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Here’s Where the 2020 Candidates Stand on Labor

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

FOR A FEW DAYS IN APRIL, a grocery store chain in New England magnetically attracted Democratic presidential hopefuls. Thousands of Stop & Shop workers were on strike in the biggest private-sector walkout in years. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Ind.), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) all joined picket lines to stand in solidarity. Others tweeted messages of support.

“This is morally wrong what’s going on in this country, and I’ve had enough of it,” Biden said. “I’m sick of it, and so are you. We gotta stand together, and if we do, we will take back this country—I mean it.”

By May, the labor conflict making headlines was McDonald’s workers striking for a $15 wage. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Mayor Bill de Blasio (New York City), Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Gov. Jay Inslee (Wash.) joined street protests. Nearly a dozen others expressed support for workers.

“We have got to recognize that working people deserve livable wages,” Harris said, noting she once worked at McDonald’s.

During the primaries, Democratic presidential candidates have always made a point of showing up at union halls and playing up ties to working people: It’s one of the first pages in the Democratic political playbook. Biden officially started his campaign at a Teamsters banquet hall in Pittsburgh, announcing he is a “union man.” Warren kicked off her campaign at the site of the historic 1912 textile workers’ Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass. Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) mention union members in their extended family while speaking to union audiences.

The next by-the-book move is a pivot to the center during the general election. After fighting for union endorsements during primary season, the Democratic nominee zeroes in on swing voters, taking union voters for granted even as unions send a door-to-door army to get out the vote. Labor has been a core part of the Democratic Party’s coalition going back to the Great Depression.

Eighty years later, in 2016, something changed. Donald Trump had the best GOP presidential candidate performance with union households since 1984, trailing Hillary Clinton by only 8 percentage points. In 2012, Mitt Romney trailed Barack Obama in this demographic by 18 points. All of which raises the question: Are Democrats losing labor as a reliable constituency? Dems can still count on union endorsements, to be sure. But with Trump attacking from the left on free trade, support from white male union members—who still make up a plurality of the movement’s members—is up for grabs.

This uncertainty was born of neglect: Since the 1970s, as the country’s industrial base withered and unionbusting flourished, Democrats in Washington have done little to reverse the labor movement’s decline. Under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, union money and organizing muscle helped deliver control of Congress and the White House to Democrats. Each time, the party failed to pass labor law reform that would have empowered workers and bolstered the movement.

In 2016, the party paid an electoral price for their waywardness. This time around, will candidates do more than pander during the primaries? Public support for labor is at a 15-year high, especially among young people, women and college graduates. Nearly half a million workers were part of a strike or lockout last year—the highest figure since 1986. Might we finally see Democrats place unions at the heart of their political agenda? It’s far-fetched, but conceivable. Candidates know they can no longer take union votes for granted.

More significantly, the center of gravity on labor and economic issues has moved left.

“There’s this sense now that we have a big problem of inequality and capitalism run amok,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. “That’s clear on the Democratic side. But what is the solution? Is it about taxation? Or is it vitalization of the union movement? That latter idea has become more understood.”

In some ways, candidates’ rush to the left makes it harder to discern just how deeply committed they are to strengthening unions. Everyone always says they want to rebuild the middle class. Who really wants to rebuild the labor movement?

RAISING THE BAR

If you zero in on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) ACTthe answer appears to be: most of the leading candidates. Co-sponsored by 40 senators and 100 members of the House, the PRO Act offers a litany of labor law reforms. The larger context here is that the United States has among the weakest workers’ rights protections of any industrialized country—on par with Myanmar, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Over the past 40 years, employers have aggressively fought unionization through (perfectly legal) tactics like “captive audience” meetings, when workers must sit and listen to anti-union presentations, or the (sometimes legal) firing of striking workers.

The PRO Act would strengthen the right to organize and strike by, among other things, eliminating so-called right-to-work laws, banning permanent strike replacements, legalizing secondary boycotts and picketing, and broadening the definition of “employee” to include many current independent contractors. Compared to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the reform law pushed by the labor movement during the 2008 election cycle that ultimately died in the Senate, the PRO Act is a progressive smorgasbord. But the PRO Act does fall short of EFCA in one significant regard: While EFCA enabled workers to organize through a majority sign-up process (“card check”), the PRO Act only requires card check if an employer is found to have violated labor law during a failed union election. Every current senator running for president backs the bill.

With multiple leading candidates able to point to a history of support for unions, today’s Democratic field stands in stark contrast to the 2016 primary with its binary choice of establishment liberal Hillary Clinton versus change agent Bernie Sanders. Nearly all unions endorsed Clinton, many early on, rankling rank-and-file Sanders supporters. This time around, unions are in no hurry to back a candidate—only the International Association of Fire Fighters has done so (Biden got the nod). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association and others have unveiled new endorsement approaches to more deeply engage both candidates and members (and, one assumes, to close any perceived distance between the wishes of the rank-and-file and executive boards).

“There’s intensity for a bunch of candidates this time,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. The union endorsed Clinton in July 2015 and poured $1.7 million into her campaign and pro-Clinton PACs.

Heartburn from the calamitous 2016 election appears to be giving the union endorsement process a dose of democracy. As millions of union members decide who to back, they’ll be wrestling with the question of which candidate would most effectively fight for their interests. Because the leading Democratic candidates are staking out similar ground to make their case, it’s important to look at the candidates’ records, how central the union movement is to their theory of change, and what unilateral actions they would be willing to embrace as president (should Congress fail to act)

DIFFERENCES BIG AND SMALL

This much is clear across the Democratic primary field: Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and taxing the rich have become table stakes. All the leading candidates—Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Sanders, Warren—support both. Beyond those two issues, the top of the field is replete with differences big and small.

It’s easy to sort out where candidates stand on a raft of proposed legislation. It’s harder to know what they would try to do for the labor movement if all those proposals become moot—which will be the case should the GOP hold the Senate.

Biden is an old pro at signaling he’s a fighter for the union cause, but it’s hard to find an example of him sticking his neck out for workers. In May, Biden held a fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of a board member of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, a subsidiary of healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente. The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which has a longstanding dispute with Kaiser in California over mental health staffing levels, called on Biden to cancel the event. They never heard back, says NUHW President Sal Rosselli. NUHW members protested outside the house, but Biden “went into the event and didn’t even talk to our folks,” Rosselli says. “That’s very disappointing.”

