Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories. Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.
There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.
Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.
Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.
In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.
While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.
In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.
There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.
What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.
The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.
The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?
This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on March 25, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives.
Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
Not content to only go after collective bargaining rights, pensions andvoting rights, the extremists in Ohio are targeting a new group of their state’s residents, attempting to pre-empt any attempt by college athletes to organize and express their rights. After the National Labor Relations Board ruled that players at Northwestern University were employees of the school, and could thus form a union, Ohio’s right-wingers took action to tryto stop athletes at Ohio colleges and universities from following suit, proposing a bill that would specify that college athletes aren’t employees in Ohio.
There haven’t been any reported discussions of athletes in Ohio attempting to follow in the Northwestern players’ footsteps and the bill has a way to go before it could become law, but maybe the audacity of these people will inspire college athletes at schools like Ohio State to stand up for their rights before the legislature and Gov. John Kasich (R) can take them away.
In a press release, Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga said:
Once again, Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives are spending time trying to engineer punitive proposals instead of working to move Ohio forward, create jobs and improve our struggling economy. This time they are attempting to pre-empt athletes at public colleges and universities from being declared employees. Is this really what Ohioans are worried about? This a labor law matter, which may or may not become an issue, and should it become one there will be plenty of public debate. If Republicans in the House feel compelled to address this matter, they should try to engage in a productive way by dealing with the real concerns of fairness and safety where the players and university leaders have expressed common themes for change. A good place to start a public discussion would be to allow athletes who get injured in their sport to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits under the law.
Mike Gillis, a spokesperson for the state federation, added:
There’s millions being made off the work and also blood, sweat and tears that these athletes endure. They should be offered every protection that employees enjoy, if not more, especially because they are not paid.
Meanwhile, the Colorlines points out Shabazz Napier, a senior on the University of Connecticut men’s basketball national championship team, often goes to bed “hungry.” Read more from the Colorlines.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on April 8, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.
Monday, March 31st, 2014
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) turns 20 this year. Some 700,000 jobs have been lost, income inequality, the U.S. trade deficit and environmental and other problems have grown because of NAFTA in the past two decades. On Thursday, a panel of trade experts will hold a Capitol Hill briefing on NAFTA’s failed trade model and how to avoid the mistakes of the past in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
The 11 a.m. meeting in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room 201, is open to congressional staffers. If you wish to attend but don’t have a congressional ID, you may RSVP to Andrew.email@example.com.
The briefing is sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the Institute for Policy Studies, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and the Sierra Club.
Read “NAFTA at 20” here.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 31, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Monday, March 31st, 2014
A small group of teachers in Philadelphia are finding their union rights under attack on questionable religious grounds, much the same way that women across America found their right to healthcare assaulted this week in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case.
Some 55 teachers at the Perelman Jewish Day School, which has two K-5 campuses in the Philadelphia suburbs with some 300 total students, were stunned March 24 to be notified that the school’s board had decided to cease recognizing their union. The teachers were told that the current union contract will be allowed to expire and they will be required to negotiate individual one-year contracts with school administrators. Normally, revoking union recognition would be considered a blatant violation of collective bargaining law. But board vice president Aaron Freiwald says the action is justified by a Supreme Court decision. The case he’s likely referring to is the obscure 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago, in which the Supreme Court found that religious schools are exempt from certain provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.
The teachers, some of whom are observant Jews themselves, are not going to meekly allow their union to be dissolved, says Barbara Goodman, the communications director for the AFT Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the union with which the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578 is affiliated.
Members held an emergency meeting March 27, Goodman says, and unanimously passed a resolution to fight for their union. It read:
We categorically reject the terms and conditions in the materials that were handed to us, and we authorize all of our local, state and national officers to pursue all legal means to have this action reversed and to return to the bargaining table, where we can negotiate in good faith a contract that is good for the students and the teachers.
Equally offended by the board action is Jesse Bacon, whose daughter is a student at the exclusive private school, where tuitioncan be as high as $20,000 a year. Bacon tells In These Times that he’s firmly on the side of the teachers and regards any claim to religious legitimacy for the board’s high-handed action as bogus and offensive. “This is just rank hypocrisy. … It makes my blood boil,” he says.
Hypocritical or not, the teachers just may have a real legal fight on their hands, says Dan Kovalik, who is on the legal staff at the Pittsburgh headquarters of the United Steelworkers (USW). The little-known Catholic Bishops decision does allow religious schools to claim exemption from the NLRA, he says, although it is not clear that it would apply to the Perelman school. The USW is fighting a Catholic Bishops case right now, he adds, as the union attempts to organize the part-time faculty at the Duquesne University, a Catholic school in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And there are a number of other cases where religious schools have successfully used the Catholic Bishops defense to fend of unionization of the faculty, he says. Indeed, labor lawyers are closely watching a National Labor Relations Board decision right now in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University, which may clarify the law.
The claim of religious exemption doesn’t mean much to the AFT’S Goodman. “Perelman School has been unionized for 38 years. I’m Jewish myself and I can tell you for sure that nothing about Judaism has changed in the last week to justify” attacking the teachers union, she says.
