November 01, 2006

Labor Cold War Ends - New International Labor Federation

At the dawn of the Cold War, the international union movement divided up between the ICFTU, dominated by US and Western European unions, and the World Confederation of Labor, largely allied with the Soviet Union.

It's taken a decade and a half, but the irrelevancy of that division will end today as the two federations merge-- bringing together 241 labor organizations from 156 countries representing 190 million workers.

The new International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is a good step for a labor movement looking to globalize itself in the taking on global capital power.

Posted by Nathan at 07:05 AM

October 09, 2006

Emaciated Models, Labor Regulation

There's a bit of debate in the blogosphere around Spain's new law banning underweight models from the runways in that country. See Jordan, Amanda at Pandagon and Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise on whether this is an intrusive regulating violating free expression or something like that and whether OSHA safety regulations are appropriate.

Just to throw my two cents in-- any broader OSHA approach would seem cumbersome and bureaucratically intrusive in a deep way.

But the original Spanish proposal is brilliant in its high-impact, low-intrusion approach. Regulate only the fashion week type runways, where in a single spotcheck, models can be blocked from the runways. Much like a weigh in for a boxing match-- where under and overweight boxers are barred from matches regularly -- models would have to meet the appropriate weight criterion for the runway event. What they do the rest of the year is up to them, but with the runway setting the overall aesthetic standards during the media frenzy of fashion week, other outlets are likely to follow the trend of the runways, avoiding more intrusive year round types of regulations.

So I stick with the boxer weigh-in metaphor. If it's good enough for Nevada gaming regulators, what's wrong with Spain's proposal?

Posted by Nathan at 11:37 AM

October 03, 2006

Big loss for Labor--

The National Labor Relations Board ruled today that a range of professionals are now deemed "supervisors" and thus lose all protections under labor law. That means if they say a positive thing about unions, their bosses are free to fire them at will. The AFL-CIO has more here.

To put this denial of labor rights in perspective, 32 million workers or 25% of the workforce already have no right to form a union under federal, state or local law (see this GAO report and this ARAW summary).

This includes:

Supervisors 16.6 million workers, 8 million new supervisors plus traditional 8.6 million now excluded (see EPI report)
Agricultural Workers 3 million workers
Domestic Workers 1 million workers
Independent Contractors 7 million workers
Managers 10 million workers
Employees of religious institutions 500,000 workers

Additionally, millions of public employees are excluded from labor law protections and depend on state law for whether they have any labor rights.

Beyond the official numbers excluded, in practice, the millions of undocumented workers in the country have no labor rights since when they seek for form unions, they can be fired at will by employers without financial penalty under the Hoffman Plastics decision by the Supreme Court.

Human Rights Watch has analyzed these exclusions as violations of international human rights laws covering labor rights.

See also this report by Hon. George Miller of Committee on Education and Workforce on NLRB stripping workers of rights, including denying organizing rights to disabled workers, graduate teaching assistants, and many temporary workers.

But beyond the statistics of who CAN'T be organized, these kinds of exclusions means that other workers rights are also undermined. The fact that independent contractors can't unionize means that many firms can contract out work to block or undermine unionization. Undocumented workers in the workplace can be threatened with deportation to break unions.

And the new expansive definition of "supervisor" means that more workers will be given nominal supervisory responsibilities to undermine their right to unionize-- and lock every union vote in endless delays as companies litigate who is and who is not a supervisor. Even if the workers "win", the election will probably be delayed long enough to kill the union drive.

And here are the dynamics when large numbers of workers are declared to be supervisors-- it means that friends in the workplace immediately are turned into enemies as supervisors are told to spy on their friends or lose their jobs. Instead of a union being about workers challenging the power of top management, it is turned into an internal workplace civil war.

But divide and conquer, pitting people against each other based on race, ethnicity, gender and now menial distinctions in authority on the shopfloor are the tools of the trade for the corporate rightwing. This decision is just one more bullet to the rights of working Americans.

Posted by Nathan at 08:20 AM

September 24, 2006

Biased Anti-Union Reporting

Every year, big corporations spend insane amounts of money on parties and unless someone gets indicted, as with Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, the press makes no big deal of it. But a union throws a holiday party to reward major volunteers and the NY Daily News runs a story with the title, Union for poor lives high.

So what kind of spendthrift union bash are we talking about?

Well, health care union local SEIU 1199 spent a little under $500,000 for a party for 4000 union members activits from across the northeast-based local-- which works out to about $120 per member, an amount that included travel and accomodations for those coming in from out-of-town. Which Which is hardly an extravagant amount in the scheme of large events, yet nowhere in the story does the reporter bother to even mention that typical parties and events in New York usually spend far, far more per person for this kind of party.

But I guess the kind of folks attending this parties -- home care workers, hospital orderlies and such -- don't deserve any party at all. How dare the union spend money on a band? Kazoos would have been far more appropirate apparently.

And as a union official mentions in the story, every person attending had to earn attendance at the party by attending at least 20 union activities during the year. So that $500,000 party helped motivate more than 80,000 separate volunteer activities by the 4000 members attending the party-- a pretty damn smart investment aside from just being a good way to build camraderies among union activist leaders scattered across the local's territory.

Part of the hook for the story was a rightwing corporate-funded group, the Center for Union Facts, used new data collected by the Bush Department of Labor that highlights all expenses by unions.

So why didn't the reporter just compare that data to similar party expenses by big corporations? Oh right, corporations don't have to publish similar information. Corporations only have to publish general information about their spending, usually massaged by major auditing firms, and that only applies to publicly-traded companies. Many businesses are essentially black boxes with the public getting no information on how they spend their money.

Which is the point. The government audits unions down to practically what they spend on paperclips. Literally, if you know someone who works for a union, their exact salary is listed by the government on a website. That's the level of disclosure imposed on unions.

Which allows these kinds of stories maligning unions as "big spenders" while businesses waste money in ways orders of magnitude more extravagent, but they can't be analyzed systematically because the data on business spending isn't available easily.

But even the lack of data doesn't excuse this kind of shoddy reporting. The reporter has union officials explaining near the end of the story that such spending on the occasional party and retreat helps build teamwork and motivation, but you know if this was a story about a successful business, talking about creating an environment to promote team building would be the headline and first few paragraphs.

I pick on this story not because it's worse than the typical story covering labor unions-- it's actually probably better since the Daily News actually does decent labor coverage on occasion -- but because it so exemplifies the constant bias in press coverage of unions. Stories invariabley lead with strikes, conflict or corruption. Stories about what unions DO day-to-day-- organizing workers, helping solve their problems on the job, building volunteer networks -- those stories almost never get published.

So we're stuck with biased stories condemning a union for daring to have a band at a holiday party.

Posted by Nathan at 01:16 PM

September 17, 2006

The Abuse of Incentive Pay

One standard criticism of union contracts is that workers doing the same job with the same experience usually get the same pay-- with fewer bonuses for outstanding work. It must just be union rigidness protecting lousy workers that explains such an approach, right?

Well look at the Center on Disease Control, courtesy of the NYTimes, where abuse of incentive pay has ended up diverting pay from front-line scientists to the top management:

In 2005, the records show that officials in Dr. Gerberding's office received 60 premium bonuses totaling $515,075, or about 4 percent of all bonuses granted within the centers. Because bonus money is limited — about 1.5 percent of the total personnel budget, Mr. Skinner said — the growing share of premium bonuses for Dr. Gerberding's closest advisers has meant less money is available for some scientists and other workers.
Incentive pay sounds nice, but it usually means that management lines its own nest and bonuses get handed out to those who tow the management line-- and those who challenge management in any way get nothing.

So the upshot is that incentive pay often ends up doing very little to improve performance, but does a lot to lower the pay of all workers while undermining overall worker power in the workplace. Which explains why most workers when they vote on a union contract decide to eliminate incentive pay where they can. In most cases, the best workers under a union contract will get more pay without incentives than they will from an incentive system that over time lowers pay for all workers.

Posted by Nathan at 07:31 AM

September 03, 2006

The Brilliance of Labor

Admit it. Many of you think labor unions are dinosaurs, lumbering beasts with pea-sized brains stumbling along waiting for extinction in a world passing them by. God knows, union leaders have done stupid things at times, but what strikes me is the sustained innovation and intelligence by unions over the last decade or so, barely noticed by the media or even fellow progressive activists.

So on this Labor Day, this is my celebration not of the justice of the labor cause, but of the brilliance of those fighting and often winning against long odds in the modern economy.

What's Been Won: Just surviving in the fact of political and corporate assaults by a rightwing that wants to kill off labor is an underestimated victory. I remember in the early 90s when talk of the death of the labor movement started and many analysts confidently predicted that union workers would make up less than 5% of the workforce. If you look at this table, labor has seen some steady erosion in the percentage of works organized since the early 90s -- although even that stabilized a bit last year -- but the actual number of workers unionized has largely stabilized around 16 million members in the last decade.