Biden also didn’t endear himself to the labor movement by voting for NAFTA and supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, both of which unions opposed. Biden did support EFCA as a senator but has not committed to the PRO Act, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In contrast, the leading presidential candidates from the Senate have been out front on labor law reform. Sanders has been pushing the Workplace Democracy Act (WDA) for decades (beginning as a congressman in 1992), which is co-sponsored by Booker, Harris and Warren. The WDA can be seen as a forerunner of the PRO Act; it also legalizes secondary boycotting, stops companies from delaying a first contract with workers and gives bargaining rights to many workers who are currently classified as independent contractors. (Unlike the PRO Act, it would let all workers unionize via card check as a matter of course.) Sanders’ method has been persistence: He reintroduced the WDA throughout the 1990s in the House, then brought new versions into the Senate in 2015 and 2018. As with other issues, such as Medicare for All, the Democratic Party has now caught up to him.

It took Sanders years to earn the backing of any national union. They didn’t flock to him when he first ran for Congress in 1988, but came around after he won congressional campaigns in the early 1990s. Today, Sanders remains as outspoken as ever about the power of unions—they live at the heart of his agenda. “The trade union movement is the last line of defense against a corporate agenda that not only wants tax breaks for billionaires but wants to privatize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders told In These Times via email. “We must strengthen unions and bargaining rights of workers everywhere.”

It’s not hard to imagine the other leading candidates saying something similar—indeed, most have before crowds of union members. It’s Sanders’ long record of actually supporting labor actions that makes him stand out. Political candidates love to call their campaigns a “movement,” and Sanders is no exception, but it feels less cliched when a campaign actively urges supporters to join protests around the country—like those held by University of California campus workers and Delta Air Lines flight attendants. “What Bernie is doing is very, very unique,” Lichtenstein says. “The most radical thing in this campaign cycle that’s happened is Bernie using his email list to get people to picket lines and protests.”

In March, Sanders’ staffers became the first presidential campaign staff to unionize, starting a trend. Castro’s campaign staff followed in May, and Warren’s team did so in June. The candidates each publicly supported the union efforts. “Every worker who wants to join a union, bargain collectively, & make their voice heard should have a chance to do so,” Warren tweeted.

Unlike Sanders, Warren can’t point to decades of direct solidarity work with the labor movement, but the two New England senators share much in common. Yes, Warren has called herself “capitalist to my bones” while Sanders keeps trumpeting his democratic socialism, but both have New Deal liberalism deep in their blood—including the sense that worker empowerment is vital to economic justice—and they broadly agree that American capitalism needs structural change.

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is a good example. Introduced in the Senate in 2018, the bill would empower employees to elect at least 40% of board members at large U.S. companies. This new board could then (in theory) push management to do something about yawning pay disparities between the C-suite and average workers. For Sanders’ part, he unveiled plans in May to boost employee ownership of corporations and attended a Walmart shareholders meeting in June at the request of United for Respect, a workers’ rights group, to support a resolution to require Walmart to put hourly employees on its board.

Both senators want to do more than tinker around the edges of neoliberalism. This perspective, and a willingness to call out the rich as an enemy along class lines, is what sets them apart from their primary season peers.

“Strengthening America’s labor unions will be a central goal of my administration,” Warren told In These Times via email. “For too long, a worker’s right to unionize has been under attack. The rich and powerful have teamed up with the Republican Party to push for measures at all levels of government designed to decimate unions and collective bargaining.”

Warren says she wants to “modernize our labor laws for the 21st century,” noting various reforms included in the PRO Act, and that she would fight for “fully portable benefits for everyone and make sure that all work—full-time, part-time, gig—carries basic, pro-rata benefits.” She also wants to push to amend federal law so the president and federal courts cannot “enjoin lawful strikes that pose a threat to national health or safety.”

“Far too often, these injunctions have been invoked in strikes not because there is a genuine threat to national health or safety, but rather to curb the power of unions engaging in lawful strikes,” she says.

This attitude has endeared Warren to the labor movement. She spoke in Las Vegas at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Center for American Progress Action Fund’s National Forum on Wages and Working People in April, along with a handful of other candidates. “We need more power in the hands of employees,” she said. The Washington Post reported the crowd gave her its “most passionate response.”

THE REST OF THE FIELD

To be sure, other leading candidates have built up support within the labor movement. Buttigieg, for example, has been in tune with the building trades unions in South Bend. “He’s been fantastic,” says Jim Gardner, business representative of the Operating Engineers Local 150. Buttigieg spoke out against repealing the common construction wage and backed a “responsible bidding” city ordinance that requires any company bidding on a city contract to reveal OSHA violations, Gardner says. Buttigieg’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for Indiana state treasurer was run from the building trades office in South Bend, says Mike Compton, who was business manager with IBEW Local 153 until 2016. “Pete did what he could for us and with us,” he says.

Buttigieg tells In These Times, “I believe that unions must have a powerful seat at the table—to stand up against unfair and abusive practices and to collaborate in improving work environments and productivity.”

With no offense to South Bend, Harris’ deep ties to California unions could prove a bit more valuable come Super Tuesday. The state’s biggest unions backed her 2016 campaign for Senate and the former president of SEIU California, Laphonza Butler, is one of her top strategists. “We’ve known Kamala since she first ran for district attorney in San Francisco, and we have supported her and endorsed her ever since,” NUHW’s Rosselli says. “She’s extremely responsive to workers’ issues, union issues.”

In May, Harris unveiled a gender pay equity proposal that would require companies to seek “equal pay certification.” Companies would be fined 1% of their profits for every 1% wage gap that persists between men and women. Harris has also championed measures to extend full labor rights to domestic workers and farmworkers, two groups excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (in a racist compromise with Southern lawmakers). And she has proposed the largest-ever federal investment in teacher pay: $300 billion over 10 years to boost teacher salaries by an average of $13,500.

As likely intended, the plan piqued the interest of at least one rank-and-file teacher, Lucy Moreno. An elementary school teacher and AFT member in Houston, Moreno frequently spends money out of pocket on school supplies. “We teachers are at our breaking point,” Moreno says. Most of the issues that will be top of mind for her this primary season hook to education—better pay, less testing and student loan forgiveness.

Moreno also liked what she heard from Biden in May at an AFT-sponsored town hall event. She says she has not been following the campaign of O’Rourke, the leading candidate from Texas.

O’Rourke’s relationship to unions has had a few bumps. He didn’t endear himself to the Texas AFL-CIO after failing to attend its January 2018 convention during his challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but ultimately won the endorsement. And as Vox has reported, O’Rourke’s voting record in Congress was more conservative than the average Democrat’s. He has backed easing regulations on Wall Street and raising the eligibility age for Social Security.