Nor does it hold much water with Bacon. He tells In These Times that his great-grandmother became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union while a seamstress in New York City a century ago. There is a proud tradition in his family of progressive Jewish unionism —some were lifetime members of the socialist-leaning organization Workman’s Circle—and any attempt to justify union-busting with Judaism is offensive, he says. He also notes that the board at the Perelman school chose to move against the union on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the tragedy that helped catalyze the unionization of Jewish workers in New York’s garment district.
Pennsylvania AFT President Ted Kirsch said the full resources of the union are being marshaled to defend the teachers. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve gotten from around the country. This is just so against the Jewish tradition that people can’t believe Perelman is trying to get away this this,” he says.
Freiwald, a Philadelphia lawyer, turned down requests from In These Times for a phone interview but invited queries by email. He declined to answer most of the e-mailed questions, but did however identify himself as the chairman of a special board task force that recommended the vote against the union and stated that the vote was unanimous. He provided a press release and aprepared FAQ sheet [PDF] as the school’s only public comment.
This matter exploded the same week that the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which an employer argued that his religious convictions against birth control trumped the healthcare rights of his workers. Bacon sees a clear parallel between the two: “That seems like phony religion to me. So does this.”
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 28, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
Monday, March 24th, 2014
In a major victory for a long-running campaign, port truck drivers at Pacific 9 Transportation in California have won the right to be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and to form a union.
That ruling, by Region 21 of the National Labor Relations Board, that the truckers had been misclassified as “independent contractors” comes after months of sustained actions, including strikes, by port truckers. It comes in an industry where union jobs were the standard until deregulation turned all workers into “free agents.” Free agency, they quickly found, didn’t come with much freedom, as they still had their hours and working conditions dictated by the company for whom they worked–but it came with a price tag. The cost of gas, truck maintenance and licenses landed on their shoulders instead of their employers’.
It’s in this context that I’m thinking about the “end of jobs as we know them.”
This Wednesday I attended a conference with that provocative title at the Open Society Foundation, and I’ve long been mulling the idea.
In 2011, I wrote at AlterNet that a future beyond jobs, where we all work less, used to be a major goal of the U.S. labor movement. More freedom, less production for its own sake, would actually create a more sustainable world. (Alyssa Battistoni compellingly made this argument recently at Jacobin.) Lowering the amount of hours worked by each person would help distribute jobs better among the people who still don’t have them, as economist Dean Baker has repeatedly argued.
But I noted that moving beyond jobs would necessitate tackling issues of inequality and concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy. At the moment, the “end of jobs” has meant sustained high unemployment and low wages, not more freedom. The disappearance of jobs in America has as much to do with the power of global capital to move where and when it wants and the ability, post-crisis, of businesses to squeeze more and more productivity out of the few workers they keep, as it does with technology making certain professions obsolete. And the rise of the “free agent” worker has at least as much to do with the desire of businesses to have an easy-hire, easy-fire, just-in-time workforce (as I wrote about in some detail recently) that absorbs—as the port truckers do—most of the labor costs, as it does with workers who simply enjoy the freedom of not having a boss. Power is as big or bigger a force as technology in shaping the labor landscape today.
Fast forward to 2014. The economy has improved only slightly. Unemployment remains high, and the jobs that do exist are often low-wage and part-time. Since 2011, we’ve seen not only Occupy but the rise of a movement of Walmart and fast-food workers demanding better wages and, often, more hours, so they can take home a full-time paycheck. A shorter hours movement has not materialized, nor has a meaningful jobs program, despite the promises of a bipartisan clutch of politicians. The minimum wage has risen in some states and cities, but workers are still struggling, and the long-term unemployed have seen their benefits cut off by a Congress that continues to squabble about whether or not they deserve to be able to pay bills.
Jobs have not yet ended or become obsolete. Yet, without question, they are changing. Research from Kelly Services (which, being a temporary agency, certainly has a vested interest in the subject) finds that 44 percent of workers in the U.S. classify themselves as “free agents.” According to the Freelancers Union, 42 million people are freelancers. The full-time job itself is only a fairly recent development in human history, spanning a couple hundred years or so, and the attendant expectation that a job be “good,” paying a living wage and providing healthcare and retirement benefits, with a union and some security, is a peculiar historical development of the New Deal era in the United States—an era that is almost without question over.
Power created that era—the power of organized workers in unions demanding better conditions. But the bosses, it’s worth noting, never stopped trying to dismantle the deal. Since the Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, conservatives have been pushing to limit the power workers were granted by the NLRA in 1935, and the conversion of decent jobs into no-security temp gigs should rightly be seen in that context. The port truck drivers at Pacific 9 and elsewhere realize that despite the promises of freedom and liberation, they have more power when their relationship with the boss is explicit and when they can come together as a union.
We should carefully consider what comes next, whether that be high-end freelancers hopping from gig to gig, disdaining a full-time job, or more likely, the further fragmentation into piecework that we see happening in digital spaces like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the conversion of formerly full-time union jobs such as port trucking or auto manufacturing into low-security independent contracting or temp labor. Moshe Marvit wrote at The Nation of Amazon’s human “crowdworkers” who perform the tiny tasks that are “helping to power the parts of the Internet that most of us take for granted” and who are paid a pittance for their work.
