Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for September, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Warehouse Warrior

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

kari-lydersenIt’s a stifling hot day in June, and Tory Moore, 37, is pounding the pavement outside a currency exchange in Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb. Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words Warehouse Workers for Justice, sweating but full of energy, he paces back and forth while mopping his face with a yellow washcloth, looking for the tell-tale signs of warehouse workers.

After years working in warehouses himself, he knows what to look for: t-shirt, shorts, steel-toed boots or tennis shoes, safety goggles. When he sees a likely warehouse worker, he goes up with a friendly greeting and starts asking questions. He often chimes in with his own story – he was a temp for six years, even though he was working at the same warehouse – Del Monte Foods in Kankakee – the whole time.

Moore is one of the driving forces behind the study “Bad Jobs in Goods Movement,“ released by Warehouse Workers for Justice and the University of Illinois at Chicago last month. The campaign hired Moore through a program for low-income workers to help conduct the hundreds of surveys that form the basis for ongoing research into this booming but little-examined industry.

“Some people need two jobs just to make ends meet,” explains Moore. He asks one worker outside the currency exchange: “Are you doing anything else to make ends meet, cutting grass, cutting hair, tattooing?”

Since becoming involved with Warehouse Workers for Justice, Moore has developed his apparently natural talents as an organizer. He spoke to workers, organizers and academics involved with goods movement issues nationwide at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June.

Outside the currency exchange, he goes through the questions on the four-page blue survey earnestly and methodically, making sure he gets the spelling of people’s names right and reading off all the different types of discrimination they may have faced. When he gets to the question about whether someone prefers temporary or permanent work, his voice becomes more animated and he jumps in to answer for them, “Permanent right?”

Most quickly agree.

“You don’t get any justice if you’re a temp!” he says.

He  takes a quick break to check his messages – the only one is from a temp agency  asking if he can work tomorrow. On principle, he’s not going to take a one-day job, even though he needs the money. But he doesn’t want a refusal to prevent them from calling him with future longer-term offers. So he returns the phone call – politely saying, “I’ll be going out of town so I won’t be able to do it.”

“Well I lied to them, I’m not going to disqualify myself in case something else comes up. I’m not trying to be lazy, but, one day only! I’m not the one.”

Moore is acutely aware of the injustice in the industry, which relies heavily on temporary workers who labor for low wages with few or no benefits, paid sick days or chance for advancement. But in a desperate job market, some see this as normal, and are grateful for any work they can get.

One man, who doesn’t want his name used, is happy to have just gotten a new albeit temporary job.

“I thought that was the game! I didn’t know that was a problem. I thought that’s just the way it was. You work three months somewhere then they move you somewhere else,” the man says.

“That’s right, you’re getting $9.50, then they move you somewhere else where you’re making $8,” says Moore. “I never thought of it that way…”

Moore examines the man’s pay stub, and is enraged to see there’s no company name on it.

“There’s no damn name on here! That’s a problem! Say you need to sue them, you show this to a judge, there’s no name.”

The man rubs his face and looks worried. Moore asks what his new position is.

“I really don’t know, they don’t tell me anything, they just say, ‘See how many of these seasoning packets you can put in a box,’” says the man, who works 2 a.m. to noon. “I was just so happy to get the job.”

Moore tells his story about being a temp for six years, and being denied a loan and apartment rentals. ” Seriously?” says the man, looking crestfallen.  “So when I go look for an apartment I can’t go in and say this is the place I work?”

“A lot of people lost their cribs because the 89 days came and they got laid off instead of hired on. This is a million-dollar company and you’re working your ass off for 9.50,” Moore says.

The man stands absorbing it all for a few moments, asks a few more questions and receives impassioned answers from Moore. The man basically tells Moore that he has ruined his day, but he’s glad to know what he needs to watch out for. He agrees to answer Moore’s survey questions.

