Category Archives: Labor Unions

American Movements

Source: Dissent, Vol. 62 no. 3, Summer 2015

Articles include:
Introducing Our Summer Issue: American Movements
Michael Kazin

….The articles in this special section examine the visions and complaints, the accomplishments and the limits of several of the largest and most important of the current movements on the left. Two of them—the drive for black freedom and that for decent pay and conditions on the job—have been around since the early days of the republic. But their advocates are taking fresh approaches to battle both new and old injustices. As our authors show, union teachers are negotiating both with and for the parents of their students, and African-American women are leading the new civil rights movement while making clear that men are not the sole victims of police brutality. The movement against fracking—like the grander effort to stop climate change—began only in this century. Yet it is already a major presence in the United States and at least half a dozen other countries. Our nation could also use a large and vigorous antiwar movement. But, for the time being, most Americans on the left are more concerned with protesting and attempting to change how they are governed at home than about the ends and means of the military forces deployed in their name and outside their borders….

Why Labor Moved Left
Nelson Lichtenstein

Hard times sometimes have a silver lining. As American unions have come under unrelenting assault, the left is “enjoying” a historic victory, but one most labor partisans would rather do without. If one considers the political landscape in the United States over the last half century, then American unions have moved—or been moved—to the left margin of mainstream thinking and action. They have gotten there primarily because of the shifting political and economic landscape on which they stand; for the most part, their leftism represents no conscious insurgency. Organized labor has become, instead, the domain of reluctant radicals…..

The Next Civil Rights Movement?
Fredrick C. Harris

….Though the 1960s movement addressed the civil and political rights that were denied to black people—access and use of public accommodations, the right to vote, and ensuring fair employment and housing opportunities—it did not directly confront the racialized degradation black people endured, and many continue to endure, at the hands of the police. What the Black Lives Matter protests have done, however, is not only put police reform on the policy agenda but demanded that American society reconsider how it values black lives…..

Women and Black Lives Matter: An Interview with Marcia Chatelain
Marcia Chatelain and Kaavya Asoka

…..A growing number of Black Lives Matter activists—including the women behind the original hashtag—have been refocusing attention on how police brutality impacts black women and others on the margins of today’s national conversation about race, such as poor, elderly, gay, and trans people. They are not only highlighting the impact of police violence on these communities, but articulating why a movement for racial justice must necessarily be inclusive. Say Her Name, for example, an initiative launched in May, documents and analyzes black women’s experiences of police violence and explains what we lose when we ignore them. We not only miss half the facts, we fundamentally fail to grasp how the laws, policies, and the culture that underpin gender inequalities are reinforced by America’s racial divide.How are black women affected by police brutality? And how are they shaping the concerns, strategies, and future of Black Lives Matter? Marcia Chatelain, professor of history at Georgetown University, creator of the #FergusonSyllabus, and author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration, shares her insights on the role of black women in today’s vibrant and necessary movement for racial justice….

Black Lives Matter in South Carolina
Robert Greene

Editors’ note: This article is part of a special section on American Movements from our forthcoming summer issue, which went to press before last week’s murder of nine black congregants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

When intellectuals and pundits talk about race in America, the South takes on a dual role. At times, the South functions as an exceptional part of the nation, a region where white supremacy is the default mindset. It escapes redemption, and it cannot be reformed. This, at least, is the depressing view often espoused on liberal and left blogs, or coursing through the pages of otherwise “forward-thinking” magazines. However, at other moments, the South becomes a beacon of hope—Moral Mondays in North Carolina and the Fight for $15 campaign have inspired activists both within and beyond the South. If we can win here, liberals believe, we can win anywhere in the United States…..

Teacher-Community Unionism: A Lesson from St. Paul
Mary Cathryn Ricker

….In St. Paul, we knew we were doing wonderful things both inside and outside the schools. We applied for grants to teach middle school science to students alongside environmental and historical community activists while rebuilding the historic watershed on St. Paul’s East Side, a largely working-class neighborhood. We held public sessions where students read their essays and stories. We designed geography and history lessons about the immigration patterns of our city and our students. We lobbied our school board to maintain funding for peer mediation programs. We were thrilled to wake up every morning and share our love of these subjects with our students.

