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Why Virginia’s Open Shop Referendum Should Matter to the Entire American Labor Movement in 2016

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

The douglas williamsmost important election in Virginia this year has no candidates on the ballot.

On February 2nd, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the two-session threshold needed to put the open shop before the Commonwealth’s voters in November. You might be asking yourself, “Wait. I thought that Virginia was already an open-shop state?” Your inclinations would be correct: legislation barring union membership as a condition of employment was signed into law by Gov. William Tuck (a later adherent to Massive Resistance in response to Brown v. Board of Educationas a member of Congress) in 1947. As a result, Section 40.1-58 of the Code of Virginia reads:

It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization.

So why do this? The easy answer is that Virginia Republicans are fearful that, should the open shop meet a legal challenge in state court, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would not seek to defend it. The sponsor of the bill and defeated 2013 nominee for Attorney General, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), stated as much in the deliberations on the bill. In addition, should the Assembly find itself in pro-labor hands in the future, they could overturn the open shop with a simple majority vote. Never mind that the extreme amounts of gerrymandering in the Assembly (particularly in the House of Delegates) makes a unified Democratic state government unlikely for decades to come.

The vote this November will be the first popular referendum on the open shop since 54 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 695 on September 25, 2001. In this, an opportunity presents itself to the labor movement in this country, and it is one that labor unions must take.

In the fifteen years since the Oklahoma referendum, every open-shop law has been passed through state legislatures. This, of course, advantages corporations and anti-worker conservatives as they can flood state capitols with their donations and their lobbyists at a relative distance from public scrutiny. Combined with the gerrymandering described above which ensures that an anti-worker vote will not result in the loss of an election, the deck is often stacked far too high for labor advocates to overcome. The only hope for those who live in the thirty states with a Republican legislature is the presence of a pro-labor governor and legislative procedures that require a higher threshold than a simple majority to override a veto.

West Virginia workers just found out what happens when you have the formerbut not the latter.

There are demographic reasons to feel good about this campaign: 18-34-year olds are the generation most supportive of labor unions, and Black workers have both been more supportive and more eager joiners of labor unions than their white counterparts. Virginia has been a prime destination for young people over the last couple of decades due to the economic boom occurring in Northern Virginia, and the state has always had a large number of Black residents.

But the campaign against the open shop this fall cannot rely on demographics to save it. Given the opportunity that labor unions have with this referendum, the goal should not simply be to win: it should be a realignment of the conversation surrounding the role in labor unions in Virginia’s—and America’s—political economy.

There have been many issues stemming from the precipitous decline in union density in this country. The stagnation of working people’s wages, widening inequality, and a sense of alienation and disillusionment amongst the working class can all be tied back to the decline of organized labor in the United States.

But there’s another thing that declining union membership has produced, and it is, perhaps, the greatest victory of all for capitalism: the sense that, rather than being a representative of America’s working class, unions are no different from any other interest group. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean sought to mobilize this sentiment recently in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when he stated that “[Democrats] don’t go after” political donations from labor unions because “labor unions are Super-PACs that Democrats like”.

(It should be noted, of course, that the only union that has spent any significant money on Bernie Sanders’s behalf is National Nurses United. It appears that only Hillary Clinton will protect us from Big Nursing and the Caregiver-Industrial Complex.)

Part of this has been on the labor movement: too much money, time, and energy has been devoted to electing Democrats at all costs to federal office, even when they are absolutely terrible. But most of it has been a concerted effort by neoliberals in both parties to erode unions’ once formidable approval ratings by associating them with the most unsavory parts of the legislative process. How unsavory? In 2013, Gallup polled Americans on the honesty of several professions. Those who engage in lobbying, a key part of the legislative and policymaking work that any interest group engages in, were at the bottom with a six percent approval rating. By comparison, an August 2015 Gallup poll saw 58 percent of Americans approving of labor unions, with 37 percent believing that they should have more influence.

By making labor unions a creature of politics, working-class Americans begin to process the information that they receive about unions the same way that they receive other forms of political information: in a partisan manner. In his 2013 book The Partisan Sort, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Matthew Levendusky states that:

[W]hen a respondent moves from unsorted to sorted, he is much more likely to move his ideological beliefs into alignment with his partisanship than the reverse, strongly suggesting that party is the key causal variable.

Therefore, when working-class Republicans think about labor unions, they are less likely to consider the fact that union members make 21 percent more than non-union members or that 29 percent more civilian workers have access to retirement plans if they are a member of a labor union. No, they are more likely to think about Democrats receiving 89 percent of the donations given out by unions in 2014. The fact that the last two Democratic presidents have supported trade deals that acted as accelerants on the continued deindustrialization of America certainly does not help matters at all.

But the labor movement has been given a golden opportunity in 2016, and it is one that should not be passed up: the opportunity to engage in the largest labor education program that this country has ever seen.

Over the next eight-and-a-half months, unions should be running ads that focus on the specifics that so many American labor ads skirt around.

  1. We can tell people that it is illegal for union dues to go towards political action at the federal level. While dues money can go towards political spending at the local and state levels, their dues mostly pay for representation, access to the industry-specific research needed to make negotiations more fruitful, and strike funds to support workers when their meeting their demands requires direct action.
  2. We can tell people about the union difference in wages, benefits, and retirement.
  3. But even more important than that, we can talk about the ways that labor unions benefit the communities in which they exist. Not just through increased spending in local businesses, but also through programs that benefit a community’s most vulnerable.

That last point is important, because it is how we will begin to develop the culture of unionism that we so desperately need in the South. It is important to ensure that the positive feeling that today’s youth have towards labor unions does not turn into anti-labor sentiment through a lifetime of one-way conversation dominated by capitalists and their PR lap dogs like Rick Berman.