“I had to give my Martin Luther King speech,” Moore says, laughing and shaking his head. He wipes his brow again, then starts scanning the parking lot for more warehouse workers.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times Blog.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

AFL-CIO: NFL Lockout Would Hurt Communities

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Image: James ParksThe Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints kicked off the NFL season in a show of solidarity Thursday night and the AFL-CIO has taken the field in the players’ behalf. In a letter released today, the AFL-CIO’s top leaders warned NFL team owners that locking-out players next season could create significant job losses off the field and cause a “spiraling impact on communities.”

In individual letters to each NFL team owner, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Schuler and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker said football generates hundreds of thousands of jobs in stadiums and in the cities. They said a conservative estimate is that a lockout would cost thousands of jobs and cause more than $140 million in lost revenue in each NFL city.

We strongly urge you to think about the stadium workers, hotel and restaurant workers, and thousands of other working people who support [your team] as dedicated employees and fans.

The owners terminated the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) a year early, claiming they were losing money. But like other employers, they refused to let the players’ union see the books that showed their financial condition.

In negotiations that have lasted more than a year, the owners continue to threaten a lockout and make demands for more work for less pay. Besides that, there is no guaranteed health care for players who are injured and players must play for three seasons before they are eligible for only five years of post-career health care.

This is significant because an NFL player’s career lasts, on average, between three and four years because of the physical toll on their bodies. A study commissioned by the NFL found that Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players far more often than in the national population—including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49. The researchers found that 6.1 percent of former NFL players age 50 and above reported that they had received a dementia-related diagnosis, five times higher than the national average.

In the letters, the AFL-CIO officers said they will work with the NFLPA to let local elected officials in team cities and members of Congress know just how much a lockout would cost their cities. And, the officers said, where appropriate, they would call for hearings on the monies that teams got from taxpayers and the effect of the team’s non-profit status on tax revenues.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris

Assert Yourself, America; Don't be an Illegal Trade Victim

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.

If health care shouldn’t be mandatory, let’s go after car insurance next

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerThis week in a Pensacola, FL courtroom, lawyers representing the Attorney Generals of at least 19 states will argue about the recently passed national health insurance plan that requires all citizens to have health insurance. [BTW, this is a Workplace911 topic because the majority of funding of health care continues to come from the workplace]

Think of it as tea party heaven. The draconian effort to force health care on all US citizens will finally get it’s day in court. Yippee.

But why stop here? I’d like to see the same government-funded lawyers, ah don’t you love all those libertarians using public-funded civic servants to stop public funding of health care as an unnecessary burden? Did anyone ever think to use private lawyers to fight this case? Apparently there are still many places where modern day libertarians are comfy living on the dole. I think there is a word for that, socialist.

But I digress, I’d like them to go after car insurance next.

Why should law-abiding citizens be forced to have auto insurance? It’s crazy, unnecessary and not at all what our founding fathers had in mind.

Mandatory car insurance? Are you kidding me? Let’s let the free market handle it.

Sue, baby, sue. Just please be sure to make auto insurance your next target. Please do it for us.

Okay, that was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, although for the life of me I don’t get that saying. Where else is my tongue supposed to be? And speaking of tongues, I wish those Attorneys General would stifle theirs.

Let’s look at my car insurance analogy for a moment. What if car insurance was optional? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to get on the road knowing that if someone hit me and it was 100% their fault, I would still have to sue them to get any compensation for the damage that they created.

If you thought riding the bumper cars at the state fair was fun, wait until you see our highways without auto insurance.

I know health care is different, because if someone gets a heart attack and ends up in the hospital it has nothing to do with me. It’s just between them and the government that will have to pay their hospital bills. Wait, it does have something to do with me. Wait, it has everything to do with me.

I suddenly realized that libertarians are against the government until there is a fire. Or until there is a lawsuit they’d like to file. Or until they get sick. Cut a tea partier and I think you’ll find a socialist just under the surface. Because you never hear these people talk about who will pay for all the uncovered medical problems that people will face in their hoped for new utopia.

Wait a minute. I’ve lived in their utopia, huge numbers of people unable to afford health insurance and the rest of us picking up the tab.

