Labor

The Left, Viewed from Space

AP Images/Mike Groll
It is, I suppose, theoretically possible to get the big picture right even when you can’t see the small pictures at all. That seems to be the achievement of political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. in his cover story in the March issue of Harper’s. As Reed sees it, both political parties have been captured by neo-liberalism, by Wall Street, by the cult of laissez-faire. The Democrats have succumbed while maintaining, or even increasing, their liberalism on social and cultural issues, even as the Republicans have moved rightward on those same social issues. More troublingly, as Reed sees it, the American left has acquiesced in the Democrats’ rightward movement, backing a passel of candidates and two presidents—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—who adhered to the economics of Robert Rubin and his protégés. The Left, says Reed, has always had an excuse: If the Republicans are elected, the world will lurch to the right. Backing Clinton and Obama and the Democrats is a defensive exercise, and a...

When Culture Eclipses Class

AP Images/Erik Schelzig
A merica is where class struggle gets derailed by culture wars. It’s happened throughout our history. It happened again last week in Chattanooga. For more than a decade, the ability of the United Auto Workers to win good contracts for its members—clustered in GM, Ford, Chrysler, and various auto parts factories across the industrial Midwest—has been undercut by its failure to unionize the lower-wage factories that European and Japanese car makers have opened in the South. Daimler, BMW, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen—all of them ventured to the non-union South to make cars on the cheap for the American market. All these companies have good relations with the unions in their homeland, but by going south, they signaled they had little to no intention of going union in the U.S. It wasn’t just that Southern states had those wonderfully misnamed “right-to-work” laws that meant that even if the unions won collective bargaining rights, workers didn’t have to pay dues to the union for raising the...

Just How Much Do Republicans Hate Unions?

The VW plant in Chattanooga. (Photo courtesy of Volkswagen USA)
If you ask Republicans about their antipathy toward unions, they'll say that letting workers bargain collectively reduces a company's ability to act efficiently in the marketplace. If you knew anything about business, the market advocates will patiently explain, you'd understand that unions, with all their rules and conditions and strike threats, only make it harder for the company to make its products. Let management make decisions about things like wages and working conditions, and the result will be higher profits and more jobs, which will benefit everyone. In almost all cases, the corporation agrees; after all, union workers always earn better wages than their non-union counterparts, and they give power to the employees, which no CEO wants. What most people probably don't realize is that this inherently hostile relationship between management and unions isn't something that's inherent in capitalism. In fact, in many places where there are capitalists making lots of money,...

Liberals, Conservatives, and the Meaning of Work

Some young Americans getting a good lesson in the dignity of work. (Lewis Hine/Wikimedia Commons)
It isn't often that we spend an entire week talking about a Congressional Budget Office report and its implications, but the one currently occupying Washington's attention—about the effects of the Affordable Care Act on the labor force—is actually pretty revealing. To catch you up, the CBO said that due to the fact that under the ACA people are no longer tied to jobs they'd prefer to leave because they can't get health insurance on the individual market ("job lock"), many will do things like retire early, take time off to stay at home with kids, or quit and start businesses. They projected that these departures will add up to the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 million full-time positions. At first, Republicans cried "Obamacare will kill 2 million jobs!", but when everyone, including the CBO's director, said that was a blatantly misleading reading of what the report actually said, they changed their tune. And here's where it gets interesting, because this debate is getting to the heart of what...

Chattanooga Showdown

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast
T his week—from Wednesday through Friday—employees at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee may well make history. Actually, they may make it twice. If a majority of the roughly 1,500 workers vote to recognize the United Auto Workers as their union, their plant will become the first unionized auto factory in the South. It will also become the first American workplace of any kind to have a works council—a consultative body of employees who regularly meet with management to jointly develop policy on such work-related issues as shifts, the best way to use new machinery, and kindred concerns. Mandated by law in Germany, works councils do not bargain over wages and benefits, but they do provide a way in which workers can have input into policies that affect their lives. They also have led to countless productivity increases in German manufacturing. The vote at Volkswagen marks the latest stage in the UAW’s decades-long campaign to organize auto plants in the South. In recent...