Technology is often blamed for displacing workers and eliminating jobs. Those doing the blaming are sometimes correct, as when supermarkets move to automatic checkout or ports move to automated cargo hauling. And yet the story of the Mechanical Turkers is a good cautionary tale for those who assume that all jobs are disappearing into the mechanical ether. One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to point out that many jobs—including ones, like those done by Turkers, that we think are fully automated—are still being done by people, either because we don’t have the technology to do them yet, or because those people remain cheaper than machines. Whether jobs are disappearing for good reasons—because they simply aren’t socially necessary anymore—or because they are being fragmented, made temporary or shifted to freelancers, these are not processes that are happening outside of human control, but rather because of it.
Carl Benedikt Frey of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology was a keynote speaker at Wednesday’s event. His recent study, with Michael Osborne, found that nearly half of U.S. jobs are “at risk of computerization.” These include positions in a wide variety of sectors, from transportation to the service industry.
The positions that are least likely to be automated, this study found, were those that relied on “creative and social intelligence”—for example, preschool teaching. It concludes, “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”
What is social intelligence but another word for what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild called “emotional labor”? And that emotional labor has been devalued and indeed not considered a skill at all, largely because it has been done by women. One study found that “interactive service jobs,” which include care work and service work, get paid less even if you control for education levels, rate of unionization, cognitive and physical skill, and the amount of women doing the job.
If those social-skilled jobs are the only ones that will be left to us, will we learn to value them more? Or will this just be another excuse to pay workers less? The question, like the question of what is a skill in the first place, is one of power.
The end of jobs doesn’t have to be a dystopian nightmare. There is some truth to the rosy picture painted by Kelly Services about the “free agent” workforce. I once left a full-time job to be a freelancer, and I enjoyed the experience: writing for a variety of outlets, learning from new editors, sharpening different styles, working when I wanted. The pleasure came to a grinding halt, though, when a client who owed me what amounted to more than two months of my rent didn’t pay for several months, and I had few other financial options. I needed a way to pay the bills if the work didn’t come through, and our current so-called social safety net didn’t offer one. It remains designed, as Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers’ Union points out, for a workforce that has full-time jobs with benefits. And that was never everyone, to begin with.
Women, black workers and immigrants were mostly left out of that design in the first place; what’s happened is that the conditions in the sectors where they typically work (temporary work, no labor protections, informal workplaces) have caught up with the rest of us. This means instead of clinging to a safety net that was designed for white male breadwinners in manufacturing jobs, we need a system designed for workers who are doing less work, doing it from home or the neighborhood coffee shop, and where the human resource in demand is care as much as it is cognitive skill or brute strength.
The subject of a universal basic income is coming up a lot these days; former Labor Secretary Robert Reich endorsed it last week in a talk at San Francisco State University, calling it “almost inevitable” in the face of technologically-induced job loss. A basic income would serve as something more than a safety net in troubled times—it would be a firm line below which no one, employed or unemployed, skilled or unskilled, could fall. Perhaps most importantly, it would help workers who do retain jobs (or gigs) increase their bargaining power by giving them the option of leaving rather than clinging to a job out of desperation.
That’s a large redistribution of income, of course, and it will take a lot of political power to make such a thing a reality. Political power for working people has come in the past and will come in the future through worker organizing—particularly, as has been the case with the port truckers, organizing outside of the old NLRB framework. It took workers coming together to challenge their bosses’ idea of “freedom” to win fair pay at the ports, and it will take workers coming together on a massive scale to really get workers some freedom.
Along with that idea of freedom, it’s time to consider a call for shorter working hours—a redistribution of work and leisure to go along with the redistribution of wealth. There will always to be some work that cannot be automated away, and much of that work, as Frey and Osborne found, will likely rely on social skills that have been presumed to be women’s domain. If we don’t want a world where women do most or all of the work for little pay, we’ll have to start valuing those social skills more, and ensuring that the jobs that requires them are done by all.
But most importantly, we should be working to ensure that a future without jobs is a future where we all get to enjoy the benefits of free time.
This article was originally printed on Working in These Times on March 21, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.
Monday, March 24th, 2014
Adjunct faculty joined SEIU president Mary Kay Henry and House Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) to launch the Adjunct Action Network and talk about the future of adjunct faculty organizing at a town hall at Georgetown University today.
“Imagine if brick-by-brick adjuncts work to build a new model,” Henry said as she led a discussion about how the growing adjunct organizing victories from Los Angeles to Boston can be leveraged into even larger movement both online and offline.
Though adjunct faculty often lack physical meeting space on the campuses where they work, adjuncts have formed a virtual network that crosses cities and campuses. The Adjunct Action Network’s toolset, which gives users the ability to create petitions, host events, build email lists and create online discussion groups, is designed to elevate those connections to concerted action. Click here to sign up to the network and watch a recorded version of the town hall.
Adjunct faculty in attendance described how collective action by contingent faculty has given them a larger voice in the fight to roll back the corporatization of higher education and refocus it on education and students. “I think we can really rumble and quake the higher education ground,” said Tiffany Kraft, an adjunct from Clark College who spoke on the panel at the town hall. “We are not passive victims in our marginalization,” she added.