Which got me thinking. What America really needs right now is a better libertarian, because the current brand is pretty much indistinguishable from any socialist that I ever met.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Why the State of New York’s Unions Should Concern Us All

Friday, September 10th, 2010

amytraub4Talk to a working New Yorker, and the odds are one in four that she belongs to a union. That’s a rate of union membership more than twice as high as the country as a whole, note CUNY professor Ruth Milkman and graduate student Laura Braslow in their new study, “The State of the Unions: A Profile of 2009-2010 Union Membership in New York City, New York State, and the USA.” Their research provides a rich analysis of data on union demographics and industry composition in the city, state, and country, and suggests some hidden strengths and challenges of New York’s economy.

New York City is home to 800,000 union members, with particular union density in the public sector and the health care and social assistance industries. By and large, these union jobs continue to be good jobs: the CUNY analysis finds that union members in New York City earn more than non-union workers, while national statistics suggest that they are also more likely to earn middle-class health and retirement benefits.

Unionized positions represent a particularly important source of good jobs for people of color: African-American New Yorkers (37% unionized) and city residents born in Puerto Rico (41% unionized) are among the most likely to be union members. National data also indicate that people of color see especially strong benefits from collective bargaining, suggesting how important unions are to sustaining New York City’s African American and Latino middle class. Women also get a big boost in job quality as a result of union membership – it turns out that working women in New York are as likely to be union members as men.

What the statistics don’t capture is the way that high union density also improves job standards for workers are not union members, as when the city’s large non-union hotels pay wages far above the national standard because New York’s hotel union has effectively set a higher industry-wide rate. New York’s unions have also helped to advance a political agenda that benefits workers far outside their membership: consider the pivotal role New York unions played in the successful fight to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2004, or the efforts unions are making today to guarantee paid sick time to all working people in New York City.

In effect, New York’s relatively high rate of unionization mitigates the city’s extreme inequality, carving out a bastion of middle-class jobs in an economy increasingly divided between Wall Street’s resurgent masters of the universe and everyone else. Yet this mitigating power has sharp limitations: the CUNY analysis illustrates how retail sales, the restaurant industry, and other service jobs in the city remain largely non-union. As a result, these sectors suffer not only low wages and few benefits, but widespread cases of wage theft and other violations of basic employment standards. Lousy jobs proliferate where unions are absent.

“Organized labor has more than held its own in New York relative to the nation,” the CUNY study concludes, “[but] in absolute terms unions have lost considerable ground in both the City and the State over the past few decades, especially in the private sector… In labor’s glory days, a strongly unionized private sector helped foster a strongly social-democratic political culture in New York City. The precipitous drop in private-sector density is among the factors that have threatened to undermine that political culture in recent years.” If New York’s unions continue to decline, New York’s middle class may continue to disappear with it.

This article was originally published on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Basic federal labor regulations would definitely help

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Image: Richard NegriYou are deep in mandatory overtime (which you don’t get OT pay for) and you’re so exhausted that you start making really bad mistakes – dangerous mistakes.

We’ve all been there in one way or another in our working lives, but what if you were a patient and the exhausted worker making the mistakes was your resident physician? Obviously it can be a life or death situation for you. Resident physicians work shifts as long as 30 hours as often as three times a week, which can lead to physician fatigue and medical errors.

“As future physicians, we greatly value the well-being of our patients and know that we can serve them better if we are well ourselves,” says Sonia Lazreg, health justice fellow with the American Medical Student Association (AMSA).

Dr. Charles Preston, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and preventive medicine resident at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says, “After a busy night on call, I remember a couple of times when I literally fell asleep on my patients standing up during morning rounds. I’d fall asleep while writing my patient progress notes. And driving home, I was careful to turn up the radio or blast the air conditioning so that I would at least have something more to keep me awake.” Can you imagine?

So, why is this dangerous system still in place?

Despite evidence that excessive work hours contribute to depression, car crashes, needle stick injuries and even premature labor for pregnant physicians, there are no Occupational Safety and Health Association (OHSA) rules protecting residents from these risks.

OSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor, is responsible for enforcing safety and health legislation, and it just doesn’t have the doctors-in-training on its radar … yet!

To get the OSHA radar blipping, consumer and health advocacy organizations delivered a petition to the agency today. You can read the petition here, and at the bottom of this entry you can see the full list of those petitioning OSHA.

The federal government already regulates work hours and sets rest-period requirements in a variety of industries, including the highway, aviation, railroad and maritime transportation industries, because fatigue plays a major role in transportation safety. In none of these industries are workers allowed to work hours even remotely as long as these physicians. Resident physicians deserve to have similar protections from excessive work hours that don’t give them adequate rest.

“OSHA must intervene so that physicians in training are no longer at risk for needle stick injuries, car crashes and other hazards that we know stem from chronic sleep deprivation.” says CIR/SEIU Healthcare President Dr. Farbod Raiszadeh.

Please get involved with this important situation. It will help you at the same time as some hardworking people.

For ideas on how to get involved, and to see this original article, visit SEIU.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

On Labor Day, Work to Save the Middle Class

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Leo GerardThis Labor Day feels gloomy. It’s a celebration of work when there is not enough of it, a day off when too many desperately seek a day on.

America has commemorated two Labor Days since this brutal recession began near the end of George Bush’s presidency in December of 2007. Now the relentless high unemployment, the ever-rising foreclosures, the unremitting wage and benefit take-backs have replaced American optimism and enthusiasm with fear and anger.

Happy Labor Day.

On this holiday, we can rant with Glenn Beck, kick the dog and hate the neighbor lucky enough to retain his job. Or we can do something different. We can join with our neighbors, employed and unemployed, our foreclosed-on children, our elderly parents fearing cuts in their Social Security lifeline and our fellow workers worrying that the furlough ax will strike them next. Together we can organize and mobilize and create a grassroots groundswell that gives government no choice but to respond to our needs, the needs of working people.

We can do what workers did during the Great Depression to provoke change, to create programs like Social Security and achieve recognition of rights like collective bargaining. These changes were sought by groups to benefit groups. In a civil society, people care for one another. And America is such a society – one where people routinely donate blood to aid anonymous strangers, children set up lemonade stands to contribute to Katrina victims and working families find a few bucks for United Way.

The self-righteous Right is all about individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. That proposition – the do-it-all- by-yourself-winner-takes-all philosophy – clearly failed because so many Americans are jobless, homeless and too penniless to afford boots.

Over the past decade, the winner who took all was Wall Street. The banksters gambled on derivatives and other risky financial tomfoolery and won big time. Until they lost. And crashed the economy. After the American taxpayer bailed them out, those wealthy traders returned to making huge profits and bonuses based on perilous schemes.

Still, they believe they haven’t taken enough from working Americans. They’re lobbying to end aid for those who remain unemployed in a recession caused by Wall Street recklessness. And they’re demanding extension of their Bush-given tax breaks. This is the nation’s upper 1 percent, people who earn a million or more each year, the 1 percent that took home 56 percent of all income growth between 1989 and 2007, the year the recession began.

Since 2007, 8.2 million workers have lost jobs. Millions more are underemployed, laboring part-time when they need full-time jobs, or barely squeaking by on slashed wages and benefits. Since the recession began, the unemployment rate nearly doubled, from 5 percent to 9.6 percent, and that does not include those so discouraged that they’ve given up the search for jobs, a decision that is, frankly, understandable when there are only enough openings to re-employ 20 percent of the jobless. Five unemployed workers compete for each job created in this sluggish economy.

And American workers weren’t prepared for this downturn, having already suffered losses in the years before it began. The median income, adjusted for inflation, of working-age households declined by more than $2,000 in the seven years before the recession started.

At the same time, practices like off-shoring jobs and signing regressive international trade deals contributed to the loss of middle class, blue collar jobs. A new report, “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market,” by the Center for American Progress and The Hamilton Project, says:

“The decline in middle-skill jobs has been detrimental to the earnings and labor force participation rates of workers without a four-year college education, and differentially so for males, who are increasingly concentrated in low-paying service occupations.”