But for this to be successful, all hands must be on deck. Virginia is one of a couple of states where such a measure could be defeated at the ballot box (the other, for my money anyways, being Kentucky), and it must be. Defeating this referendum must become the labor movement’s number one priority in 2016, even more so than the presidential election. In the piece I wrote about labor’s engagement in party politics, I stated:

If the labor movement must invest in politics, it would be wisest to do so at the community/local/state level. It is there, our ‘laboratories of public policy’, where the labor movement can have the most positive impact on the lives of working people.

There is no time like the present for the labor movement to take this advice to heart.

This article originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on March 3, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Douglas Williams is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Alabama, researching the labor movement and labor policy. He blogs at The South Lawn.

People’s Budget Puts Forward An Aggressive Plan To Green Our Economy

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Isaiah J. Poole

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will formally unveil their fiscal 2017 People’s Budget on Tuesday, and when they do one of the key features they will tout is an aggressive plan to shift the country to a green energy future.

“Climate change is no longer just a problem for a future generation — it is here today,” the budget document says, adding that the nation needs “to take bold action to fight climate change and invest in a clean-energy economy that supports green jobs with good wages.”

The policies embodied in the People’s Budget closely track the policies that the Campaign for America’s Future, along with partners National People’s Action, Alliance for a Just Society and USAction, called for in their progressive policy platform last year. The budget even echoes the platform language: “Catastrophic climate change is a clear and present danger. The United States should lead the global green revolution that builds strong and resilient communities.”

The People’s Budget would impose a tax on carbon polluters that would start at $25 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions and increase at a rate of 5.6 percent a year. Much of the money raised from that tax would be used to fund a range of renewable energy initiatives and to help low-income individuals cope with any increases in their energy bills that might result from the combination of the carbon tax and the switch to renewables.

This carbon tax would, according to the Energy Information Administration, lead to the U.S. cutting its carbon emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels within five years. That would be a significant contribution toward the United States’ pledges during the Paris climate talks last year to help limit global warming to no more than 3 degrees Celsius (about 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and preferably much lower.

The budget would also eliminate about $135 billion in fossil fuel subsidies over 10 years. These tax expenditures, combined with other loopholes fossil fuel companies typically exploit, enable these companies to pay a tax rate that is on average only about 11 percent of their profits, according to one study by the conservative-leaning Taxpayers for Common Sense. By shutting down these subsidies, the People’s Budget is able to pour resources into helping communities protect themselves from the consequences of climate change that are already beginning to unfold.

Lukas Ross of Friends of the Earth called the People’s Budget “the greenest option in Washington” in a post on DailyKos. Ross noted that in addition to what the budget proposes to do that is directly related to climate change, it includes $12 billion to cover the public financing of elections. That’s important to the environmental movement because so far this election season, “Big Oil has already poured over $13 million into Congressional races and over $100 million into the presidency. Climate solutions require politicians who aren’t beholden to Big Oil, and even though public financing can’t guarantee direct climate results, it can guarantee a more level playing field for candidates not drowning in oil money.”

The People’s Budget is a comprehensive road map for economic reform that will stand in sharp contrast to what Republican congressional leaders will propose this week as they launch their own 2017 budget debates. As the National Priorities Project outlines, the budget “includes a $1 trillion in much-needed investment in our national infrastructure …. fully funds Early Head Start, giving kids a strong start early in life, and adopts the president’s proposals for universal preschool … provide[s] federal matching funds to states so that students could go to college debt-free … does away with the Pentagon slush fund after fiscal year 2017 (Overseas Contingency Operations), saving $761 billion over ten years … [and] If you earn a billion dollars or more each year … the People’s Budget would assign you a tax rate of 49 percent [that] is still lower than the highest individual tax rate during most of the presidency of conservative hero President Ronald Reagan.”

The budget also serves as a standard for what a presidential or congressional candidate should be willing to embrace in order to earn progressive support. In that regard, a coalition of grassroots organizations are telling Democratic house members that their vote on the People’s Budget, expected the week of March 21, will be a key vote in weighing their support.

To declare yourself a citizen co-sponsor of the People’s Budget, and to show Congress that the ideas in the People’s Budget have broad support, sign this petition that will be delivered to Congress when the House begins floor debate.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on March 14, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives in Washington, DC.

What’s The Problem With “Free Trade”

Monday, March 14th, 2016
Dave Johnson

Our country’s “free trade” agreements have followed a framework of trading away our democracy and middle-class prosperity in exchange for letting the biggest corporations dominate.

There are those who say any increase in trade is good. But if you close a factory here and lay off the workers, open the factory “there” to make the same things the factory here used to make, bring those things into the country to sell in the same outlets, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border. Supporters of free trade are having a harder and harder time convincing American workers this is good for them.

“Free Trade”

Free trade is when goods and services are bought and sold between countries without tariffs, duties and quotas. The idea is that some countries “do things better” than other countries, which these days basically means they offer lower labor and environmental-protection costs. Allowing other countries to do things in ways that cost less “frees up resources” which can theoretically be used for investment at home.

Opponents of free trade ask for tariffs to “protect” local businesses, jobs, wages and the environment from being undermined by low-cost goods from countries where people and/or the environment are exploited.

Free trade is generally sold as offering lower prices to consumers. It is also sold with claims that it “opens up foreign markets” to U.S. exporters. But it also opens up U.S. markets to imports.

Does Trade Really “Open New Markets?”

“When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.”
– President Barack Obama

“[W]hen 95 percent of the people we want to sell something to live outside of the United States, we must open foreign markets to American goods and services so we can create jobs at home.”
U.S. Chamber of Commerce

“Ninety-five percent of America’s potential customers live overseas, so closing ourselves off to trade is not a solution.”
Hillary Clinton

It is a fact that only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States. The problem is that the line of argument that opening up trade “opens markets” brings with it certain misleading assumptions. It assumes first that non-U.S. markets are not already being served by local companies. Second, it ignores that free trade also opens our own markets to others. Third, it ignores that U.S. companies already can and do sell to most of the world’s markets and vice versa. (For example, U.S. companies were already moving production to Mexico before NAFTA, the North American Free-Trade Agreement.) Suggesting that alternative approaches to trade would “close us off from trading” or “wall our economy off from the world” are ridiculous, misleading arguments.