Booker’s current stance on labor and workers’ rights is solidly progressive (relative to the other leading candidates), but he has a bit of an Achilles’ heel: his longstanding support for school vouchers and the charter school movement in Newark, N.J., where he was a city council member and mayor. Along with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Booker wanted to make the city “the charter school capital of the nation.” Newark teachers unions were less enthused with the plan—and teachers nationwide may prove less than enthusiastic with Booker’s candidacy, given their growing willingness to strike.

The issue isn’t just Booker’s “school reform” past, but the way it illuminates his neoliberal tendencies. In a 2011 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he said that “disparities in income in America are not because of some ‘greedy capitalist’—no! It’s because of a failing education system.”

Of the candidates polling at 2% or less as of early July, none emerge as a “labor candidate.” Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), a long-time magnet for union donations, touts his Rust Belt credentials and says he was spurred to run by the closure of the Lordstown General Motors plant in his district. But Ryan’s stump speech rarely includes the phrase “union jobs.” He focuses on the need to invest in electric carmaking. Conversely, Inslee, more known as a “climate candidate,” has made unions and a job guarantee central to his climate plan.

Serial entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running as a capitalist who saw the light on economic inequality and the threat of automation. His trademark proposal is a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 a month that he calls a “freedom dividend.” In a 2018 Labor Day blog post, Yang gave the impression of having recently discovered U.S. labor history, enthusiastically relating the life story of Walter Reuther. He closed with an appeal to unions to support his freedom dividend, noting: “It would also dramatically increase worker bargaining power, as workers would have a cushion to fall back on and could push harder against exploitative labor conditions.”

Klobuchar never misses an opportunity to mention she is the granddaughter of a union miner and daughter of a union teacher and a union “newspaper man.” The line drew weak applause from union workers in March at the SEIU labor forum in Nevada, compared to cheers for Warren’s policy proposals. Klobuchar has also had to contend with reports of emotionally abusive behavior toward her staff.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), historically a centrist, has run hard to the left and brings up labor proposals, unasked, in interviews, including debt-free college, a Green New Deal, affordable day care, a national paid leave plan and equal pay. Her most noteworthy position may be full employment, which she tells Splinter News she will effect through “apprenticeship programs, not-for-profits, and community colleges to train local workers for real, available, good-paying jobs.

EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING

Presidential candidates always focus on legislation as a way of defining their values and political program, and a lot of them this cycle would do a lot of good for workers—from various tax plans to the PRO Act to the Family Act (introduced by Gillibrand in February, it would mandate up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave for various health reasons). But all of it will come to naught if the GOP holds the Senate, and even if Democrats gain the majority, don’t hold your breath: Pro-business Democrats couldn’t stomach EFCA in the Senate back when their party controlled all of Congress in 2009, so they will likely be happy to obstruct the far more expansive PRO Act.

Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America, notes that the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome, prevented EFCA from passing and watered down the Affordable Care Act.

“Are [candidates] prepared to work to change the way the U.S. Senate operates, should we be lucky enough to get 50 Democratic senators again?” asks Cohen, who is now board chair of Our Revolution, the organization that emerged from the 2016 Sanders campaign.

Warren, Buttigieg and O’Rourke are in favor of eliminating the filibuster. Sanders, Harris and Booker have vacillated but are leaning toward the status quo. Biden, who spent 45 years in the Senate, tends to defend the chamber’s traditions. He has spoken in favor of the filibuster, although not this year.

Nonetheless, given the likelihood of a divided government (or a divided party), the leading Dems are strikingly silent about how they might directly wield the Oval Office to bolster the labor movement.

A president can do plenty to drive a pro-labor agenda through the federal government without Congress, such as make strong appointments to run the Department of Labor (DOL) and sit on the National Labor Relations Board, says Moshe Marvit, a Century Foundation fellow who focuses on labor and employment. Actually enforcing current laws could make a huge difference, too—the DOL could, for example, aggressively bring lawsuits against companies that misclassify workers as contractors, while the IRS could pursue the same bad actors for tax evasion, Marvit says. Or the president could bring more people from workers’ rights groups and unions with firsthand knowledge of the challenges into policymaking—a teacher to run the Department of Education, for example. The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics could expand data collection on unfair labor practices, union-busting and other employer violations and sexual harassment in the workplace. And, says Marvit, it could restart its tracking of strikes and walkouts that involve fewer than 1,000 workers, which stopped a few decades ago.

In These Times asked Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren what they would do, legislatively and executively, given the chance. Biden, Booker, and Harris did not respond. Buttigieg and Sanders cited only legislative plans—Buttigieg, for example, wants a new National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act to cover workers historically excluded from collective bargaining, and Sanders wants to pass his Workplace Democracy Act, which includes “the right to know if [a] company spends huge amounts of money to run anti-union campaigns.”

O’Rourke sent a brief response, but a spokesperson expanded on it to say that the candidate would increase employer penalties for interference with worker organizing and increase investments in workers’ rights enforcement mechanisms. (Harris has also pledged to crack down on companies “that cheat their workers,” and Sanders has elsewhere promised to restore the Obama NLRB’s expanded overtime protections.)

Only Warren’s response detailed proposed executive actions, saying she would appoint people “who have a history of fighting for workers and are committed to fighting for workers’ rights” to help lead her administration. She also says she would give union members a “real voice” in trade deal negotiations, reimplement Obama’s overtime pay expansion rules and prevent employers from misclassifying workers as independent contractors. “I will use the White House bully pulpit to support workers,” she says.

Warren’s two-pronged approach is something Marvit would love—a governance approach that places the struggles of workers at the center of public discourse, while making policy changes in the background. Think of it as flipping the Trump script.

“Every president gets to define how they talk about the economy,” Marvit says. “Trump has made it all about trade and tariffs, so suddenly we’re all talking about trade and tariffs in the news every single day. Another president could really frame economic concerns around labor and employment issues. It will force people to choose sides.”

Imagine a president publicly condemning a company for misclassifying workers as contractors, and then harnessing the full range of executive branch powers—the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, the IRS—to punish bad actors. The scenario can only occur if the president thinks of workers not just as an interest group, but as their core constituency, Marvit says. “There has to be a worker concern in every single policy that is taken, whether you’re talking about healthcare, whether you’re talking about the environment, whether you’re talking about employment.”

Jane McAlevey, a former union organizer and author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, says that getting a sympathetic Democrat in the White House is only the first step. The next, McAlevey says, is a massive wave of strikes.

The relationship between direct action, power and creating a crisis with a Democrat in the White House is “the missing link so often in this discussion,” McAlevey says. The labor movement should back a candidate who will “restore the fundamental constitutional right to strike” (as the PRO Act effectively would) and commit to never calling out federal troops on striking workers. “We need a candidate … who commits to defending the right of workers to be on strike and using the full resources of the federal government to aid workers in re-claiming some of what’s deserved by the working class.”