The recession compounded that, the report says:

“Employment losses during the recession have been far more severe in middle-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs than in either high-skill, white-collar jobs or low-skill service occupations.”

What that means is high roller banksters are living large; lawn care workers and waitresses subsist on minimum wage, and working class machinists and steelworkers are disappearing altogether.

The researchers found the U.S. economy is increasingly polarized into high-skill, high-wage jobs and low-skill, low wage jobs. America is losing the middle jobs and with them its great middle class.

No wonder the rising anger in middle America.

But fury doesn’t solve the problem. This Labor Day, we must organize to save ourselves and our neighbors. We must stop America from descending into plutocracy. We must demand support for American manufacturing and middle class jobs. That means terminating tax breaks for corporate outsourcers, ending trade practices that violate agreements and international law and punishing predator countries for currency manipulation that subverts fair trade by artificially lowering the price of products shipped into the U.S. while artificially raising the price of American exports.

We must demand support for American industry, particularly manufacturers of renewable energy sources like solar cells and wind turbines that create good working class jobs, increase America’s energy independence and reduce climate change.

We must insist on policies that support the middle class, including preserving Social Security and Medicare, extending unemployment insurance while joblessness remains high, and enforcing the health care reform law so that every American worker and family can afford and is covered by insurance.

On this Labor Day, we should all have a picnic, invite neighbors, friends and family, and over hot dogs and potato salad, organize to save the American middle class.

Mobilize to end the gloom and restore American optimism.

***

For help: the Union of the Unemployed, the AFL-CIO, USW, Working America. Join the One Nation March for jobs Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

Labor Day's Legacy: A More Inclusive America

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Amy DeanAt some point in their lives, almost all parents think about making a will to ensure that their assets are passed on to the next generation. But material gains, of course, are the least of what we give our children. Far more important are the values we teach them.

This Labor Day, I propose we think less about the material gains that working Americans have secured for their families over the past century. Instead, we should consider the values that organized labor embodies that we might hope to pass along to our children.

What I inherited from my grandparents — and what I want to see the labor movement impart to the next generation — is a legacy of inclusion.

In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to this country as Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe. Although they worked low-paying jobs in the textile and apparel sectors, they were deeply motivated by a vision of building a better society.

Part of their motivation was secular, and part came out of their faith. Their vision of creating a better America involved a politics of mutual aid and mutual support. Working with this in mind, they helped to establish some of the foundational institutions of our democracy. Their generation built hospitals and synagogues. They built public schools. And they built trade unions.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought me from meeting to meeting, where we would hear people talk and argue. They would discuss pooling their resources to take care of someone who was sick, or to bury the dead, or to help a family whose breadwinner had been suddenly thrown out of work. Those informal networks of support, which existed for generations, were the precursors to modern trade unions. In more recent decades, unions have been the means for employees to come together, work in their collective interest, and help provide one another with a measure of economic security.

The result has been profound. Because my grandparents’ generation built unions of textile and apparel workers — as well as unions in other industrial sectors of the economy — their children were able to go to college. Many in the next generation became educators and public servants, and they built organizations of their own. Today’s teachers unions and public sector unions stand in this same tradition of being a bulwark of middle class life in America.

On this Labor Day, we can witness a new wave of immigrants coming to this country with a vision of building a better life. They may come from different countries, their complexions may be different, and they may be more likely to work as janitors or housekeepers than as factory workers. But their hopes and aspirations are the same.

The question for us as a society is: Will we leave a legacy behind of inclusion and preserve our country as the place that the world looks to as a haven of opportunity? Or will we take America down a very alien path, close our doors, and become a nation laden with fear-mongering, scapegoating, and exclusion?

This is an especially important question for Labor Day, because organized labor has been the central institution in our country that has allowed previous generations of immigrants — people like my grandparents — to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. Today, as we work to create pathways that will allow newly arrived immigrants to weave themselves into the civic fabric of American society, a large part of our efforts must be to create a revitalized labor movement, one eager to welcome them into its ranks.