Affordable Care Act Gives Workers Freedom; Republicans Enraged

No, they didn't take er jerbs.
Since I wrote about postal banking this morning, I've decided to continue the day's shameless, lowest-common-denominator clickbaiting by talking about a new Congressional Budget Office report and the Affordable Care Act. Hang on to your hats. With all the hype of a new Beyonce album, the CBO dropped its latest report on government finances and other related topics, which includes the news that the deficit has dropped to its lowest level since Barack Obama took office. This may prove inconvenient for Republicans still invested in fomenting deficit panic, but they'll be helped by the fact that most Americans actually believe the deficit has gone up in the Obama years. According to a new poll from the Huffington Post , not only do 54 percent of people think so, but 85 percent (!) of Republicans think so. In any case, the part of the CBO's report that's getting more attention is their projection that as a result of the ACA, the labor force will be reduced by 2 million in 2017, rising to 2...

Why Alt-Labor Groups Are Making Employers Mighty Nervous

AP Images/John Minchillo
Union membership remained steady last year—steady at its near-hundred-year low. A mere 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, as are 11.3 percent of U.S. workers overall, according to figures released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.) Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—“alt-labor” activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions? Consider those striking fast food workers you’ve been reading about, the ones calling for a $15 an hour wage. Their numbers are not counted in the union membership figures. How about those Wal-Mart workers who struck for Black Friday and just won a key court case? Uncounted. What about the day laborers who joined any one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide? You got it, not included. Neither are...

Now It’s Time to Talk About Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast
R ahm Emanuel has a favorite four-letter word for members of the labor movement. When Emanuel was White House chief of staff, he was told that tens of thousands of autoworkers could lose their jobs if General Motors and Chrysler didn’t receive a federal bailout. His response: “Fuck the UAW.” As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel became so enraged during negotiations with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that he shouted “Fuck you, Lewis.” (The teachers went on strike for seven days, claiming Emanuel had “disrespected” them, as well as tried to force them to work longer hours after reneging on a promised pay raise.) Few political figures contributed more to the Democrats’ realignment from a party of working people to a party of Wall Street than Emanuel. The New Democrats of the 1990s responded to the weakness of the labor movement by shifting their donor base from unions to socially liberal financiers. Emanuel was Bill Clinton’s point man on shepherding the North American...

Are Home Health Care Workers About to Get Screwed by the Supreme Court?

AP Images/Britta Pedersen
F lora Johnson feeds, clothes, and supervises her adult son Kenneth, whose cerebral palsy prevents self-care. Areena Johnson makes sure that disabled people are well groomed and able to get about. These women are personal assistants, undertaking the same job as those who labor in nursing homes and hospitals. But instead of working for a home care agency, they are employed by both their consumer (the elderly or disabled person for whom they care) and the State of Illinois, which established home care to meet the needs of such citizens. But now a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Harris v. Quinn , threatens the independent living of some 30,000 persons served by the Illinois State Department of Rehabilitative Services. At stake is not only the fate of home care unions, but whether judicial barriers will interfere with state efforts to serve elderly and disabled persons at home rather than through institutionalization. The aging of the baby boomers has upped the demand for personal...

Raising the Minimum is the Bare Minimum

AP Images/Kris Tripplaar
In 1995, when John Sweeney ran the first and as-yet-only insurgent campaign for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, his platform took the form of a book entitled America Needs a Raise. If that title rang true in 1995, it clangs with deafening authority today. Which leads us to the only problem with the current campaigns to raise the minimum wage: It’s not just workers at the low end of the wage scale who need a raise. It’s not just the work of the bottom 9 percent of labor force that is undervalued. It’s the work of the bottom 90 percent. Conservatives who oppose raising the minimum wage argue that we need to address the decline of the family and the failure of the schools if we are to arrest the income decline at the bottom of the economic ladder. But how then to explain the income stagnation of those who are, say, on the 85 th rung of a 100-rung ladder? How does the decline of the family explain why all gains in productivity now go to the richest 10 percent of Americans only? And are...