“There’s plenty of money in higher education. It’s just not being directed at front-line teaching,” Henry noted.
Rep. Miller said the growing influence of adjunct faculty is altering the power calculus in politics and higher education back towards students and instruction, and urged adjuncts to continue to organize and engage. “Bring your lunch,” and stay for the fight, he said to applause.
The town hall comes as adjuncts continue to organize across the country. In late February, adjunct faculty at Lesley University in Boston voted overwhelmingly to form a union. In the last few months adjuncts at Seattle University in Washington state, Howard University in DC, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Northeastern University in Boston have filed election petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections.
Tufts University part-time faculty voted to join SEIU in September 2013 and are currently bargaining their first contract, and in December, adjunct faculty at Whittier College in Los Angeles voted to form a union.
For a compilation of live reaction to the town hall, follow #AdjunctNetwork.
This article was originally printed on SEIU on March 24, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Author: Mariah Quinn
Monday, March 24th, 2014
This is the week! Again! This is the week, that is, that the Senate will once again attempt to pass an emergency unemployment aid extension that House Republicans will refuse to even bring up for a vote. The bipartisan unemployment deal the Senate will be considering has some problems, mostly ones created in the effort to win the final Republican vote needed to break a filibuster, and of course House Speaker John Boehner’s response is to use the problems as an excuse to kill an unemployment extension altogether rather than to look for a fix. A fix should be possible:
Labor Secretary Tom Perez sent a letter to Senate leaders on Friday saying he is “confident that there are workable solutions for all of the concerns raised by [the National Association of State Workforce Agencies]” and that “any challenges pale in comparison to those to the need that the long-term unemployed have for these benefits.”
The Nevada head of unemployment insurance operations said he was ready to implement the bill regardless: “We would stand ready and do it. … We’ll get through it, just like we have in the past.”
Meanwhile, even some Republicans are starting to get openly frustrated with obstruction from their party:
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the main Republican working on the deal, said it was “extremely disappointing that, no matter what solution is reached, there is some excuse to deny these much-needed benefits.”
This should not exactly come as a surprise to Heller. There’s always an excuse.
House Democrats are circulating a discharge petition to force a vote on unemployment aid, but so far no Republicans have signed it. Getting a House vote on this vital bill, whether through a successful discharge petition or action by Boehner, will require the kind of public pressure even House Republicans can’t ignore.
This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on March, 24, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.
Monday, March 24th, 2014
While the AFL-CIO “strongly supports” a proposed new rule that would limit workers’ exposure to silica dust, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario outlined several areas that should be strengthened to provide better worker protection from deadly silicosis and other diseases caused by silica exposure.
Testifying before an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hearing, Seminario noted that changes to the current exposure standard—now more than 40 years old—were first proposed in 1997 and that when the proposed new standard was sent for review to the Office of Management and Budget in 1991, it lingered there for two-and-a-half years.
Every day that a final standard is delayed, workers will continue to be at increased risk of disease and death.
Every year some 2 million workers are exposed to silica dust and, according to public health experts, more than 7,000 workers develop silicosis and 200 die each year as a result of this disabling lung disease. Silicosis literally suffocates workers to death. Silica is also linked to deaths from lung cancer, pulmonary and kidney diseases.
Seminario said that permissible exposure limit in the proposed standard while set at half the current level is still too high. She urged that a stricter standard be included in the final and said that other provisions in the standard should be strengthened, including:
- Establishing regulated work areas to limit the number of workers on the job who are exposed to silica dust;
- Requiring that the primary method to control silica dust is through engineering and work practice controls rather than through respiratory control—i.e., masks;
- Requiring employers create a written compliance/exposure control plan; and
- A stronger standard to trigger medical surveillance of workers exposed to silica.
Other areas she addressed included protecting the confidentiality of workers’ medical records, preventing employer retaliation against workers who seek medical care for exposure to silica and better training and information for workers.
The hearings continue next week and workplace safety and health experts from other unions, along with workers who have developed silica-related illnesses, will appear during the course of the hearings. But a number of employer groups in such industries as sand and gravel, brick, fracking where silica dust is prevalent, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate groups have or will testify against the proposed rule during the 14 days of hearings in Washington, D.C.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 21, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Monday, March 17th, 2014
During the nearly two years he worked at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., Ed Hunter, 43, spent his days bent over, crawling in and out of cars on the assembly line. He believes the posture slowly destroyed his body and led to an accident he suffered in June 2011. “When I got into the car I felt something go,” he says. “I just lost my foot—I couldn’t feel it.”
When he went to the doctor the next month, Hunter learned that he had ruptured several disks in his back. Despite this, Hunter says, his team leader called him a “pussy” for taking light duty. So Hunter sucked it up and worked through the pain.
Hunter eventually began throwing up blood on the assembly line from an ulcer, which he thinks was caused by taking too many painkillers. He could no longer work on the line, so he was put on unpaid leave in November 2011. Now, he’s unable to make his mortgage payments; rather than fall behind and damage his credit, he and his wife decided to sell their home.