We need look no further than labor’s past to give us direction toward a more inclusive future.

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

HAPPY LABOR DAY

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Will DurstPoor Labor Day. Gets no respect. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of celebrations. The runt of the holiday litter. Just hearing the name conjures up depressing images of a last plastic souvenir sports bottle of lemonade poured on the dying charcoal briquettes of summer. It’s the end of the bright light and the beginning of the darkness. Vacation is over and the fun has expired.

White shoes are put back in the closet and storm windows taken out. Watermelons are replaced on the floor next to produce bins by pumpkins. Swimming pools get drained and ice cream trucks convoy back into their hibernatory garages. All the red, white and blue motifs give way to orange and black. The solstice is dead. Long live the autumnal equinox.

As a kid, I was too busy running from the shadow of school’s return and the end of my freedom to pay much attention to the meaning of the holiday. And when I did, it made no sense. Honor work? Who would do that? Might as well set aside a day to venerate broccoli. I thought of work as a thing to be avoided not celebrated. Chores squared.

But then I entered the real world and desired things, like food and shelter and clothing and gasoline, which forced me into gainful employment. And it was surprisingly enjoyable. Not the getting up at 4 am part, but the fruit of accomplishment deal- yeah. Got my social security number at the age of 12. Held over 100 different jobs. Then in 1981, I was able to earn a living at my chosen craft. Making me an extremely lucky man.

Without labor, we would still be nomads, boiling river water to wash down our nightly meal of beans and mush and roots and moss. Getting way too friendly with the livestock. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. From the people who brought you the weekend, not to mention the 40 hour work week and the lunch hour and the smoke break and the potty run and the punch clock dash.

Our society’s love affair with the genetically blessed can get tiresome. The rich and the beautiful and the fast and the strong. The lucky sperm club. People who were in the right place at the right time, and most of those places were wombal. That’s why it’s important to have this one 24- hour period to honor ordinary Americans. Real folks who don’t think “work ethic” is a dirty word. Or a dirty two words. Or whatever.

No, there’s no fireworks to watch or ugly birds to cook or chocolate covered bunnies to steal marshmallows from. Just one Monday off for all those regular guys and gals trying to make ends meet; raising 2.3 kids while juggling a mortgage and trying to cover the monthly cable bill with at least one premium channel thrown in.

One day to celebrate what it is that we do for a living by taking the day off from work. Paying tribute not to some dead presidents or a religious fertility ritual or the valiant who have fallen defending democracy, but to the living. To us. The true American heroes. The ones who keep democracy alive and shaking and moving and growing. You and me. All right. All right. Fine. Mostly you. Happy Labor Day everybody.

About The Author: Will Durst is a San Francisco based political comedian who writes sometimes. This being an example. Catch Durst with Johnny Steele and Deb & Mike, Friday and Saturday, the 10th & 11th at the Town Hall in Lafayette. His new CD, “Raging Moderate,” now available from Stand Up! Records on iTunes and Amazon. Coming early next year: “Where the Rogue Things Go.”


AFL-CIO presentation: Five Principles for building Powerful Coalitions

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Amanda TattersallOn Wednesday 25 August 2010, Power in Coalition was launched in Washington DC at an event held at the AFL-CIO. Below is an extract of a talk given by Amanda Tattersall. It can also be downloaded as a PDF: AFL Presentation Five Principles for building Powerful Coalitions.

In Power in Coalition, I argue that not all coalitions are made equal. While alliances between unions and community organizations are an important and useful strategy for social change, their power and success varies greatly depending on the strategic choices of those involved.

The most successful coalitions are ones that seek to achieve social change goals (such as individual victories and shifting the political climate) at the same time as they strengthen the organizations that participate in them. Yet these goals can be somewhat illusive. In the book I found that most coalitions, at different times, end up trading social change goals for strength goals – for instance by burning relationships with community or union partners in order to win a particular policy reform.

The book establishes FIVE PRINCIPLES for building strong coalitions that were consistent across different places and different times.