Nothing like that has been seen in the United States since the 1930s, when FDR first entered the White House and waves of strikes followed. The backdrop was the Great Depression. Short of another crisis, far-reaching strikes are far-fetched. But one thing is clear enough: Waiting for Democrats to lead the labor movement out of decline is a losing strategy.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert, Ramenda Cyrus, Daniel Fernandez, Gabe Levine-Drizin and Alex Schwartz contributed research and fact-checking to this story. 

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at In These Times. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

A Better Trade Deal: The Working People Weekly List

Friday, June 21st, 2019

Here’s the latest edition of the Working People Weekly List.

Strive for a Better Trade Deal: “The North American Free Trade Agreement has been nothing short of a disaster for working people. For a quarter-century, Michiganians have watched as corporations shuttered plants, raided pensions and steadily eroded communities that had come to embody the promise of the American Dream. NAFTA is a disaster. But it was no accident. Politicians and corporate executives saw trade as a way to further tilt the economy in their favor. They sold out jobs and livelihoods here at home and sacrificed workers’ rights abroad. Nothing was off limits so long as they could sniff out fatter profit margins.”

Passaic County Central Labor Council Encourages Education with Awards for High Schoolers: “Last night I was a part of something so truly amazing I am still having a hard time putting it into words. And for those of you that know me, words are usually my thing. There is so much that I am grateful for and want to share. It was an incredible night and to me, it was more than 100 years in the making.”

Save Our VA!: What Working People Are Doing This Week: “Welcome to our regular feature, a look at what the various AFL-CIO unions and other working family organizations are doing across the country and beyond. The labor movement is big and active—here’s a look at the broad range of activities we’re engaged in this week.”

‘State of the Unions’ Podcast: Union Proud: “On the latest episode of ‘State of the Unions,’ Julie and Tim talked with Pride At Work Executive Director Jerame Davis as the AFL-CIO constituency group celebrates its 25th anniversary. They discussed the progress made by LGBTQ working people over the past quarter-century and the work still left to be done.”

Governor Murphy Signs ‘Panic Button’ Bill to Protect Hotel Workers from Assaults, Harassment: “Hundreds of hotel workers, union leaders and elected officials gathered at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City today to witness the signing of a bill requiring hotels to equip certain employees with ‘panic buttons’ for their protection against inappropriate conduct by guests.”

Pride Month Profiles: Irene Soloway: “For Pride Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various LGBTQ Americans who have worked and continue to work at the intersection of civil and labor rights. Our first profile this year is Irene Soloway.”

Stop the War on Working People: In the States Roundup: “It’s time once again to take a look at the ways working people are making progress in the states.”

Get to Know the AFL-CIO’s Affiliates: “Throughout the year, we’ve been profiling each of our affiliates. Let’s take a look back at the profiles we’ve already published.”

Get to Know AFL-CIO’s Affiliates: Fire Fighters: “Next up in our series, which takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates, is the Fire Fighters.”

The TWU Celebrates Its 20th Organizing Victory!: “The TWU organizing machine is in full swing. Under this new leadership, the Transport Workers union has just won our 20th new worker organizing drive. We continue to grow and thrive across the entire transport sector. Since 2017, our membership has increased from 137,000 to 151,000.”

Economy Gains 75,000 Jobs in May; Unemployment Steady at 3.6%: “The U.S. economy gained 75,000 jobs in May, and the unemployment rate remained at 3.6%, according to figures released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wage growth of 3.1% was lower than last month’s 3.4% and, a downward revision of 75,000 for the job numbers for March and April signals that the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee needs to inch down interest rates.”

AFL-CIO President Hosts NAFTA Town Halls in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania: “The president of the nation’s largest labor union announced Tuesday that he will hold a series of town halls about ‘union members’ struggles under NAFTA, and what working people want to see from the administration’s proposed USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement].’ The AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka will travel to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan over the course of three days in mid-June to speak with union members as the President Trump administration pushes Congress to ratify his replacement for the much-maligned North American Free Trade Agreement.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on June 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Nevada workers get some big wins because elections matter, this week in the war on workers

Monday, June 17th, 2019

Nevada Democrats had a great Election Day in 2018, and Nevada workers are about to start seeing the effects of that. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a package of major bills, including one giving 20,000 state workers collective bargaining rights, a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, and more.

The state’s minimum wage will only go up to $12—$11 if the employer offers insurance—and won’t reach that level until 2024, with the first 75-cent raise not coming until July 2020. Compared with the laws taking some states’ minimums up to $15 on a faster timetable that’s not spectacular, but since Nevada’s current minimum wage is $7.25 for employers that offer insurance and $8.25 for ones that don’t, it’s still a substantial improvement for an estimated 300,000 Nevada workers. (And something for worker-activists to build on, perhaps.)

Workers at businesses with more than 50 employees will also start getting paid sick leave, up to 40 hours a year for full-time workers. That law will take effect January 1. Nevada will join 10 states and Washington, D.C., in having a paid sick leave law.

The law giving public workers collective bargaining rights is “yet another massive win for working people and the labor movement as union momentum continues to grow across the country,” according to AFSCME. Harry Schiffman, a local AFSCME president in the state called it “a historic day for state employees and all Nevadans, as collective bargaining rights will mean a voice on the job to make meaningful changes in our workplaces and communities.”

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Polar Vortex Shows How Incarcerated Workers Are Bearing the Brunt of Extreme Weather

Friday, February 1st, 2019

On January 28, an image of Cook County Jail prisoners shoveling snow went viral after it was posted on the  La Villita community Facebook page and then shared by the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The city of Chicago was preparing for an arctic blast and the prisoners were seen working in cold temperatures wearing orange jumpsuits. Thousands of people shared the image and expressed concern about the well-being of the prisoners. This scenario is yet another example of how incarcerated workers—toiling for little or no pay—are on the frontlines of extreme weather.

Predictably, the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sought to exonerate itself in the press. “The situation was entirely and intentionally misrepresented,” said Cara Smith, chief spokesperson for Dart’s office. Smith claimed the prisoners were actually wearing insulated jumpsuits, that there was a warming van nearby, and that prisoners were not allowed to work if the temperature dropped under 20 degrees. Numerous news outlets reported Smith’s quotes without digging into their veracity, even though she presented no evidence.

Smith admitted that prisoners were only paid $2 for the work assignment, in a jail where at roughly 2,700 people are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond. Smith sought to justify the nothing wage by claiming the prisoners were doing work as part of a vocational job training program called RENEW. Yet, as Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, put it to The Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labor that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release.” Prisoners have little-to-no access to the press, and reporters often make no effort to contact them, so it’s no surprise that none have been quoted on the subject.