The Penultimate Watergate Baby

georgemiller.house.gov
The 1974 midterm elections, held in the wake of Watergate, were a Democratic landslide. The party increased its strength in the House of Representatives by more than 50 new members, many from suburban districts that had previously elected Republicans. The Watergate Babies, as the new members were called, were a different breed of Democrat than the veterans who represented more urban districts. They were not only more liberal on cultural issues and more committed to environmental causes than many more senior Democrats, but many of them were also less committed to the kind of bread-and-butter New Deal economic policies with which the party had been identified. In 1974, Jerry Brown was first elected governor of California preaching that the nation had entered an “era of limits,” by which he meant, limits to social spending. Gary Hart was first elected senator from Colorado, disparaging the politics of old labor Democrats. Today, just two Watergate babies remain in Congress, both from...

The Flying News

AP Images/Daniel Reinhardt
I t was a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t contract that Boeing offered its workers last week, and its workers responded accordingly. Confronted with a contract that transformed their pensions into 401k’s, and with the company’s threat to relocate production of its new 777x to some other, lower-wage state unless its workers took the deal, the members of the International Association of Machinists Puget Sound/Boeing district approved the company’s offer by a suitably ambivalent 51-percent-to-49-percent margin. Two months earlier, the same members had rejected management’s offer by a two-to-one margin—whereupon Boeing invited other states to offer it relocation deals. Shortly before the second vote, the company announced that 22 states had responded with proposals—promising tax abatements, free land, anti-union public policies, and Lord only knows what else. If the company took one of those states up on its offer, as many as 10,000 of the 80,000 Boeing jobs in the Greater Seattle...

Dan Cantor's Machine

Timothy Devine
Timothy Devine E lection night, New York City, November 5, 2013. Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, the candidate for both the Democratic and Working Families parties, is racking up a huge victory after running on a platform that calls for raising taxes on the rich and raising wages for workers. Shunning the usual Manhattan-hotel bash, de Blasio has decided to celebrate in a Brooklyn armory, where his supporters have gathered to mark the end of the Michael Bloomberg era and, they hope, the birth of a national movement for a more egalitarian economy. In one corner of the packed armory, Dan Cantor is talking with old friends and young activists who either work for him or used to—two groups that, combined, probably include about half the people in the hall. Cantor, who is 58 years old and of medium height, is wearing a black suit and tie but exhibits a touch of the willful schlumpiness that comes naturally to certain New York Jewish males. His most prominent features are a white streak...

The Year in Preview: Labor's Outlook

AP Images/PAUL BEATY
L abor—unions and the broad working class of wage workers—hasn’t had a good year in a very long time. Union membership continues its long, slow decline, as does median family income. But if nothing else, 2014 should be a clarifying year in the life of several legal and organizing struggles that will either advance or retard the progress of labor. The Cold Hard Numbers The labor year begins in early January when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its union-membership numbers. Despite recent high-profile fights over public-sector unionism—teachers and government workers—union density among public employees has stayed remarkably steady, somewhere around 35-36 percent of the public-sector workforce. Private-sector unionism (the iconographic male union members of yore—autoworkers, steelworkers, truckers, coal miners) continues, year by year, to creep lower and lower—last year, density stood at 6.6 percent, probably the lowest since the beginning of the 20 th century. The members of...

The Hidden Indentured Class

Sex trafficking isn't our only problem—forced labor accounts for a significant number of the estimated 20,000 victims of human trafficking who enter the U.S. each year.

 

AP Images/New Mexico Attorney General's Office
AP Images/New Mexico Attorney General's Office A nna and her husband were supposed to be in the U.S. on their honeymoon. They arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in the spring of 2007 and found Daniel waiting for them with a sign bearing their names. Daniel was an acquaintance, someone Anna’s father-in-law—who lived in Houston—knew through church. He had offered to show them parts of Southern California before they continued on to Texas. It was an attractive detour for a Southeast Asian couple in the U.S. for the first time. From the airport, they drove to a restaurant for dinner and met some of Daniel’s family—a stop that felt warm and welcoming since they were all from the same country originally. “He was really nice and since we don’t know anybody—and we came from the same country,” Anna recalls, “that’s why we trusted to go with him.” But then, instead of playing tour guide, Daniel brought the couple to an elder-care facility he owned. He told them to work, care and cook...

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