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The Battle for Chattanooga: Southern Masculinity and the Anti-Union Campaign at Volkswagen

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Mike ElkDuring 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.

Tell Speaker Boehner to Allow a Vote on Unemployment Insurance

Monday, March 17th, 2014

seiu-org-logoThe 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.

http://seiu.me/tellboehner

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

Huge Amazon Wage Theft Case Goes to Supreme Court

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Laura ClawsonOver the last couple years, a lawsuit by workers at Amazon warehouses has been making its way through the courts. Now, the Supreme Court has agreed to take it up. The workers claim that they were made to spend time off the clock going through security screenings, taking about 25 unpaid minutes each day. Being made to work off the clock is classic wage theft lawsuit material, but Bruce Vail writes, the stakes are unusually high in this case:

Mark Thierman, the Reno, Nev., lawyer representing Busk and Castro, says the lawsuit has since been joined by another 500 workers from other warehouses. If the suit is fully successful, he tells In These Times, the settlement could include back pay for as many as 500,000 workers (both permanent and temporary) from all of Amazon’s more than 50 U.S. warehouses. [...]A commentary from attorneys at Littler Mendelson, which is representing Integrity Staffing, explains the stake employers have in Busk. “The question is of great import for the nation’s employers as security screening is becoming an ever more common practice in the workplace,” write attorneys Neil Alexander, Rick Roskelley and Cory Walker. “Indeed, the Ninth Circuit’s determination in Busk has already triggered a spate of class-action suits filed by employees seeking back pay for time spent undergoing pre- or post-shift security measures. If allowed to stand, the Ninth Circuit’s determination could result in massive retroactive liability stemming from such suits.”

Since the circuit court ruling was in favor of the workers, there’s reason for concern that the Supreme Court is hearing this case in order to decide that, yes, businesses can force workers to spend significant unpaid time going through required security screenings:

“It’s always a little worrying when [the Supreme Court] agrees to take a case from the Ninth Circuit,” [attorney Brooke Lierman] says. Whereas the Ninth Circuit is considered by labor lawyers to be relatively liberal, the high court is considered very conservative, Lierman says, so there is concern that some Supreme Court judges are predisposed to overrule the Ninth Circuit. “There are justices on the Supreme Court who want to roll back the rights of workers,” she says.

She’s definitely not kidding on that last point.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on March 15, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

Is Korea FTA Job Loss, Deficit Growth a Harbinger of TPP?

Monday, March 17th, 2014
Image: Mike HallThe U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS–FTA) turns 2 years old Saturday and imports from Korea continue to flood into the United States, costing workers their jobs. Exports to Korea have failed to live up to the promises made when the agreement passed Congress, says United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo W. Gerard. The agreement, he says:

Has failed to produce good jobs and the evidence on exports is clear. Our export growth rate in the past 20 out of 21 months is below the average monthly level seen before the FTA was signed.

Despite promises of U.S. job growth and improvements in trade balances (similar to what we’re hearing about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement [TPP])—Gerard says imports from Korea are up by 4% and:

The monthly U.S. trade deficit with Korea has ballooned 45 percent when compared to the pre-FTA level. The damage from KORUS and other free trade deals have been shown by the Economic Policy Institute to have caused the loss of tens of thousands of good-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs.

He warns that if TPP has the same negative and growing impact as KORUS, America’s job losses and the effect of trade imbalances will multiply.

Read more from the USW.

In related trade news, there is still time for you to sign the petition to Congress to stop the legislation (H.R. 3830/S. 1900) that would give Fast Track trade authority approval for all major trade agreements over the next four years, including the TPP.

Under the Fast Track process, Congress can only vote yes or no on the full agreement. It cannot amend, improve or fix any flaws in the bill. The North American Free Trade Agreement and other job-killing trade deals were approved via Fast Track.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 14, 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.

Industry Attacks on ‘Scaffold Law’ Put Construction Workers on Shaky Ground

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Michelle ChenNew York City’s tens of thousands of construction workers face a precarious landscape at work.  Teetering at the edge of rooftops, sidestepping mammoth cranes and noisy bulldozers, and navigating through half-collapsed walls and chemical-laden debris, they’re surrounded by hazards day in and day out. Yet many workers remain silent about unsafe conditions. For them, the risk of retaliation outweighs the risk to life and limb.

Given these hazards, one might assume that demanding employers take responsibility for worker safety is about as basic a precautionary measure as a hard hat. Yet, construction industry lobbyists are working hard to gut the Scaffold Law, a keystone piece of occupational safety legislation that has for more than a century added an extra layer of accountability for firms that fail to protect workers from harm. Complaining that the law cuts into their bottom line, opponents have in recent months pushed for reform legislation in Albany that could prove disastrous for the workers most at risk: non-union Asian and Latino workersdoing small-scale and informal building jobs already off the regulatory radar of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The Scaffold Law, a state law on the books since 1885, states that worksites above the ground “shall be constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed.” The law holds owners and contractors liable for injuries that result as a violation of those standards, and allows employees to sue for damages if they can demonstrate that such a violation occurred and caused the injury in question. Advocates say that the law thereby promotes safety standards such as provision of appropriate training and protective equipment, as well as checks to ensure that worksites are structurally sound.

Opponents say New York’s law is a frivolous measure unique to a notoriously litigious city. But in reality, lawmakers passed the Scaffold Law in response to alarming reports of injuries and deaths caused by unsafe conditions at building sites, including faulty scaffolds. And in fact, other states have passed similar safety laws over the years.

Illinois’ occupational safety record worsened after the state repealed the law in 1995. According to one analysis by a trial lawyers’ group, “In 2004, the incidence rate of falls from scaffolding/staging in the construction industry in Illinois was more than triple the national rate.”

The firms and business groups, including the Associated Builders and Contractors, American Insurance Association and, in a nod to diversity, Association of Minority Enterprises NY, mobilizing against the law blame it for excessive litigation and insurance costs, saying that it puts undue emphasis on the employer rather than the “personal responsibility” of the worker. They say the law should be rewritten to allow for consideration of “comparative negligence,” to take into account workers’ alleged carelessness. Proposed changes to the law would explicitly direct juries to consider the degree to which the worker caused the accident. The idea is to create more legal wriggle room to limit the company’s legal and financial liability toward victims.

Critics point out that under the current law, the courts are already tasked with adjudicating these factors in civil suits when determining whether the employer is legally at fault for a safety failure, since the law addresses only proven violations of safety codes. But more importantly, critics argue that the concept of “comparative” responsibility is absurd in light of the outsized power imbalance between construction workers and bosses.

Of course, the Scaffold Law provides just a thin layer of protection against an endemically oppressive labor market.

But the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), a New York City-based advocacy group, argues that the Scaffold Law helps “protect workers from dangers at work that lead to disparate outcomes based on race, ethnicity, or language.”

Occupational hazards, as well as labor abuse, are rife across the construction industry, particularly for more casual, unregulated work, such as the day laborer jobs that proliferated in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and the small-scale contractor projects on private suburban homes. Falls from heights made up over one-third of construction worker deaths in 2012, and construction workers suffer injuries that are more frequent and severe than workers in many other private-sector industries, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to an analysis by CPD, in New York City between 2003 and 2011, a stunning 74 percent of fatal construction-site falls investigated by OSHA involved Latino or immigrant workers, exceeding their representation in the general population and the construction workforce. Most occurred on smaller, non-union worksites, where undocumented labor is typically concentrated.

Other research from advocacy groups and occupational-safety authorities suggests Latino immigrant workers are deterred from speaking out about unsafe conditions, in part due to limited English ability or fear of exposing their immigration status. That compounds the oppression of economic precarity and discrimination; it’s hard to feel empowered to challenge your working conditions when you’re “off the books.”

CPD’s analysis highlights the perilous tightrope these workers traverse each day. In one case narrative in the report, two men were working at a height of 16 feet, and “They were moving and adjusting the scaffold when employee #1 fell. Employee #1 was not tied off to his lifeline. Employee #1 was pronounced dead at the hospital.”

Those who survive such workplace accidents may never fully heal. In an interview with WNYC last year, Pedro Corchado recalled an accident while working on a ladder in the Bronx in 2008. “The ladder collapsed on me,” he said. “I fell about 11 feet or so to the concrete floor. I suffered neck and lower back injuries that will be with me the rest of my life.”

Under the proposed reform, these workers might come under scrutiny for being “negligent”—Why did he get on a shaky ladder in the first place? Why wasn’t his lifeline securely tied? Advocates counter that question’s about the employer’s negligence—Who was charged with overseeing the worksite? Did inadequate equipment or poor management place workers in harm’s way?— ultimately hold more weight.

“The fact of the matter is, you could be doing everything right,” CPD Director of Strategic Research Connie Raza tells Working in These Times. “If you don’t have the right equipment, you’re not going to be able to keep yourself safe in every circumstance that comes up. And it is the owners’ and the contractors’ responsibility to make as safe a workplace as possible, but certainly as safe a workplace as legally required.”

As for the business case against the law’s cost, it is true that some of this uniquely litigious city’s largest civil settlements in recent years came from suits involving construction-related scaffold and ladder injuries.

But this is offset by the permissiveness of the federal regulatory environment. According to the AFL-CIO, the average penalty assessed for a “serious” violation of an OSHA standard, such as failing to provide appropriate mechanical safeguards or protective gear—in New York in 2012 was $2,164. (Criminal prosecutions are virtually unheard of, and the agency’s inspection and enforcement capacity is severely hampered by chronic understaffing).

While the contractors at the top of the construction industry complain of lawsuits and insurance costs, Razza says the suggested reforms “would shift responsibility away from owners and contractors who control the work site, to workers who don’t, and who are often really in a relationship where they feel threatened if they come forward with complaints … The construction and insurance industries are trying to push back and save money, and the reason that the law is so important is that it saves lives.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 12, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

SEIU Members'"Family Photo Albums" Depict Up-Close and Personal Impacts of Cuts to Home Care

Monday, March 10th, 2014

seiu-org-logoHome care workers in California are standing up against a budget proposal from Governor Jerry Brown that would prohibit overtime. Under the governor’s proposal, caregivers could see their paychecks slashed by 43 percent, while clients’ hours of care could be reduced by 7 percent, compromising their care. This despite President Obama’s recent move to extended FLSA coverage to home care workers, affording them minimum wage protections and overtime pay.

Loretta Jackson, a UHW member from Sacramento County, provides care for three people, including her father, who suffers from dementia, and her sister. Without overtime, Loretta’s finances and her clients’ lives will be thrown into chaos.

“Leaving any of my clients with a stranger terrifies me,” said Loretta. “The governor is taking something that should make our lives and our clients’ lives better and turning everything upside down–putting them at risk and forcing me further into poverty.”

Yesterday, SEIU members from UHWULTCWCUHW, and UDW came together with the seniors, children and adults with disabilities they care for to deliver “Family Photo Albums” to legislators at the state capitol. These albums tell their stories and show the important relationship between home care workers and the people they care for.

“The governor’s proposal is to avoid paying overtime by simply prohibiting any worker from working more than 40 hours a week. What the proposal does is to break the fragile bond between home care worker and consumer and doom home care providers, mostly women and people of color, to an endless cycle of poverty,” said Rebecca Malberg, a home care director for SEIU-UHW, in her testimony to the California Assembly budget committee.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on March 6, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Molly O’Gorman

How to Find Union-Made Tires

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has made it very easy to find union-made tires by requiring that each tire carry a code that shows the company and the location of the plant that manufactured the tire. DOT requires that each tire sold in the United States carry a code that looks something like this: DOT BE XX XXX XXX. The two letters or numbers that follow the DOT identify a particular factory as listed below:

  • BE: B.F. Goodrich, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
  • BF: B.F. Goodrich, Woodburn, Ind.
  • VE, YE, YU, 8B: Bridgestone/Firestone, Des Moines, Iowa
  • D2, E3, W1, Y7: Bridgestone/Firestone, La Vergne, Tenn.
  • 2C, 4D, 5D: Bridgestone/Firestone, Morrison, Tenn.
  • UP: Cooper, Findlay, Ohio
  • UT: Cooper, Texarkana, Ark.
  • JU, PC, UK: Goodyear, Medicine Hat, Alberta
  • JJ, MD, PU: Goodyear, Gadsden, Ala.
  • DA: Dunlop, Buffalo, N.Y.
  • JN, MJ, PY: Goodyear, Topeka, Kan.
  • JE, MC, PT: Goodyear, Danville, Va.
  • JF, MM, PJ: Kelly-Springfield, Fayetteville, N.C.
  • CF: Titan Tire, Des Moines
  • JH, MN, PK: Titan Tire, Freeport, Ill.
  • B plus serial #: Titan Tire, Bryan, Ohio
  • CC: Yokohama Tire, Salem, Va.

All tires made at the above locations are made by members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Make sure you use this easy-to-follow guide to buy union-made tires.

Want more union made products? Text MADE to 235246 (standard data and message rates may apply).

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 9, 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.

What is the Republican House Leadership doing? #RaiseTheWage!

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

seiu-org-logoDemocrats in the U.S. House of Representativesfiled a discharge petition that could force Speaker John Boehner to hold a vote to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. A discharge petition is a rarely used legislative maneuver that Democrats hope will bring the minimum wage debate to the floor.