The latest example at Cook County Jail certainly isn’t the first time that prison labor has been used to respond to or prepare for extreme weather, nor is it the first time that such a controversy has made national headlines. In 2015, Think Progress reported that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had used volunteer prison labor to shovel snow in Boston when the windchill was negative 25 degrees. The prisoners were paid $3 to $4 a day for their efforts, while non-prisoners doing the same work were paid $30 an hour.

After deadly wildfires hit California this past fall, more than 2,000 prisoners were used to help fight them. While the prisoners fight fires through a vocational program offered by the state, they’re incentivized by earning time off of their sentences and they’re only paid $2 a day and an additional $1 an hour if there is an active fire to fight. While the prisoners could use the work to reduce their sentence, once released, they often aren’t allowed work as firefighters due to their record of incarceration. In California, the job can legally be deniedto almost anyone with a criminal record.

Global warming is making wildfires, like the ones in California, more extreme.  “You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor, told PBS last August. “You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

Additionally, many scientists are now also connecting intense cold waves to the warming of the Arctic, which means that prisoners working in the cold could also technically be on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Prisoners have very little protections, are at great risk of exploitation, and details about their conditions are often scarce.

Panagioti Tsolkas, the coordinator for the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, tells In These Times that he also sees the intersection of climate change and mass incarceration in the wake of environmental disasters. “After hurricanes here in Florida, prisoners got called out to help with relief efforts,” he says.

While prisoners are being used to mitigate climate disasters, they’re among the most vulnerable to their impacts. Incarcerated people are often housed in prisons that experience extreme heat without air conditioning. A 2017 report from The Marshall Projectfound that four out of five people held in Texas prisons lack air conditioning. In 2014, state prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Grimes County sued their prison after a number of incarcerated people died as  a result of the extreme heat. Four years later, a settlement was reached, and the prison was required to provide air-conditioning.

In 2018, the Texas Inmate Families Association compiled reports from prisoners’ relatives and found that at least 30 Texas prisons had inadequate heating after freezing temperatures hit the state during the winter. Last year, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons helped organize a prisoner strike in the state of Florida. The prisoners said one of their intentions was to “expose the environmental conditions we face, like extreme temperatures.”

Last summer, prisoners organized a nationwide strike across 17 prisons to highlight poor conditions and labor practices. Among their demands was an “immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”  The 13th Amendment abolished slavery but contains an exemption that allows involuntary servitude as part of a criminal punishment. Chicago’s minimum wage is set to increase to $13 an hour this summer, and the prisoners who shoveled snow this week lag far behind.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Trump reversal of Obama-era labor rule is great news for corporations

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

A transgender woman is suing McDonald’s and the owner of the franchised restaurant she worked for after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination.

La’Ray Reed said a coworker asked if she were a “boy or girl,” “top or bottom,” or what her “role” was “in the bedroom.” She said she was groped and spied on while using the public toilet.

But for Reed to hold McDonald’s responsible for her alleged mistreatment, her lawyers have to prove that McDonald’s should be held responsible as a joint employer—not just the owners of the franchised restaurant. There is a question of whether the Labor Department’s recent decision to rescind the standard for determining who is a joint employer will hinder her ability to seek justice. The Obama administration’s standard went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business.

McDonald’s has resisted this legal responsibility for many years, and says it does not have control over things like pay and working conditions at franchised restaurants. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action through a $3.75 million payment that allowed it to dodge responsibility. McDonald’s released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

Industry groups have been pushing against efforts to call businesses like McDonald’s joint employers for many years now. In 2015, Matt Haller, a lobbyist at the International Franchise Association called a 2015 National Labor Relations Board ruling on whether a recycling company could be called a joint employer, “a knife-to-the throat issue for the franchise model.” He told the Washington Post, “You’d be hard pressed to find a business that shouldn’t be concerned about the impact of this joint employer standard.” Haller said IFA was “pleased” at the department’s decision to rescind guidance this month.

But there is certainly hope for La’Ray Reed, and other workers like her who are experiencing discrimination or issues such as wage theft at work. Since the joint employer guidance does not have the full force of law, it is not as important to these cases as existing tests for determining if an employer relationship exists. Under the economic realities test, applied under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among other laws, a relationship exists if someone is economically dependent on that business. Paul Secunda, professor of law at Marquette University, who teaches on employment discrimination law, said this test will play a much bigger role in determining whether an employee can hold McDonald’s responsible for discrimination.

“Just the Trump administration withdrawing this guidance does not mean in any way that these claims are doomed to failure or are otherwise are not plausible,” Secunda said. “Because what matters the most with employment law is focusing on employment discrimination under Title VII and what other state laws apply there.”

‘This control standard is the standard that has been in place since the 1950s and ‘60s, and so it doesn’t make sense to have different standards under different laws. It only makes sense to hold liable those who control what happens in the workplace,” Secunda added.

Representatives of Fight for $15, a group of fast food workers, teachers, and adjunct professors advocating for better pay backed by the Service Employees International Union, said McDonald’s has failed to enforce its own policies.

“The growing number of allegations suggests a failure by McDonald’s to enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its Operations and Training and Policies for Franchisees manuals,” the labor group told BuzzFeed.

“There are terms and conditions that are set by the national parent McDonald’s,” Secunda said. “It has a policy on sexual harassment and equal opportunity that all its franchisees have to meet: that it will not tolerate sexual harassment whether based on transgender status or otherwise in the workplace. [The argument is] that McDonald’s parent company exercises meaningful control—that is being free from sexual harassment and demeaning conduct in the workplace.”

None of this means that any parent corporation is responsible for any franchisees’ lability, Secunda said, since every case must be decided on its facts, but where employers do exercise meaningful control over employees, there should be a possibility that they will be held responsible.

The decision to rescind this joint-employer guidance will by no means kill any possibility of holding a corporation, such as McDonald’s, responsible, and a judge would be more likely to consider the rule of law first, Secunda said, but the joint employer guidance would still be a helpful resource for the defendant to have in its arsenal.

“If I were a conservative jurist who wanted it to come out on the corporate conservative side of the world, I see that they could use this. ‘You know they’re the expert agency, so they can’t be wrong,’” Secunda said. “But I just think that would be disingenuous, because the agency has obviously changed its position based on the politics on the administration. And this should be an answer that has nothing to do with politics. It should be based on rule of law.”

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a journalist covering education, investments, politics, crime, and LGBT issues.

