Tomorrow, Angelenos go to the polls to select a new mayor. Well, some Angelenos – actually, not a hell of a lot. Indeed, turnout is projected to be so low that the winner may actually get fewer votes than Fletcher Bowron did in winning the election of 1938, when Los Angeles was less than half as populous as it is today.
Rebecca Sandoval hasn't had a raise for six years.
She and other home-care workers who work for the state of Oregon and are represented by Local 503 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) make $10.20 an hour to assist people with disabilities and senior citizens, like the 99-year-old woman Sandoval cares for. The state froze wages at 2007 levels to help offset a yawning $855 million budget shortfall caused by the financial crisis. Almost every year since then, Sandoval says, it has further cut back hours, leaving workers with the choice to leave some of their clients' needs unmet or to work for free. “You can't rush a 99-year-old woman with any aspect of her daily living,” she says.
The strikes of fed-up fast-food workers move westward with the sun. On Wednesday evening, fast-food employees in St. Louis, like their peers in New York and Chicago earlier this spring, staged a one-day strike to dramatize the low wages they, and millions of American workers in the restaurant and food sectors, take home.
Say you’re an employer with an employee who works 30 hours a week. If you have 50 employees or more come next year, you’ll be required either to provide her with health-care coverage, which the Affordable Care Act will by then mandate for all employees who work at least 30 hours a week, or you’ll have to pay a $2,000 penalty for failing to cover her.
Or, you could just cut her weekly hours to 29. That way, you won’t have to pay a dime, in either insurance costs or penalties.
“For too long we have allowed some corporations to hold a gun to our heads and demand that we choose jobs or choose the earth.” That’s what Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, told green groups and fellow unions at a green-jobs conference in February 2009, just a few months after the union—one of the largest in the country—joined the Blue-Green Alliance, a group organized to advocate for a “clean economy.”
But by January 2012, O’Sullivan had made a choice. The climate bill had failed, the money from the recovery act had run out, political tides had turned against government spending, and the union was no longer so keen to partner with the environmental movement. “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” O’Sullivan said. This heady “job killer” rhetoric was aimed not just at green groups but at unions like SEIU and the Communications Workers of America. They hadn’t had to do much earn this scorn. They had just opened their mouth about the Keystone XL pipeline.
Their agreement is very preliminary and hasn’t yet even been blessed by the so-called Gang of Eight Senators working on immigration reform, but the mere fact that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue agreed on anything is remarkable.
Cristina Romer, Berkeley economics professor and the former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, passed judgment on the merits of raising the minimum wage in Saturday’s New York Times, and in the process made clear why she wasn’t a member of the president’s de facto council of political advisers. She argued, as some mainstream economists do, that the merits of a heightened minimum wage were slight—that it may, for instance, raise prices, offsetting the gain to low-wage workers.
Raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 should be a no-brainer. Republicans say it will cause employers to shed jobs, but that’s baloney. Employers won’t outsource the jobs abroad or substitute machines for them because jobs at this low level of pay are all in the local personal-service sector (retail, restaurant, hotel, and so on), where employers pass on any small wage hikes to customers as pennies more on their bills. States that have a minimum wage closer to $9 than the current federal minimum don’t have higher rates of unemployment than do states still at the federal minimum.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court looked into the question of who counts as a “supervisor” for the purpose of employment law. If you’re not an employment-law watcher, it sounds like the legal equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But the answer is going to have real-life consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Let me illustrate.
A common refrain among union critics is that Americans no longer need unions—that unions were well and good for the exploited sweatshop workers of a century ago, but today’s empowered Americans need no such crutch.
With workers’ incomes falling, and with the United States leading all industrial nations in the percentage of its workers in low-wage jobs, it’s increasingly clear that today’s we need unions for many of the same reasons that the workers of 1912 did: They’re exploited and underpaid. But if it’s only the nation’s most exploited workers who need to band together, why have America’s most talented employees formed unions of their own?
Consider the battle of Chicago’s teachers as a lesson for what’s ahead as the same struggle winds its way away around the nation. For the nation’s beleaguered labor movement, the six-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union that ended on Tuesday is proof that a strike is not suicide, as has been the fate lately for most unions. Indeed, as the end neared and they were heady with an apparent win, the teachers’ talk catapulted from standing up for teachers to standing up for organized labor and ultimately to speaking for bullied, and exploited workers.
In reporting my piece on labor’s future ("If Labor Dies, What's Next?"), I talked with a number of labor leaders and activists about their ideas for what unions need to do differently to survive—and make a difference—in today’s political economy. Here are my edited versions of four such discussions:
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers
Imagine America without unions. This shouldn’t be hard. In much of America unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America they’re battling for their lives.
Unions have been declining for decades. In the early 1950s, one out of three American workers belonged to them, four out of ten in the private sector. Today, only 11.8 percent of American workers are union members; in the private sector, just 6.9 percent. The vanishing act varies by region—in the South, it’s almost total—but proceeds relentlessly everywhere. Since 1983, the number of states in which at least 10 percent of private-sector workers have union contracts has shrunk from 42 to 8.
Following the 2010 elections, a number of newly elected Republican governors and legislatures in the industrial Midwest, long a union stronghold, moved to reduce labor’s numbers to the trace-element levels that exist in the South. A cold political logic spurred their attacks: Labor was the chief source of funding and volunteers for their Democratic opponents, and working-class whites, who still constitute a sizable share of the electorate in their states, were far more likely to vote Democratic if they belonged to a union. The fiscal crisis of the states provided the pretext for Republicans to try to take out their foremost adversaries, public-employee unions.
Put aside for a moment the particulars of the Chicago teachers’ strike and look at the broader picture. Rahm Emanuel is only one of a number of Democratic mayors and governors who are going after public-employee unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also at loggerheads with the city’s teacher union. In San Jose, a Democratic mayor and city council scaled back the city employees’ pensions (and so did city voters when they were asked to ratify that decision). In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has tangled with a number of public-sector unions. The battle between management and labor seems to have spread to the very center of the Democratic Party.