1. Less is more

Coalitions are more successful when organizational membership is restricted and there are fewer groups making decisions and sharing resources. Instead of long lists of partners, in Power in Coalition long term coalitions traded breadth for depth and sought to build a narrower agenda that more deeply engaged the commitment of their members and leaders.

A “less is more” approach helped avoid lowest common denominator positions where coalitions end up a “mile wide and an inch deep” and tend to only be able to agree on what they are against rather than what they are for.

But the strategy of “less is more” runs counter to typical coalition practice. Too often “coalition power” is thought to be created by the number of organizations that can be fitted on to a letterhead or press release. But in the Toronto and Chicago case studies, it was only when the coalitions restricted membership that they built sufficient trust to keep organizations at the table working together.

Similarly in Sydney, a remarkable coalition of public education allies built an unprecedented independent public education inquiry, staging hearings across the state, mobilizing parents and teachers in dozens of local communities and won $250 million in reforms to public education through a reduction in class sizes for young children. And it was won by a coalition of two organizations – the teachers union (NSW Teachers Federation) and the Federation of Parents & Citizens.

Less is more requires coalition organizers to be strategic with “the less.” There is a need to identify partners that have the right mix of power, interest and potentially, unpredictability. Power must not be defined narrowly. It does not only include “organized numbers and organized money” but also diversity. After all, if the coalition can’t stand for the whole of the constituency it claims to represent then it has a limited ability to act.

With less people around the table there is then an incentive to do “more” together – in particular to focus on building close, respectful public relationships between the individuals involved that explore their personal and organizational interests. In Chicago, this took the form of informal breakfast meetings at a south side diner where people got to know each other over several years before they started campaigning together.

2. Individuals matter

Despite coalitions being defined as an alignment of organizations, alliances can live or die depending on effective leadership from individuals, in particular:

  1. organizational leaders
  2. champions inside of organizations
  3. coalition coordinators/staff

For each of these people the most important qualities are an ability to build bridges across different kinds of organizations and the ability to act as campaign strategists.

In the case studies, it made a difference when leaders directly participated in coalition decision making. Their participation was a sign of their commitment as well as facilitating quick and strong decision making in the coalition. Contrast the public education coalition which consisted of a table of positional leaders with the Ontario Health Coalition which was a table of staff. Sydney had much greater success at maintaining organizational commitment and tapping into significant organizational resources than in Toronto where the arm’s length relationship with the leadership made it difficult to engage the unions.

Strong leaders were frequently supported by champions in their ranks. In Sydney and Toronto, staff organizers helped leaders guide the formation of coalition relationships.

Coalition coordinators were also critical for holding together organizational relationships and strengthening the coalition. In Chicago, a coalition coordinator helped the coalition stay the course over an eighteen month campaign plan, and in Toronto the coordinator’s personal experience in a local health coalition motivated her to support and mentor local organizing. These coordinators helped smooth over differences between organizations, and sought to mitigate union dominance when it arose. In contrast, in Australia where there was not a coalition coordinator, the relationships were more unstable and fell away over time.

3. To Wield Self-Interest with a Sword of Justice

This principle is about the kind of issues that coalitions work on. It requires a coalition to simultaneously pursue issues that feed the direct strategic needs of their organizational partners while those issues also need to be connected to a sense of communal justice, or the public interest.

Organizational self-interest is necessary but not sufficient to build a strong coalition. In Canada, the health coalition sometimes struggled to connect with union self-interest. Medicare, abstractly framed as a national icon, was a challenge to prioritize as an issue of importance above the noise of bargaining and contract campaigning. At the same time, self-interest alone has limited political impact. In Sydney the contract campaign by the teachers, and in Chicago, the UFCW’s anti-Wal-mart campaign were dismissed by the media and politicians as unions just acting for themselves.