If local companies are already meeting the needs in U.S. and non-U.S. markets, what does a trade deal really enable? Trade deals indeed “open up new markets” – for giant, predatory multinational corporations. They enable large, predatory companies that have enormous economies of scale to come in and dominate those markets, putting smaller, local companies out of business. So trade deals mean the biggest multinational companies get bigger and more multinational – at the expense of all the other companies. This includes enabling non-U.S. corporations to come to the U.S. and take over markets already served by smaller companies here.

The net result of allowing goods to cross borders without protecting local businesses is a “more efficient” manufacturing/distribution system powered by the biggest and best capitalized operations. The rest go away. Economists will tell you that these increased efficiencies allow an economy to best utilize its resources. But obviously one effect of this “increased efficiency” is fewer jobs, resulting in lowered wages on all sides of trade borders.

After NAFTA, for example, smaller, more local Mexican farms were wiped out by large, efficient American agricultural corporations that were able to sell corn and other crops into Mexico for low prices. The result was a mass migration northward as desperate people could no longer find work in Mexico.

Economists say even this is good because when costs are lower the economy can apply its resources more efficiently and increased investment can put the displaced people to work in better jobs. But we can all see that in our modern economy that’s not what is going on. Investment in our economy is not increasing, partly because the resulting downward wage pressure has resulted in an economy with decreased demand. Fewer customers with money to spend is not a good environment for investment. Instead of these “freed up” resources (money) being used to provide better jobs with higher wages for everyone, they are instead being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

As for opening new markets for American exporters, note that the record since the ascendance of free-trade ideology in the 1970s we have seen continuing and increasing U.S. trade deficits, with imports exceeding exports, resulting in flat wage growth.

Freeing up trade does not “open new markets” as much as it enables giant, multinational corporations to become even more giant and more multinational – at the expense of smaller companies and the rest of us.

Comparative Advantage

Economists say that free trade allows us to take advantage of the “comparative advantages” offered by other countries. A comparative advantage exists when one country can do something better than another country. For example, Central and South America can grow bananas better than the U.S., and we can grow wheat better than they can. So trading wheat for bananas makes sense.

Unfortunately, economists also say that low labor and environmental-protection costs are a comparative advantage. They say it is good for U.S. companies to take advantage of countries with governments that exploit labor and the environment, because they offer lower costs for manufacturing. (Of course, the ultimate form of such a comparative advantage would be slavery.)

Here’s the thing. Buying goods from low-wage and low-environmental protection countries means not making them here anymore. “Trade” increases, but so does our country’s trade deficit as imports rise and exports fall. Factories here close, people here get laid off, wage pressures here increase and overall demand in our economy decreases.

When “thugocracies” that exploit workers and do not protect the environment are able to offer a comparative advantage over our democracy, then free trade makes democracy with its good wages and environmental protections into a comparative disadvantage.

Free Trade Undermines Democracy And Wages

“Give us a protective tariff, and we will have the greatest nation on earth.” – Abraham Lincoln.

Democracy has a short-term “cost” with a longer-term gain. In countries where people have a say, the people say they want higher wages and benefits, good infrastructure, good education, a clean environment, safety on the job, and other services. These things all lead to a prosperous economy later, as long as benefits from this system are fed back into maintaining that infrastructure, education and services. This prosperous economy made America a desirable market to sell things to.

When the country and the idea of democracy were young we “protected” this concept with tariffs, so that goods from places where labor was cheap (or free) did not undermine our democracy. Those tariffs in turn funded investment in infrastructure and other common needs that enabled productivity gains that made our goods competitive elsewhere. But generally companies here served the population here and grew and prospered along with the rest of us.

At some point elites and free-market “economists” began an effort to convince us that “free trade” is a good thing and “protectionism” is not. We used to “protect” our country’s manufacturing base from being undermined by goods from low-wage countries that don’t protect workers or the environment. Then we didn’t.

“Free trade” broke down those borders of democracy. It enabled goods from low-wage countries into the U.S. with no protective tariffs. This made the low wages and lack of environmental and worker protections in some countries into a “comparative advantage” – which meant democracy because a comparative disadvantage. We stopped “protecting” American jobs, and allowed companies to freely lay off workers and close factories here and we have seen what has happened since.

The fact is, a democracy cannot “play by the same rules” as a country that can make people live in barracks at the factory and call them out to work at midnight if an order comes it, make them stand all day, pay them very little, pollute the environment, etc. The rules should instead be that we impose a tariff on goods from such countries unless they “level the playing field” and “play by the same rules” as democracies by giving people a say, paying more and protecting the environment.

Free trade became a scam intended to get around those costs of democracy – good wages, environmental protection and other common goods – but also to use cheap foreign labor and low regulation as a wedge to drive down those costs here as well, and ultimately weakening democracy itself. Every time you hear that regulations make “us” “less competitive” etc. you are hearing an appeal for our country to become more of a low-wage, low-cost “thugocracy.”

Does Protecting Democracy Cause Trade Wars And Depressions?

Free-trade advocates claim that restoring tariffs to protect wages and democracy would start trade wars and even cause recessions and depressions. One claim they make is that tariffs helped cause the Great Depression of the 1930s. Economist Paul Krugman took on that argument in 2009’s “Protectionism and the Great Depression,” writing,

I’ve always seen this as an attempt at a Noble Lie; there’s no good reason to believe that it’s true, but it has been used to scare governments into maintaining relatively free trade.