A Day in the Life of a Day Laborer

Friday, June 16th, 2017

Come sunrise, the men fill the street corner, among them Luis, quietly sitting by himself, nurturing hopes for work today.

There was no work yesterday, nothing the day before and nothing for weeks.

Still, the 50-year-old Guatemalan, who didn’t want his last name used, waits in the growing heat, saying he has no other choice.

He waits even though he hates day labor work, because he says it is sometimes dangerous, barely enough to live on, and some of the men on the street corner have bullied and hurt him on the job.

The factory where he worked for almost a decade shut down a few years ago, he can’t find any work as a caregiver, and, he says, the factories aren’t hiring or they are shutting down.

He says he has papers to show he is a legal resident in the United States, but he suspects that many of the men standing around him don’t have that status.

That’s not the case for Carlos Sanchez, 70, and Gustavo Almaraz, 28, who are standing nearby. Carlos says he is Puerto Rican and Gustavo says he was born in the United States.

But they say that many workers lack papers and so they suffer. Often, the contractors who hire the men off the street corner “automatically think you don’t have papers,” explains Almaraz. And that’s a problem, because they want to take advantage of you. “Some of the people here (doing the hiring) are mean,” he adds.

The two also say they know how to take care of themselves.

Sanchez says he knows how to do a lot of jobs and how to deal with people, starting out decades ago as a migrant worker earning 35 cents an hour. And Almaraz says he has picked up enough skills that he can virtually take every job offered on the street corner.

“It’s all on you,” Almaraz explains. “You see a car coming in and you have to go up and say, ‘Hey boss, what do you need?’”

The secret is finding a good boss and somebody who needs you for a long time, he says. It also involves knowing, he says, when to walk away from someone who abuses you. “I had a good-paying job with an electrician, but he started to become disrespectful. He started to yell and insult me.”

Almaraz says he won’t work for less than $15 an hour, but surveys indicate laborers often earn minimum wages or less, and sometimes nothing. “Nobody can live on less than $100 a day,” Almaraz says.

Near them is a 65-year-old Mexican: a short, stocky, balding man, who says he has been doing day labor ever since coming to the United States without papers 12 years ago.

He hasn’t been able to find work and so he says he will take less than the others. “Sometimes they don’t pay. It’s very difficult. There is no work and everything is expensive,” he says in Spanish.

Time passes, and the men disappear from the street corner. Some are off to work, getting into the trucks and vans that pick them up.

As soon as someone pulls up onto the gasoline station’s street corner, the men rush them, huddling by the vehicle’s windows, bargaining furiously as they tout their skills. And some just wander off.

Not Luis. He sits waiting. Some jobs he won’t take.  “I have friends who were injured doing roofing, and they went home (to Guatemala) handicapped,” he says.

Not too long ago, he took a moving job with another worker. It was supposed to be an easy three-hour job. But the items they moved were so heavy, he sat at home for three days afterward, his hands shaking.

“A lot of people will do this work. They don’t speak the language so they have to. But I don’t have to,” he says.

He waits along with more than 100,000 others who gather daily on dozens of street corners across the United States, according to figures from 2006. It is a world, where workers are often cheated out of their wages, injured on the job and then left without medical care, according to a 2006 survey. Where workers who complain often suffer retaliation by employers who fire them, suspend them, or threaten to call immigration officials.

As the hours pass, Luis huddles in the scorching sunlight, watching out for anybody looking for a worker and a job he can do.

Most of the men are gone, but not him.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on June 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at freedomwrites@hotmail.com.

Workplace Fairness Applauds the Withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s Nomination for Labor Secretary

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Along with hundreds of workers rights organizations and millions of workers (whether they realized it or not!) Workplace Fairness is applauding the withdrawal this afternoon of Andrew Puzder’s nomination as Secretary of Labor. Puzder announced the following this afternoon (February 15):

“After careful consideration and discussions with my family, I am withdrawing my nomination for Secretary of Labor. I am honored to have been considered by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Labor and put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity. I want thank President Trump for his nomination. I also thank my family and my many supporters—employees, businesses, friends and people who have voiced their praise and hopeful optimism for the policies and new thinking I would have brought to America as Secretary of Labor. While I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the President and his highly qualified team.”

Puzder could not have been a worse fit for the position he aspired to hold, as throughout his career, he has made his hostility to pro-worker policies abundantly clear. We can all (at least temporarily, until we see the next nominee) breathe a sigh of relief that Puzder will not be making policy decisions at the Department of Labor which will roll back workplace protections and risk workers’ lives. This stunning defeat would not have been possible but for all the working people around the country who banded together and said NO! to someone who was clearly unfit for the job.

Puzder’s withdrawal comes on the eve of his planned February 15 confirmation hearing before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee – the first step toward confirmation that any Labor Secretary nominee will have to face. Once Puzder was nominated, groups familiar with his anti-worker views began assembling a record of his appalling views towards and treatment of his own employees at CKE Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurants. It wasn’t that hard to do.

Even in an industry known for its low pay, overtime violations, sexual harassment, and health and safety concerns, CKE stood out from the rest, with about 60 percent of the U.S. Department of Labor’s investigations into CKE restaurants turned up at least one violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Female CKE employees reported sexual harassment at a rate 150% higher than other fast food establishments.

Puzder’s response was to blame his franchisees, yet the amount of control CKE exercised over its franchisees in virtually every respect but employment policies was clearly an effort to avoid legal liability. CKE’s official response:  “We’d like to offer a reminder that CKE Restaurants is nearly 95 percent franchised. Each of these 2,769 franchise stores are run independently and solely responsible for their employees, management and adherence to regulations and labor practices.” It’s very convenient for CKE to disavow all liability when it comes to adhering to employment laws, when it exerts control over virtually every other aspect of its operations.

Puzder has also been very vocal about his contempt for his own workforce and active in an industry group that lobbied hard against legal protection for workers. In 2011, he was quoted, when speaking about the Hardee’s workforce, as saying “you’re hiring the best of the worst. You know, it’s kind of the bottom of the pool. And at Hardee’s it was so bad, we were hiring the worst of the worst and hoping they would stay.” He also once mused about replacing his workers with robots, in a March 2016 interview with Business Insider. Of automated replacements to real live workers, he said “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

A place I frequent – which employs only real live humans – has a sign with this statement. This seems appropriate for the CKE workforce as well, except that some of these things are very predictable when you violate the law and mistreat workers.