“When I got hurt at the plant my whole world came to an end,” Hunter told me over Texas steak melts at a Waffle House in Chattanooga last month.
When Chattanooga Volkswagen workers began to talk about organizing with the United Auto Workers, Hunter campaigned vigorously for the union, hoping in part that it would help him get a job at the plant again doing light work. But more broadly, he and several other pro-union workers say they thought a union could combat the culture of bullying and machismo that pushed employees like Hunter to the breaking point.
Last month, Hunter’s dreams were dashed when the UAW lost the union election at the plant by a mere 43 votes. The defeat came as a surprise to many, including Hunter. Volkswagen had pledged to be neutral, removing the typical management roadblocks to unionization. However, politicians, special-interest groups and—according to exclusive In These Timesinterviews with workers—low-level Volkswagen supervisors engaged in unsanctioned anti-union activity.
Conversations with workers on both sides of the union battle reveal that the macho culture at the plant—which Hunter and others hoped a union could combat—helped fuel the anti-union campaign by low-level management and workers, who stressed obedience to authority and masculine self-reliance as reasons to reject the UAW.
As pro-union workers at Volkswagen attempt to organize to win over the additional votes that will be needed to unionize the plant in the future, they are seeking ways to overcome this culture. It’s a tough one to shake, however, because it draws on deeply ingrained codes of Southern white masculinity, which hold great sway at a plant that workers estimate is about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly male. (In These Times reached out to several of the plant’s black workers for interviews, but they declined.)
While acknowledging these historical currents, many of the pro-union Volkswagen workers interviewed by In These Timeswere critical of outsiders who say that the South is impossible to organize. These workers are looking to alternative narratives of the South, and even the role of anti-Confederacy white Southerners in the Civil War, for inspiration.
The Toyota Way
Lon Gravett, 46, who was placed on leave from Chattanooga Volkswagen in November 2012 after blowing out his elbow, says he was motivated to form a union because of what he calls a high-school “bully” mentality he’s seen in many factories, including Volkswagen.
“Work is not supposed to be a popularity contest, but that’s exactly what it is, unless you’re protected [by a union],” says Gravett, who since graduating from high school in 1985 has worked in various factories, including Dupont, Cleveland Tubing, Polyloom and Volkswagen. “You’re either a whipping boy that’ll go in and break your back while others stand around, or you’re the one standing around [doing the whipping].”
“I have been in too many factories too many times and I’m rarely in the clique,” he continues. “I’m usually over there nursing a sore back.”
Gravett and other Volkswagen workers trace this supervisory style to a management culture known as the Toyota Way, developed at the non-union Toyota factories that dot the South and eventually adopted by supervisors at Volkswagen and other plants.
The Toyota Way refers to 14 principles that are drilled into the heads of workers and supervisors. In 2004, engineering professor Jeffrey K. Liker, who’d studied the Toyota plants extensively, popularized the style with his hot-selling book The Toyota Way, which quickly became the bible for managers who wanted to learn the secrets of Toyota’s success. (In the most recent quarter, Toyota made as much in profits as its two closest competitors—Volkswagen and General Motors—combined.)
“’Toyota Way’ can mean a bundle of things,” explains Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “The original [meaning] is lean production and so-called team production—multiskilling—which is a way of having just enough workers to strew the line and keep everyone working full out.”
In other words, supervisors trained in the Toyota Way promote a sense of team loyalty and an unquestioning allegiance to the company, which deters workers from speaking up against management.
“The real ‘Toyota Way’ is a culture of control,” Masaki Saruta, a Japanese business professor at Chukyo University who wrote several books on Toyota, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. Saruta explained that the fear of bucking supervisors is so strong that many inside of Toyota were afraid of speaking up about accelerator flaws that led to one of the biggest recalls of vehicles in American history.
Don Jackson, the plant manager who got operations underway when the Chattanooga Volkswagen factory first opened four years ago, was a 20-year veteran of Toyota. He boasted to the Chattanooga Times Free Press of importing practices and personnel from Toyota and other plants.
Hunter says that the culture in the plant changed dramatically when the original Volkswagen managers, who are accustomed to working with unions and encountering dissent, returned to Germany, and Jackson’s managers came in.
“The Germans were much more friendly and willing to teach. As they left, the management became more and more off-putting. They didn’t want to be bothered and did not take our suggestions kindly,” says Hunter. “It was their way or no way.”
Hunter says that the supervisors who pushed his body to the breaking point continually cited the Toyota Way principles of team loyalty. When Hunter complained that he couldn’t do the strenuous work, he says that his supervisor “taunted [him] with not being a team player when the line was short.”
Hunter is not the only worker who spoke of harsh treatment on the assembly line leading to injury. Another Volkswagen worker, Lauren Feinauer, says that she has been overworked to the point where her hands go numb.
A rogue anti-union campaign
Lichtenstein explains that the Toyota Way style of management seeks to promote the idea that every worker is a valued member of a team, and to instill in employees a sense of investment in this teamwork. That sense of investment helps increase production, but it can also be used to turn workers away from unions seeking a role in the workplace.