But the truth is quite different, as a new paper by Barry Eichengreen and Doug Irwin shows. Protectionism was a result of the Depression, not a cause. Rising tariffs didn’t even play a large role in the initial trade contraction; like the spectacular trade contraction in the current crisis, the decline in trade in the early 30s was overwhelmingly the result of the overall economic implosion. Where protectionism really mattered was in preventing a recovery in trade when production recovered.

As for trade wars, economist Ian Fletcher points out in “Free Traders Can’t Name a Single Trade War“:

Trade wars are mythical. They simply do not happen.

If you google “the trade war of,” you won’t find any historical examples. There was no Austro-Korean Trade War of 1638, Panamanian-Brazilian Trade War of 1953 or any others. History is devoid of them.

[. . .] Trade wars are an invented concept, a bogeyman invented to push free trade.

The giveaway, of course, is that free traders claim both that a) trade wars are a terrible threat we must constantly worry about, and b) it’s obvious no nation can ever gain anything from having one. Think about that for minute.

Voters Finally Pushing Back

These are the reasons that voters across the country are finally pushing back against politicians selling “free trade.” Friday’s post, “‘Free Trade’: The Elites Are Selling It But The Public Is No Longer Buying” explained how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are gaining from their opposition to free trade deals like NAFTA and the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership. From the post: “Voters have figured out that our country’s current ‘free trade’ policies are killing their jobs, wages, cities, regions and the country’s middle class. Giant multinational corporations and billionaires do great under free trade, the rest of us not so much.”

Free trade encourages further exploitation of workers and the environment in other countriesand here. It helps fuel calls inside of our own country for “less regulation” (fewer environmental protections), “right-to-work” laws (that break unions and lower wages) and “more competitive” tax policies (that defund democracy and our ability to provide public services) to “attract” companies back to the U.S.

It is time for Washington elites to scrap our current “free trade” negotiating model that allowed giant, multinational corporations to dictate our trade policies, and open up the process to all of the stakeholders, including labor, environmental, consumer, human rights and other groups. Then we can begin to negotiate trade policies that lift American workers along with workers across the world, while protecting the environment.

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on March 13, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Why Are Millennials Worse Off Than You Are?

Friday, March 11th, 2016
Why Are Millennials Worse Off Than You Are?

Ever feel like you’ve been set up to fail?

Millennials, as a generation, have been. And this isn’t the lament of over-indulged, basement-dwelling, spoiled brats complaining about having to pay student loans for a degree in the philosophy of memes. Data clearly shows that today’s young workers are basically screwed.

Millennials are doing worse than the previous two generations did at their age, even though they’re more likely to have a completed postsecondary education program and are part of the most productive workforce in memory.

The Guardian’s ongoing coverage of the financial struggles of the millennial generation paints a grim picture. Throughout Europe, Australia and the United States, today’s young workers are paid less, have higher debt and lower savings, and face a job market that’s still recovering from the recession and seems increasingly hostile to folks trying to start their careers.

Why is this happening?

A paper released last week by the Center for American Progress identifies the major reasons why young workers have it so much harder than their parents.

First, the labor market has not fully recovered from the recession, leaving a large pool of unemployed workers who can replace current workers who ask for better wages or working conditions. Why would a company that’s trying to maximize profit pay higher wages than they have to? Folks are just willing to work for less when the job market is weak. Crappy pay is better than none, right?

Second, it’s harder than ever to join or organize a union. Millennials’ union density is low, even though the benefits of union membership are significant. In fact, the union premium is higher for young workers than it is for any other age group. Without the worker power that comes from having a union, young workers are unable to negotiate for better pay and the kind of working conditions that make for a more productive and satisfying workplace.

So what are we going to do about it? What are you going to do about it?

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sarah Ann Lewis, esq., Senior Lead Researcher, Policy.

Organizing Institute Apprentices Gear Up with Autoworkers to Ask for a Little Respect

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

FullSizeRenderOrganizing Institute apprentices have hit the ground running to help autoworkers build a union at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi—a fight that has been brewing over the past decade. This is the largest class of OI apprentices to be part of any one campaign. It’s important because this is a historic campaign to show that union organizing is a civil right and to show that #BlackLivesMatter.

It’s not always about wages. That’s what OI apprentices found out fast when talking to autoworkers about what troubles they face in the workplace. Though autoworkers in the South are paid meager wages compared to their counterparts in other regions and sometimes other countries, what workers really want in Canton is respect on the job.

The autoworkers at Nissan told OI apprentice Keith Crawford that they feel like they are treated like animals on the job. Hearing their stories has been challenging, but Crawford is emphatic, “You need to commit to help people’s suffering.” Crawford is from Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died after marching with sanitation workers on strike against deplorable labor conditions. Crawford is as aspirational about the campaign with autoworkers, hoping they make history by winning here.

LaQuinta Alexander is another social justice advocate and OI apprentice with roots in student activism. When Trayvon Martin’s controversial death and the acquittal of the man who killed him sparked a sit-in at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, that garnered national attention—she was there with the most committed student activists of Dream Defenders for the full 30 days and nights. The experience emboldened her, though the measure failed to change the state’s stand-your-ground laws.

“I love it; I love my people. I love the new challenges and how every day is different. I love every bit of it.” Alexander learned to recognize the power of collective action to stir the national, and sometimes, global conscience, such as the beautiful solidarity between Brazil’s autoworkers for those in Canton. “Your story has meaning: it has power.”

She wanted to be a teacher, but Beatriz Guerrero found another calling after she says the Union Summer internship changed her life. She worked on the Community Labor Environment Action Network’s carwash campaign in Los Angeles, an eye-opening experience of the daily abuse workers face, “You hear about the worker who gets run over by a car, see that he looks like your father and then feel the injustice when he’s fired and treated as expendable.” She also remembers how her own father was fired for organizing in the 1980s, and it inspires her to work harder to make sure workers’ spirits aren’t crushed with the challenges confronting them.