With total annual budgets from dues of $5-6 billion per year and with hundreds of billions od dollars in union-connected pension and health funds, unions remain the only institution that combines more resources that pretty much all other progressive groups combined with a mass membership. Which is why they have faced bad laws, hostile courts, and anti-union political and corporate attacks-- and their holding onto to nearly 16 million members is a testament to the innovative tactics and strategies they have developed over the years.

And what were those strategies?

Card Check to Replace a Hostile NLRB: As federal labor law and the National Labor Relations Board largely abandoned protecting workers, leaading to over 20,000 workers being fired each year for trying to organize unions, labor leaders realized in the last decades that they needed to emphasize new ways to strengthen the freedom of workers to form unions without depending on the NLRB. The tool was pressuring companies to agree to have independent groups - church leaders or private arbitration groups - measure whether a majority of workers had requested having a union brought into the workplace. (See these resources at American Rights At Work for more on how card check works).

The results have been dramatic. In an early signature campaign reviving the fortunes of the union movement, janitors began organizing around the country, largely using card check to win. In Los Angeles, for example, a union local where once 5000 workers were organized collapsed down to just 1800 members by the mid-0-s. But with the support of community allies, they used dramatic street protests to pressure janitorial companies to recognize the union and raise wages and benefits in the industry. Now, over 25,000 building service workers are organized in California alone. Similarly, hotel unions in Las Vegas would use card check to expand a local to over 50,000 members in that city alone.

And in the high-tech world, traditional telephone-based unions used card check to make inroads into new industries like cell phones. The Communication Workers of America has organized over 39,000 cell phone workers at Cingular Wireless, many of them workers in the US South. After initial resistance, this campaign has even forged a partnership with SBC (now AT&T) that has helped workers and management pursue win-win gains in the workplace, rather than the hostility bred of constant union busting and outsourcing in so many industries.

Corporate Campaigns: Beyond traditional "street heat", unions have begun wielding economic resources they control, such as union pension funds, as part of the tools to pressure companies to agree to card check agreements. William Greider in this Nation article describes many of the tactics used by labor, from proxy fights to shareholder lawsuits, to put pressure on management, but one of my favorite descriptions of this work is by an anti-union consultant who explains to companies in this piece what they face. The author describes the combination of boycotts, pension actions and other publicity actions as a coordinated strategy that brilliantly turns former financial allies against corporate management:

These tactics are not meant to get banks or consumers or regulators to redefine their self-interest. Rather, they encourage these constituency groups to act selectively in their own self-interest. The campaign tries to create a business environment in which that self-interest actually promotes the goals of the unions and anti-corporate groups. Thus, the company’s essential supporters become de facto allies of its opponents. This is a very sophisticated organizing strategy.
Signficantly, business recognizes the effectiveness and sophistication of current labor leaders often far more than many other progressives.

Mobilizing Customers: As part of such corporate campaigns, unions have long used simple consumer boycotts to pressure companies, but now they are becoming even more sophisticate in organizing consumers before a conflict to preemptively pressure companies before a conflict even begins. A brilliant recent example is the Informed Meetings Exchange, a project of UNITE-HERE where a broad range of academic, political and religious organizations have signed onto an organization that will advise them on which hotels to stay at for large organizational conferences-- the lifeblood of many hotels. By providing experise to help these groups get a better deal at conference hotels, the union will also be in a position to steer those groups away from hostile hotels and towards those less likely to disrupt a conference with a strike or lockout. As John Stephens, Executive Director of the American Studies Association and Board Chair of INMEX, stated:

"Subscribers will use INMEX to help them make more informed decisions about where and how they spend their highly coveted meetings and conventions dollars. With this type of transparency and information exchange, all of us can ensure that the dollars we spend have a positive impact on hotel workers lives and the communities they live in."
It's a nice summary of how progressives can work with labor to strengthen the whole movement.

Use of Local and State Politics: Getting little help from the federal government, unions have found ways to mobilize locally to support new union campaigns. The "living wage" campaign that demanded that private workers paid for with public money receive a decent wage is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of politics. More specifically, the campaign to organize the hundreds of thousands of home health care workers -- those paid by governments to care for the sick and disabled in their homes -- has been a key success for unions in recent years. This piece describes the successful campaign in California, where workers previously treated as "independent contractors" with no right to form a union were converted into employees of newly created public authorities and then unionized, most dramatically in Los Angeles in 1999 when 74,000 home care workers voted to form a local union, the largest union vote in decades, which has been accompanied by tens of thousands of other home care workers unionizing. Similarly, tens of thousands of child care workers have also unionized in recent years.

Organizing Globally: Part of the success of the union movement has been matching global outsourcing by the business community with global organizing of its own. This is a still a tough challenge, but unions are increasingly making inroads. Unions increasingly draw on help from overseas, as the chemical workers union did a few years ago in Alabama-- taking on Imerys, one of the largest global minerals companies in the heart of the anti-union South. Mobilizing help from the 20 million-strong International Chemical Energy, Mining and General Workers Unions (ICEM), the workers were able to pressure the company to recognize the union.

And instead of just bemoaning corporate outsourcing, unions are increasingly organizing the outsourcers themselves. For example, three large multinational firms -- Sodexho, Aramark and Compass -- subcontract work from other firms to do everything from food service to laundry work to janitorial services, employing 300,000 workers in the US and 1.1 million globally. Unions are forging global alliances with European and counterparts in other countries to demand global agreements with those companies. And they are succeeding with all three companies signing card check agreements to allow organizing of their employees.

Conclusion: These strategies by labor don't often get a lot of play in the mainstream media, but on this Labor Day, I thought it was a good time to celebrate the sophistication and persistence of US workers and their labor leaders in taking on the challenges of the new economy and actually winning where many people had already written the labor movement's obituary.

So Solidarity Forever everyone.

Posted by Nathan at 10:02 AM

August 18, 2006

Health Care: The Worse the Better

There a strain of liberal advocacy for national health care that hopes for the system to get worse, in the assumption that only then can serious reform happen. Ezra Klein makes this argument in a post attacking the Chicago Retail Workers bill as a danger since it might actually improve the lives of Wal-Mart workers; instead progressives should "view a slightly better menu of options for Wal-Mart employees as delaying the ultimate, more important victory."

So the worse the lives of low-wage workers, the better for liberal social engineers trying to enact national health insurance. Then, we can eliminate employer responsibility for health care with a completely government-financed system.

Ezra makes a broader argument about "progressives" like himself serving the public interest better than unions -- which I'll return to later in the post -- but let's start with why employer responsibility for health care is not going to happen, at least any time soon. Look at the following graph of who currently pays for health care in America:

So currently, federal and state governments cover just 39% of funding for $1.75 trillion in US health care spending annually. So for the government to take over the rest of health care financing would requre roughly a $1 trillion annual increase in general revenue taxes. (This doesn't include the costs of extending health care to those presently foregoing health care because of lack of insurance, but it's reasonable to argue that savings from a national system could pay for the uninsured.) Look again at the graph above-- without that employer contribution to health care, does anyone seriously think there is any way to help out the families paying hundreds of billions out-of-pocket or going without health care presently?

Back in 1994, the rightwing filibustered even the moderate Clinton reforms; they will lay on railroad tracks to prevent these kinds of revenue increases. Yet folks like Ezra want retail workers in Chicago to go with less health care today so that liberals get a better opportunity to convince William Kristol that blocking single payer health care is a bad idea.

Ezra also makes the argument, as he has before, that the current problems Ford and General Motors face is due to requriing employers to be responsible for health care costs. Yet he ignores the basic fact that Detroit's main Japanese competitors operate in a country, Japan, which is based on employers paying for health care. In fact, the Japanese health care system looks a lot like the "fair share" requirements that unions and their allies have been promoting across the country.

So if Japanese companies are increasingly dominating the global car market under a system of employer-responsibility for the health care of their employees, let's abandon the argument that employer responsibility for health care is the problem. The overall costly, dysfunctional US health care system may be a problem for all employers, but making the employers pay their fair share of costs in a reformed system is no obstacle to global competition.

But let's go back to the present cost numbers to refine what national health care needs to accomplish, with a different graph (also courtesy of the California Health Care Foundation):

Now to amend the number above, some of the present health care costs by individuals and businesses are taxes already paid for Medicaid and Medicare, so the really relevant spending on health care for those not covered by those programs are the $442.1 billion spent by individuals and $342.8 billion spent by businesses on insurance and out-of-pocket health care expenses.

So here's a question for progressives. Don't we want to keep that $342.8 billion employer health care commitment in place and concentrate new taxes on easing the $442.1 billion burden of health care expenses paid by individual families?

Of course we need reforms of the system to eliminate wasteful paperwork, avoid duplication and control costs, but as Japan and a number of European countries show, that can be done in a system where employers retain a financial responsibility for paying their fair share of health care costs.

Part of Ezra's argument is trying to blame unions for the lack of national health care in the country. It's actually amazing that he argues that unions are only interested in "tangible gains for their workers now," while ignoring the historic role of unions in fighting to enact Medicaid and Medicare and SCHIP for children and a range of other government programs. And guess what, no Wal-Mart workers in the US are in unions, so bills to increase health benefits for Wal-Mart workers DOESN'T create tangible gains for unionized retail workers right now. It does have long-term gains for union workers since a level playing field, where all employers, union and non-union, have similar health care costs, may help unions, but that just points out why unions actually inherently and institutionally push for a "just society for everyone."

Contrary to Ezra's supposed opposition between the "progressive movement" (a nebulous institution) and the union movement, a more just society is better for union workers, which explains why unions have been core part of social advancement, from the New Deal and Great Society to the civil rights movement.

Here's a thought. Maybe the unions and churches and community allies like ACORN, all representing millions of working families, aren't dumb. Maybe they recognize:

  • That the multi-hundred billion dollar per year health care contribution by employers can't easily be replaced by tax revenues;
  • That the better option is to require a level playing field where ALL employers are required to make a commitment to health care for their employees, so none has an unfair competitive advantage; and
  • That new tax revenues would be better spent on easing the $442.1 billion burden of direct health care spending by families, rather than using that revenue to subsidize large employers like Wal-Mart.

    I'm in favor of moving towards an integrated national health care system, since it's the best way to make sure no one falls through the cracks and to achieve a more rational, less costly health care system. But if employers bail on their present spending on health care, that just means that the government will have to raise MORE revenue to achieve such an integrated system and make it less likely.

    Some believe that the worse the health care system gets, the better, since that will open up the possibility of national health care reform. But it's actually the opposite-- the more we shore up the employer side of health care responsbility, the more likely we can afford to bring the rest of the population into a reformed system.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:28 AM

    August 16, 2006

    Non-Growth in Hours of Work

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released a report showing that while jobs have increased since the depths of the recession, the average work week has not recovered to the pre-recession level, meaning many folks may have a job but they aren't getting the same hours and pay as earlier.

    This reflects one of my favorite measures of real job creation-- ignore the total number of jobs and instead look at the total number of hours of work created. The St. Louis Federal Reserve puts those numbers together in this nice graph which emphasizes that after a serious dip in hours of work in the economy, we are just barely above the pre-recession level of hours worked -- divided among a larger growing population.

    Just more evidence of how truly anemic this recovery has been. And without any party, many economists are expecting the economy to take another dive soon.

    Bush: Incompetent at War, Incompetent at Home.

    Posted by Nathan at 10:36 AM

    August 05, 2006

    The Successful War on Poverty

    Looking at the graph, what's remarkable is how successful the war on poverty was in the 1960s, cutting the poverty rate in half from the 1950s, with upticks only under Reagan with a decline under Clnton, and now an uptick again under Bush.

    But for all the claims by the Right that the war on poverty was a failure, it actually made a dramatic difference.

    Posted by Nathan at 12:39 PM

    July 27, 2006

    Groundbreaking Chicago Retail Wage Law

    By a vote of 35 to 14, the Chicago city council yesterday approved a new ordinance requiring large retailers in the city to phase in a living wage for their employees of $10 per hour plus $3 per hour in benefits-- the highest minimum wage established for any industry sector in the country.

    If signed by the mayor, this law would not only raise pay for tens of thousands of workers in retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us, Lowe's and Home Depot, but will open up a new arena for activists to engage the wage issue for a broader range of workers than the minimum wage.

    As discussed at Progressive States , this law is part of an emerging trend of states and local governments establishing different, higher minimum "living wage" standards for selected industrial sectors, from larger employers to tourist zones to hotels. While innovative in the modern era, the Chicago law is a return to the historic practice of federal and state laws creating different minimum wage levels both between and within different industries.

    Because the Chicago ordinance allows employers to pay higher wages in lieu of paying the increased benefits required under the law, the law is clearly not preempted by federal ERISA law, as this legal analysis by the Brennan Center explains. “Every federal court of appeals that has reviewed a wage law like the Chicago ordinance," explains Paul Sonn, deputy director at the Brennan Center, "has upheld the law under ERISA.”

    And while large retailers covered by the ordinance are making noises about not building new stores in the city, the reality is that after Santa Fe created a living wage of $9.50 per hour for large employers, Wal-Mart asked for approval to build a new Supercenter. The fact that leading retailer Costco already pays all its employees a living wage of $10 per hour plus benefits nationwide emphasizes that "big box" retailers can thrive paying a living wage. See this economic analysis of why the expansion drive by large retailers means higher wage standards will not deter their growth.

    Full disclosure-- I drafted the original version of the ordinance back in 2004 when I was back at the Brennan Center, so I have a proprietary interest in this model, but it does bridge the discussion on wages between the lowest wage workers receiving the minimum wage and prevailing wage laws involving often much-better paid construction workers. As noted above, historically there were often different minimum wage rates for different industries, and even larger and smaller employers within the same industry. It was really only in the 1970s that the minimum wage became uniform for all kinds and sizes of firms-- and coincidentally began its decades long slide in inflation-adjusted value.

    So Chicago may be pointing us to the next wave of the wage debate, looking at different industries and size firms to establish higher wage standards where policymakers deem the industry can absorb higher wages without loss of job growth. Of course, that is what unions delivered historically industry by industry, but the Chicago-style approach may fill in the gaps to raise wages beyong the minimum wage.

    Posted by Nathan at 02:08 PM

    July 25, 2006

    Health Care for All Debate Gets Real

    Crossposted from Progressive States

    Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to create a health care plan to provide health care coverage for the 85,000 uninsured residents of that city, adding to the sense that 2006 became the year when the debate on health care for all became real in a range of states.

    Maryland kickstarted a national debate on employer responsibility for health care costs, Vermont and Massachusetts enacted new plans that each promised significantly expanded health care coverage, and Illinois finalized details on its AllKids program to provide affordable health care for all children in that state.

    And it was a year when serious campaigns in both California and Wisconsin to create integrated universal health care systems moved forward, emphasizing how states aren't waiting for the federal government to shake up our health care system.

    Continue reading "Health Care for All Debate Gets Real"

    Posted by Nathan at 02:12 PM

    CA: State Rules FedEx Drivers Employees, Not Contractors

    For years, the delivery company FedEx has claimed that its ground drivers are not employees but independent contractors-- meaning the company didn't have to pay for workers compensation, unemployment insurance or a range of other worker protections.

    But along with two Internal Revenue rulings, decisions by the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board have found that FedEx exercised such strict control over its drivers that their nominal independent status was a facade designed to undermine the labor rights of employees and evade millions in taxes owed the state.

    FedEx is just a high profile example of an all too common abuse of workers by misclassifying them as independent contractors. States are increasingly proposing new legislation to tighten these rules to protect employees, as this gude to Combating Independent Contractor Misclassification in the States by the National Employment Law Project explains.

    Posted by Nathan at 01:39 PM

    July 20, 2006

    What's Wrong With World Trade

    So the WTO is investigating whether US shutting down gambling web sites violate international trade law.

    Yet no international trade laws stop China from censoring its citizens access to Internet information on trade unions or human rights organizations that might help workers there demand better wages.

    When offshore gambling corporations have standing to challenge Internet restrictions and workers in slave labor camps don't, the law is an ass.

    Posted by Nathan at 12:20 AM

    July 19, 2006

    CA: San Francisco Approves Universal Health Care

    Combining proposals from the city's mayor and other advocates, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Monday gave initial and unanimous approval to a plan to extend health care coverage to all uninsured residents in the city.

    The plan would require businesses and other employers not providing health insurance to their employees to pay $1.06 or $1.60 per hour per worker, depending on the size of the company. The balance of the estimated $200 million annual cost of the program would be covered by consumer premiums and co-payments and by the $104 million a year San Francisco already spends on providing care to uninsured patients at city clinics and hospitals.

    Medical care would be provided at city clinics and hospitals that already treat residents who qualify for the state's public health insurance for poor Californians.

    Here is the ordinance approved by the Board.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:53 AM

    July 11, 2006

    Gutting Labor Rights for Nurses -- and Millions of Others

    Today, nurses will rally across the country to protest likely decisions by the National Labor Relations Board that would declare most Registered Nurses (RNs) to be "supervisors" under the law and therefore stripped of any protection under labor law. If these rulings go as expected, mosts RNs could be fired at will if they say anything positive about unions or are even suspected of being in favor of unions.

    The core of the problem derives from the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which denies labor rights to "supervisors", meaning that anyone deemed a supervisor can be fired at will if they say anything nice about unions or try to take action to support unions in their workplace.

    Once upon a time, it was generally understood that a supervisor was someone who had some degree of power to hire and fire those below them, but the in a series of decisions, the courts and NLRB have expanded the meaning of supervisor to mean people who, because of their expertise, direct the actions of other employees in some way.

    How far this goes has been disputed, but essentially since Registered Nurses often direct other hospital employees on what routine tasks need to happen for patients, the move is to strip RNs of their labor rights.

    And here's the kicker-- once a group of nominal "supervisors" lose their labor rights and can be threatened with being fired, they are forced to become anti-union shock troops to spy on other employees and undermine unionization by other workers. So not only does this kind of decision threaten unions for RNs, it threatens the labor rights of workers throughout the health care industry.

    This is all part of a trend where the NLRB and the courts, without any legislative change, have been overturning decades of rules to deny workers rights to a wide range of employees previously protected under the law. This American Rights at Work memo outlines additional attacks on labor rights by the NLRB in recent years:

  • July 2004: Graduate teaching and research assistants were deemed students and not employees, making them ineligible for NLRA protection.
  • September 2004: The Labor Board determined that disabled workers who receive rehabilitative services from employers should not be classified as workers and are, therefore, ineligible to form unions under the protections of federal law.
  • November 2004: Employees of temp agencies were barred from organizing with regular employees without both employer and agency permission.
  • This is on top of a range of other rulings that have weakened protections for workers still covered by labor law but now subject to be fired if they stand up for their rights in the workplace.

    But this attack on RNs as nominal "supervisors" could lead to the largest number of workers stripped of their labor rights in modern history. And it could cascade through other workplaces as employers strategically hand nominal supervisory roles to various workers to strip them of their labor rights.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:27 AM

    July 08, 2006

    Free Trade with Rapists and Labor Abusers

    Read this story from the Saudi Press:

    Cases of Asian maids running away and leaving their employers in desperate situations seem to be a growing phenomenon. We tend to hear many cases of maids being abused by their employers but at the same time there are multiple cases of families themselves being abused and treated inappropriately by their maids.
    Read that again. Trying to escape a bad employment situation is considered "abuse" by the Saudi elite.

    Which is par for the course in a region where women workers, usually hired from overseas, routinely face rape and abuse at the hands of employers. See this Human Rights Watch report on Dubai:

    Migrants, including large numbers of women employed as domestic servants, face intimidation and violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of employers, supervisors, sponsors and police and security forces. Children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.
    Employers in Saudi Arabia also engage in routine abuse of employees, largely migrants from overseas. See this Human Rights Watch report:
    The estimated 8.8 million largely South and Southeast Asian and Arab foreign workers in Saudi Arabia comprise a third of the country’s population, according to Minister of Labor Ghazi al-Gosaibi...Nongovernmental organizations in several Asian countries and those countries’ diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia documented hundreds of abuses of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, such as unpaid wages, long working hours, and physical and sexual abuse. The isolation of women domestic workers in private homes, and the lack of legal protection, puts them at risk of serious abuse.
    And yet this is the region where the US is pushing lots of "free trade" deals, the approval of the trade deal with Oman in June the most recent one, all part of a plan to build a "Middle East Free Trade Area" agreement.

    We may be dependent on the region for oil, but why would we think of making trade agreements with regimes that are some of the worst violators of labor rights in the world?

    Posted by Nathan at 11:39 AM

    June 23, 2006

    BIG Win for Employees at Supreme Court

    How rightwing is the Bush administration when it argues to screw workers on behalf of corporate American-- and even Scalia and his rightwing brethren reject its position?

    In a sea of worsening legal doctrine on discrimination, the Supreme Court just handed down a decision, by a 9-0 vote, that clearly protects employees who demand that their employers end discrimination in the workplace from any kind of retaliation. Before this decision, there had been debate in the courts whether minor forms of discipline for filing discrimination charges made companies liable for fines and punishment under US discrimination law. But in this case:

    The decision upheld a finding of retaliation by a railroad company against a female maintenance worker who was transferred to less desirable duties within her job category and placed on an unpaid leave for 37 days after she complained about sexual harassment. She was reinstated with back pay after a grievance by her union.. A jury awarded $43,500 to the woman...
    The Supreme Court upheld that fine, which means that companies can't steal pay from workers, intimidate them, then just give the money they stole back when called to account. Now they can expect more serious penalties for violating the law, which will hopefully more employees to stand up and demand decent treatment.

    As the article linked to argues:

    Retaliation claims make up an important and rapidly growing part of employment law. Some 20,000 retaliation cases were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2004, a number that has doubled since 1992. The cases now account for more than one-quarter of the federal agency's docket.

    "This is an exceptionally important decision that changes the law in most of the country," Eric Schnapper, a law professor at the University of Washington who helped represent the plaintiff in the case, said in an interview

    So this is a decision worth celebrating.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:12 AM

    June 22, 2006

    Dobbs Crosses to the Light on Minimum Wage

    Lou Dobbs is an odd guy. He used to be a pro-corporate booster in the dotcom era but has been playing the populist game, good and bad, for a number of years on issues like trade and immigrant-bashing.

    But in this article, Dobbs just flat out rejects the whole rightwing bullshit on minimum wage, making the straight liberal case for raising the wage:

    Raising the minimum wage to $7.50 would positively affect the lives of more than 8 million workers, including an estimated 760,000 single mothers and 1.8 million parents with children under 18...

    The myth that raising the minimum wage will lead to job cuts is just that: a myth. In fact, research suggests just the opposite. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, since 1998, states with higher minimum wages experienced better job growth than states paying only the federal minimum wage. Among small retail businesses in those higher minimum-wage states, job growth was double the rest of the country.

    Dobbs just stomps on the two big lies of the rightwing on the minimum wage-- that only teenage kids receive it and that it costs jobs. So kudos to Dobbs-- and one more sign that the rightwing propaganda machine on the issue is losing steam.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:53 AM

    June 18, 2006

    Blog Post at Edwards OneAmerica Site

    I had a very nice response from my DailyKos post on Why Unions? Labor 101, an adaptation of my old series on why unions matter.

    And I got a nice request to repost it over at Edwards OneAmerica site, a scoop-like site and they've nicely made it a "Featured Blogger" post. So thanks!

    Posted by Nathan at 01:01 PM

    Blog Problems

    Well-- I've had endless problems with Movable Type over the last month, with weird spam attacks threatening to shut down my host servers -- and leading to repeated shutdowns of my account.

    Which is why both connections and blogging has been erratic in the last month, although I'v continued to post stuff at TPMCafe, Progressive States and DailyKos.

    Comments are shut down for now, although I hope to restart them when I figure out how to eliminate the spam attacks. So hopefully blog posts will also pickup

    Posted by Nathan at 12:57 PM

    May 15, 2006

    National Guard versus Border Patroil

    So why is Bush refusing to fund more border patrol agents, yet calling to send the national guard down to the border?

    Yes, Bush loves to militarize every situation, but another obvious answer is that it's a further substitution of non-union national guard members, directly under political control, for unionized border patrol workers. Unionized government workers actually challenge the administration on incompetence by the Homeland Security leadership, so the Bushies would far prefer "yes sir" military folks.

    But that's actually the reason America has traditionally been uncomfortable with the military being used for direct policing functions. Frontline soldiers are rightly trained to respect the chain of command, a necessity in military combat, but a less desirable trait in domestic situations where dissent on the ground by rank-and-file civilian police is often a check on incompetent leadership.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:03 PM

    May 07, 2006

    Work Life in the Games Industry is a new organization founded a bit of a watchdog on the games industry, founded by Erin Hoffman , who shook up the industry in 2004 when she wrote an anonymous letter on the harsh (and illegal) working conditions at Electronics Arts and other video game companies that have led to lawsuits over violations of overtime laws.

    A useful reminder that for regular workers, the "knowledge industry" is often as harsh and arbitrary as the old industrial economy-- and a good sign of a maturing consciousness among workers that they need some real discussion and organization to change things. Whether such efforts evolve into anything resembling unions is an open question, but as I always note, the Hollywood unions show that there is no incompatibility between the knowledge economy and strong labor rights.

    Posted by Nathan at 01:44 PM

    May 02, 2006

    Miami Janitoris Win!

    With no help from Donna Shalala, the strikers at University of Miami won their crucial demand yesterday-- the right to card check recognition for their union from the university contractor, Unicco Service Company. Part of the agreement was that the union would have to sign up 60% of employees to gain recognition, rather than the 50% required to win an NLRB election.

    Which illustrates how bad the NLRB election process is. The workers preferred a lengthy strike, a hunger strike that hospitalized multiple workers, and a requirement for a super-majority rather than face the buzzsaw of a federal election, where employers manipulate the rules and routinely threaten and fire workers to defeat unions.

    Congratulations to the University of Miami strikers -- a win for them and a major beachhead for the whole union in traditionally non-union Florida.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:23 AM

    May 01, 2006

    AFL and Change To Win: Back To The Future, or Something....

    By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

    I'm ust getting around to writing about this mildly amusing and ironic story. NY Times labor reporter Steve Greenhouse reported last week about a proposal by Change to Win (the unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO last year) to get together with the AFL-CIO to form another labor federation that would do many of the things they criticized the AFL-CIO for spending too many resources on: political action, grass-roots mobilization, member education, legislative initiatives, and health and safety.

    Change to Win Chair Anna Burger sent a letter to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on April 11 suggesting they work together on common issues:

    Several important pending issues, including immigration, health care, retirement security, labor law reform and the looming 2006 election cycle make it imperative that we coordinate our strategies and resources in the interests of all working people in this country.
    She suggested creating a "permanent structure"

    In a response, Sweeney declared himself "mystified" at Burger's proposal to create "a third federation," and although he supports coordinating strategies and resources,

    the last thing we can imagine doing -- less than ayear after SEIU, UFCW, UNITE HERE and the Teamsters voluntarily left the Federation -- is investing time and resources in "cofounding" yet a third labor federation, with all the bureacracy, expense and additional staffing that would entail. And we cannot ignore the irony that the united federation of all unions that you propose...precisely describes the work of the AFL-CIO before the disaffiliations last July.
    Now I'm not privy to all the inside plotting and planning of all the different sides, but on the surface it looks like Change to Win is figuring out that while greatly increased organizing is essential to ensuring workers' rights, it's not sufficient: you also need to translate some of that energy into policy and political power in Washington where many of the programs are developed and implemented that can help -- or hurt -- working people.

    One of those important issues, of course, is workplace safety and health. And although Change to Win unions are doing a good job integrating workplace safety with organizing (in their hotel campaign and University of Florida, for example), they have no political program equivalent to the dearly departed AFL-CIO health and Safety Department (R.I.P.) or even the activities of the remaining AFL-CIO health and safety staff.

    So here's my suggestion: Both federations should take note of the life and death struggles that workers are facing every day on the job, and both should established well-staffed and funded health and safety departments -- which could then coordinate their activities in Washington and around the country.

    Now there's a crazy proposal I could get behind.

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 11:46 PM

    April 29, 2006

    Workers Memorial Day 2006

    By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

    Yesterday was Workers Memorial Day; a day dedicated by the labor movement to “pray for the dead and fight for the living,” in the words of fabled labor organizer Mother Jones. This year we’re hoping that while the praying goes forward as usual, the fight for the living may be making more headway.

    The focus of this year’s commemoration is the Sago mine explosion in which 12 West Virginia coal miners died last January, as well as the subsequent Alma Aracoma fire that killed two miners. As traumatized as Americans were by the deaths of these men, the revelations of the Bush administration’s weak enforcement efforts, low fines and withdrawal of proposed regulations that could have saved the lives of the Sago and Alma miners have prompted citizens, labor advocates and politicians to take a serious look at this nation’s waning commitment to ensuring safe workplaces.

    Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts, speaking at the AFL-CIO Wednesday evening, reminded us that only one Sago miner was killed in the initial explosion; the other 11 died from lack of oxygen. If they had had enough extra air or a means to communicate, the 11 miners would still be alive today. If the Bush administration hadn’t withdrawn a proposal to make coal belts fireproof, the two Aracoma miners would be alive today. This country created the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Roberts continued, because mine owners were not ensuring the safety of miners. Now, however, the Bush administration has handed MSHA back to the mine owners. And they’re not doing a very good job. Twenty-six coal miners have been killed so far this year, compared with 22 for all of 2005.

    But Sago was not an isolated event. Few Americans realize that if the 12 miners who died at Sago were the only American workers to die on the job that day, it would have been a good day in the American workplace. Every day in this country, more than 15 workers are crushed in trench collapses, shot in convenience stores, mangled in machinery, killed in vehicle accidents, or fall to their deaths from scaffolds and cell towers. And the problem is getting worse. The number of workplace fatalities has risen in each of the past two years and the national workplace fatality rate rose in 2004 for the first time since 1994. The rate also rose for manufacturing, construction and Hispanic workers.

    Continue reading "Workers Memorial Day 2006"

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:44 PM

    Union Mines Are Safer Mines

    By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

    Union mines are safer than non-union mines explains Charles McCollester, Director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.he decline of governmental oversight and enforcement under the present administration is a scandal.

    The Mine Safety and Health Administration levies fines but rarely collects and fails to go to court to enforce.

    In a non-union mine, the inspector has no back-up. It's his word against the company. The union has the right to accompany inspectors and provide documentation and testimony. The heart of the union presence, the local Mine Committee, meets monthly, receives additional training, has the right to inspect any part of the mine including its access, and must perform full inspections at least every two months.

    Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak. In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination. The company's fear of knowledgeable, independent inspections was illustrated in their attempt to bar the entry of UMWA representatives at Sago.

    Union mines resist efforts to cut corners including the installation of dubious products like foam Omega blocks that the government now allows to replace previously mandated two-foot thick poured concrete or block walls.

    Two successive roof fall deaths at the non-union Rosebud mine in Armstrong County were in an area with recognized poor roof conditions, but the company was not test drilling to effectively gauge conditions. It continued to take deep cuts (in excess of 20 feet) using 36- and 42-inch roof bolts when conditions called for longer ones. The failure to drill test bores was a contributing factor in the mine flooding at the non-union Quecreek operation.

    McCollester alos authored a fascinating article on on the called so-called miraculous rescue of Less Than Miraculous: The Near-Disaster at Quecreek Mine Citing many of the warnings that the company had before that mine was flooded, McCollester wrote:
    Black Wolf owner-operator David Rebuck called the flooding an "act of God" in one local TV interview. As McCollester wrote, "The flood of testimonials to the mercy of God threatens to obscure the very human factors that led to the near-disaster. God may well have had a hand in the rescue, but human avarice and more than a century of fierce corporate manipulation and struggle for profit and control were behind the wall of water that swept into the Quecreek mine."
    In that near-disaster as well, McCollester writes, a union would have helped:
    If Quecreek had been union, workers might have been more candid about company responsibility immediately after the rescue, when some of them supported management's claim of normal mining conditions. If the union had been recognized, the workers could have refused to continue advancing--without fear for their jobs--as they saw conditions worsening.

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 07:40 PM

    April 27, 2006

    Extreme Corruption at Veterans Administration

    Imagine if Dick Cheney returned to Halliburton with a nice fat management contract after landing the company lots of lucrative contracts.

    That's just about the situation with the Veterans Administration where the former head of the department, Anthony Principi, returned to the company he previously headed, and the company was promptly awarded a $1 billion privatization contract desgined by Principi himself:

    Principi’s company, QTC Management, administers medical exams to veterans who need disability assistance. Additionally, the firm also examines soldiers before they are discharged, the results of which play a substantial role in VA disability benefit decisions. Principi was president of QTC before heading the VA from 2001 to 2005. After leaving the VA, Principi returned to the company as chairman of the board.
    The LA Times has more on how QTC has been bilking the federal government for years, yet Principi just looked the other way while in charge:
    The firm began its relationship with the VA in 1998, conducting disability exams under a pilot program. Principi joined the company in 1999.

    QTC's initial performance drew some criticism. As mandated by Congress, its work was reviewed by a private consulting firm, which said QTC's fees were much higher than expected.

    A QTC hearing exam, for instance, averaged $495.55 compared with $89.80 for an in-house VA exam. Even with an adjustment for possible hidden VA costs, the difference exceeded 400%. For a general medical exam, QTC's average fee was $393.52 compared with the VA's $225.58, the consultants found. They recommended further cost-comparison studies, but such an analysis was not done...

    Right after becoming head of the VA, Principi appointed a task force on the backlog of veterans' claims. In its report to Principi, the panel lauded QTC's performance and recommended that the medical exam program continue or expand.

    This illustrates how corruption and the privatization of government services go hand in hand.

    Posted by Nathan at 02:06 PM

    WI: Real Health Care for All Workers

    From over at the Progressive States Network (yes the name is changing)

    After the botched Massachusetts health care bill, it's nice to see Wisconsin is stepping up with a really bold health care plan. Backed by unions, businesses and municipalities, a bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators, led by Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield) and Rep. Terry Musser (R-Black River Falls), introduced SB 698, one of the most comprehensive health care proposals in the country -- that would cover every employee in the state much like the existing workers compensation and unemployment insurance systems. An actuarial study done in 2003 estimated that employers would have to pay about $300 per month, while employees and dependents would pay a yearly deductible of $300 for a single person or $600 for a family. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO has this analysis which points out that it's the very ambition of the plan that will make the plan affordable for both employers and employees. And why "individual mandates" or other so-called "consumer driven" proposals will fail:

    [V]oluntary purchasing pools don’t work, because they are inevitably subject to “adverse selection”: only groups with above average costs want to participate. “Consumer-driven” or “market” reforms simply shift costs to individuals and ration access to health care according to wealth: none of these approaches increases access to quality health care, improves our health care system, or reduces overall costs...

    And the Wisconsin plan, by standardizing benefits and administration will accomplish what almost no other proposal on the table will do-- dramatically reduces administrative costs. 20 to 30% of the cost of health care in the United States is currently for administration – often just patients and care givers negotiating with a blizzard of different insurance companies over what will get covered and who will pay. Compare that to administrative costs of just 3% for Medicare and for the single-payer Canadian health care system and you can see the attraction of the new Wisconsin plan's more integrated approach.

    The Wisconsin plan will also bargain with pharmaceutical companies to reduce prescription drug prices and establish common quality standards for hospitals and health care providers to control costs. Now, this is a health care vision that takes the debate beyond incremental reforms. Unlike the Massachusetts bill, it holds employers responsible for providing health care, but also offers the carrot to responsible employers of reduced costs and not being undercut by companies that just dump their health care costs on emergency rooms. The bill is being introduced too late to be passed this legislative session, but will no doubt help define the election races this fall for the legislature-- and hopefully those candidates who refuse to sign up won't be coming back for January 2007.


    Wisconsin AFL-CIO, The Wisconsin Health Care Plan

    SB 698- text of Wisconsin Health Care Plan (WHCP)

    Posted by Nathan at 11:26 AM

    April 25, 2006

    Cracking Down on Wage Law Violations

    One thing you can say-- the current debate on immigration is at last focusing attention on the pervasive violations of our labor laws in sweatshops and other parts of the low-wage economy. But instead of getting national legislation to shut down sweatshops around the country, we are getting policies to punish some of the victims -- while leaving the underground economy that breeds undocumented immigration largely in place.

    Across the country, various states and local governments have created innovative laws and programs to take on wage law violators, as a new analysis at PLAN details, although none have put all the pieces together.

    The facts of illegal violations of our wage laws have been clear for years:

  • The U.S. Department of Labor found in 2000 that 60% of US nursing homes routinely violated overtime, minimum wage, or child labor laws.
  • Another 2004 study from DOL data found that 54% of contractors in the Los Angeles garment industry violated the minimum wage law.
  • And last year, a survey of hundreds of New York City restaurants found that more than half were violating overtime or minimum wage laws.
  • Read those sentences again. A MAJORITY of businesses in these industries and other low-wage sectors routinely disregard our wage laws. If we are going to hear about "respect for the law," ending this pervasive illegal conduct by employers should be the focus. And while some sweatshop workers are undocumented, the majority are not; so even if you eliminated every undocumented worker from the economy, the sweatshops would remain.

    Conversely, eliminate the sweatshops and most of the incentive for employers to recruit undocumented workers disappears, a point we have made, but also one that the Bush administration endorsed in their recent budget document, which argued, "[L]abor standards enforcement efforts...will help to reduce the economic incentive for such illegal employment practices and will, in turn, help reduce illegal immigration." The problem is that while this rhetoric is nice, the reality is that the federal government has let the minimum wage rate decline to an abysmally low level at $5.15 per hour, provides few enforcement dollars, and applies minor punishments to offenders even if they get caught.

    States have begun raising the minimum wage rate across the country, but the next step is for states to pass comprehensive enforcement measures to make sure workers actually get paid. As detailed at PLAN's analysis, a number of states and local governments have created new innovative approaches to enforcing wage standards. Unfortunately, no state has joined them altogether in a comprehensive enforcement package, which is what is needed to make serious inroads against the pervasive violations of wage laws in our states.

    But the outline of the key policies needed to shut down the underground economy is clear.

    • Increase the punishment for violations, including increased financial penalties, denying operating licenses and public contracts to repeat violators, and applying criminal sanctions against willful wage law violators;

    • Expand funding for enforcement, including dedicated more state budget dollars, encouraging local governments to act, funding expanded legal services at the state level, and using "private attorneys general" statutes to encourage private lawsuits to enforce the laws;

    • Encourage employees to bring complaints through measures to better educate employees about their rights, encourage anonymous complaints, prevent retaliation by harsh punishments for employers violating employee free speech rights, and protect the ability of immigrants to hold exploitative employers accountable;

    • Hold employers accountable for "fly-by-night" operations, including holding businesses liable for wage violations by subcontractors, hold key shareholders in private firms liable for wage claims if their firms refuse to pay, tighten definitions of "independent contractors", and discourage temporary and day labor exploitation.

    Read the full details of what states have been doing and can do to eliminate wage violations across the economy.

    Posted by Nathan at 12:15 PM

    April 11, 2006

    More on Blacks and Immigration Rallies

    In Denver:

    "The most prominent local black organization, the Greater Metropolitan Denver Ministerial Alliance, attended Saturday's rally. On Monday, the Rev. Patrick Demmer, a member of the alliance, donned toy handcuffs with about 100 ministers from around the country during a demonstration in Washington.

    "This is a continuation of the civil rights struggle," Demmer said. "If we can offset some of the mean-spirited ideologies of Tancredo, I'm happy to be here to offset it."

    In Boston
    Cardinal O’Malley and Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, executive board member of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston joined nearly 8,000 immigrants in their demonstration for amnesty and more benefits at Copley Square yesterday...Rev. Hamilton commented earlier on his role at the rally saying: “Nationally the question has been raised, where is the black church? In Boston, the answer is clear. On Monday evening, we will be standing with our brothers and sisters fighting for responsible immigration reform.”
    In Florida:
    "Everyone here is illegal except the Native Americans," said Floyd Frazier, 65, an African-American who belongs to the Florida Civil Rights Association.
    There are no doubt lots of tensions as workers at the bottom are pitted against each other by those making more and more money at the top of the pyramid. But it's encouraging that black leaders so far are refusing to take the bait and are encouraging their members to demand broad-based justice for all of the dispossed, not playing the opposition's game of attacking those one step down on the economic rung.

    Posted by Nathan at 01:57 PM

    Why Won't the Downtrodden Scapegoat the Immigrants?

    Among liberals calling for a crackdown on immigrants, there is a trope of speaking on behalf of blacks, low-wage workers and others who are supposedly harmed by undocumented immigration. So it's got to be frustrating that organizations representing blacks and unions are refusing to play their parts and scapegoat the immigrants.

    Here's the NAACP on immigration reform:

    NAACP President & CEO Bruce S. Gordon said: “Our nation’s immigration policy must be consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect and dignity. We must move away from the politics of ostracizing immigrants and instead look at the demographic shifts and needs of our nation in a larger context.

    Gordon said that legislation to address genuine immigration reform should include proposals that would allow people to earn the right of citizenship through hard work, the commitment of several years, and meeting several monetary, security and related requirements. He said the NAACP “strongly opposes any efforts to criminalize undocumented immigrants.”
    As for the unions, the AFL-CIO Executive Committee, a group that only acts with consensus among its unions, came out strongly for a humane defense of immigrant rights:
    Immigrant workers, like all workers, should be full social partners. We will continue to support effective, credible and enforceable rights for all workers, regardless of their country of origin or immigration status. At the same time, we will ensure that our member mobilization efforts include our immigrant brothers and sisters, and ultimately place immigration squarely within a progressive and sustainable economic agenda that benefits all working families in our nation...Reforms must provide a path to permanent residency for the currently undocumented workers who have paid taxes and made positive contributions to their communities. Legalization is an important worker protection.
    And if you think this is just "wimpy" unions, here's the Teamsters on immigration reform:
    While our current immigration system is clearly broken, the Senate is heading down a course that will only make the situation worse. Most egregious is Majority Leader Bill Frist's proposal to criminalize millions of immigrants and anyone who assists them – from priests to doctors to union organizers.

    On a positive note, the Teamsters Union does support measures passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee that include smart border security measures, as well as earned legalization for the 12 million undocumented workers in the country who are essential to our economy and communities.

    What is remarkable is how unified religious, labor and civil rights groups are on this issue-- one reason you are seeing rallies on the scale we have seen in recent weeks and today. For those who see immigration as inevitably undermining wages for existing "American workers", that is the logic of segregationists who once feared equal rights for blacks would undermine white working class wages -- yet white-dominated unions overcame those fears to embrace an alliance with the civil rights movement. And the unions at least learned from that lesson that it is better to embrace the excluded to work together to build a better social system. Yes, globalization is threatening to workers, but the more people are pitted against each other, native versus immigrant, US workers versus workers in developing nations, the less likely real changes in the national and global economy can be achieved to reverse those assaults on working standards.

    Those who see immigrants "inevitably" lowering wages assume a neoliberal economic system where supply and demand determine the allocation of justice in society. But for this new social movement, the assumption is that in unity, that inequality can be challenged-- from raising the minimum wage, expanding available employment through greater social investments, and through a fairer global trade system.

    The resistance to embracing immigrant rights is reactionary in the definitional sense-- reacting to the present reality with no sense of the possibility of a better world and a better system beyond the present where workers are pitted against each other for crumbs at the bottom of the inequality divide. But for those willing to embrace the future-- because they see a reactionary defense of the present as a sure loser -- the unity around immigrant rights is natural.

    Posted by Nathan at 01:54 PM

    April 10, 2006

    Ethanol and the Fraud of "Free Trade"

    One of the most important industries in Brazil is ethanol production, an industry based on native sugar cane that supposedly delivers eight times the energy of corn-based versions and could be a major boost to Brazil's foreign trade-- except that US and European trade laws bar it:

    Yet heavy import duties on the Brazilian product have limited its entry into the United States and Europe...Brazilian officials and business executives say the ethanol industry would develop even faster if the United States did not levy a tax of 54 cents a gallon on all imports of Brazilian cane-based ethanol.
    How seriously can you take "free trade" rhetoric by develope countries that engages in massive protectionism against the agriculture-based products that are often the staple of most employment in poor countries?

    The reality is that the US ignored intellectual property when we were a developing nation in the 19th century, but now use the sledge hammer of "free trade" rhetoric to demand enforcement of IP rights on behalf of our drug and movie companies. But even as we demand that countries like Brazil pay up to the prescription drug companies in the name of free trade, we keep out Brazil's agricultural products with protectionist borders.

    So can we drop the discussion of "free trade" and just discussion how to make trade fairer for everyone, including the poor in developing nations and workers in the US?

    Posted by Nathan at 09:10 AM

    April 06, 2006

    Why an Employer Mandate is Needed

    Ezra -- and Max -- have eminent logic on their side in arguing for the superiority of a non-employer based health care system in favor of direct government funding of health care. Except for the tiny flaw that it's not going to happen politically, at least any time soon.

    Currently, private funds, primarily employer-paid money pays for 54% of all health care in this country. For the non-elderly population, it is an even greater percentage of health care dollars. So over 8% of GDP consists of private health care spending.

    Now, for the government to substitute for that private spending, that would require the US to raise a substantially larger percentage of GDP in taxes than it currently does. In 2004, combined state and federal revenue was 27.5% of GDP (Data from this nice XLS sheet courtesy of Carried Away blog). Given Bush's massive deficts, we need to raise revenue by over 4% just to get revenue and spending into balance before we can even begin incorporating a substantial increase in GDP dedicated to substitute for all that private health care spending.

    So we would need to raise roughly 40% of GDP as taxes as a country to incorporate a single payer program into our political system, which assumes a truly massive sea change in the political willingness of the population to accept massive tax increases. Yes, single payer advocates argue that a completely government-run system would save money, but even knocking a couple of percentage points off that 40% figure still assumes an increase in taxes that bend credibility in the present political situation.

    And of course, the GOP will filibuster any attempt to create such a government-funded health care system; that was made clear back in 1994 and there is no evidence that the GOP is suddenly going to roll over for such a change at the federal level. And at the state level, many states, including some of the largest such as California, Florida, and Texas need a supermajority vote of at least one state house chamber to raise taxes, giving any conservative resistance to government-funded health care a minority veto on such changes. The California Senate has already voted for a single payer system, but it's irrelevant if the state Assembly joins them, since they can't get the two-thirds vote needed to fund the system.

    So the blunt political reality is that an employer mandate is more likely to succeed precisely because it is not a tax increase. It can be passed at the state level without needing new taxes raised and without a supermajority in those states giving a veto to the minority on tax issues. Given the costs of health care, I don't see any budgetary math where we can raise the revenue just to cover the currently uninsured without also holding on to the revenue contributions by employers.

    Some states could theoretically bypass these supermajority political restrictions by going to the ballot, but that just promises to unleash the full weight of the health care establishment to defeat you. California tried to enact single payer at the ballot in 1994, which I know well since I worked hard on the campaign at the time. I even helped design their Internet site in that almost prehistoric period of the web.

    And after the opposition dropped their attack ads onto television and massively outspent our side, the initiative was slaughtered at the polls. The initiative process has not been kind of progressives pushing complicated legislation. Notably, while business was able to narrowly defeat an employer mandate at the polls in 2004, California voters supported the employer mandate by almost double the percentage they supported single payer back in 1994.

    Maybe it's because I've been in the middle of the largest single payer campaign in America's history that I am so skeptical of it as a strategy today. I'd vote for any single payer system that came along, but I think putting all of our eggs in eliminating the employer role in health care is dangerous and reckless with the lives of working families who currently depend on the health care funds coming from employers.

    That may be a messy political reality that doesn't fit well with the abstract policy attraction of abandoning an employer-based system, but it seems far more politically within reach to preserve and even expand employer contributions to health care than to pass such a massive increase in taxes. And that will leave scarce public funds for actually expanding coverage rather than just making up for lost non-tax employer contributions.

    It may leave a messier, less efficient health care system than the ideal-- but we aren't likely to get that political ideal. And it's my firm belief that fighting for an employer mandate, combined with other initiatives like expanding Medicaid and coverage for kids, is the most effective path to providing the most comprehensive health care for working families. And for actually leaving some tax revenue left over for non-health care needs like education, housing and transit.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:45 PM

    March 26, 2006

    The Future Marches in LA -- and Denver, Chicago and...

    500,000 people marched yesterday in Los Angeles against making being a global economic refugee a felony -- and they were joined by hundreds of thousands more in Denver (50,000), Phoenix (20,000) Houston, and other cities across the country, including Chicago where over 100,000 people marched two weeks ago for immigrant rights.

    The march in Los Angeles was the largest political rally in the city's history. This is the future marching. Many of those marching can vote today; many of them will register to vote where they can or when they become eighteen; and even those who can't vote, their children will vote.

    There is a historic decision for Democrats to make in the coming year. They can listen to their better angels and fight for the basic principle that those in economic need should not be treated as criminals or they can embrace short-term anti-immigrant expediency and lose both their soul and long-term political advantage.

    Some see the issue as whether the undocumented committed an illegal act. But the real question should be whether our current immigration policy is itself moral. Slavery was legal, but that didn't make those who defied it immoral.

    The United States has an estimated 12 million people living in our country without legal status. Do we seriously expect to deport that many people in an act of ethnic clensing that would bring global condemnation?

    And globalization can't just mean that money has freedom but people don't. If anything, we need more rules for money and fewer for people-- since the ability to walk away from bad job choices is about the only right the poorest of the poor have ever had in this world. Take away the right of mobility from workers and all the rest of their rights largely disappear as well.

    The AFL-CIO executive council early this month detailed the problems driving immigrants to the US:

    Any viable solution to this crisis must address the reasons why people are coming to the U.S. Most immigrants come from countries where the international development process has failed, and many are from countries where International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and trade policies have weakened countries’ economies and labor protections, causing a devastating impact on all workers. In some developing countries, IMF policies have caused public-sector workers to lose their jobs and their union protections, forcing them into competition in the private sector, where few, if any, jobs are available, driving down wages and working conditions even further. Trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement undermine the agricultural economies of developing countries, leading workers to leave the fields and consider moving north. Without rising living standards abroad for workers and the poor, the pressure for illegal immigration will continue and escalate.
    If we want to slow immgration to the United States, the real way to do it is to end sweatshops in Mexico and the rest of the developing world and end the rising inequality in global wealth within such countries. Mexico, for example, has increasing wealth, but because of the trade deals we created with them, most of that wealth goes to the richest section of the population-- Mexico has 13 billionaires yet working families are left struggling to survive.

    To tell such refugees from an economic system the US government helped engineer that they are to blame for their fate is immoral. And progressives should be standing side by side with the labor unions, civil rights groups and religious leaders marching by the hundreds of thousands in the streets to demand decent treatment for those refugees and a more just global economic system.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:40 AM

    Dubai: Workers Hell

    In all the debates over the Dubai Ports, progressive seemed to miss the key reason to bash the Dubai government-- it's cultivated a workers rights nightmare of plutocratic exploitation of immigrants.

    It's an Apartheid of the Arab wealthy-- 500,000 local residents exploiting a 1,000,000 immigrants who do the work without voting rights or rights in the workplace:

    [W]orkers have few rights. Visa sponsors and employers typically confiscate their passports and residency permits when they sign on, restricting their freedom of movement and their ability to report abuse...

    When they get here, few can leave the country without the permission of their employers, who can block them from working elsewhere in the country if they resign or are fired.

    Unionizing is forbidden, too, and most workers have no recourse other than the Labor Ministry.

    Denial of wages is the most common abuse of workers, as contracting companies typically wait to pay their workers until they themselves get paid. In the worst cases, workers have been denied wages for more than 10 months, only to lose the entire salary when the contracting companies go bankrupt, leaving the men destitute and with few options.

    And according to Human Rights Watch, the abuse gets worse for women and children::
    Migrants, including large numbers of women employed as domestic servants, face intimidation and violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of employers, supervisors, sponsors and police and security forces. Children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.

    "Thousands of children are trafficked to the United Arab Emirates for use as beggars and camel jockeys," Human Rights Watch's Rory Mungoven said.
    If the world took labor rights seriously, the Dubai regime would be one of the world's pariah states.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:21 AM

    Median Estate: $29,000

    That's it. The majority of Americans receive no more than $29,000 in inheritances, according to the Federal Reserve.

    Yet $200 billion annually are being passed on each year in inheritances.