That may help to explain why, while Volkswagen remained neutral during the union drive, low-level supervisors actively campaigned against the union, according to workers interviewed by In These Times. Byron Spencer, a pro-union worker at the plant, identified one of those anti-union supervisors as a manager who worked at the Toyota plant in San Antonio at the same time that Jackson did.
Jackson, too, played a role in fighting the union effort. Although he had left the plant by the time the UAW campaign began, he made public statements against the union, leveraging his reputation as the businessman who had successfully opened the Volkswagen facility and brought jobs to Chattanooga. At an anti-UAW forum in July 2013, he boasted that at Toyota and Volkswagen, he had created a total of “10,000 direct jobs based on doing things the right way and managing the right way.” He implied that “managing the right way” included keeping out unions, saying of his experiences at Toyota plants in Kentucky and Texas, “I’ve learned … how to set up a non-union environment.” (The UAW has been trying unsuccessfully for more than 20 years to organize the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., where Jackson worked.)
As the union campaign at Volkswagen progressed, Jackson continued to campaign against the UAW, appearing at an event organized by the anti-union group Southern Momentum on February 8, just a few days before the election. He also may have been in direct touch with anti-union workers—Mike Burton, a leader of the anti-union effort at the plant, says, “[Don Jackson] and I have gotten to know each other through this experience.”
The pro-union workers believe that statements by Jackson and the low-level supervisors were a major factor in turning the tide against the union.
“There is a reverence of the lower-level management,” says worker Feinauer. She attributes this attitude in part to a paternalistic culture at the plant that rewards loyalty over all else. “I … suspect the good ol’ boy system appeals to some of [the workers] because it may be the only strength they have to get themselves ahead,” she says. “If the playing field were more fair and level, they may have nothing to offer in skill, merit or education.”
Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett agrees. “Yes, I see it daily. [Workers] are yes-men. They are ass-kissers. … All this, hoping to get ahead, and it works, because the supervisors eat it up.”
Experts and workers say this reverence for low-level supervisors may be strengthened by aspects of Southern culture. “There is this long tradition in the region of a (sometimes intense) personal identification with the company, especially among floor-level supervisors, [which] undermines solidarity and union organizing,” says Beth English, director of the Program on Women in the Global Community at Princeton University and author of A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry.
English, whose work centers on the textile industry in the South, notes that even as management positions became increasingly professionalized over the past century, with decision-making isolated from the reality of the shopfloor, “upper-level management continued to frame relations between workers and themselves as intimate and personal. The long-standing paternalistic culture of seeing an employer as a benefactor … perpetuated among floor supervisors,” she explains. “The floor supervisor was the embodiment of that personal management style, so … floor supervisors’ loyalty to management wasn’t framed as disloyalty to the rank and file.”
“One of the rewards of being a supervisor in the South is the power that you wield over the people that work for you,” agrees former Volkswagen worker Gravett. “When this power is threatened, many members of management go to extremes to keep their power. Harassment and the targeting of employees that threaten the system that gives management their power is fairly common.”
Indeed, Spencer, the worker who first went on the record to allege unsanctioned union-busting by low-level supervisors, says he is receiving blowback for speaking to In These Times.
“I have already alienated myself from all supervision with the quote I gave you election night,” says Spencer. “They are definitely going to get me when they get the chance. Hopefully we unionize someday and I still work there by then.”
Other workers interviewed by In These Times during the UAW campaign say that since that defeat, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over the workers who campaigned for the union. Spencer says that several pro-union workers have been transferred from the finishing area of the plant, where turnover is low, to the much more physically strenuous assembly line of the plant, where turnover is much higher.
Lichtenstein says that the fact that Volkswagen did not discipline managers and salaried employees for campaigning against the union raises questions about Volkswagen’s true commitment to its neutrality agreement, which also barred the union from visiting workers unsolicited in their homes or making any negative statements about working conditions at Volkswagen.
“If VW managers from foremen on up were involved in anti-union activities, by word or deed, when the policy of the company was neutrality, then those same lower-level managers should have been disciplined for violating company policy,” says Lichtenstein. “In anti-union campaigns all across America, it is standard operating procedure for top management to discipline, transfer or fire any supervisor who is not fully engaged in the effort to stop the union,” he continues. “This is a reactionary feature of American labor law, but to the extent that top management can wield such power, then the hammer should also fall on foremen and supervisors when they are insufficiently neutral or even pro-union when that is company policy.”
The codes of masculinity
Going forward, Cliett and other pro-union workers see their task as reprogramming their fellow employees so that they no longer see kowtowing to their supervisors as the only way to secure protection at work. Instead, they hope workers will learn to rely on solidarity and collective action.
But in addition to the union-busting efforts of low-level supervisors, pro-union workers are up against codes of masculine self-reliance that hold great sway with the predominantly white and male workforce at the Volkswagen facility.
“There is a kind of machismo to the ‘I don’t need no union to speak for me’ attitude,” says Feinauer, one of the few women working the line at the VW plant.
Those codes were on full display during a February 12 meeting of Southern Momentum
, an outside group that backed the “No 2 UAW” anti-union committee at the plant. “Nobody is going to fight for Mike Jarvis like Mike Jarvis,” said Jarvis, one of the workers behind No 2 UAW. “Mike Jarvis is going to fight for his family—and that’s the guys on the line. So we can handle our own issues.”