Another former Union Summer intern and current apprentice, Alex Rodie, was born and raised in Indiana. He was deeply affected by the personal and professional accounts he heard about the power of unions. Rodie remembers his grandfather’s words about how he could not have supported a family without his union’s support. And like Guerrero, Rodie’s father also had tried to organize his workplace, and even more significantly to organize with the UAW.

OI apprentice Stacy Gray was a part of an exodus from the North in the elusive pursuit of a decent job. She learned about the union difference when Michigan became a right-to-work state. She knows what it’s like to scrap together a living as a bus driver, saving on child care costs by driving her own kids’ route. Now, Gray is committed to move working people to action. “I’ve always been a mini-revolution person, but as soon as it got too hot in the kitchen I found myself standing alone. This apprenticeship will teach me to develop the support system and bring people in.”

Workers at Nissan plants around the globe—in Brazil, South Africa and Japan—have a voice on the job, but while corporations have been getting millions of dollars in tax incentives to set up shop down South, too many see it as grounds for exploiting cheap labor. That’s why autoworkers in Canton want to be able to come together in a union to voice their concerns and to work collectively to make Nissan better. Let’s help build up the union movement and #OrganizeTheSouth!

Learn more about the Nissan campaign.

This year’s full cohort of OI-UAW apprentices:

  •  LaQuinta Alexander (Oviedo, Florida)
  • Ronald Allen (Atlanta)
  • Keith Crawford (Memphis, Tennessee)
  • Rannie Fore (Atlanta)
  • Stacy Gray (Atlanta)
  • Tori Griffin (Knoxville, Tennessee)
  • Beatriz Guerrero (Los Angeles)
  • Danielle Holmes (Jackson, Mississippi)
  • Jacklyn Izsraael (Atlanta)
  • Ojeda Jarrett (Atlanta)
  • Brandon Marlow (Atlanta)
  • Cory McIntosh (Atlanta)
  • Alexander Rodie (Terre Haute, Indiana)
  • Susan Tewolde (Fredericksburg, Virginia)

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sonia Huq is the Organizing Field Communications Assistant at the AFL-CIO.  She grew up in a Bangladeshi-American family in Boca Raton, Florida where she first learned a model of service based on serving a connected immigrant cultural community. After graduating from the University of Florida, Sonia served in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and later worked for Manavi, the first South Asian women’s rights organization in the United States. She then earned her Master’s in Public Policy from the George Washington University and was awarded a Women’s Policy Inc. fellowship for women in public policy to work as a legislative fellow in the office of Representative Debbie Wasserman (FL-23). Sonia is passionate about working towards a more just society and hopes to highlight social justice issues and movements through her writing.

When a Coin Drops in Asia, Jobs Disappear in Detroit

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Leo Gerard

Last year, free trade hammered Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, located between Detroit and Flint, killing manufacturing, costing jobs and crushing dreams.

It’s not over, either. Another 11th District company, ViSalus Inc., told the state it would eliminate 87 jobs as of last Saturday, slicing its staff by nearly 400 since 2013 when ViSalus was the second-largest direct sales firm in the state.

The numbers are staggering. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report last week showing that America’s $177.9 billion trade deficit in 2015 with the 11 other countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal caused 2 million job losses nationwide.

This trade deficit reduced jobs in every U.S. congressional district except two, EPI said, but Michigan’s 11th had the ignoble distinction of suffering more as a share of total employment than any other district in the country. It was 26,200 jobs. Just in 2015. It was tech workers in January and teachers in July and tool makers in August and auto parts builders in October.

Manipulation of money killed those jobs. It works like this: Foreign countries spend billions buying American treasury bonds. That strengthens the value of the dollar and weakens foreign currencies. When a country’s currency value drops, it acts like a big fat discount coupon on all of its exports to the United States. And it serves simultaneously as an obscene tax on all U.S. exports to that country.

Among the TPP countries, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan are known currency manipulators, and Vietnam appears to be following their example. EPI found that currency manipulation is the most important cause of America’s massive trade deficits with TPP countries. Trade deficits mean products are shipped to the United States rather than made in the United States. The math is simple. A drop in Asian currency means a drop in U.S. jobs.

EPI looked at what types of imports the 11 countries sent the United States last year to determine what types of industry and jobs America lost as a result. The overwhelming majority was motor vehicles and parts. That’s why Michigan was the biggest loser of all of the states. The auto sector was followed by computer and electronic parts ­– including communications, audio and video equipment – and primary metals – including basic steel and steel products.

In addition, EPI found job losses in industries that serve manufacturers, like warehousing and utilities, and services like retail, education and public administration.

Each of these kinds of losses occurred last year in Michigan’s 11th district, located in the heart of America’s car manufacturing country in southwestern Oakland County and northwestern Wayne County, where Detroit is parked just outside the district’s lines.

In January, in Michigan’s 11th, Technicolor Videocassette of Michigan, Inc., a subsidiary of the French multimedia giant Technicolor SA, laid off 162 workers in Livonia. That same month, what was once a vibrant chain of cupcake stores called Just Baked shuttered several shops, putting an untold number of bakers and clerks in the street, some with last paychecks that bounced.

In February, the Sam’s Club store in Waterford closed, throwing 122 in the street. Waterford municipal official Tony Bartolotta called it another “nail in the coffin” for the township’s east side.

In April, Frito-Lay told 17 workers that they’d lose their jobs later that year when it closed its Birmingham warehouse.

In July, 231 teachers in the Farmington Public Schools learned they would not have work in the new school year. One of them, 25-year-old Val Nafso, who grew up in Farmington, told the Oakland Press, “I hope things change where people who are passionate about teaching can enter the profession without 1,000 people telling them “Don’t do it…get out now.”

In August, DE-STA-CO, a 100-year-old tool manufacturer, told Michigan it would end production in Auburn Hills, costing 57 workers their jobs.

In October, Waterford laid off 39 firefighters. The township had received a $7.6 million grant in 2013 to hire them, but just couldn’t come up with local funds to keep them. That happens when factories close and bakeries shut down. Township officials told concerned residents they’d looked hard at the budget, “We started projecting out for 2017 and it flat lined,”Township Supervisor Gary Wall told them.

Later that month, FTE Automotive USA Inc., an auto parts manufacturer, told Michigan it would close its Auburn Hills plant and lay off 65 workers.

In the areas around Michigan’s 11th, horrible job losses occurred all last year as well, which makes sense since EPI found 10 of the top 20 job-losing districts in the country were in Michigan.

Ford laid off 700 workers at an assembly plant in Wayne County in April. GM eliminated a second shift, furloughing 468 workers at its Lake Orion Assembly Plant in Oakland County in October.

Auto supply company Su-Dan announced in September it would close three factories in Oakland County by year’s end, costing 131 workers their jobs.

In October, a division of Parker Hannifin Corp. in Oxford, Oakland County, that manufactured compressed air filters told its 65 workers they wouldn’t have jobs in 2016. “There’s a lot of people there that are paycheck to paycheck, and it’s going to hurt them,” Michelle Moloney, who worked there 25 years, told a reporter from Sherman Publications.

The threat of the TPP is that it does absolutely nothing to stop this job-slaughter. Lawmakers, public interest groups, manufacturers, and unions like mine all pleaded with negotiators to include strong provisions in the deal to punish currency manipulators. They didn’t do it.

They included some language about currency manipulation. But it’s not in the main trade deal.  And it’s not enforceable.

Swallowing the TPP would be accepting deliberately depressed currency values in Asian trading partner countries and a permanently depressed economy in the U.S. car manufacturing heartland.

It’s the TPP that should disappear. Not Detroit.

This blog was originally posted on ourfuture.org on March 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Enormous, Humongous January Trade Deficit Hits Jobs, Wages

Friday, March 4th, 2016
Dave Johnson

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Friday that the January goods and services trade deficit was an enormous, humongous $45.68 billion. The January goods deficit was $63.7 billion, offset by an $18 billion services surplus.

Both imports and exports were down, but exports hit a 5 1/2-year low thanks to a “strong” dollar, currency manipulation and weak economies outside of the US. According to Reuters, automobile imports were the highest on record.

According to the Census Bureau, “The [goods] deficit with China increased $1.4 billion to $31.1 billion in January. Exports increased less than $0.1 billion to $8.6 billion and imports increased $1.5 billion to $39.8 billion.”

Trade Deficit Hits Jobs

The trade deficit is a metric for jobs leaking out of the economy, which causes wages to stagnate. The continuing trade deficit is the reason that Friday’s February jobs report showed that manufacturing lost 16,000 jobs. Scott Paul, President of the Alliance for American Manufacturing said of the jobs and trade deficit report:

“Working people in states like Michigan and Ohio feel the lousy manufacturing job loss and growing trade deficit with China, even if Wall Street and D.C. do not. If you’re wondering why there’s so much interest in political insurgencies among both Democrats and Republicans this year, here’s your answer.

“We’ll never experience a true manufacturing resurgence in the United States unless we get trade policy right and get a lot tougher with China. So far I haven’t seen the will on Capitol Hill or the White House to do that, even though I see it on the campaign trail.”

Michael Stumo of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA) said of the report,

“The administration’s willful disregard for poor trade performance is enabled by the establishment think tanks and many congressional leaders, to the detriment of the U.S. economy. The simple, unassailable fact is that trade deficits shrink our economy while trade surpluses grow our economy. The presidential campaign shows that voters support candidates that want a fundamentally different trade policy that puts American workers, companies, farmers and ranchers first.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made this a centerpiece of his campaign, spouting the trade deficit numbers in stump speeches and debates, and explaining how our country’s trade policies are costing so many jobs.

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on March 4, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

When Too Much is Terrible

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Leo Gerard

It’s lights out in Lorain on March 31. The town’s steel mill, site of a new electric arc furnace and $120 million investment, had given 1,200 Ohioans good middle-class jobs this time last year.

But by April, a relentless avalanche of underpriced Chinese steel will have shoved all but a fewof those workers into the street.

The same is true of steelworkers in Granite City, Ill., Lone Star, Texas, and Gary, Ind., and aluminum workers in New Madrid, Mo., Hannibal, Ohio, and Hawesville, Ky. It’s true of glass workers and paper workers in small towns across America.

The same catastrophe is slamming small towns across Europe. ArcelorMittal cited the Chinese avalanche when it closed its steel mill near Bilbao in northern Spain last month. Tata Steel cut 1,050 jobs earlier this month from its Port Talbot plant in South Wales. Two weeks ago, 5,000 steel and other workers and managers from 17 European nations gathered in Brussels to protest overwhelming, underpriced Chinese imports.

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China makes too much steel. And many other commodities. By providing government subsidies and other supports like currency manipulation that are illegal under international trade regulations, China sells those products overseas at prices below production cost, undercutting fair market manufacturers like U.S. Steel and Republic Steel in Lorain. Too much has been good for China until now. Now it wants “market economy” status in the World Trade Organization. So, suddenly, it has announced it will reduce its excessive steel production. That will cost 400,000 Chinese steelworkers their jobs. It turns out that too much is terrible for Chinese workers and Chinese towns as well.

To put this in perspective, last year, as American and European mills closed, workers lost their jobs, and prices for some steel products fell by 50 percent because of massive oversupply from China, China continued steelmaking full tilt. It made half the steel in the world. And itsexports rose by 50 percent.

Chinese steel firms could accomplish that only with subsidies such as “loans” that don’t have to be paid back, free land and free utilities. These are not companies operating in a market economy. These are government-subsidized entities. And that’s fine if all of the products are sold domestically. But these subsidies are illegal when the products are sold overseas because the falsely underpriced products distort what is supposed to be a fair market.

Chinese government interference in the international market is damaging corporations like U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal, the largest steel company in the world.  It reported a staggeringloss of nearly $8 billion for 2015. U.S. Steel’s 2015 loss was $1.5 billion.

That’s what Chinese steel overcapacity looks like on Wall Street. What it did to Lorain is more visceral.

“You could see the concern in our members’ faces,” Louise Zimmerman, President of United Steelworkers (USW) Local Union 2354, told me. After Republic Steel announced the layoffs, she said these workers as well as members of USW Local 1104 at the plant wondered, “What am I going to do? How am I going to pay my bills when my unemployment runs out?”

The steel mill is split, with Republic and U.S. Steel using parts of it. Both firms have furloughed workers over the past year. In March, U.S. Steel sent 600 home and Republic 200.In July, Republic furloughed another 125 when it had to shut down its brand new electric arc furnace.

Then, on Jan. 7, Republic announced it would idle its side of the plant and lay off 200. The next day, U.S. Steel said it would virtually shut its end, laying off 261. Lights out.

For Lorain workers laid off last year, unemployment benefits already have run out.

“Driving around the city of Lorain is pretty heartbreaking,” Louise told me the other day. “You see people with signs saying, ‘Please help me with food for my family.’”

“When I go to the grocery store or stop at a Kmart, normally, there would be a lot of traffic in those stores. Now it is incredibly quiet. Some clerks were folding spring clothes, and they told me they had no place to put the stuff because no one was buying the stuff from the racks from last season. No one is even going to the discount stores,” she said.

As the two big employers began shuttering operations, they paid less taxes to the city and the school district. Now the city faces a huge deficit and may have to cut services and lay off workers. That would be more people without jobs. And even less taxes paid. And less clothes sold at Kmart. Then fewer people employed there.

Louise’s brother owns a used car lot, and normally at this time of year, when workers get their income tax refunds, his business picks up. But he told his sister he has barely sold a car since the first of the year. In Lorain, people can’t even afford a cheap car now.

And public transit isn’t going to help, she said. The USW represents Lorain’s bus drivers, so she knows the situation well. Because of the town’s budget problems, the transit system is unable to add routes. So there may be no way for a person without a car to get to a job.

“I grew up here in Lorain. And I am very afraid of what is going to happen to this town and to the members of my union,” Louise said.

“And all of this,” she said, “is because of overcapacity and dumping and currency manipulation thousands of miles away in China.”

All of it is devastating lives in Gary, Granite City, Lone Star, New Madrid, Hannibal, Hawesville, Port Talbot, Bilbao, and myriad places across the United States and Europe. And now China too.

National leaders, who closed their eyes, clicked their heels and wished China were a market economy, gave workers and communities and commodity producers – not just steel companies – this disastrous result.

While they kept their eyes shut, China massively overbuilt its steel capacity. China is throwing unemployed workers and bankrupted communities a bone now, saying it will reduce capacity by up to 150 million tons. That’s not nothing. And it will certainly be painful to the 400,000 Chinese steelworkers who will lose their jobs.

But China’s overcapacity is 2.26 times that – 340 million tons.  After 150 million tons is cut, the remaining 190 million tons of overcapacity is still way too much. The remaining overcapacity is nearly 2.5 times the 78.9 million tons produced in 2015 in the United States, the world’s fourth largest steel producer.

China maintains that overcapacity with government supports and currency manipulation. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist. And those interventions in the steel industry and other industries mean that China is not a market economy.

Granting China that status would make it even harder for workers and corporations to get the tariffs that are the only measures keeping some industries alive now. American and European workers have known for a long time that Chinese overcapacity is terrible. Now, unfortunately, Chinese workers also will soon find out that too much is terrible. But that limited and calculated ploy by China does not justify granting market economy status to a clearly non-market economy.

This blog was originally posted on ourfuture.org on March 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Unanimously Strikes Down Lifetime Employment Ban for Those with Prior Criminal Convictions

Friday, January 29th, 2016

Levan, TadOn December 30, 2015, the unanimous Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, sitting en banc, declared the lifetime employment ban contained in The Older Adults Protective Services Act (OAPSA) to be facially unconstitutional and enjoined Pennsylvania from further enforcement of the law (See Peake v. Commonwealth).  OAPSA is a Pennsylvania law that, among other things, prohibits anyone who has ever been convicted of any disqualifying crime at any time in his or her life from ever holding any job at any covered residential health care facility.  In essence, the Act imposes a lifetime employment ban, forever disqualifying individuals from work due to often long-past actions for which the offender’s debt to society has since been repaid.  Even if the owner or operator of a covered facility, based upon his or her years of experience in the industry, believes that an applicant or employee with a prior conviction is the best qualified for the job, the criminal history of the applicant or employee is the only factor the employer may consider and employment is barred.  Employers have no discretion to make individualized hiring decisions.

Writing for the 7-0 Commonwealth Court, Judge Leavitt ruled that the ban “is unconstitutional on its face” because “it goes beyond the necessities of the case and is not substantially related to the Act’s stated objective of protecting older adults.”  The Court also found that OAPSA’s employment ban unconstitutionally imposes an irrebuttable presumption of unfitness for employment that is not universally true and that reasonable alternative means exist for ascertaining an individual’s fitness.  The Court therefore granted the Petition for Summary Relief, declared OAPSA’s employment ban unconstitutional on its face, and enjoined the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from future enforcement of the law.