We also knew the value—and the potential—of our union. We were committed to achieving a high-quality, universal public school experience for every child. The members of the SPFT could be on the frontlines advocating that goal, and our contract could be the document that helped make it happen.

But first, we had to parry negative images about us. Administrators and politicians treated students and their families as the “consumers” of an educational system, whereas we saw them as partners in building better schools. That consumerist mentality framed us as nameless and faceless workers, instead of people who were forging relationships with children and their families. It’s no wonder that the notion of teachers as greedy and lazy had taken hold…..

Out of Sight: The Labor Abuses Behind What We Eat

Source: Erik Loomis, Dissent Magazine, July 29, 2015

When you think of the globalized economy, you might not think of food. But capital mobility and the legal framework facilitating it have tremendously shaped the food system. It has transformed where and how our food is produced, who grows it, and how it affects the ecosystem. …. This Smithfield story tells us much about food’s role in the globalized economy. First, it shows that the food industry outsources production for the same reasons as other industries—to pollute and to exploit workers while minimizing resistance from empowered locals with labor and environmental organizations. The meat industry already locates its facilities in antiunion states such as North Carolina, and even politicians in more progressive states, like Maryland governor and Democratic candidate for president Martin O’Malley, oppose regulations demanded by citizens to keep their water clean because they fear that the meat industry will move to another state. If the regulations in all the states become too strict, NAFTA has opened up Mexico to American agribusiness. States compete with states and nations with nations in a race to the bottom. Ecosystems and workers suffer. ….

….. Public knowledge of working conditions and animal treatment is the food industry’s worst nightmare. This is the motivation behind a series of so-called ag-gag bills to criminalize undercover footage of industrial farming operations. Iowa, Utah, and Missouri have these laws, and Idaho joined them in February 2014. …..

….More than 80 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from other nations, with Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China increasingly providing Americans with their inexpensive shellfish. Those governments do not enforce labor laws in fish-processing sites. …. On fishing boats, conditions are even worse. Labor brokers sell migrant workers from around Southeast Asia to the mackerel fishing industry until the immigrants pay off their debts. Fifty-nine percent of these workers have witnessed the murder of another worker. One ship owner killed all fourteen of his workers rather than pay them. Meanwhile, fish exports continue to grow in importance to the Thai economy. Thailand is now the third-leading exporter of fish in the world. The United States imported $2.5 billion in seafood from Thailand in 2012, including more than 20 percent of the nation’s mackerel and sardines.

The food products we buy in the middle aisles of the supermarket are even more obscured from their real costs than vegetables and meat. American companies have engaged in the same union busting, outsourcing, and subcontracting in processed food as in apparel or toys. These workers are subjected to the same problems of poisoning, poor conditions, and capital mobility as workers in every other industry…..

Organized Labor, the Supreme Court, and Harris v. Quinn: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Source: William B. Gould IV, Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2572695, March 2, 2015

From the abstract:
Harris v Quinn presented this issue anew in 2014 – it was the most recent chapter of litigation concerning “union security agreements” and their permissibility in the public sector – but by no means will it be the last. Harris relates to the constitutionality of such agreements, which compel membership or financial obligations on the part of union represented employees (frequently as a condition of employment) and endure throughout our economy in the private sector, as well as the more recently-organized public portion of it. The resolution of this and related issues inevitably affect, in some measure, the role of trade unions in American society. It cannot be gainsaid that this involves the democratic process itself in a pluralistic society, through which unions attempt to achieve their objectives through both the collective bargaining and political processes. For more than two centuries, the issue of so-called union security agreements, which compel membership in a labor organization in some sense of the word, has been fought out in American labor-management relations and in the courts. Complicating the contemporary relationship is that organized labor is in a period of retreat and decline. Related to this issue is the question of appropriate union discipline authority imposed on workers who defy various kinds of union rules and who are ostracized, for instance, over such matters such as strike-breaking.

Scott Walker’s Real Legacy

Source: Donald F. Kettl, Washington Monthly, Vol. 47 nos. 6/7/8, June/July/August 2015

What did the Wisconsin governor’s union busting actually accomplish for the “hardworking taxpayers” of his state? And what do his actions tell us about how he might govern as president? …..