If all that Puzder had working against him was his anti-worker hostility, in all honesty, he probably would have been easily confirmed. After all, Betsy DeVos was just approved as Secretary of Education despite her documented history of hostility to public education and lack of any experience working in the education field. At least Puzder had some experience with labor and employment laws, if only to violate them and constantly decry their enforcement. But between ethics concerns over how he would divest his CKE Restaurant holdings, his recent admission that he had hired an undocumented worker and not paid her payroll taxes while claiming he thought she had a legal working status, and allegations of domestic violence raised by his ex-wife during their divorce and custody proceedings, Puzder’s nomination was ultimately doomed.

Workplace Fairness was part of a coalition of over 100 groups nationwide in opposition to the Puzder nomination. The coalition, led by the National Employment Law Project and Jobs with Justice, ensured that Puzder’s record of extreme hostility to the rights of workers it would be his job to protect came to light and that workers who would be most impacted by Puzder’s views were equipped with the ability to speak out in response.  A rally planned in opposition to Puzder before his planned February 15 hearing is now a victory celebration.

We will have to wait and see who the next Labor Secretary nominee will be. Will it be someone with views as extreme as Puzder’s, but without such a paper trail? Or will an Administration that has claimed to support the rights of working people actually nominate someone who believes in those rights? Time will tell, but today we celebrate a hard-fought victory by workers’ advocates to prevent the #AntiLaborSecretary from taking office.

Paula Brantner recently stepped down as Executive Director of Workplace Fairness after serving in that position since 2008. She served as the Workplace Program Director from 2003 to 2007, writing legal content for the Webby-nominated site www.workplacefairness.org. Paula was the Program Director for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the Working America Education Fund, from 2007-2008. From 1997-2001, she was the senior staff attorney at the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), heading NELA’s amicus, legislative/policy, and judicial nominations programs. An employment lawyer for over 23 years, Brantner has degrees from UC-Hastings College of the Law and Michigan State University’s James Madison College. She continues to advise the organization on website strategy and content and oversee WF’s 0.1.2.3 Content Licensing for Legal Websites program through her business PB Work Solutions, LLC.

As Long As the Supreme Court Is Setting Labor Policy, the Labor Movement Can Never Revive Itself

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

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First published at Jacobin.

With the death of leading anti-union reactionary Antonin Scalia, the current docket of Supreme Court cases has been thrown into turmoil.

For the labor movement, Scalia’s departure means narrowly escaping the anticipated anti-union decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. While most commentators expected a 5-4 anti-union ruling, the most likely result now is a 4-4 decision, momentarily leaving intact the agency shop for public-sector workers and preventing the establishment of a legal beachhead for future attacks.

Contrary to those who saw a silver lining in Friedrichs, judges would never have used the precedent to expand the rights of government workers on free speech grounds. Instead, as Moshe Marvitpoints out, union busters would’ve deployed the rationale in Friedrichs to argue any form of exclusive representation violates public workers’ free speech rights.

This would’ve turned the clock back over 60 years, to a time when all public employee bargaining was suspect precisely because it was deemed political. Additionally, it would’ve only been a matter of time before Friedrichs was applied to the private sector, imposing “right to work” on every workplace in the country.

But for Scalia’s death, a Supreme Court majority would have almost certainly overturned 50 years of settled law. In doing so, five individuals would have substituted their political beliefs for those of elected officials in agency shop states—participating in the broader attack on public employee rights spearheaded by politicians like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner.

All of which is to say that rather than being a body above politics, the Supreme Court reflects the political trends of the day. Take last year’s gay marriage ruling. The words of the Constitution hadn’t changed, nor had some nebulous thing called “the law.” What changed, after decades of grassroots activism, was the political reality. The same forces that prompted the Supreme Court justices to change their view likely prompted establishment politicians such as Hillary Clinton to reverse their own position.

If judges simply interpreted “the law,” the death of a justice would not matter. But it does matter, and so a debate will rage over Scalia’s replacement.

Union activists should have a different discussion. Instead of engaging with the prevailing debate—which will likely consist of whether to appoint an ultra-right Republican or a corporate Democrat—those in and around the labor movement should use the confirmation battle to spark a conversation about the role of unelected judges in setting labor policy.

And we should note the role both parties have played in establishing and maintaining the present system of labor law. Even during oral arguments in Friedrichs, the liberals on the Supreme Court did not mount a rousing defense of public employee unionism. They simply warned the conservative majority about the dangers of overturning settled law—which they worried would threaten the appearance of impartiality the Supreme Court relies on to maintain its legitimacy.

Much of the body of settled law they were keen to defend—and which corporate liberals on the Supreme Court have been key to establishing—blocks effective trade unionism. Judicially created rules hamstringing labor include restrictions on class-wide solidarity and important tactics such as intermittent strikes, the permanent replacement of striking workers, and the use of the business form to evade unionism. Regardless of which candidate is eventually sworn in as Scalia’s replacement, this bipartisan consensus will almost certainly remain undisturbed.

Indeed, nowhere is the need for a Bernie Sanders–style political revolution more apparent than in the selection of Supreme Court justices. Sanders correctly rails against a bipartisan establishment encompassing politicians from both parties, corporate lobbyists and establishment media forces. But the federal judiciary, and in particular the Supreme Court, is perhaps the most quintessentially establishment grouping in American politics.

Which brings us to the bigger question at stake for unions. As long as labor allows nine establishment figures to dictate policy, we will never revive ourselves as a movement. The rules will continue to be stacked against us. Legislative or National Labor Relations Board initiatives, however well intentioned, will be nullified by the courts.

Over 100 years ago, a school of thought called Legal Realism shattered the idea that judicial decisions were anything but political decisions. Led by Oliver Wendell Holmes and firmly situated within the Progressive Movement, the Legal Realists rejected the idea that judges somehow divined decisions from abstract analyses of the law. To study law, they held, was simply to predict what judges would decide. This subversive idea—that there is no such thing as the law independent of actual decisions—proved highly destabilizing to a fundamentally undemocratic judiciary.

Around the same time, the labor movement was agitating against “judge-made law.” Understanding that labor policy was set by elites with no ties to the working class, unionists agitated not just for better judicial decisions but to remove labor policy entirely from federal courts’ jurisdiction.

For conservative unions like the AFL to radical ones like the IWW, defying judicial injunctions was a matter of official union policy. Unionists understood the law was not on their side. The anti-judicial sentiment reached its peak with the 1932 passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which attempted to get federal courts out of the business of making labor policy. (Over the succeeding decades, the act was defanged by the same federal judges it was supposed to protect labor from.)

Today, the labor movement shouldn’t waste time pondering which elite Supreme Court justice will get confirmed, the latest NLRB initiative waiting to be overruled by the federal judiciary, or the newest scheme to revive labor within the confines of an unjust system of labor control. The more important discussion is the one posed by unionists a century ago: how do we break from the constraints of judge-made law?

