bank fraud. Restitution will be paid to the victims of the embezzlement schemes which resulted in unpaid medical bills.

In fact, almost all of the big money associated with the $400 million figure in labor racketeering was committed by private industry AGAINST unions, not by union officials.

But that's how you lie with statistics. Throw around a word like "labor racketeering" while only talking about union officials and leave the impression that the crime only involves acts by unions, not acts where unions and their members are the victims.

Any union illegal conduct should be rooted out, but in a world of multi-billion corporate corruption, unions are pure as snow, especially in compared to the criminals running corporate America.

Posted by Nathan at 08:24 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

February 11, 2006

How to Encourage Employers to Hire Undocumented Workers

Here's a good idea.

Nothing bugs employers more than employees who call in health and safety inspectors from the government. So let's convince undocumented immigrants NEVER to talk to health and safety officials. That way employers will want to hire only undocumented workers. That will nicely increase the demand for more immigrants to cross the border.

So how do we make sure immigrant workers never call in health and safety inspectors? How about having immigration officials routinely impersonate health and safety officials in order to go after immigrant workers?

Let's create as much distrust as possible among immigrant workers so that they are as compliant and exploited a workforce as possible.

But why should we be surprised that the Bush administration would use lies and deceit by government officials in pursuit of a policy that is a hopeless failure?

Posted by Nathan at 08:57 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

February 09, 2006

The "Union Effect" In The Mines

By Jordan Barab, Repinted from Confined Space

Noah Levitt, writing in Slate, reminds us of an important lesson that most of America has forgotten -- or never learned. Yes, it's true that the Bush administration has underfunded MSHA, killed important regulations and appointed industry insiders to run the agency,

But, the administration's neglect isn't the biggest problem for miners. The real obstacle to safety reform is that miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them. History shows that when miners have: 1) been organized and angry; and 2) had the strong national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America backing them up, they've been able to push for the legislative changes necessary for lasting advances in safety conditions. Sadly, neither of those two factors exist today. In fact, mining in the United States is only safer today than it has ever been because organized mine workers pushed hard for reforms a generation ago—reforms that are still in effect. Whether those reforms are enough is now in question.
And the fact is that unions save lives:

In 1998, the Louisville Courier-Journal reviewed nearly 25,000 federal health records for Kentucky underground coal mines (96 percent of which, at the time, were nonunion). The newspaper concluded that "small, non-union mines generally pay less, cheat more on dust tests and don't have union stewards demanding compliance with costly safety regulations."

Perhaps more fundamentally, union mines instill—and can at times reward—a greater sense of collective responsibility than nonunion mines. In stark contrast to the Sago disaster, on Jan. 29, the lives of all 72 unionized miners trapped in a Saskatchewan potash mine were saved after a devastating, toxic machine fire trapped them underground. When the workers reached the surface more than 24 hours later, virtually all of them credited the emergency training they had received—including practices and rehearsals. Their union—Communications, Energy and Paperworkers—had pushed for this training, and the union had also agitated to allow miners to earn paid time to prepare for underground disasters.

Aren't these lessons that our schools should be teaching?
Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:26 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack