Article 43


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Time To Protect Unions


Time To Protect Unions

By John Jordan
NY Daily News
October 20, 2005

One by one, America’s great industrial unions are being defanged. Where once presidents of these unions could march into the White House and leave with a pledge by President John F. Kennedy to end a strike on favorable terms, they are now sitting in bankruptcy court watching as unelected judges rip their contracts to shreds - or “negotiating” massive givebacks.

The first union to be broken in this way was the United Steel Workers of America, or USWA. In 2002 and 2003, the global steel industry was in crisis. Every major American steel company was insolvent or nearly so. The union cut the best deals it could for its members. But its overarching goal became working to ensure corporate profitability. For all practical purposes, the once mighty Steel Workers Union is now a management subsidiary.

Next to be broken were airline industry unions. Nearly every large airline has filed for bankruptcy protection. Managers of companies that haven’t filed for protection have used the threat of bankruptcy to slash workers’ wages and benefits, sometimes by as much as 50%.

Now it’s the United Auto Workers’ turn to feel the full brunt of 21st century America’s definition of labor rights. Delphi, the largest auto parts supplier in the country, just filed for bankruptcy protection. Before it did, management told the UAW it wanted the union’s members to swallow wage and benefits cuts of 60%. The UAW rejected this out of hand - as Delphi management knew it would. Now it’s up to a bankruptcy court judge to slash Delphi workers’ wages, benefits and jobs.

How did we get to the place where labor rights are so unprotected that bankruptcy court judges are the final arbiters of wage, benefits and working conditions in what are still some of our most important industries? There are a number of answers. First are judges who have simply assumed this role. Bankruptcy court judges agreeing with management and tearing up union contracts as a matter of course is a recent innovation.

The second development that has fatally undermined labor rights is a federal government that, regardless of which political party is in power, consistently sides with management in labor disputes.

The final development is a situation that affects nearly every employee - and employer - in the country: America’s horribly mismanaged and inefficient health care system. Analysts estimate health care costs add from $1,000 to $1,500 to the price of every automobile produced in the United States. Manufacturers in no other advanced economy face these costs, since health care is funded by their national governments. America’s dysfunctional health care system even dissuades investment here. Honda recently decided to build a new North American plant. It chose to build it in Canada. One of its stated reasons: our neighbor to the north’s universal health care system.

The protection of labor rights in America has regressed to where this country stood in the 1920s. The result is neutered unions, stagnant wages, shrinking benefits and more insecurity.

There’s a growing unease in the country, a sense the American Dream is unattainable to those who lack the right pedigree or the right connections. It’s time for government and others to address the roadblocks that prevent everyone from sharing in our economy’s gains. A rediscovery of labor rights is a good place to start.

Jordan, a former union organizer and strategist, is President of Washington-based Principor Communications



6 Ways to Juice Up the Labor Movement
Some of the smartest organizers and thinkers we know give us their suggestions on how to build a reinvigorated, vibrant labor movement.

By Sarah Jaffe
December 23, 2012

The passage of a so-called “right-to-work” law in Michigan recently left the labor movement feeling gut-punched.

The law, which defunds unions by allowing workers in shops represented by a union to opt out of paying for the cost of representing them, was a blow at the once-mighty unions that made manufacturing work, particularly Michigan’s famed auto manufacturing, a middle-class career. It came in the heart of union country, and while after Ohio and Wisconsin (not to mention RTW’s passage in Indiana last year as well) it was hardly a surprise that the wealthy businessmen who fund the Republican party WANTED TO DESTROY THE LABOR MOVEMENT once and for all, the swift passage of the bill (in just days) despite the protests of thousands outside still felt demoralizing.

To make matters worse, it came on the heels of some of the most exciting labor organizing in years; the strikes of hundreds of workers across the country at WALMART stores and warehouses, the strikes of FAST FOOD WORKERS in New York and similar organizing in Chicago. It came not long after Chicago’s teachers union struck and pushed back against a wave of corporate-backed education reform policies.

While Michigan’s unions regroup and begin the twin processes of trying to survive and retain dues-paying members in the face of RTW and trying to find a way to overturn the law, it’s clear that the national labor movement needs to do more than just fight defensive battle after defensive battle. To kick-start a conversation, AlterNet spoke with several of the smartest organizers and labor thinkers we know, and asked them for their suggestions on how labor can go on the offensive in the next year.

Stephen Lerner, architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign

“It’s time to reinvent the strike - the strike as guerrilla warfare,” says Lerner. The strike is the traditional weapon of organized workers, but employers have gotten pretty good at beating those strikes. But in his work with “Justice for Janitors,” Lerner learned that bosses weren’t ready for short, quick strikes. “If you look at the strike as a way to make them pay a price for how they treat you, you do short strikes, in and out strikes,” he notes. “Part of the reason it’s so difficult to organize workers now is most people work multiple jobs, they have not a moment to participate. If you view the strike as having multiple goals, one is it allows workers to publicly declare and demonstrate they’re unhappy. Second, because they’re not at work they can talk to the media, go to churches. Third, it’s something very concrete that they can do that does start to make the bosses a little crazy.”

The second thing Lerner suggests is a re-politicization of bargaining. “We need bargaining not to just be about workers but what’s good for the community,” he says, “So that we’re bargaining for broader issues, especially in the public sector. So that it’s not bargaining for the few, it’s bargaining for the many.” “Chicago’s teachers,” he notes, “raised the issue of the city divesting from banks that were foreclosing on people.” “We need to make it so that people see that when those workers win, we all win, rather than they’re negotiating for something we don’t have.”

Jonathan Westin, executive director, New York Communities for Change, organizer of recent fast food strikes

“We believe that the future of the labor movement is really organizing LOW WAGE service sector jobs. These are the jobs we’re stuck with, we need to make them livable jobs,” says Westin, whose organization, despite not being a labor union, has been organizing low-wage workers across New York City, from McDonald’s and Wendy’s to grocery stores and car washes.

“It’s not just about who you’re organizing,” Westin notes, “it’s also about how you do it. It’s about constantly pressuring employers from as many angles as possible. It’s leveraging NOT ONLY NLRB elections but back wage claims to pressure the employers, leveraging community pressure, boycotts, strikes. We did a strike at the car wash in the Bronx and they came to the table. That’s the lesson, it’s not just any one strategy, you have to come at them at every different angle.”

Because, of course, the BIG MONEY and CORPORATIONS ARE COMING AT WORKERS FROM EVERY POSSIBLE ANGLE, from RTW laws and attacks on collective bargaining to wage theft and erratic scheduling. “There’s so many sectors of low-wage workers that are affected,” Westin says, “Who’s to say that we can’t organize multi-sector campaigns together? It’s not just we’re targeting an industry, but we’re targeting the entire service economy, looking to build that sector of workers in a big way.”

Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, Academic Director at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies

“Don’t mourn, organize!” says Milkman, whose research has focused both on the American auto industry and recently, on low-wage immigrant workers.  “Forget the NLRB system,” she continues; “that system has become largely dysfunctional for the workers who are covered by it, and for many it’s simply not a question - they’re not included in its protections, so they have to find other solutions.”

“This is the time to rebuild from the bottom up, with a focus on low-wage workers, both immigrants and the U.S. born,” Milkman says.  “Organizing should be based on alliances with community groups, faith leaders, and pro-labor elected officials, drawing on the full spectrum of historical strategies and tactics.”

Bill Fletcher Jr., longtime organizer and author most recently of They’re Bankrupting Us And 20 Other Myths About Unions

“We’re living with the consequences of a movement that ceased being an economic justice movement,” Fletcher says. To get back to those roots, he’s advocating some serious change and rebuilding for labor.

In Michigan, for instance, Fletcher points out the need for internal as well as external organizing, for really explaining to members what unions are all about, and the nature of an economic justice movement. “We need leadership that truly gets neoliberal globalization,” he notes. “From there,” he points out, “it’s important to teach members as well.”

Internally, he believes that unions need to re-examine their structure, evaluate positions, committees, and connect them to the overall mission of the union. Externally, too, he calls for a reevaluation of central labor councils and other forms of geographic organizationorganizing across a city or metropolitan area. “What these central labor councils allowed us to do was position organizing as an economic development strategy.”

Beyond that, he’s calling for leadership that is willing to take risks - including knowing when to step downand to build new alliances. “We need new leadership that understands that alliances are not about hiring the Hessians. This tendency of some unions to believe that alliances with other forces is about funding those groups to do what we want them to do.”

As far as politics, Fletcher says, “The strategy that I’ve advocated for a number of years is not a go-it-alone labor electoral strategy. It basically is labor playing a role with key community based organizations in developing a platform and organizational form for doing electoral work inside and outside the Democratic party. It’s about organizing politically in neighborhoods and communities where union members are and building leverage that way rather than depending on a party.”

Jane McAlevey, longtime organizer and author of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)

McAlevey points out that the entire structure of work has changed over recent years. That means that there are many workers who don’t see how unions could work for them, and who have to be reintroduced to the entire concept of unions. “The way that unions can keep any kind of skin in the game is by rethinking their relationship to their own rank and file and rethinking their relationship to their broader community, she says.”

“How about budgeting the time and recruiting a ton of your top rank and file leaders to go out and meet with damn near every single member of the union, in their worksites, in their neighborhoods, in community meetings?” She suggests that from there, workers themselves could chart and track the relationships they have in their community, figure out their connections. “What is the social fabric of the relationships that the 16 million members of unions in this country hold?”

“16 million,” she notes, “isn’t a lot when it comes to the percentage of the workforce (7 percent of the private sector), but it’s still a lot of people who have a lot of connections and can have conversations with their community. “But to get there, the union members have to feel connected, have to take responsibility, and have to feel like they own their union and they care about their union. “There’s no reason to expect that a rank and file member is going to prioritize and make time to reintroduce the value of their union to their community unless they value their union.”

“This kind of work can be done,” she notes, “and must be done - the same way unions put together a Get-Out-The-Vote machine for presidential elections.”

Eric Robertson & Ben Speight, Teamsters Local 728, Georgia

“When it comes to organizing under so-called right to work laws,” Robertson and Speight know all about it. “What Scott Walker tried to do in Wisconsin is our status quo here. In Georgia, there’s no recourse. You can literally be told ‘I’m firing you for that union button, get out.’ There’s no board to petition for unfair labor practices. The only ability we have to organize is the discretion of the employer,” Speight says.

Robertson wants to see the labor movement create plans for growth across sectors, and evaluate whether they really have the resources to carry out those plans. “The issue of archaic structures that impede growth is a huge weight that is hanging around our collective necks.”

“Labor has to think far beyond the confines of what has been permitted for us to organize,” Speight says. “The solutions to labor’s challenges now come from a recognition that we can only truly grow at the scale that’s needed to bring about balance in our society and economy if we’re able to compel owners to drop their weapons. That either comes through comprehensive labor law reform that brings in workers traditionally excluded from the protections of the NLRA, or,” he notes, “through massive action from working people and allies, making it impossible for owners to keep operating their businesses until they deal fairly with workers. It’s time for mass action,” Speight says. “There’s the old saying that you can have collective bargaining at the table or have it in the streets.”

“We need to teach people, even longstanding union members, in practice what collective action looks like, how do we identify targets, how do we escalate tactics to make those targets say yes. To get there,” he notes, “labor needs to embark on a deep relationship-building effort with our allies, so that struggles, attacks on labor are not viewed as an attack on labor in isolation, but are viewed as attacks on fundamental democratic rights.”



How do we build low-wage worker power in 2013?

By Laura Clawson
Daily Kos

It’s been a mixed year for unions and for workers’ struggles. On the one hand, you’ve got the misery in Michigan and lockouts around the country. On the other, you’ve got Walmart workers and fast food workers fighting their terrible wages and working conditions and the routine intimidation and oppression they face in unprecedented ways. You’ve got Chicago teachers striking against the odds. As much as the law is tilted toward businesses and the odds are against workers, we’re seeing workers rise up and fight. We need more of that. But what are the most effective strategies? Sarah Jaffe asked six organizers and labor scholars to talk about how labor can go on the offensive.

“It’s time to reinvent the strike - the strike as guerrilla warfare,” according to Stephen Lerner, organizer of the SEIU’s successful Justice for Janitors campaign. Similarly, Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, a community organization that is organizing low-wage workers in New York City, says:

“It’s about constantly pressuring employers from as many angles as possible. It’s leveraging not only NLRB elections but back wage claims to pressure the employers, leveraging community pressure, boycotts, strikes. We did a strike at the car wash in the Bronx and they came to the table. That’s the lesson, it’s not just any one strategy, you have to come at them at every different angle.”

Like Westin, labor scholar Ruth Milkman urges a focus on low-wage workers; Bill Fletcher, Jr., Jane McAlevey, and Eric Robertson and Ben Speight offer suggestions for internal union organizing, strengthening how unions relate to their existing members and from there to the community at large.

Corporations have the political power from the top, and the day to day power over workers’ lives. They have the money. They have the fear factor. But increasingly we’re seeing signs that workers are ready and willing to fight, and that fear won’t be as much of a barrier anymore. With creative organizing and lots of struggle, could 2013 be the year the balance starts to shift back toward workers?

A fair day’s wage


According to findings from the Center for Responsible Lending’s newest report, The State of Lending in America and Its Impact on US Households (State of Lending), the typical household has just $100 left each month after paying for basic expenses and debt payments. After controlling for inflation, the typical household had less annual income at the end of 2010 than it did at the beginning of the decade.. Moreover, as worker productivity increased, the workplace has seldom rewarded them with higher pay.



Organizing McDonalds and Walmart, and Why Austerity Economics Hurts Low-Wage Workers the Most

By Roberty Reich
November 30, 2012

What does the drama in Washington over the “fiscal cliff” have to do with strikes and work stoppages among Americas lowest-paid workers at Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Domino’s Pizza?


Jobs are slowly returning to America, but most of them pay lousy wages and low if non-existent benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage - like serving customers at big-box retailers and fast-food chains. That;s why the median wage keeps dropping, especially for the 80 percent of the workforce that’s paid by the hour.

Its also part of the reason why the percent of Americans living below the poverty line has been increasing even as the economy has started to recover - from 12.3 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2011. More than 46 million Americans now live below the poverty line.

Many of them have jobs. The problem is these jobs just don’t pay enough to lift their families out of poverty.

So, encouraged by the economic recovery and perhaps also by the election returns, low-wage workers have started to organize. 

Yesterday in New York hundreds of workers at dozens of fast-food chain stores went on strike, demanding a raise to $15-an-hour from their current pay of $8 to $10 an hour (the median hourly wage for food service and prep workers in New York is $8.90 an hour).

Last week, Walmart workers staged demonstrations and walkouts at thousands of Walmart stores, also demanding better pay. The average Walmart employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Walmart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits.

These workers are not teenagers. Most have to support their families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of fast-food workers is over 28; and women, who comprise two-thirds of the industry, are over 32. The median age of big-box retail workers is over 30.

Organizing makes economic sense.

Unlike industrial jobs, these can’t be outsourced abroad. Nor are they likely to be replaced by automated machinery and computers. The service these workers provide is personal and direct: Someone has to be on hand to help customers and dole out the burgers.

And any wage gains they receive arent likely to be passed on to consumers in higher prices because big-box retailers and fast-food chains have to compete intensely for consumers. They have no choice but to keep their prices low.

That means wage gains are likely to come out of profits - which, in turn, would affect the return to shareholders and the total compensation of top executives.

That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

According to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project, most low-wage workers are employed by large corporations that have been enjoying healthy profits. Three-quarters of these employers (the fifty biggest employers of low-wage workers) are raking in higher revenues now than they did before the recession.