Barring all individuals with prior criminal convictions from employment is antithetical to any concerns for rehabilitation and reintegration with society.  An individual who has successfully completed his or her punishment after a criminal act should not be further stigmatized by being unable to get a job.  Not surprisingly, recidivism rates are substantially lower for individuals with steady employment opportunities; thus, public safety is actually harmed by statutory employment bars like OAPSA or hiring practices that automatically exclude individuals with criminal records.  Allowing those with prior criminal convictions to reenter the work force also saves public tax dollars by avoiding the high costs of corrections and other social service benefits to which an unemployed individual may be entitled.  To successfully reintegrate an individual with a record back into society is the very epitome of a win-win situation.

In addition to making for bad public policy, lifetime employment bans such as that in OAPSA are based on a faulty premise: namely, that a past criminal act is indicative of an increased risk of future criminal behavior.  Rigorous social science studies have now confirmed that after a limited number of years – four to seven years for a single conviction and no more than ten years for multiple convictions – an individual with a prior criminal conviction is no more likely to commit a criminal offense than any member of the general public.  Lifetime employment bans like OAPSA, which are based on an irrebuttable presumption of “once a criminal, always a criminal,” simply are not supported by social science results.

A more thoughtful and balanced approach is required:  Yes, under certain circumstances, a prior conviction may be relevant to the fitness of a specific candidate or employee for the requirements of a specific job; but those determinations must be made on a individualized basis with due consideration of all relevant factors, including the nature and severity of the prior criminal conduct, the time elapsed since the conviction, the efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration the individual has made in the interim, and the specific job requirements of the position for which he or she would be hired.  The decision whether to hire an individual with a past criminal conviction is not amenable to a one-size-fits-all solution.  And a lifetime ban, which completely precludes an employer from hiring an individual with a record (often from decades past), even if the employer thinks that he or she is well-qualified for the position, is irrational and counterproductive.

It’s time to bring some common sense back to this issue: Individuals with a prior criminal conviction already have plenty of barriers to overcome in becoming reemployed.  Their reintegration into society should not be made impossible through misguided efforts that are premised upon faulty assumptions and actually result in increased safety risks.

A version of this article was originally published on the LeVan Law Group website.  Printed with Permission.

Peter H. (“Tad”) LeVan, the lead attorney working pro bono on Peake and it predecessor case, Nixon v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a seasoned trial and appellate attorney who has tried a number of high-stakes cases against national banks, Wall Street financial institutions and a Madoff investment firm, securing settlements on behalf of injured plan participants that have exceeded $700 million

One Union Summer Later, Three Found Their Calling as Organizers

Monday, January 25th, 2016
Tarah Taylor, Patricia Recinos, Shaine Griffin, Lynda Berg

MFullSizeRendereet Tarah Taylor, Lynda Berg and Shaine Griffin from the class of Union Summer 2014. These superstar summeristas are working alongside nurses, and one another, as union organizers with California Nurses Association/National Nurses United in the fight for working people. Now the three of them work together in Southern California, and Shaine and Tarah are even roommates.

Organizing Origins

Taylor found out about Union Summer 30 minutes before applications were due. Though she just squeezed in, Taylor had the fire of an organizer burning inside of her. She already had stood up to Sprint for herself and co-workers over a convoluted practice of docking some workers’ regular pay to pay other workers’ overtime. She started a petition that went viral and lost a job she loved over it. As an organizer, she knows personally what is at stake for working people when they stand up and why they are stronger together.

Griffin worked on the Retail Action Project as a Union Summer intern in Manhattan and saw firsthand the issues of wages, scheduling and overt racist policies that retail workers faced. “Union Summer was awesome and eye-opening. On the campaign, it was disturbing to see how groups of people were being systematically devalued,” Griffin said.

Away from the city and, seemingly, in the middle of nowhere, Berg’s team was on more challenging terrain. “It’s a space in which, historically, workers have been mistreated, literally, all the way back to slavery,” Berg said, describing how tough, but necessary, the work is in organizing migrant farm workers in North Carolina.

So, What Does It Take?

If you know Union Summer graduates, you know they are the fiercest social justice and labor activists around. The work of organizing attracts people with incredible grit, passion and resourcefulness. Though she continues to glean knowledge from senior organizers, Griffin said, “You can’t teach organizing, you fly or you flounder.”

A Life’s Calling

Taylor gained valuable insight working with the teachers who put their hearts and souls into their profession and always stood up for their students when fighting to improve conditions for themselves. She finds that nurses feel a similar duty to their patients and their will to improve working conditions is simultaneously tied to improving patient care.

On working with nurses, Taylor said, “What drives my passion is the intimate bonds that I have formed with the individual nurses. They invite you into their lives, you become friends, and it’s really cool when you see them grow and test their own power within the system.”

Berg echoes the sentiment, “I’ll have a really incredible conversation with a nurse and it affirms that this is what I am supposed to do: ultimately, it’s a drive you have.”

These three summeristas have made a commitment beyond organizing workplaces to that of creating social change that reverberates through an entire community. As they are inspired by the nurses’ stories, their commitment inspires us to care about nurses and how their stories are tied into the struggles and victories of all working people.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 21, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sonia Huq is the Organizing Field Communications Assistant at the AFL-CIO.  She grew up in a Bangladeshi-American family in Boca Raton, Florida where she first learned a model of service based on serving a connected immigrant cultural community. After graduating from the University of Florida, Sonia served in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and later worked for Manavi, the first South Asian women’s rights organization in the United States. She then earned her Master’s in Public Policy from the George Washington University and was awarded a Women’s Policy Inc. fellowship for women in public policy to work as a legislative fellow in the office of Representative Debbie Wasserman (FL-23). Sonia is passionate about working towards a more just society and hopes to highlight social justice issues and movements through her writing.

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