While there is no easy answer to this question, shedding liberal illusions about the role of the Supreme Court is a start. It is also important to call out the many restrictions on union rights. We can educate, agitate and organize, but if the rules of the game are rigged, we will never succeed.

Winning requires first challenging the rules of the game and the prerogative of elite institutions to govern labor relations. Judicial support for public employee union rights, we shouldn’t forget, was only secured after millions of public-sector workers struck against a bipartisan consensus that rejected those rights.

There are no easy answers about how we knock down the barriers imposed by labor law. But let’s use the death of an arch-nemesis of labor to at least start the discussion.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Joe Burns is a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America(IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at joe.burns2@gmail.com.

 

 

Labor Lost the Fight Over Fast Track. But the Fact That Unions Oppose the TPP at All Is a Big Deal.

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

leon finkOrganized labor’s recent “victory” over President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, was short-lived, as “fast track” was passed by Congress shortly after it had been denied him earlier in the month. But labor’s strong opposition to the deal is worth examining a bit more closely, as the fight was more than an uncommon rift between the administration and one of the Democratic Party’s steadiest and most powerful constituency groups. Labor’s opposition to the TPP is a dramatic sign of the transformation of popular opinion on a vintage issue of American public policy since World War II.

That the TPP could so easily be linked by its critics to the job-killing, wage-reducing interests of the “one percent” reflects deep and changing understandings of how the global economy works (or rather all too often doesn’t) for ordinary Americans. On this issue, the AFL-CIO, rather than reflecting narrow, let alone petulant comeuppance, is speaking with the wizened voice of collective experience after two terms of relative presidential neglect.

No one was a bigger champion of free trade at the end of World War II than the AFL-CIO, along with New Deal Democrats to whom the labor federation attached its deepest political loyalties. From a critique of controlled trade and top-down economic manipulation most notoriously associated with Japanese zaibatsu and German cartels like the I.G. Farben chemical empire, American liberals stressed the importance of both the free flow of commerce and workers’ freedom to organize. Only unencumbered access to markets and raw materials, such a view suggested, could assure the continuing growth of the American as well as worldwide industrial order.

In fulsome support of the Marshall Plan and surrounding international capitalistic institutions like Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the labor movement—having expelled its own Communist-linked affiliates by 1948—was often more anti-communist than the State Department itself during the Cold War years. In an era when strong unions claimed up to 80 percent of workforce representation in basic industries, it was not surprising that labor leaders would identify their own members’ welfare with that of the free-enterprise economy in which they were employed.  Indeed, Philip Kaiser, assistant secretary of labor for international affairs under President Truman, later recalled the suspicion that the American labor liberals originally faced in Europe among those who could not “[see] the difference between American competitive capitalism and their own national monopoly capitalism built on old feudal structures.”

More than mere freedom from government or employer control, open markets were linked to a period of economic growth and rising incomes that publicist Henry Luce anticipated as “the American Century” and that, in retrospect, also heralded a relatively egalitarian social structure. Thus for good reason—with the exception of garment and textile unions who first felt the sting of a new order of international wage competition—U.S. unions long endorsed “free-trade” unionism. Not until the NAFTA debates of 1993-1994, when the threat to American-sited factories from what maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot had popularized as the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S. and going to Mexico, did the labor federation first seriously reverse course, albeit ( in a standoff with another Democratic President, this time Bill Clinton) in a losing cause.

But changing attitudes came too late to effectively redirect social policy.  In an increasingly competitive world market, the link between corporate profit margins and worker welfare had become increasingly frayed. In the name of “social partnership” or “social dialogue,” America’s Cold War allies generally found ways to shield themselves from the worst of free-market competition and/or to blunt its impact for their own labor forces.

The European Common Market, for example, with stringent initial protections for European farmers and auto makers, was, according to historian Judith Stein, “really a customs union that violated [the core principles of] the GATT.” In addition, by various forms of “industrial policy,” or strategic subsidy of selected economic sectors and worker training, Japan and West Germany leaped ahead of the U.S. in key sectors of economic development, while even smaller states like Israel and Singapore blossomed thanks to outright state investment in the private sector or openly protectionist trade policy.

American workers realized little or none of such benefits, even when their preferred representatives presided over Congress and the White House. The unions watched, meanwhile, while their memberships dropped precipitously, from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to a paltry 11 percent today (including a mere 7 percent in the private sector). With the strike weapon now often a nearly suicidal non-option, American workers have watched their living standards decline, even as in the legislative realm, trade union rights, especially in the public sector, have become ever more restricted.

In an ever-more-expansive world economy, some Americans have prospered as never before, but the middle (where collective-bargaining contracts once reigned) has all but been wrung out of an hourglass economy. But for a few impotent side agreements to major free-trade treaties, workers have simply not been cut into the ‘deal’ of free trade.

All this is why American unions saying “Enough!” in the face of President Obama’s fast-track authority and attempt to pass the TPP and coming T-TIPP is such an important shift for American unions. The interesting question is not why they adopted the position they did, but what took them so long?

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leon Fink. Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

This week in the war on workers: Did Kevin Johnson destroy black mayors group over charter schools?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Laura Clawson All-Star NBA point guard Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, California—and the destroyer of the 40-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors. At Deadspin, Dave McKenna details how Johnson first tried to take over the group, and then, when that failed, went to war against it while starting his own black mayors group, the African American Mayors Association. So why am I writing about this as a labor issue? Because Johnson, who is married to corporate education reform star Michelle Rhee, was trying to use the NCBM to promote charter schools:

[East Orange, New Jersey, Mayor Robert] Bowser says that Johnson, before his coup, had proposed a resolution saying NCBM endorsed the charter-school movement.“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser says. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.”

During his takeover attempt of the NCBM, Johnson also tried to turn a civil rights event, the commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, into a charter-boosting event.

Then there’s Ballard Spahr. During the takeover, Valarie J. Allen, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia offices, sent a missive to the NCBM’s general counsel, Sue Winchester, threatening to report her to “the California Bar” if she didn’t comply with Johnson’s dictates. It turns out that Allen’s prime role with the firm is to run its charter school portfolio. And that’s a big job. “In the past 10 years, Ballard Spahr has helped more than 60 charter schools … secure more than $676 million in tax-exempt bond funding,” reads the sales pitch Allen makes to charter schools operators on the firm’s website. Allen goes on to boast that Ballard Spahr handles “more than 10 percent” of all charter-school financing nationwide.

Surprise, surprise, Johnson’s new African American Mayors Association is holding a charter-dominated education panel at its convention this year.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on May 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. She has been a Labor editor since 2011.

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