….But let’s presume he does become the nominee. Walker’s triumph over the unions could continue to be a useful tool for him, not only in firing up the GOP base but also in reaching out to independents, 47 percent of whom take a dim view of unions, according to the same Pew poll, and even to persuadable Democrats. The 2016 elections will be a battle over the role of government in failing to spur a too-weak economy and boost stagnant incomes. The Democratic nominee will likely present herself (or, less likely, himself) as a champion of the middle class who will wrest control of government away from the big banks and other powerful corporate interests and use it to benefit average Americans. Walker will be armed with an equivalent reform narrative. The problem with government, he can say, is not just that it is too big, holds back private-sector growth, and robs us of our freedoms—the standard Republican view, which he tirelessly proclaims—but that it has been captured by its own employees, who run it for their own benefit, not the public’s. Just as he took on the unions in Wisconsin, he can say, so will he take on the bureaucrats in Washington, returning power back to “the hardworking taxpayers.”

So it’s worth looking carefully at Walker’s arguments for why he busted the state’s public employee unions. To what extent were those unions the obstacle to getting the state’s fiscal house in order—a key argument Walker made during the 2011 standoff? To what degree do state and local government employee unions drive government’s costs up and push its performance down?

Even more important is the question of how Walker’s experiences and management choices at the state level might translate at the federal level. Is a governor whose greatest accomplishment is the crushing of state and local government unions the right person to lead the government in Washington?….

….To what extent, then, did Walker’s crushing of the unions help Wisconsin’s “hardworking taxpayers”? The $3 billion he saved in his first term was certainly something. But that amounted to less than 1 percent of overall state and local government spending over that time period. Those savings came from the pockets of teachers and other public servants who are also taxpayers and whose compensation, by most measures, was not out of line. The law Walker signed didn’t contribute to the fiscal health of the state’s public pension fund. It provided management flexibilities that could ease school reforms down the road but that the governor himself hasn’t taken much advantage of. And, as we’ve seen, Walker could have won most or all of that $3 billion through tough negotiating without going for the jugular and virtually eliminating collective bargaining. Why, then, did he do it?

It’s tempting to portray the struggle over Wisconsin’s unions as a matter of high policy. In reality, however, it was the culmination of decades of increasingly fierce partisan wrangling that pitched the state’s Democrats, along with their union supporters, against resurgent Republicans and their allies in the business community…..

How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy

Source: Harold Meyerson, American Prospect, Vol. 26 no. 3, Summer 2015

Just as in the 1850s (with the Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act), the Southern labor system (with low pay and no unions) is wending its way north. …. The American South before the Civil War was the low-wage—actually, the no-wage—anchor of the first global production chain. Today, as the auto and aerospace manufacturers of Europe and East Asia open low-wage assembly plants in Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, the South has assumed a comparable role once more. Indeed, the South today shares more features with its antebellum ancestor than it has in a very long time. Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies. In fact, now more than then, the South’s efforts to spread its values across America are advancing, as Northern Republicans adopt their Southern counterparts’ antipathy to unions and support for voter suppression, and as workers’ earnings in the North fall toward Southern levels. And now as then, a sectional backlash against Southern norms has emerged that, when combined with the Southern surge, is again creating two nations within one…..

Class vs. Special Interest: Labor, Power, and Politics in the United States and Canada in the Twentieth Century

Source: Barry Eidlin, Politics & Society, Vol. 43 no. 2, June 2015
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
Why are US labor unions so weak? Union decline has had important consequences for politics, inequality, and social policy. Common explanations cite employment shifts, public opinion, labor laws, and differences in working class culture and organization. But comparing the United States with Canada challenges those explanations. After following US unionization rates for decades, Canadian rates diverged in the 1960s, and are now nearly three times higher. This divergence was due to different processes of working class political incorporation. In the United States, labor was incorporated as an interest group into a labor regime governed by a pluralist idea. In Canada, labor was incorporated as a class representative into a labor regime governed by a class idea. This led to a relatively stronger Canadian labor regime that better held employers in check and protected workers’ collective bargaining rights. As a result, union density stabilized in Canada while plummeting in the United States.