Cornell School of Industry and Labor Relations Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner says this kind of mentality helps explain why anti-unionism frequently appeals to working-class white men.
Anti-union campaigns, she says, typically combine threats with the promise that “real men can work hard through tough times [to earn] just rewards.” This ideology emphasizes that “there are lots of white men who started out poor just like them who made it all on their own to the very top, and surely they stayed as far away from unions as they could to get there,” Bronfenbrenner says.
By contrast, she says, “Women and people of color know that they never would have survived without their support networks and community allies. Nor do they have any reason to trust any employer who says, ‘Stick with me and some day you will make it to the top,’ because the people who are telling them that are the same white men who are sexually and racially harassing them.”
Indeed, union-busters often play on notions of self-reliance and independence, as per one of the arguments advanced publicly by Don Jackson: that a union is “a third party that drives a wedge between management and employees.” In Martin Jay Levitt’s seminal 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster, he brags that one of his favorite opening lines in anti-union sessions was to ask a married worker if he liked sleeping with his wife. The man would blush, but then would often say yes. Levitt would then ask, “How would you like it if your mother-in-law slept between you and your wife every night?” and explain in demasculinizing terms that this was what a union would do.
But the pro-union Volkswagen workers point out that the tough-guy ideal, if left unchecked, can also drive workers over the edge.
Gravett, who comes from a family of poor white farmers in Dayton, Tenn., knows this all too well. “My dad’s father committed suicide because he got sick and he couldn’t work in the field anymore,” says Gravett. “When he was 9 years old, they would leave a plow at the edge of the field, pack him lunch and feed him breakfast and send him out in the field. When my granddaddy couldn’t work in the fields anymore [at 46], he wasn’t an asset to his family anymore, he was a burden, [and that drove him to suicide].”
To injured worker Hunter, this shows an inherent contradiction of the culture of masculinity: Men must never complain about their work, even if doing so breaks them and means they can no longer do their job.
“Here I’m supposed to be this big strong man. I’m supposed to provide for my family,” says Hunter. “Now all of a sudden, I was sentenced to sit in the house.”
Ironically, the ethos of independence that fueled the anti-union argument didn’t extend to its funding. Southern Momentumraised some $100,000 for anti-union billboards, flyers and 800 T-shirts, as well as a slick, well-produced anti-union website. Of this money, “not one of us [workers] raised a penny,” No 2 UAW Committee leader Mike Burton told In These Times.
‘Anne Braden Southerners’
In the days following the UAW loss, many prominent labor analysts, such as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, were quick to dismiss any missteps by the UAW, instead blaming the loss almost entirely on a Southern culture of resentment dating back to the Civil War.
“In much of the white South, particularly among the Scotch-Irish descendants of Appalachia, the very logic of collective bargaining runs counter to the individualist ethos,” wrote Los Angeles native Harold Meyerson in a column for the American Prospect entitled “When Culture Eclipses Class.” “It was no great challenge for UAW opponents to depict the union as the latest in a long line of Northern invaders.”
It’s true that Chattanooga’s bloody legacy in the Civil War played a large role, rhetorically and psychologically, in the union fight on the same ground a century-and-a-half later. Anti-union forces went so far as to compare the UAW drive to the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, in which the Confederacy defeated Union troops.
“Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union—an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW),” Grover Norquist’s top anti-union consultant, Matt Patterson, wrote in a Chattanooga Times Free Press op-ed that was later turned into a pamphlet and handed out to workers. “One hundred and fifty years ago … the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga.”
But not all Southerners read their history this way. In the days following the union defeat, Michael Gilliland, head of the pro-labor community group Chattanooga for Workers (and my host during my trip to Chattanooga), complained about how Northerners analyzed the UAW loss by relying on a blanket characterization of Southern culture. Gilliland describes himself as an “Anne Braden Southerner,” after the white Kentuckian anti-racist crusader. A civil rights activist, Braden became ensnared in a legal battle after she purchased a home in her name for a black family in 1954. The home was located in a Louisville neighborhood with a restrictive covenant keeping out blacks, and Braden faced criminal charges of sedition, though they were later dropped.
To try to define the South solely by its role in the Civil War, Gilliland believes, is a gross oversimplification of the struggles that have always been waged by some white Southerners against the mainstream culture of oppression. Gilliland points to the religious white Southerners who marched in solidarity on the Trail of Tears with Cherokees and died doing so, as well as those who took up guns in the Coal Creek War of 1891 to fight the use of lease convict labor, leading Tennessee to become one of the first Southern states to end the practice in 1896.
Even the Civil War itself has a mixed legacy, says Gilliland. “There were huge divisions of power in the South during the Civil War, and that inequality is still evident,” he says. There is a long tradition of lower-class whites in the South who, while not necessarily anti-racist, advocated for economic equality because their wages were driven down by slave labor and then, after the Civil War, by the low wages paid to African Americans.