McDonald’s bellwether for the fast-food industry - posted strong results during the recession by attracting cash-strapped customers, and its sales have continued to rise.

Its CEO, Jim Skinner, got $8.8 million last year. In addition to annual bonuses, McDonald’s also gives its executives a long-term bonus once every three years; Skinner received an $8.3 million long-term bonus in 2009 and is due for another this year. The value of Skinner’s other perks - including personal use of the company aircraft, physical exams and security - rose 19% to $752,000.

Yum!Brands, which operates and licenses Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, has also done wonderfully well. Its CEO, David Novak, received $29.67 million in total compensation last year, placing him number 23 on Forbes list of highest paid chief executives.

Walmart - the trendsetter for big-box retailers is also doing well. And it pays its executives handsomely. The total compensation for Walmart’s CEO, Michael Duke, was $18.7 million last year putting him number 82 on Forbes’ list.

The wealth of the Walton family which still owns the lion’s share of Walmart stock now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

Last week, Walmart announced that the next Wal-Mart dividend will be issued December 27 instead of January 2, after the Bush tax cut for dividends expires ח thereby saving the Walmart family as much as $180 million. (According to the online weekly Too Much,Ӕ this $180 million would be enough to give 72,000 Wal-Mart workers now making $8 an hour a 20 percent annual pay hike. That hike would still leave those workers making under the poverty line for a family of three.)

America is becoming more unequal by the day. So wouldnt it be sensible to encourage unionization at fast-food and big-box retailers?

Yes, but here’s the problem.

The unemployment rate among people with just a high school degree - which describes most (but not all) fast-food and big-box retail workers - is still in the stratosphere. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it at 12.2 percent, and that’s conservative estimate. It was 7.7 percent at the start of 2008.

High unemployment makes it much harder to organize a union because workers are even more fearful than usual of losing their jobs. Eight dollars an hour is better than no dollars an hour. And employers at big-box and fast-food chains have not been reluctant to give the boot to employees associated with attempts to organize for higher wages.

Meanwhile, only half of the people who lose their jobs qualify for unemployment insurance these days. Retail workers in big-boxes and fast-food chains rarely qualify because they haven’t been on the job long enough or are there only part-time. This makes the risk of job loss even greater.

Which brings us back to whats happening in Washington.

Washington’s obsession with deficit reduction makes it all the more likely these workers will face continuing high unemployment even higher if the nation succumbs to deficit hysteria. That’s because cutting government spending reduces overall demand, which hits low-wage workers hardest. They and their families are the biggest casualties of austerity economics.

And if the spending cuts Washington is contemplating fall on low-wage workers whose families are under the poverty line - reducing not only the availability of unemployment insurance but also food stamps, housing assistance, infant and child nutrition, child health care, and Medicaid - it will be even worse. (It’s worth recalling, in this regard, that 62 percent of the cuts in the Republican budget engineered by Paul Ryan fell on America’s poor.)

By contrast, low levels of unemployment invite wage gains and make it easier to organize unions. The last time Americas low-wage workers got a real raise (apart from the last hike in the minimum wage) was the late 1990s when unemployment dropped to 4 percent nationally - compelling employers to raise wages in order to recruit and retain them, and prompting a round of labor organizing.

That’s one reason why job growth must be the nation’s number one priority. Not deficit reduction.

Yet neither side in the current “fiscal cliff” negotiations is talking about Americas low-wage workers. They’re invisible in official Washington.

Not only are they unorganized for the purpose of getting a larger share of the profits at Walmart, McDonalds, and other giant firms, they’re also unorganized for the purpose of being heard in our nation’s capital. There’s no national association of low-wage workers. They don’t contribute much to political campaigns. They have no Super-PAC. They don’t have Washington lobbyists.

But if this nation is to reverse the scourge of widening inequality, Washington needs to start paying attention to them. And the rest of us should do everything we can to pressure Washington and big-box retailers and fast-food chains to raise their pay.


Posted by Elvis on 12/29/12 •
Section American Solidarity
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