Labor Unions and Worker Co-ops: The Power of Collaboration

Source: Mary Hoyer, Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), 2015

Many people, including those in the labor and worker co-op movements, think that unions and co-ops are singularly mismatched. Logic has it that worker co-ops don’t need to be unionized since workers own and manage their businesses, and that workers in labor unions just naturally aren’t entrepreneurial but rather are used to resisting “the boss.” In addition, people may be familiar with large agricultural co-ops in the Midwest that fight with unionized workers, or with food co-ops that resist worker unionization.

What many people – even people in the broad co-op movement – don’t realize is that there are basically three types of co-ops: producer (like big ag co-ops), consumer (like food co-ops), and worker. In the first two types of co-ops, workers are not empowered with ownership and management control. Only in worker co-ops are workers in full authority. (Caveat: there are some producer and consumer co-ops in which workers are unionized, as well as “hybrid” co-ops in which workers are integrated into ownership and management along with consumers and producers.)

Many people are also unaware that the labor movement has a long and committed history of involvement in co-op development. ….

The Union Co-op Model

Unequal risk

Source: Center for Public Integrity, 2015

Workers in America face risks from toxic exposures that would be considered unacceptable outside the job — and in many cases are perfectly legal.

Articles include:
How government, business and labor can better protect workers
Source: Jamie Smith Hopkins, Maryam Jameel, Center for Public Integrity, July 6, 2015

Major reform would take an act of Congress, but improvements are possible now.

Slow-motion tragedy for American workers
Source: Jim Morris, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Maryam Jameel, Center for Public Integrity, June 30, 2015

Lung-damaging silica, other toxic substances kill and sicken tens of thousands each year as regulation falters.

After 44 years, halting progress on workplace disease
Source: Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity, July 6, 2015

OSHA has made limited headway against substances that sicken and kill America’s workers; the agency’s stormy history helps explain why.

The impenetrable world of Mark Flores
Source: Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity, July 1, 2015

Yvette Flores unknowingly worked around lead and other harmful substances while she was pregnant; a severely disabled son was the result.

A tattered safety net for workers
Source: Yue Qiu and Jamie Smith Hopkins, Center for Public Integrity, June 29, 2015

Federal workplace exposure limits for chemicals are meant to safeguard people from significant harm. Often they don’t, as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration itself warns.

The campaign to weaken worker protections
Source: Jamie Smith Hopkins, Center for Public Integrity, June 29, 2015

Who’s to blame for thousands of work-related deaths and illnesses each year? Business, Congress, the White House and federal agencies.

Read their stories: How job-related illnesses upended these families’ lives
Source: Jamie Smith Hopkins, Jim Morris and Maryam Jameel, Center for Public Integrity, June 29, 2015

Deadly dust: A bricklayer’s job nearly kills him
Source: Maryam Jameel, Center for Public Integrity, June 29, 2015

Methodology of Unequal Risk investigation

New Labor Movement for a New Working Class: Unions, Worker Centers, and Immigrants

Source: Kent Wong, Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Vol. 36 no. 1, 2015
(subscription required)

….In many ways, June 15, 1990 was a turning point in the campaign that successfully reorganized the janitorial industry in Los Angeles. Not only did union density grow by leaps and bounds but more importantly, it demonstrated the power of immigrant worker organizing. The campaign proved that when unions develop creative organizing strategies backed by resources, immigrant workers could be organized.

Another breakthrough campaign was won in 1999 by the Los Angeles homecare workers. Again, many in our own union thought this campaign was a waste of time. There were tens of thousands of low-wage women workers, women of color and immigrants, each working in separate homes scattered throughout Los Angeles County. How could the union possibly organize them?

The organizing method utilized was a grassroots, community-based approach. Organizers went door to door to identify the homecare workers in their neighborhoods and organized small house meetings of three to five homecare workers. Long before formal union recognition, the campaign operated as if they were a union, including political mobilization actions. In 1999 after over a decade-long fight led by low-wage women of color, 74,000 homecare workers were successfully organized – the single largest union victory in the country in decades. Today, there are 250,000 homecare workers who are covered by union contracts in the state of California.

These campaigns reflect the potential of future organizing, and especially immigrant worker organizing, within the country. For more than twenty years, I’ve been the director of the UCLA Labor Center. Much of our work has been focused on reaching out to low-wage workers, to workers of color, and to immigrant workers, and finding creative ways to forge new alliances, new coalitions, and new opportunities to envision a new labor movement for the new working class…..