Those divisions were on display during the Battle of Chattanooga, which followed the Union’s defeat at Chickamauga in September 1863. Gilliland feels an affinity with the poor white Southerners from nearby Bledsoe County, Tenn., who volunteered to fight for the Union during the battle because they were pro-free labor and anti-planter class. Also among the men who fought in that battle were “Nickajack” free-labor fighters: Appalachian men from Eastern Tennessee and Northern Alabama who viewed the Confederacy as the pet cause of the rich and engaged in guerilla warfare behind Confederate lines for years. (This mix of these forces was complex: Fighting alongside the pro-free-labor contingent were other men from Eastern Tennessee who, while not necessarily anti-slavery, fought for the North out of reasons of national loyalty or distrust of those who wanted to secede.)
After Chickamauga, retreating Union troops were besieged for nearly two months. A breakthrough came in November 1863, when 14,000 Union troops departed from a hill called Orchard Knob (which faces Gilliland’s house), for what would become known as the Battle of Chattanooga. At the head of the column was the German-born Union Brigadier General August Willich of the 32nd Indiana. Willich had resigned his commission in the Prussian Army in 1846 and commanded an armed faction of the Communist League in Germany’s 1848 Revolution, with Friedrich Engels serving as his aide-de-camp. After the failure of the 1848 Revolution, Willich emigrated to America and volunteered as an officer in the Union Army because of his Communist and anti-slavery views.
As Union troops advanced that day in November, they were taking heavy casualties. But as Nation writer John Nichols—a native of of Union Grove, Wis.—loves to recount, in the desperate moments that followed, 1st Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment picked up the regimental flag from a fallen color bearer. MacArthur charged the hill, shouting “On Wisconsin!”—a battle cry that would echo again during the pro-labor occupation of Wisconsin State Capitol 150 years later. The troops charged onwards and took the top of Missionary Ridge, opening a gateway to the Deep South.
Anti-union forces have won the first round in Chattanooga: Much like the Battle of Chickamauga, the first drive for a union at Volkswagen ended in defeat. But another Battle of Chattanooga has just begun. Once again, it will be decided by a ragtag group—including Germans, Midwesterners, and pro-union Southern whites—fighting in solidarity against the hierarchical, paternalistic aspects of Southern culture.
Gilliland believes that while the challenges are formidable, Southern history shows that a victory at Volkswagen is possible with time and education.
“There are certain themes that play strongly here because they have gone so long unchallenged, like the near total rights of a business owner,” he says. “Most people have honestly never heard the other side; they’ve never been really challenged to think through the inequalities of power, how wages are set, the profitability of their labor, etc.”
“In the same way, most whites have virtually no understanding of the black experience here,” Gilliland continues. “They have never been taught any history past [World War II], know nothing about the civil rights movement or Jim Crow, much less about mass incarceration or the effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color … In this sense, there is an aspect of Southern culture that is an insulator, but it isn’t something natural or unique to us. There is a hump set by the status quo, and we have to constantly get over that hump to do real work.”
But ultimately, Gilliland asks, “What does it mean to be Southern? Is the Confederacy really ‘more Southern’ than the civil rights movement? Is an ingrained distrust for unions more South than Moral Monday? Who gets to say?”
Full disclosure: Elk’s mother, Cynthia Holden Elk, was a member of the United Auto Workers before the Volkswagen plant she worked at in Westmoreland, Pa. closed in 1988. UAW is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 13, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.
Monday, March 17th, 2014
The following is a guest post from U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Please take a minute to sign our petition to Speaker Boehner, and demand that House leadership stop turning their backs on our friends and family members who are looking for work.
I first heard from Gerri Battista after she posted on my Facebook page.
Gerri was an HR professional who lost her job last May, and without unemployment insurance was forced to choose which bills to pay so she could save money for gasoline to get to her next job interview. We met weeks later, and I was able to share her story as my guest at President Obama’s State of the Union Address.
Last December, 1.7 million job-seeking Americans like Gerri lost their unemployment benefits after Congress failed to extend them — and with every week that passes, 70,000 more join their ranks.
The last time my colleagues in the Senate voted on this issue, we came up one vote short. I’m confident that the next time the roll is called, we’ll find the sixty we need to send an extension to the House.
But passing this crucial bill in the House will be difficult. Just last Friday, Speaker Boehner’s spokesman said he hasn’t seen a bill they’d bring up for a vote. It’s up to us to help change his mind.
Please join me and thousands of SEIU members and supporters and sign our petition calling on Speaker Boehner to bring an unemployment insurance extension up for a vote.
“United in the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families…”
The dignity and worth of workers…
That part of SEIU’s mission statement gets to the heart of why this issue is so important. It’s about recognizing the dignity, worth, and limitless potential of all Americans. The loss of one person’s potential is a tragedy – and the loss of millions’ is a national emergency.
Stand up for the dignity and worth of millions of job-seeking Americans who are desperate for Congress to act on this critical issue, and tell Speaker Boehner to bring unemployment insurance up for a vote.
Gerri’s story has a happy ending. Just this past week, she told me she found a new job. She also told me that after what she’s experienced in so many months without a job she is resolved to keep fighting for those still searching. I feel the same way.
Thanks for joining us in resolving to fight.
This article was originally printed on SEIU on March 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Author: Cory Booker (D), U.S. Senator from New Jersey