It was through a discharge petition that the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the federal minimum hourly wage and other worker protection provisions, became law in 1938.
However, while Democrats hope for a repeat of 1938, unsurprisingly, Speaker Boehner hasn’t shown any signs that he is interested in bringing the minimum wage debate to the House floor. Come to think of it, not much is worthy of urgency for the Republican leadership in the House.

A raise in the minimum wage, a policy initiative supported by 71 percent of Americans, that wouldn’t increase the federal budget, that would raise wages for 28 million workers, increase the GDP by $22 billion, and create 85,000 new jobs, is sadly not a pressing matter worthy of a House debate.

Neither does immigration reform, unemployment insurance, and the many challenges that the nation faces. While Republican House leadership twiddle their thumb, 1.3 million Americans are without unemployment insurance (UI) and 11 million aspiring Americans continue to hide the shadow, families are torn apart, communities suffer deportations, workers are exploited, men and women die on the border, and millions live without a path to citizenship.

John Boehner’s refusal to consider bringing minimum wage debate to the floor is yet another example that he is out of touch with the needs of the American people.

Author: Jumoke Balogun

Scott Walker's Forgotten War Against the People of Milwaukee

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Laura ClawsonBefore he was governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker was Milwaukee county executive. Foreshadowing how he’d govern the state, Walker spent his time as county executive slashing Milwaukee’s safety net. As governor, he can do that by pushing and signing laws that lower the bar the state is trying to clear in taking care of its needy residents; as county executive, hemismanaged and neglected and fought back against the basic standards the state had laid out, to the point where the state had to take over Milwaukee county’s welfare programs:

At the height of the recession, in 2008 and 2009, requests for aid in Wisconsin, and throughout the country, soared. But in Milwaukee, where 41 percent of African Americans live below the poverty line, people had trouble getting help. Roughly 95 percent of calls to the county’s client-intake call center went unanswered in 2008, a state probe later found.The social services department budget funded 25 positions at the intake center, but a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter found only seven staffers working among empty cubicles when he visited. [...]

But the problems weren’t just at the call center. In 2008, one out of five food stamp recipients dropped for ineligibility were in fact eligible, and wrongly cut from the program. In 2007, 60 percent of county decisions to cut food or other aid were overturned on appeal within two months. Roughly 30 percent of needy applicants were waiting more than two weeks for aid. Two-thirds of all complaints received by state welfare agencies involved Milwaukee County residents having problems obtaining Medicaid, food aid and child care services. And while the state paid a higher share of Milwaukee’s income-maintenance program costs than in other counties, Walker complained that state funding was inadequate.

Walker’s answer to his own mismanagement was, predictably enough, privatizing the services. And he used these battles—his drive to hurt Milwaukee’s most vulnerable residents—to appeal to Republican voters statewide in his 2010 gubernatorial run. Walker may just be the purest embodiment of the Republican divide-and-conquer strategy, always looking for the next poor black person or union member to attack as a moocher who has it too easy, chipping away at one group after another as long as he and millions of dollars of Republican dark money can keep a big enough chunk of voters convinced that they are the fine upstanding citizens who will be immune to his attacks. But he will always have his eye on the next target.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on March 3, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

Teachers Want More Accountability for Charter Schools

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAFT and In the Public Interest launched a new website Thursday, Cashing in on Kids, to track charter schools and the private companies that often run them on a for-profit basis. The two groups argue that corporate-run charter schools are doing a bad job of serving students and that there is little accountability for these companies. In particular, the website will track K12 Inc., Academics, Imagine Schools, Charter Schools USA and White Hat Management.

AFT President Randi Weingarten says:

This is a simple exercise of following the money. How many times do people simply get up on a pedestal and say we care about kids, and then you realize that they care about profits, they care about tax deductions, they care about privatizing the public system?…If accountability and transparency should go all ways, let’s look at the accountability and transparency in terms of charter schools, not just in terms of public schools.

The website will track each of the companies, collecting news, official sources and investigations into the corporations and how they run the schools they operate.  On a conference call with bloggers, Weingarten says that AFT isn’t opposed to charter schools in theory, but the evidence has shown that the schools run by these companies, in particular, are failing to live up to the promises they have made to students and their parents.

“I am not anti-charter, and there are many people that run great charter schools that are very well-intentioned and well-meaning,” Weingarten says. “But there are also people within the so-called charter school movement…who are really all about profiteering.”

The website also will highlight charter schools that engage in good practices. “If we can see thoughtful education practices, effective schools, it’s not simply a matter of focusing on the negative. If there’s positive, you focus on the positive, too.”

You can learn more by visiting the Cashing in on Kids website or on Twitter or Facebook.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 3, 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.

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