    Put those two numbers together and it's clear that the debate on the estate tax is absolutely irrelevant for most families. And one of the reasons is that the main "tax" on middle income estates come before death, in the form of massive health-related expenses that eat away at the nest egg:

    RAND calculated that the average person between 60 and 70 would spend 58 percent of his or her wealth before dying.
    So maybe progressives should be doing something to fight against the 58% medical care estate tax as an alternative to the GOP campaign over the largely irrelevant "death tax"?

    Might be a winner.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:04 AM

    March 19, 2006

    Natalie Portman: Norma Rae

    I've liked Natalie Portman in a number of movies -- especially Garden State -- but it's great that she brings good politics to her workplaces and not just to easy celebrity causes:

    Producer Joel Silver wanted tough and tender. Who knew he was getting Norma Rae, too?

    "I've stood up to producers before, and even a director," Portman says. "I saw them being abusive. A lot of people on the set are scared to say stuff when they're not being treated right."

    And while it's chic to like low-budget indie films, Portman notes the "indie cred" of the actors and directors often comes at the expense of the regular staff:
    "It's always smart to keep the budget at its minimum to make a good movie, but they spent so that it looks great and everyone is compensated appropriately," she says. "A lot of times everyone applauds for these cheap movies that basically mean everyone involved isn't getting what they're supposed to. Your wardrobe people and hair and makeup people and set designers, they're not getting compensated properly."
    It's easy for Hollywood to bash politics far from where they work; it takes courage to challenge Hollywood itself to live up to its obligations for its own employees, especially the ones who never get their names on movie posters.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:34 AM

    March 12, 2006

    Democracy In American Workplaces? Joke, right?

    By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

    No, this isn't America in the 1880's, it's America in the 21st century, if you can believe it:

    Above the photographs of Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and an American union president, the full-page advertisement contains a provocative quotation: "There is no reason to subject the workers to an election."

    Below the photographs, the advertisement asks, "Who said it?"

    For the answer, readers are directed to a Web site, which explains that those words were uttered by Bruce S. Raynor, the union president and the leader of Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers.

    In seeking to equate Mr. Raynor with foreign dictators, the business-backed group that ran the advertisement was trying to discredit the most successful strategy that unions have used to try to reverse a decades-long slide in membership.

    Now, to the uneducated observer, this ad by the Center for Union Facts (which I wrote about last month) might make some sense. Of course, anyone who knows anything about union organizing compaigns understands that if democracy in American politics looked anything like democracy in the American workplace, we'd be living in a fascist dictatorship

    Continue reading "Democracy In American Workplaces? Joke, right?"

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 06:33 PM

    March 10, 2006

    Broken Unions, Depressed Pilots

    In the wake of airline busting of unions, wages and benefits have been cut for airline employees.

    And the New York Times has a profile of a profession in depression:

    One veteran United Airlines captain, who laments that when he retires in a few years his pension will be about one-fourth what he expected, said he had to shut it out of his mind to prevent the distraction from affecting his work...

    Dr. Fischbeck, who flew in the Navy and has colleagues who went on to fly for the airlines, said that the change in financial circumstances and job security were good reasons to be unhappy.

    But Dr. Fischbeck and others pointed out that the industry culture is such that pilots must face the hardship on their own. Other workers with health plans might seek professional counseling. With pilots licensed by the F.A.A., however, "as soon as you sign up for it, it's on your record, and you're toast."

    A US Airways pilot echoed that sentiment: "If it gets reported to the F.A.A., you can forget it, you're not coming back to work, until you go through a lot. The system requires us to deal with it ourselves. That makes it very difficult to go through what we just went through."

    How lovely. You've got a lot of depressed pilots who are afraid to seek counseling for fear of being blacklisted.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:19 AM

    March 07, 2006

    Plan B: How State Laws Changed WalMart's National Policies

    After Massachusetts last month ordered Wal-Mart to stock the "Plan B" emergency contraception pill, Wal-Mart this past Friday announced that, effective March 20, all Wal-Mart pharmacies nationwide will carry emergency contraception, reversing the companies previous policy-- part of a trend of Wal-Mart changing its national policies in response to state laws.

    Illinois also requires pharmacies to stock the prescription drug and the emerging trend in state laws made Wal-Mart change its policy:

    "We expect more states to require us to sell emergency contraceptives in the months ahead," said Ron Chomiuk, vice president of pharmacy for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart. "Because of this, and the fact that this is an FDA-approved product, we feel it is difficult to justify being the country's only major pharmacy chain not selling it."
    Adding to the pressure was an announcement last Thursday by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal that the insurance plan for 188,000 state employees and retirees should no longer cover prescriptions at Wal-Mart unless the retail giant agrees to stock emergency contraception pills.

    This victory reflects the power that states wield to change the policies of even the largest company in the country. This is also reflected in Wal-Mart's scrambling in recent weeks to upgrade health benefits for its employees as states move increasingly to require large companies to provide health benefits.

    And in many cases, workers denied overtime or minimum wages by Wal-Mart have used more favorable state labor laws to bring lawsuits against the company-- putting pressure on the firm to improve conditions.

    The lesson from the various Wal-Mart campaigns is clear-- progressives don't have to wait for action on Capitol Hill to fight for and win national victories.

    Crossposted from PLAN.

    Posted by Nathan at 11:38 AM

    March 06, 2006

    MA: Deal on Health Care Expansion-- But is it Enough?

    Cross-post from PLAN

    On Friday, legislative leaders in Massachusetts appear to have agreed to a compromise bill that would assess a modest fee on any business with ten employees or more which does not provide health care to their employees-- a key element of a broader plan to move towards universal health care coverage.

    Business largely supports the compromise because the assessment is relatively small -- only $295 per employee not covered by health care insurance -- an amount far less than a proposed state House bill. Which explains why health care advocates are only cautiously celebrating.

    John McDonough, executive director of Mass. Health Care for All, assesses the deal on the organization's blog here, here, and here. As McDonough writes, while the $295 assessment per business is woefully inadequate -- and allows companies to provide pretty nominal health care coverage and avoid any tax at all -- the deal involves a fundamental victory for advocates, namely establishing the principle that businesses have a legal obligation to provide for health coverage of their employees, either directly or through taxes paid to the state government.

    "This is not the end, it’s the beginning," writes McDonough, and with the principle of employer responsibility established, raising the assessment on businesses in the future will be far easier than establishing it in the first place. Massachusetts figures show the state already spends $212 million to provide health care to employees at larger firms -- and the number is no doubt far larger when smaller firms are included -- so the adequacy of the health care assessment will immediately become a key policy debate if enacted, so the debate will still be on advocates' terrain.

    The deal in Massachusetts is an incremental victory, but by applying to most businesses in the state, it pushes the debate fare beyond the law recently enacted in Maryland that applies only to large businesses like Wal-Mart. "if you don’t go beyond Walmart," McDonough points out, "you’re not accomplishing much of anything at the end of the day." Starting with Wal-Mart was always an incremental first step for the Maryland advocates, so starting with a more modest assessment on a larger base of businesses in Massachusetts is an alternative first step towards more comprehensive results.

    And advocates are not sitting back-- they are ready to go to a ballot initiative if the final bill's details do not extend health coverage comprehensively to the uninsured in the state.

    So health care advocates can be proud of a campaign in Massachusetts that is pushing the goal of universal coverage forward.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:39 AM

    March 01, 2006

    Ex-Clintonista Denies Labor Rights to Janitors

    Janitors who clean offices at the University of Miami went on strike today to demand a decent wage for their families.

    And who is President of the University of Miami?

    Donna Shalala, Clinton's director of the Health and Human Services, who claimed in a recent interview to have "spent much of her public career as an advocate for the poor" but won't stand up for the working poor working at the university over which she presides.

    Most of these janitors, who service both the Coral Gables campus and Jackson Memorial Hospital, work for Boston-based UNICCO, a commercial facilities services company that operates in malls, universities, and office buildings across the country. Although UNICCO staff at schools such as Harvard earn between $13 and $14 an hour and have fully paid health insurance, janitors at UM sites earn as little as $6.33 an hour, and are not provided with health insurance for themselves or their families.

    The Orlando Sentinel has more on the strike.

    Why don't you all call Donna Shalala and ask her to be a responsible community leader and require that UNICCO workers who clean the University’s campus get paid a decent wage. Call her at (305) 284-5155.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:06 AM

    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

    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

    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

    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

    February 14, 2006

    How Corporate Right Lies About Union Corruption

    Well, the corporate right has launched a new anti-labor front group called, 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

    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

    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

    January 31, 2006

    All Bush Job Growth due to Government Spending

    As this EPI study details, subtract out the government-funded jobs, mostly due to the defense sector, and NO net jobs have been added under Bush's watch.  So that means tax cuts have accomplished ZILCH in encouraging private sector job creation.  It's all increased government spending. I wonder if Bush will salute FDR as his model for job creation?

    Tip from Max

    Posted by Nathan at 04:04 PM

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