The key ingredient for opening up self-interest to public interest, or the common good, is the capacity to negotiate mutual self-interest. This is where organizations identify discrete but shared interests that allow them to pursue their own goals together. The public education alliance found a mutual self-interest in the issue of reduced class sizes. Teachers had an interest in smaller classes because it made their workload more manageable, and parents had a related but different interest in that smaller class sizes were shown to improve educational outcomes for their children.

There is an immense creativity, and unpredictability, in mutual self-interest. It is a space where new ideas and campaigns can be created based out of an innovative exploration of shared need and power. For instance, in Chicago, an anti-Wal-Mart site fight was translated into a campaign for a living wage ordinance for retail workers

Coalition campaigns can more successfully shift the political climate when they are positively framed demands, rather than negatively framed “no campaigns”. Consequently the Ontario Health Coalition struggled to set an agenda for positive health care reforms while working on the issue of “no-public private partnerships.

Coalition campaigns were most successful when they combined a broad narrative with specific demands. Successful broad public interest narratives included references to living wages, public education or Medicare, as they were iconic moral claims. But to be powerful these slogans needed to be linked to specific surface demands that linked these abstract claims to member interests – for instance the public education campaign was made concrete when linked to a specific policy around reducing class sizes. The big box living wage campaign actively engaged other union members, such as SEIU homecare workers, when it was explained that winning a wage raise for retail workers could help homecare workers in their next contract fight.

4. Timely exercise of power through conscious planning

In Power in Coalition successful sustained coalitions had long term plans to build then exercise power against decision makers. The Sydney public education coalition had a two year plan that included an independent inquiry, with reports released periodically in the lead up to the political opportunity of a state election. Similarly the Chicago living wage campaign was timed to move its ordinance six months out from aldermanic elections. This meant that the threat of popular election encouraged councilors to vote for the ordinance, and, even when the ordinance was vetoed by the Mayor, coalition partners could use the election cycle to react. Which they did. As a consequence 7 hostile aldermen were removed in the 2007 elections.

Disciplined planning ensured the coalitions could deliver political pressure rather than just reacting to the media cycle.

5. Multi-scaled coalitions

In the same way that one organization cannot win on its own, most issues cannot be solved at a single scale. Political and economic power is multi-scaled – traversing the local, regional, state, national and international, and to be most effective coalitions frequently need the versatility to act at multiple scales.

In the case studies, coalitions were most effective at acting at multiple scales when they supported the establishment of local city or neighborhood coalitions. These local coalitions (or broker organizations) helped enhance their organizational strength and their political influence.

For instance, in Canada, the Ontario Health Coalition established 40 coalitions around the province so it could run a campaign that collected hundreds of thousands of petitions and then move issues in a coordinated way across the province. These local town based coalitions were led by union members, retired teachers and community activists, providing a space for organizational members to build their skills and capacity to campaign.

But there are specific ingredients for successfully managing multi-scaled coalitions.

First, there is a need for a feedback loop between the different scales. It is not just about setting people up locally to run a state or national agenda, there needs to be local control. In Canada, when the OHC began coordinating tours through the local coalitions to raise awareness about public private partnerships, most of the strategy was developed in Toronto. While successful at first, the cycle of holding event after event had diminishing returns and participation at these events fell away.

The Canadians did come up with a partial solution to the feedback loop, which was ensure local coalitions were represented on provincial steering committees in the same way organizations were.

Second, there is a need for local coalitions to have some relative autonomy – to pursue local demands in conjunction with national/state demands. In Canada, the local coalitions were most successful when state action was driven by locally relevant and locally planned strategy. For instance, a plebiscite campaign was run around hospitals threatened with privatization – where communities one at a time were asked to vote in a referendum. These campaigns were planned and executed by the local groups, and this higher degree of control stimulated significant local participation and commitment.

This is a cursory glance at some of the findings about strong coalitions. These ideas are elaborated in much more detail in Power in Coalition, in particular in Chapter Five.

About The Author: Amanda Tattersall is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her dissertation looks at community unionism—which occurs when trade unions campaign with community organisations and social movements on issues beyond wages and condition—and involves a comparative study of industrial relations and social movement practice in Australia, Canada and the United States.

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